A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 31 October 2021 [in anticipation of All Saints]:
Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9; Revelation 21`:1-6a; John 11:32-44
On the West Bank of the River Jordan, in the Palestinian territories, about a mile and a half east of the city of Jerusalem, on the southeast slopes of the Mount of Olives, there is an Arab town by the name of Al-Eizariya [pronounced, “Al-eye-za-riah”]. In English, this place name translates into “the place of Lazarus”, and it clearly refers to the events depicted in today’s gospel from St. John. In Jesus’ time, the town was known as Bethany, and it was in that village that Jesus found much-needed refuge and rest, while still being within easy walking distance of the city in which he would complete the purpose of his life and ministry.
Sisters Mary and Martha joined their brother Lazarus in offering Jesus their residence as a safe house for the one whom they called “Lord”. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus became the closest of friends with Jesus, as the trio personified the two most significant biblical virtues: fidelity and hospitality. So on this occasion where we anticipate the great Christian festival of All Saints and renew the promises we have made that link our lives with Christ’s life, I want to retell this Lazarus story as a way of posing the question that all of us face: namely, “what’s next?”
First, the context of today’s story comes from the fact that what Jesus has been saying aid and doing has gotten him into some serious trouble. Having spent Hanukkah in Jerusalem, preaching and teaching, Jesus found a quiet moment to stroll the Temple precincts, when members of the Jewish leadership encircled him and with great agitation demanded that he tell them clearly and directly if he were indeed the Messiah. His answer to this highly charged crowd (that he was simply doing the will of his Father, God) only served to fan the flames of their rage, to the point that they picked up stones to throw at him for what they perceived was his blasphemy. When the crowd tried to arrest him, Jesus slipped through their fingers and made a quick escape to safety, retreating to the wilderness area where John the Baptist first baptized. It is amidst this high anxiety that Jesus first hears the news of his dear friend, Lazarus’ death; and after absorbing what must have been its shocking sting, Jesus unceremoniously announces that he intends to return to the area where his life was just threatened to be with his friends in their time of great grief-stricken need. Even in the face of the Disciples’ attempt to dissuade him from such a dangerous move, Jesus outlandishly doubles-down on his decision by waiting two more days before moving on to Bethany. What is all this about? What can Jesus be thinking? Moreover, what did Jesus do in those two days? I suggest that he was praying to prepare himself for “What’s next”?
Four long days elapsed from the time of Lazarus’ death to Jesus’ arrival at the outskirts of Bethany. Hearing of his much-delayed approach, Martha made haste to intercept Jesus. Kneeling in the road in front of Jesus, Martha barely conceals the anger within her grief: “Lord, if you’d been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” Then, as if to mitigate the sharp edge of her statement, Martha adds: “And even now, I know that whatever you ask God, the Holy One will give you.”
In an almost whispered voice, Jesus gently tells Martha: “Your brother will be raised up.” To which, Martha submissively says: “I know – I know that he will be raised up in the resurrection at the end of time.”
“You don’t have to wait for the End,” Jesus says. “I am, right now, Resurrection and Life. Those who believes in me, even though her or she dies, will live…Do you believe this?”
This scene is essentially repeated, when Mary, having stayed behind with the mourners in the house, meets Jesus to confront him with her broken heart. By this time, the impact of the grief, expressed in weeping and wailing, has crashed upon the moment like a tidal wave, overwhelming everyone and everything. Seeing all love’s brokenness around him, Jesus himself weeps. “Jesus wept” is what the scripture says: It is the shortest line in the entire Bible. No more words need be noted.
Anger, frustration, and compassion welling up within him, Jesus arrived at the tomb and commanded that that stone slab be removed from the cave’s entrance. Martha, ever the practical one and perhaps atoning for her edgy outburst at Jesus, reminds him that after four days the decomposing body will stink. (At this point, I love the unvarnished translation of the King James Version: “Lord, by this time he stinketh.”)
Yes, it does stink: the body and the entire broken hearted situation stinks! The suffering; the sense of loss; the powerlessness we all experience in the face of death: It stinks! And Jesus knows this, too, which I believe is the reason our Lord publicly wept so.
With trepidation, several men rolled the stone away to reveal the dark mouth of the cave. Looking to heaven and praying that what he had prayerfully discerned in the two-day hiatus would now be done, Jesus shouted at the top of his lungs: “Lazarus, come out!” At which point a cadaver emerged, wrapped in cloth bands from head to foot, with a kerchief over the face, at which point Jesus then simply said: “Unwrap him and let him loose.”
St. John tells us that because of this scene many believed in Jesus. Others went to the Pharisees to tattle on him. In any event, Jesus knew that this was a harbinger of what he and his life were all about; and that the approaching Passover celebration would be his climactic stage – his “what’s next?”
Two words from this story stand out for me because they indicate what is next – for Jesus and for us. I think that knowing what these words mean (not merely how to spell them) can act as helpful steppingstones that lead us to “What’s next?”
The first word is “belief. I am deeply struck by how much our lives are reflected in Martha and Mary. At no small price they and their brother put themselves at risk by housing Jesus, caring for him, and publicly supporting him. They believed in Jesus. They gave their hearts to Jesus, which is what the word “belief” means: “to give one’s heart to”. While “faith” entails “trust”, trusting enough to take the risk of being present, of showing up, “belief” entails jumping into the trust with our hearts, with our lives. Mary and Martha believed, as evidenced by their disappointment in and confrontations with Jesus. They were broken hearted, surely as any of us would be at the loss of a loved one; but their hearts were also broken because they believed that Jesus had taught and shown that the God-life would always prevail. But Lazarus was dead. What’s belief for now?
While both sisters were much more subdued and polite than James and John Zebedee were in that gospel we read two weeks ago, when they asked Jesus to do for them whatever they wanted, aren’t we also prone to ask for a pass when it comes to suffering and death? Isn’t there a substantial amount of wanting a “get-out-of-jail-free-card” nestled in the faith and belief we hold? In essence, this is what James and John, Martha and Mary, and you and I want. Don’t we expect this kind of deliverance? Isn’t this where we have invested our faith’s heart; and isn’t this a good part of why we are broken hearted, when bad things happen to good people like us? How often are our voices mingled with the crowd at Bethany’s tomb: “Well, if he loved [Lazarus] so much why didn’t he do something to keep him alive? After all, he opened the eyes of a blind man.”
“Lord, if you only had been here, my brother would not have died.” “What’s next?” Belief and love are as risky as they are unavoidable; and we must be careful about what we let into our hearts.
To this heart ache, Jesus responds: “I am resurrection and life; [the one] who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live … [the one] who lives believes in me, shall never die.”
In other words, “I am resurrection.” “You don’t have to wait to the End. I am, right now, Resurrection and Life.” ‘Resurrection” is the second word that speaks to our deep question of “What’s next?” Jesus indicates that the trust that we allow into our hearts, the faith that develops into belief, is not about waiting to the End. It is not about going to heaven when we die. It is not about leaving this “too, too sullied flesh” for a better place. It is, however, what is now and what will be. resurrection is about “What’s next?”
At the risk of over simplifying, Jesus’s significance is about what life with God is like, what the God-life looks like and how that life works. Jesus’ significance is also that this God-life has begun in him. To the extent that we give our hearts to the Christ of God, we can have what we have seen in Jesus. The God-life has already begun, and the proof of the pudding is Jesus’ resurrection, whereby. death is unmasked and seen for the pretender it truly is. “Resurrection” (both as a word and as a reality) means “awaken to” – as in “awaken to” life on God’s terms. “Awaken to” the fact that with God there is much more to life, to our life than fear and death. “Awaken to” the dramatic seeds that have already been sown in our midst, -- in our hearts -- and then call us to tend God’s new life garden.
When Lazarus was called out of the tomb, Jesus commanded that his burial wrap be removed, and he be freed of the bonds of death. We know nothing else of Lazarus after this, save that his tiny town changed its name from Bethany to Al-Eizariya (“Lazarus’s Place”). The point is that Jesus did not resurrect Lazarus. He brought him back to life – our life, normal life, still circumscribed by death -- just as Martha and Mary, and you and I, want: “a return to normal”, as so many have cried out in this pandemic. But the fact is that Lazarus would die again, and this time there would be no resuscitation. Death would finally have its way, as it always does. So, the question facing him was: “What’s next?” To what extent were Lazarus and his sisters “awakened to” something they didn’t expect, couldn’t know, were even afraid to ask about?
On this anticipatory marking of All Saints (tomorrow), we renew our baptismal vows, confessing many times that we “believe”. We “give our hearts to…” We “give our hearts to” life on God’s terms, the same life that continues to work in Christ Jesus and by extension to each of us -- now. With our hearts and minds kept in the knowledge of God’s love and life, may we ever “awaken to” the reality that we are called to be the saints of God – that is, proclaiming, illuminating beacons of “What’s next” – living the answer: always new life.
Thanks be to God. Amen.