Scripture reading preamble …
We’re about to hear a story from The Gospel of John … it’s the Gospel that is distinctive for its great long stories.
Where the other Gospels capture a scene in a few words, it’s as though the writer of John’s Gospel takes that moment and opens it up --wide!
There are these convoluted conversations where, as the reader listening in, it’s kind of humorous -- how words get misconstrued … how Jesus picks up on misunderstanding in a way that doesn’t resolve it but moves it into a journey of discovery.
So that we’ve got a man named Nicodemus asking “how can a grown person crawl back inside his mother’s womb and be born again?” And we’ve got the woman at the well imagining she might never have to fetch another drop of water in her life.
And by the end of the story in which a blind man receives his sight, the people with sight are left wondering if they might be blind!
We might wonder why the Jesus we encounter in John’s Gospel is so confusing … why can’t he just tell it straight - say it plain?
Well maybe he’s not so bent on telling us something as he is on taking us somewhere. It’s in John’s Gospel, early on, that we hear Jesus say “come and see!” What Jesus seems to be about in John’s Gospel, right from the beginning, is taking us somewhere, showing us something … he’s constantly opening up to us a fresh discovery of what is real.
The story we have this morning from John’s Gospel does all of this, and more!
Text: John 11: 1-6, 17-44
It all begins with a daunting word: Lazarus is ill. This is Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha -- the family we hear about more than any other in Jesus’ travels. Dear knows how they first met, but you get the sense there’s a special bond between them … a deep care and affection. One of the sisters gets a message to Jesus: “your beloved Lazarus is ill.” It’s serious. There’s no “please come!” -- that’s a given, given their friendship. Except that Jesus stalls … deliberately … for there’s something more to be revealed, we’re told. And for all it seems kind of twisted -- what’s he doing messing with these lives? is what it feels like --
it’s not really our job to either justify or judge his response.
Perhaps it allows us to tune into that experience of crying out in need “God help me!” -- only to be met by silence, absence … nothing at all. And what’s it’s like to endure those times … how we hang in, what we do while we wait.
By the time Jesus arrives, Lazarus has been dead four days. With that belief that the spirit lingers in the tomb for even 2 days after death, you’re not officially dead til the third day. In the meantime the third day is the day God acts … like when the wine ran out at the wedding in Cana … like early that morning on the third day when they went to the tomb.
But this is the fourth day -- the day beyond all hope … beyond reach.
Both Mary and Martha greet Jesus on his arrival. Beneath their “if you had only been here …” you can almost hear it, can’t you: “where were you? You’re too late!” And then out of Martha’s mouth comes “but even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask”. It’s a kind of wildly trusting and rather guarded statement all in one … as though she believes something could be possible, yet it’s out of her hands.
“Your brother will rise again,” Jesus says.
“I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day,” she affirms … moving into religious talk, that takes her to some future time they call “the Last Day.” But Jesus isn’t there to talk religion. He’s come to engage her and what’s happening in her life -- their lives, right there and then.
“Martha,” he says, “I AM … I am the resurrection and the life.”
And Martha hears it like it’s more religious talk.
It’s not finally Jesus’ way to talk her into something more … and so here begins another journey of “come and see!”
“Where have you laid him?” Jesus asks the weeping Mary and all the mourners gathered with her. Notice the journey begins with his willingness to go with them to their hardest place … the place that holds the most pain, the most grief, the most hopelessness.
This is sometimes how it goes … the journey begins with our saying to him, “come and see.”
He follows them to the tomb … a cave, with a stone lying against it. On arriving he says to them, “Take away the stone.”
But Martha knows better: “Lord -- the stench!” What’s he thinking? 4 days later ... why make it worse than it is?
While Martha might know better, Jesus knows more! Jesus foresees the wonder of God at work. They move the stone, and Jesus calls Lazarus by name … calls Lazarus out of the tomb … out of the place of death. Jesus calls Lazarus into life!
Sounds not just a little weird, doesn’t it. Until you begin to look at life, on the ground, which is where Jesus wants to take us.
Last Sunday night I was informed that Alex Lawson was in hospital … suddenly very seriously ill; he had been told he had a few days, a week at the most to live. Some of you may remember Alex when he was part of our congregation a few years ago … a great Scot! … retired United Church minister, preached here a couple of times.
When I went to see him on Monday, we had about 15 minutes together. 15 remarkable minutes.
He was in the throes of gathering up his life … beginning with how it began … born into a dirt poor family, his father a coal miner, his mother, having already given birth to a number of children, when along came Alex who, right from the beginning, his mother couldn’t stand because he represented one more mouth to feed when already there was no food to be had. So here’s this child, internalizing painful rejection. And then seeing his future, which was no future, in the dark hell-hole of a coal mine, when one day he saw an ad in the paper: the Hudson’s Bay in Montreal was looking to hire a bagpiper who would play outside the store. And from there his life began to blossom … friends, encouragement to become a minister, his studies at McGill that opened up yet more worlds, his work in Saskatchewan and Manitoba where he was instrumental in setting up a Family Life Center that was all about supporting and fostering love within families.
He recalled returning for the anniversary celebration of one of these centres, where the woman sitting next him suggested he must be very proud of his accomplishments, and all he could think of to say was “it wasn’t mine … this was God’s dream; and I just gave myself to it!”
And then he marvelled to me … "how, from the start I had, which was such a dead end from the beginning, could my life become what it has, except for the love of God! It’s miraculous. And so if out of that came this!” he said, “I can’t help but wonder what the next chapter will hold.” I could see it in his eyes, hear it in his voice … this wild anticipation.
Do you know what it is to be called into life? to be pulled out of a dark hole … a dead end, a prison of your own or someone else’s making?
Do you know what it is to be raised from death to life … to find yourself standing up again -- that’s what resurrection means:
to stand up … when sickness or shame has laid you low, or despair or guilt, loss or injustice has left you withdrawn, gone, gone away, as good as dead … and lo and behold you’re breathing deeply again; the world is colourful again; there’s a fire in your heart again.
Do you know what it is to be called into life?
Do you know what it is to be drawn out of that dwelling place of fear or self-doubt?
To be hit between the eyes or visited somehow by an insight you never would have come to, your worldview so sealed, so sure.
Do you know what it is to have glimpsed what you thought impossible and there you stand, sensing something’s up, something’s breaking loose, breaking free; knowing if you step out, the next chapter will be radically new, will mean a different you?
There’s that further scene in Lazarus’ story where we see him standing there … miraculously alive but his body still bound in burial cloths. There’s still more that needs to happen for him to come fully into life. So what does Jesus do? He looks to all these astonished bystanders. He calls the friends and the family into the act. “Unbind him,” he says, “and let him go!”
So maybe this is what it is to be an Easter people …a people who are attentive to the life-giving stirrings within and all around us … and a people who hear and respond to the call to have a hand in the rising of another! … to help strip away the grave clothes such that the life-giving power of God may be let loose in all its fullness.
One way to think about the grave clothes is to think about the stories we tell ourselves and each other that keep us bound up … the stories that stop us, shut us down, hold us back, from moving into a new future. The stories that tells us that there’s nothing we can do …the odds against are too big, too pervasive.
The stories that tells us we can’t afford it or it’s too late or we’ve gone too far, or haven’t done enough. There are so many stories that immobilize us.
I wonder what those stories are for you … the ones you’ve been told, the ones we tell ourselves … the ones we put on others … stories that confine … that define …that, if they were stripped away, where would we be? … who would we be?
Meanwhile we belong to a story that doesn’t shy away from the reality of evil, or devastation or death.
And yet it’s a story that boldly, daringly affirms that even on the 4th day … the day beyond all hope … when the stench of death is real and potent, there is a power for life at work right there, right here and now, to forge a new beginning, a new way, a new future.
We belong to a great line of people, past and present, whose lives have been sustained in the darkest places, who have known the pull, the grasp, the grace of a hand in their lives that brought them through into a brand new place.
We belong to the Creator who is ever and always about the wild work of creating, whose power for life won’t be stopped come what may … who wills a new tomorrow for the whole creation.
Can you hear it … we belong … we belong … we are not alone! “We are not alone … we live in God’s world” … a world in which God’s love is already throbbing in the heart of all living things.
Thanks be to God!