Lazarus Sunday

Lent 5A 2-4-2017 Ez 37 1-14, Ps 130, Rm 8 6-11, Jn 11 1-45

Lazarus Sunday has been very precious to me for a long time now. But it has become more so in the last few days. Every three years, we read this story on the Sunday before Palm Sunday. In the Holy Land, the traditional Palm Sunday procession into Jerusalem begins at Al ‘Azaria – Lazarus’s place – the Biblical village of Bethany, over the other side of the Mount of Olives. The march begins at Lazarus’s tomb – the place where, once upon a time, the people of that district were given a sign by Jesus that God’s love for us – God’s commitment to us – is a far greater force than death. The people of that place have never let the memory of this sign pass from knowledge.

On Palm Sunday twenty-one years ago, my family walked that road amongst an enormous throng of Christians from all the various Palestinian churches – and with a great many others who, like us, came from churches of all nations. Tragically, that way is now blocked by the separation wall, so most Palestinian Christians can’t get there any more to join in the march. But that’s a story for another time.

The story of Jesus raising Lazarus from death to life has been very much on my mind and in my heart over the past few days as we joined in the funeral in Papunya of one who died far too young. Just like in the story of Lazarus, the whole community joined with the family – supporting them in wave after wave of heart-broken wailing. I felt myself longing for the voice of Jesus to cry out again – to call our beloved friend back from death to life.

The people who gathered with Mary and Martha, Lazarus’s sisters, wept with them. The shared love and sadness of a whole community is moving and beautiful. This story tells us that Jesus joined with them in their weeping; that Jesus shares in our sadness as we mourn; Jesus also loves the one we mourn.

This story also tells us that Jesus risks more than just sharing in our sadness: when he decides to respond to the call of Mary and Martha, his disciples remind him of the danger that confronts him there. 7 Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ 8The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’

The American Lutheran scholar, Karoline Lewis reminds us of the extent of that danger. She writes that for John’s Gospel “… it is the raising of Lazarus to life that incites the plot for Jesus’ arrest and death 11:53, 57. In the verses which follow today’s reading about the raising of Lazarus, 11:46-57, the chief priests and the Pharisees are told what Jesus has done, and from that day on they planned to put him to death. More than that, the chief priests want to get rid of the evidence as well, and plan to put Lazarus to death since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus (12:9-11). It is Jesus’ very claim, I am the resurrection and the life 11:25 that provokes his death in the Fourth Gospel.”

I attend many funeral services – few like the one on Friday – but they all share a tension with this story from John’s Gospel. And unless the person who died was a person rich in years, the grief always has an element in it which says to Jesus what Martha and then Mary said to him. 21…‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died … if Jesus loves us – if Jesus wills it … why did this happen?

And into that tumult of feelings, and at the beginning of each funeral service, Jesus’s words cry out to us from this story: 25…‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ He asks us all, and I guess the answer varies for each one of us, from one day to the next.

Martha shared a faith in resurrection which had been nurtured in large part by our reading from the prophet Ezekiel today – a vision of God’s power and will to raise the dead to life again – to restore us to our own soil, and to our families and our friends. Ezekiel is able to articulate how extraordinary that moment must be. Even after the vision of the bones coming together, the sinews, flesh and skin coming on them, and even the breath restoring them to life, God still refers to them as “these bones”. Ezekiel is telling me that their life and ours is entirely and always dependent on God – moment by moment. Without God, we are nothing but dry bones.

And then he addressed us directly:  12  Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”

Then we will know. But for the moment, it’s important for us to ponder all these things a week out from Palm Sunday. These are the questions of our life, our death and what we make of these images and words which have shaped our faith and our values. What is our image of Jesus as we enter the week before his public self-offering? What is our understanding of resurrection? Ezekiel and Jesus both make a distinction between mere resurrection and the fulness of life. And so we need to ask ourselves what we are doing with the gift we share of breath. Are we living as apparently- living dry bones? If we are, can we hear the cry, calling us by name to come out to life? Will we come out? Amen

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