Fifth Sunday in the Midst of Lent
TEXTS: Ezekiel 37:1-14 and John 11:1-45
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.” (John 11:38-39)
I suppose it’s a natural enough connection to make, but whenever I read about Jesus calling Lazarus out of the tomb, I immediately think about another Scripture passage—from Ezekiel, chapter 37:
The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out … and set me down in the middle of a valley … full of bones. He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” (Ezekiel 37:1-3)
Today we reach the turning point in Jesus’ ministry. Raising Lazarus is the crowning miracle or “sign” that reveals Jesus as the giver of life. It also seals his fate. If you keep reading past verse 45 of chapter 11, you discover that the raising of Lazarus provokes a meeting of the Sanhedrin—the official Jewish court. The Sanhedrin reaches the conclusion that Jesus must be killed; and so, next week, we come to Palm Sunday and the beginning of the anguish and joy of Holy Week.
Today’s story begins where we all find ourselves at one time or another: in a valley of dry bones; a place of desolation, loss, and despair. Lazarus has been dead for four days, and his sisters Mary and Martha are devastated.
We know what that’s like, don’t we? Just getting up in the morning requires tremendous effort. Either we’ve gone totally numb, or else we can’t believe the intensity and volatility of our feelings. One minute we’re handling things okay, juggling responsibilities and talking sense like rational human beings; the next minute we’re bursting into tears at the slightest provocation.
You know, that’s one of the things I love about Scripture—the way it meets us just as we are, the way its stories connect with our lives. Mary and Martha taste the same bitterness that we all taste when a loved one dies. They know, as we do, the pang of loneliness that can seize you in the middle of the night, the grief that empties life of all its joy.
Even if we haven’t recently suffered a personal loss, there is still plenty to mourn and protest about these days. Sorrow is no farther away than the morning newspaper, or the evening newscast—or the house next door, or the one down the street. No wonder we are tempted sometimes to hide—to flee from one distraction to another; to buy something we don’t really need, or dive into one more busy task, or “space out” in front of a TV sitcom. The pain we sense around us and within us can be excruciating.
“Out of the depths,” says the psalmist, “have I called to you, O Lord.” I wonder sometimes what it would be like if we could press our ear to the earth and hear the sound of the world’s pain. What would change in us if we could hear all at once the blended wailing of the world’s great sadness?
The prophet Ezekiel uses a different image. What if God picked us up by the scruff of the neck and set us down in the middle of a valley full of death, so that we saw nothing but dry bones all around? “Can these bones live?” we would ask ourselves. “Can hope possibly spring out of this desolation?”
That’s where today’s gospel passage begins: in darkness, in the pit, in the valley of the shadow of death. Like mourners the world over, Martha and Mary are utterly bereft. And then something happens. Jesus arrives.
When he sees Mary weeping, and the crowds around her weeping, Jesus is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (John 11:33). As if the gospel writer wants to make the meaning perfectly clear, the next sentence is the shortest verse in all of Scripture, a verse often translated by just two words: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).
He wept! This is no distant God—no far-off deity untouched by grief, but a God who comes as one of us, a God willing to meet us in our suffering and to share in our pain. This may come as a shock to those who take the hard fact of suffering as proof that God is not real or that God does not care or that God is punishing us. This story reveals an astonishing truth: when our hearts are breaking, God’s heart is breaking, too.
Not only that. The fact that Jesus wept suggests that the first step in healing—the first step in birthing new life—comes when we step toward the pain, not away from it. The God who enters into our suffering knows that new life begins only when we are willing to feel pain. If we are able to grieve, then we have moved out of numbness—out of inertia, out of the denial that pretends that everything is fine, when in fact it is not.
“Jesus wept,” and in that weeping begins the healing that leads to new life. But of course, there’s more. Jesus comes to us not only with vulnerability and an open heart. He comes with power.
“Take away the stone,” he says to the astonished crowd. Can you imagine what the crowd must have been thinking just then? Martha lays out the situation as tactfully as she can: “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”
In other words: “When someone’s dead, they’re dead. Don’t torment me by pretending you can do something about it.”
But—reluctantly or eagerly, maybe shaking their heads in bemusement, maybe daring to hope against hope—some folks in the crowd do move forward. They lean their weight against the stone and push it away from the entrance of the tomb. And then comes Jesus’ voice. In the midst of weeping, his voice is clear.
“Lazarus,” he cries. “Come out.”
Can you hear him? “Come out!” It is a voice of power, a summons, a command, and it addresses Lazarus by name.
Can you hear him? “Come out!” It is a voice of power—and it addresses you by name. You’ve heard that voice before, and I have, too.
In the end, this gospel story is about how much God wants to set us free—to raise us up, to call us out from the tombs that seal us in. Out from fear. Out from resentment. Out from addiction, despair, resentment … Out from our tombs, whatever they are.
Thank God we don’t have to do it alone. Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb, but he also calls a community into being. “Unbind him,” he says to the circle of villagers who are standing around, gawking. “Let him go.”
We can’t just watch each other grow. We need each other to help unwrap the layers that have bound us, to uncover who this raised-up person is.
I invite you to let Jesus draw close. Are you in mourning? Then let him weep with you. Are you holding a vision for your life that you’ve never quite dared to carry out? Then let him empower you to begin. Are you wishing you could reach out to help another person—but you feel too shy, or too afraid? Then hear Jesus calling you to “roll away the stone”—to “unbind her”; to “let him go.”
Or maybe you are the one who is shut away in the tomb. If so, take time to listen. Today may be the very day that Jesus summons you out. The world is full of grief, loss, and fear, but something else is going on, too. If we press our ear to the ground and listen closely, perhaps we’ll hear it—not only the world’s pain, but also the steady heartbeat of God, the sound of a love that pulses through all things, seeking us out and making all things new.
May God give us ears to hear what his Spirit is saying to us—and eyes to see Jesus, who is our resurrection and our life.