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Lazarus’ Prologue

A Sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock on 26 March 2023 {Lent 5[A],} Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45 Arriving at the 5th Sunday in Lent, I always notice a special tone. This Sunday marks the start of the last week in this penitential season. And even if our Lenten disciplines have been less than steadfast, the prospect of leaving Lent conveys a sense of relief, like leaving winter for the newness of spring. All of which is to say that there is a palpable sense of transition and anticipation to this day. Something is ending, while another is on the verge of beginning. And it is in this last Lenten Sunday that we also confront an opportunity – an opportunity to take a deep breath and lace-up our souls for the sprint that is Holy Week and Easter.

In particular, I have experienced this last Sunday in Lent in terms of an important prologue to Easter Day. I say this because the similarities between the raising of Lazarus from the dead and the resurrection of Jesus are hard to miss; but it is the singular difference between these two events that can allow us to appreciate Easter day more deeply and our faith in Christ’s resurrection more clearly.

To get straight to the point, despite all similarities Lazarus’ return from the dead is not the same as Jesus’ resurrection. More positively put, Lazarus’ return from the dead is a prologue to the resurrection of Jesus. Let me explain this difference and the meaning both events offer to our faith lives. First, in posing what happened to Lazarus as a prologue to what happened to Jesus, it is good for us to recognize what a prologue is and what a prologue does. Quite simply, a prologue is an introduction to a book’s story that leads the reader to the main body and point of the story. The dictionary’s expression of what a prologue is and does says this: that it is “an introductory performance, action, or event preceding and preparing for the principle or more important matter.” If what happened to Lazarus is prologue to Jesus’ resurrection, what’s the story to which they both testify? How are these two stories related? More to the point, how are they different? The two stories are most clearly related to the profundity that death holds in our lives. In both events, the stunning and dramatic moment of truth emerges when death is revealed as not having the final word. Both Lazarus and Jesus pass through death to life; and yet in this similarity also comes the crucial difference between what happened to Lazarus and what happened to Jesus. The difference is that Lazarus will die again; Jesus will not. In Jesus, God proclaims that while death is real, it is not the final word for life. God has that Word, and in Jesus’ resurrection that Word is proclaimed and demonstrated for all time. There is more – much more – to our life than what death presents. The God-life is stronger than fear and death. Yet, in Lazarus’ case, what humanity commonly wants is granted: A loved one is brought back to life, brought back to us. As prologue, Lazarus’ death startlingly evidences the very human hope of life beyond the clutches of death; but it does so in a very limited way. As I said, this is what most of us yearn for in the face of death. From my own experience it seems to me that it is this resuscitation from death to return to life that most of us seem to want. Folks like us are very much in the same boat as Lazarus’s sisters, Mary and Martha. In their grief, they cry out to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” -- in effect, “bring him back to us.” From their previous experience with Jesus, the sisters recognized that Jesus embodied God’s own life and (as they confess through their grief-stricken hearts), “…even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” And what would that ask be, do you think? Bring him back. We all know that request. It is on our very lips. In the horrific loss of a loved one, who is not prepared to ask God to return our beloved one to us? “Just bring him back!” “Just make our lives as they were. Put this terrible separation away, even for a little while. That’s all I ask.” That’s all most of us seem to ask – one way or another. Clearly, that is what Mary and Martha want from Jesus. To hold death at bay: Like a levee along a mighty river, they want Jesus to hold the current of death in a contained course that keeps death away from us. And Lazarus’ sisters are not alone; are they? In our fear, we implicitly settle (at least unconsciously) for resuscitation, “return to normal”. Like a lifeguard or an EMT, we want someone to bring our lives back. And sometimes, as with Lazarus, this is what happens. But is it enough? Honestly, I don’t think so, which is the reason we need to recycle paper and glass and plastics but not our lives. We need more than the recycling or the resuscitation of our lives. We need more than that. We need what Jesus brings: New life on God’s terms: Full. Complete Whole. Unafraid. In the Lazarus’ story, Jesus himself gives witness to the need for more than the resuscitation of our lives. In fact, I believe this is the reason that Jesus weeps. On one level, just as we often do at a funeral, Jesus weeps in compassionate response to the shared human experience of grief. Seeing the crying and the heartbreak over the loss, who among us has not at least welled up at a funeral gathering? Even when I have presided over a total stranger’s burial, the sight of his or her loved ones grieving and suffering touches me, not to mention those times when there is hardly anyone present to mourn the death. It is sad, and the sadness hurts. Tears flow. And yet – Jesus knew that there was more to this death and the grief it produced. Why else did he delay two extra days before moving to be on hand at the scene? What do you think Jesus was doing in those two extra days after Lazarus had died? Is that the kind of behavior we want from our Rescuer? Dialing “911”, would we be satisfied with that performance from our EMT’s? Hardly. Nonetheless, Jesus waited two extra days before coming to Bethany. Again, why? Jesus wept” -- the shortest sentence in the Bible. To me, I think Jesus wept from much more than his expression of compassion for those who were suffering the loss of one of their own. I believe Jesus also wept because he knew that with God there is always more than loss and heartbreak; but he also knew that looking for and receiving what God ached to give in the shadow of death was not what the people (including us) were looking for. Jesus knew that God’s life is stronger than death and that making this clear would be his unique job: namely, to make this clear with his own death, at a place and at a time that was very imminent. So, Jesus wept. Perhaps in this context some of Jesus’ tears were also for himself. Already some in the crowd were grumbling about Jesus’ place in this death scene. Increasingly, others in the gathered crowd – some mourners, some gawkers – some began to murmur with bitterness, saying, “Well, if he loved him so much, why didn’t he do something to keep him from dying?” [There it is: “Bring him back!”] “After all, he opened the eyes of a blind man.” [The Message]. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” After four days, in the hot Middle Eastern climate, no one could have doubted that Lazarus was dead. In fact, the prospect of acceding to Jesus’ command to roll the stone away from the cave grave provoked Martha – practical Martha – to make the cautionary statement [I love the King James’ Version’s translation of this exchange]: “Lord, by this time he stinketh; for he has been dead four days.” (11:39). Not concerned with such matters, Jesus shouted, “Go ahead. Take away the stone.” Then again, he shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out,” the storyteller virtually whispers, “ a cadaver, wrapped from head to toe, and with a kerchief over his face”. “Unwrap him and let him loose,” was all that Jesus said or did. [The Message, 11:44] Amazingly and perplexingly and shattering all expectations, there was no smell from the body. This was resuscitation, to be sure. After four days, Lazarus was dead as a doornail; but there was something else going on that boggled the mind. Where was the decay? Nonetheless and in spite of all this, Lazarus would still have to die, once more. And with that, the prologue ends, and the main story is about to start.

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