Preached on Sunday, 02.04..2017
By the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair
There are perhaps relatively few characters from the bible who have passed into common parlance in the English language. Jeremiah, from the Old Testament, might be one. Next week we will look at Judas, whose story is widely known (or at least an approximation of it) and whose name has certainly come into common usage. And today we look at Lazarus whose story is also approximately known, and whose name has graced the phrase: ‘the greatest comeback since Lazarus’.
It’s a dramatic story of loss and recovery – almost an archetype of popular stories with disaster and despair followed by the miraculous happy ending, with doubt dispelled and death defeated. But I doubt if the story would have featured in John’s gospel if that was all there was to it. John includes stories for the points they make, the insights they provide. And the further we are from the story the harder it is, perhaps, to spot the insights and get the point.
This is the third story we’ve looked at over the last three weeks, stories that are all quite long, stories of ordinary people doing ordinary things, stories that have the feel to them of stories from the Old Testament, stories that are to be told again and again, with each telling yielding a little flicker more of something we maybe hadn’t noticed before. And so we had the story of a woman getting water at a well – literally an everyday event; we (at least those of us in Pitlochry) had the story of a blind man oppressed not so much by his blindness as by the presumptions and the prejudices of those around him. And now we have a story of death, the most common story of all: the part of life which we all share, the part of life which cannot be indefinitely postponed, the part of life which riches cannot thwart, nor social position conquer.
But this is not just any death. For Jesus, this is the death of someone close, a friend, almost a brother; this is someone that, everyone knows, Jesus loves. And so the story is all the more astonishing, because there is no reaction of dropping everything, no rush to be there, no suggestion that life is about to change. But life is indeed about to change; Jesus, when eventually he does arrive, is chastised by the sisters who thought they could depend on him – and who now feel let down. In their grief and anger they put the blame of the death on Jesus, the supposed friend who turned out not to be the one they thought he was: ‘if you had been here, my brother would not have died’.
We were once visiting a house where there had been a death – a dreadful death, a young man’s self-inflicted death. His sister had been meant to visit him, but had called off at the last minute. And, as we sat there with the sister and their mother, the mother told us that, had she not called off her visit, the death would not have occurred: ‘if you had been there, your brother would not have died’. Bereavement can bring the best out of us; it can also summon the worst – it can draw out of us a pain and a panic, a fury and an anger that lashes at those around – and, almost always, those around are those who are nearest, those who will feel it most keenly when curse and blame are hurled.
But this is not just any death – and it’s not just any story. Did it strike us as we read, has it struck us in the past, how many echoes there are? A death occurs, and it is followed by silence, followed by stillness, followed by a period when mourning begins, mourners gather, bewilderment sets in, and blame is apportioned, as humanity tries to deal with a divinity that is silent, even absent, leaving them gazing into the abyss. The body has been in the tomb for days, the stone rolled across, a heavy, primordial, final curtain between the living and the dead. ‘Take away the stone,’ says Jesus; and the stone is rolled away, the place of the dead revealed to the living, the land of the living opened to the dead, the curtain torn, the veil removed. And Jesus calls; actually, he shouts. He shouts a word of life into the jaws of death, summoning Lazarus to come out. And Lazarus appears.
It’s almost like a dress rehearsal, isn’t it? It’s like a premonition, a precursor, a vision, of what is to come, of the main event. It is meant to be a revelation; it is written to say: ‘this is who he is’. This is the one who summons life and hope from despair and death; this is the one whose voice cannot be ignored – even in the tomb, even behind the curtain, even beyond the veil. This is the one who, before his own resurrection, is already the resurrection and the life.
But the story has echoes not only of the future, but also of the past. It has echoes of the history of faith of the people of Israel. Because Jesus shouts not only, ‘Lazarus, come out’, but also says, ‘unbind him, and let him go’. And the echo comes from a story of faith remembered by Jews to this day, the story of liberation when Moses says to Pharaoh: ‘let my people go’. And the voice spoke then too to all that would hold people in, hold people down, hold people back, from life and the God of life. And the people came out. They too came out blinking and still bound; they too came out, but wondered what to do once they were out; they too had a life to live to which they had been summoned, and for which they had been re-commissioned.
This Passover imagery would come to be associated with Jesus himself; he would come to be seen as the Passover lamb paving the way for the liberation that God would accomplish among those ready to walk into the unknown, the uncharted – and to do so unencumbered. And John uses these echoes to speak in his story; he uses the almost unconscious recognition of liberation to speak through Lazarus a tale not just of recovery from illness and death, but a tale of freedom – a tale that can speak to all those who find themselves bound and imprisoned, cut off from life by an immovable, impenetrable, impervious rock.
And so this is a story that speaks to those who find themselves entombed – and to those who know they are there. It’s a story not only of liberation, but of how liberation works. It’s a story not only about what Jesus does or says, or what is said to Jesus about what he has not done. It’s a story not only about spiritual reality, but also of hard, physical reality – a story of stones and caves and bindings. And it’s a story about the call not only to Lazarus, but to those around – the call to move the stone, to guide people out into the light, to remove their bindings, to make and achieve their liberation.
So maybe in the two weeks between now and Easter Day, we can think about tombs and their opening, about those bound in the dark and their need for the light, and about what role we may have in all of this.
Is our role that of the mourners? Are we the ones who feel bereaved and bereft, the ones who turn to God with accusation on our breath, and reproach in our words? Are we the ones who think that nothing more can now be done, nothing can be altered, nothing changed; but there is still time for complaint in the midst of lament? Are we Martha and Mary?
Or is our role that of the bystanders? Are we the ones who gather at the scenes of tragedy and sadness to shake our heads, and furrow our brows, and bemoan the ways of the world? Or are we the bystanders who can be summoned to do something about it – the ones who can put our shoulders to the boulders, and roll the stone away? Are we the ones who can take the bindings that hold God’s people in captivity, and restore them to the life they thought they had lost, or perhaps that they had never found?
But of course there is one other role that we might discover is ours: are we Lazarus? Are we the ones entombed? Are we the ones who find ourselves cut off from the work of liberation, because we still await our own? Do we find ourselves paralysed and incapable because we have allowed the walls to rise around us, the stones to cut us off? In so many ways this can become our fate, individually and indeed as a church. It can happen when we allow the world and its life to become irrelevant to us; it can happen when we become self-sufficient; and it can happen when we become self-obsessed. It can actually happen when we become ‘church-obsessed’. It can happen because we slip into our own siding; it can happen when we think that our survival is all that matters, or our building is all that matters, or our desires are all that matter.
And, before we know it, we have retreated into a cave, and pulled a stone across its entrance. It’s warm, it’s cosy – but, before long, it begins to run out of air. The atmosphere becomes stale and still and stagnant. And then, having cut ourselves off, we can’t work out how to get out again, we can’t work out how to rejoin the world, and we worry that those who might release us have forgotten we are there – or at least stopped caring much that we are there. And, in so many places, that has been the fate of the church of Jesus Christ – self-referring, self-sufficient, self-satisfied, self-deceiving – writing reports about itself, telling itself how well it is doing.
But, if that is where the church is today, we must pray that out there in the world of life, there is still a voice that loves us, a voice calling people to knock down the walls, to roll away the stones of separation; a voice yelling at us to get up and get out; a voice urging that all the white bindings and red tape in which we encase ourselves be removed. We must pray that we will be led, even staggering and blinking, into the light – freed from our captivity, freed from our complacency, freed from our selective deafness, freed to hear the voice of Jesus say: ‘unbind them, and let them go’.