Fifth Sunday in Lent
We’re nearing the end of Lent, a season that we Christians started by proclaiming our mortality and wearing a symbol of death on our foreheads. It seems appropriate, then, that we spend this last Sunday before Holy Week with God messing around in graves.
Lazarus has died, despite the efforts of his two distraught sisters, Mary and Martha. The community in Bethany has come to sit shiva, when they hear that Jesus is on his way to the house. John tells us that Mary and Martha independently greet Jesus with the same statement, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
The underlying expectation – healing illness to prolong life – is the same that we often bring to modern medicine. In Mary and Martha’s case, it’s a reasonable expectation that Jesus could have doctored Lazarus. He had recently healed a blind man, an event that the gathered mourners know about (11:37).
Even though the sisters greet Jesus the same way, his responses could not be more different. Jesus straight up tells Martha that Lazarus will live again because of who he is. “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (11:25-26). She acknowledges on the spot that he is the Messiah, the Son of God.
I love the next part. Martha runs to get Mary, and what does she tell her? That the Messiah is on their doorstep and their brother will live again because of it? Nope. She tells Mary that Jesus the bible scholar is here. Maybe she doesn’t realize Jesus’ immediate intention? Or perhaps focused on grief, the enormity of his revelation hadn’t sunk in yet.
So, not knowing any better, Mary runs out to greets Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” and breaks into tears. However, there are no grand revelations this time – Jesus cries. The Messiah, who has come intending to raise Lazarus from the dead, weeps.
If we zoom out of this intensely intimate account and allow ourselves to be whisked away like Ezekiel, death is still the menu du jour.
God plops us down with Ezekiel in the middle of a valley of dry bones that would clack together and crack as Ezekiel makes his way roundabout them. Unlike Lazarus, who is still pungent, these guys and gals are real dead. And there are a multitude of them, “an exceedingly great army” (37:10). Stripped of personalities and identifying characteristics, we come to know them only collectively as the House of Israel. When God asks Ezekiel if the bones can live again, he declines to make any claims, “Oh Lord God, you know” (37:3).
In the midst of death – one mass, one particular; long and newly dead; in a full-up valley and a single tomb – God offers of what God is: life.
In Ezekiel, God situates bones, strapping them together with tendons and flesh. He breathes life into re-membered bodies, and says, “You will know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves and caused you to come up out of your graves, my people” (37:13).
In John, the mourners make their way to the grave of a man Jesus loved, and Jesus takes a page from the Triune playbook. He calls Lazarus back from the dead because of and to prove who He is. God is life.
I often hear sermons on texts like these that ask people to think about metaphorical deaths in their own lives and consider how God can resuscitate those parts of life on this side of capital-D Death. The UMC lectionary help provides examples of what I’m talking about – the death of relationships or finances, having to move a church from its dilapidated building, etc. These sermons are all well and good. It is the preacher’s job is to read an old text onto his or her community’s context, and these themes are relatable and often ring true. But they’re not the whole truth.
John and Ezekiel offer an important corrective that both foreshadows and prepares us for Holy Week, all the while giving us license to make bold claims. The result of the Good News is the re-membering and resurrection of stinking-dead and real-dead bodies, individual and corporal – because God is life. This is utterly foreign to our creaturely existence bound by space and time. Unrelatable and sometimes unbelievable, except for the fact that God became like us – not to prolong life on this side of death, but to offer life and relationship on the other side of it.
It’s a pretty outrageous message and one that garners a variety of responses still. Sometimes, like Martha, we shut down in the face of such a revelation – profess belief in the Messiah and then go talk about Jesus, the nice teacher. In other contexts, we may need more time to navigate grief like Mary, when death seems bigger and more immediate than life; Jesus’ empathetic tears acknowledge that real pain and loss. Or when God asks us to see envision life rising out of death, we might respond like Ezekiel and defer back to God, unsure of what to say or do.
Regardless of our response, God makes no bones about it. Even though we die, we will live. The resurrection and the life – the one who has gone before us – will open our graves, call us out of them, and be there to greet us on the other side.