Fr. John Allison
March 26, 2023
“Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord.”
These words from our psalm for today capture well what Mary and Martha must have been feeling as they lament their brother Lazarus’ illness and death. Indeed, I imagine many of us here have been in desperate circumstances, in great despair, and called on God for some saving act.
And Jesus is not excluded from such feelings. As our Gospel passage tells us Jesus was quite close to Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary, which makes it all the more perplexing as to why he delays in journeying to save his friend; upon hearing the news our text tells us, “he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”
By the time he does finally consent to go he knows Lazarus is already dead and, as he tells his disciples, “For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” Still, at this point, the disciples do not understand what he means by this but are resigned to go with him. And, just to clarify, this was a dangerous journey, which is why Thomas says, “Let us go also, that we may die with him.”
You see, Lazarus was in Judea and when Jesus was last there the temple authorities had sought to stone him and have him arrested because they thought his claim to be the Son of God was blasphemous. He escaped, of course, as it was not yet his time, but the threat remained.
By the time Jesus arrives Lazarus has been dead for four days. Even so, Martha comes to him as he arrives and expresses a vague hope: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” And then, even when Jesus says Lazarus will rise again, she does not quite yet understand. She believes he is talking about the final resurrection of the dead which was the accepted belief of the Jews of her time. When someone died, they went to Sheol, where they would lie in rest until the coming of the Messiah when all would be resurrected and the final judgement would take place. This belief is what today’s reading from Ezekiel refers to in the story of the valley of dry bones and was also the focus of Mother Kathleen’s Wednesday sermon on an earlier passage in John’s Gospel.
But that’s not what Jesus means: “I am the resurrection and the life,” he says, and Martha believes. When Mary comes to meet him she too expresses her sadness that Lazarus has died and that Jesus had not saved him, and it’s here that we see the depth of despair that is felt not only by Martha and Mary and those others that have gathered but also Jesus. Jesus wept. He grieves with his friends. He feels deeply the sadness of their loss.
I again remember the lamentation of the psalmist: “Out of the depths have I called to you O Lord.”
When Jesus arrives at the tomb he’s still greatly disturbed, and it’s then that he orders that the stone covering the tomb be taken away and calls for Lazarus to come out.
This is considered to be Jesus’ crowning miracle in John’s Gospel and in many ways it confirms the faith that Martha had earlier confessed. In it we see life triumph over death and have a kind of foretaste of Jesus’s Resurrection. But, we must remember—the story is not over. In verses that follow, we see the Pharisees and temple authorities, plotting to have Jesus arrested and executed. You could say it’s the beginning of the end in that Jesus’ raising of Lazarus sets in motion the events that lead to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
When Lazarus comes out of the tomb, still bound in burial cloth, Jesus says to those gathered, “unbind him and let him go.” Unbind him and let him go. Life has triumphed over death. As I said earlier, we have in this miracle a kind of foretaste of Jesus’ Resurrection but there is a difference in that Lazarus, though risen, will eventually die. In fact, legends in the traditions of the early church suggest Lazarus lived another thirty years and that he was appointed by Paul and Barnabas to be the first bishop of Kition in what is now modern day Cyprus. Through Christ, God gives Lazarus the gift of life. Through Christ, God gives us all the gift of life. The question is, how are we to live into this God-given gift of life?
In these last days of Lent, the last days of this season of reflection and repentance, we are called to look back on our journey through the desert. If you can remember back to those early days of the season you’ll recall that Mother Kathleen and I spoke of Lent being a season of growth, that the word Lent, itself, meant lengthening or stretching. How have you been spiritually stretched and lengthened over these last five weeks? What new growth do you see in yourself?
It may not be easy to see. There is much in our lives, and in the world, that obscures our vision, but Christ calls us, like he called Lazarus, out of that darkness to live into new life. Paul tells us today in his letter to the Romans that to set the mind on the flesh is death but to set the mind on the spirit is life and peace. In the larger context of the letter he’s not saying that flesh and the material things of the world are evil but, rather, that life in the Spirit is about how God’s spirit animates our bodily lives. Much like how God’s spirit animates and puts flesh on the dry bones that come back to life in our reading from Ezekiel.
It’s all too easy, in a season like Lent that is characterized by barrenness and absence, to forget that the end of our journey is new life. Paul tells us, the Spirit of God dwells in you. What we must decide is whether we will live from that place inside ourselves where God’s spirit lives. That’s the new life that’s waiting to come out of the tomb. In Jesus’ call to Lazarus to, “come out” he calls each of us as well. What will you do with the new life to which Christ calls you? Amen.