Lent 5A – Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45
“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” Psalm 130:1
Heavenly Father, I thank you that in your Son Christ Jesus, the Resurrection and the Life, you have come bursting into the depths of our sin and death. Pour out your Spirit upon us, that we might live. Amen.
We know of no other life than one marked by pain and suffering. We are born, we live, we strive after things that we can never quite attain, we hurt others, we’re hurt by others, our loved ones fall sick, the economy crashes, we lose our money, our health, and in the end we die. All of us. Our life is but a breath. We began our Lenten journey on this note on Ash Wednesday: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The Ashes smudged on our foreheads, a visible reminder of our creatureliness. We were made, our lives are finite and hemmed in. The Christian life is no escape from this suffering. The hope of the Christian faith is not that we would get through life unscathed.
“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” We are acquainted you and I, as is the Psalmist, with the depths. “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?” We know full-well the weight of sin and death even if our Modern ears sometimes have a hard time with the language of sin. Consider the prophet Ezekiel, brought out by the Spirit of the Lord and set down in the middle of a valley: “It was full of bones”. “He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.” “Mortal, can these bones live?” “O Lord God, you know.” Consider Mary and Martha and their ill brother Lazarus. The sisters send a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” They were convinced that Jesus is not one who loves and then abandons those he loves. Yet, Jesus did not mention this request to his disciples nor did he send a message back to say, “We’re on our way.” For Christ, it was more important to conquer death than to cure disease. So, he stayed there, and Mary and Martha, in Bethany, watched their beloved brother die.
What was Jesus doing during those two days he waited? Perhaps he was praying, not only for Lazarus but for himself and the journey that lay ahead of him which was being prefigured in Lazarus’ own death. Perhaps, as some of the Church Fathers said, he was granting free reign to the grave, allowing the realm of darkness to seize his friend, drag him down to the underworld, and take possession of him (Peter Chrysologus).
Perhaps Jesus permits this so that human hope may perish entirely and human despair reach its lowest depths so that the deed he is about to accomplish may then clearly be seen to be the work of God, not of man.
“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” And when their hope was exhausted and their dead brother wrapped in burial clothes and laid in the tomb, the sisters again cried out to Jesus from the depths of their despair. When Martha heard that Jesus was on his way she ran out to meet him: “Lord, if only 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.” It is interesting to hear Martha’s words and observe her interaction with Jesus. At first glance, Martha’s proclamation of faith in light of her deep sense of grief and loss seems admirable. However, I can’t help but wonder if Martha was short-circuiting or denying the pain of losing her brother, the pain of human life. She mentions the loss but then refuses to stay there. It seems as if her proclamation of faith is an attempt to climb out of the depths herself. Contrast this with Mary who later runs out to meet Jesus. Her words are the same as Martha’s except Mary does not include the assertion of v22: “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died,” she cries as she falls at the feet of Jesus and weeps. Mary’s words to Jesus do not include Martha’s assertion because Mary’s words are exhausted with the grief of, “If only…”. “If only you had been here…”.
As Mary falls at Christ’s feet weeping, she illustrates what it is like to truly cry out to God from the depths: “Lord hear my voice!” I was overwhelmed this week by Jesus’ response to Mary. Does he try to fix the pain of her loss? Does he remove the pain with words of comfort and encouragement? He does not. Rather, when he saw her weeping, and saw those with her weeping, “he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved,” and he himself began to weep. I love N.T. Wright’s translation: “Jesus burst into tears.”
I suspect that you and I both are acquainted with the pain of, “If only…”. It’s a kind of nostalgia, not for the past as it was, but for the present that could have been, if only the past had been just a little bit different (N.T. Wright). If only my father hadn’t of left when I was so young; if only I hadn’t of lost my job when I did; if only I had of been able to carry my child to term; if only my wife’s health wasn’t so fragile; if only I hadn’t of spent so many hours at work when the kids were young. May we cry out to Christ Jesus from the depth of our pain and loss, from within the midst of the chaos and confusion and, when all of our striving and our grieving is drawn out and we come to the end of ourselves, may we know somehow the mystery that in Christ God is right there in the pain, in the darkness of the depths.
There is another, “If only…” perhaps more fundamental to our human experience. That is, the mystery of iniquity, the “If only…” of sin. This was Israel’s idolatry, their abandonment of God that left them cut off from God’s Spirit to become a valley of dry bones, void of life. This is what Paul in his letter to the Roman’s calls “the flesh”, which is hostile to God and when we set our minds on it is death (8:6, 7). And like Lazarus, this is the tomb in which we are trapped, death has come over us and the stench has filled the air. Yet just here Christ met Lazarus, and he has met us here also.
“Mortal, can these bones live?” Jesus weeps, he pours out his tears and in-so-doing pours out the Spirit of life. The tears of Jesus are the living water we heard about two weeks ago that the woman at the well was thirsting after. He takes the tears of Mary and Martha, and our tears, up into himself and pours them out with his own tears. His tears are like the rain, and Lazarus like a grain of wheat, and the tomb like the earth. Jesus gave forth a cry like that of thunder, and death trembled at his voice. Lazarus burst forth like a grain of wheat (Ephrem the Syrian). And Jesus wept out of compassion not just for Lazarus but for all humanity which is subject to sin and death (Cyril of Alexandria). And his weeping is active, it means that he is fighting for them, for us. On the way to the grave of Lazarus, as he wept with those who wept in the face of the undeniable reality of death, Jesus’ tears were themselves a resolute “No” to this reality. Looking death in the face, he is already on the way to banish it from the world (Karl Barth).
“He has borne our griefs,” said Isaiah, “and carried our sorrows,” (53:4, N.T. Wright’s translation). Jesus doesn’t sweep onto the scene and declare that tears are beside the point, that Lazarus is not dead, only asleep. Even though he has no doubt what he will do, and what his Father will do through him, there is no sense of triumphalism. There is, rather, the man of sorrows, acquainted with our grief and pain, sharing and bearing it to the point of tears (Wright). It is true also, that Jesus shed tears as he felt the weight of the journey that was to come, his own fate upon the cross. In telling the story of Lazarus John no doubt means to point us towards Jesus’ own death and resurrection, and in him our own.
I began by saying that we know of no other life than one marked by pain and suffering. This is true but it is incomplete for what we have witnessed this morning, and what we witness each and every time we gather around the Eucharist, or witness a baptism, is that Jesus, the storehouse that is full of life, enters into the midst of the tomb in which we find ourselves and calls us out. The sweet odour of his words cast out the stench of death.
In the words of the Psalmist, the Lord indeed hears our cry from the depths and in him there is forgiveness. And so we put our hope in the Lord for, “It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.” In the words of the prophet Ezekiel, Jesus is he that breathes upon the slain, that they may live. Or, as Paul wrote to the church in Rome, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” I say again, the hope of the Christian faith is not that we would get through life unscathed. Rather, the hope of the Christian life is that all of our wounds, all of our pain, all of the ways in which we are both victims of and perpetrators of sin and death, all of this is taken up into Christ’s own death and just there we find life.
Christ’s own death. In John’s gospel, when Jesus announces to his disciples that it is time for them to go and see Lazarus and his sisters, the disciples are initially taken aback: “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” (11:8). When they cannot dissuade him from going, Thomas reluctantly says to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him,” (11:16). Perhaps Thomas knew that it would not be possible to live with Jesus except by having died with him (Origen). Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem where he will die and on the way he demonstrates, in a very particular instance with the raising of Lazarus, the depth of God’s grace and love which is about to be opened to the whole world in Christ’s own death and resurrection. During this Lenten season we have been journeying with Jesus and the disciples along the way, knowing full-well where this journey ends: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” There is a great deal that we do not understand, and our hopes and plans often get thwarted. But if we go with Jesus, even if it’s into the jaws of death, we will be walking in the light, whereas if we press ahead with our own plans and ambitions we are bound to trip up (Wright).
Traditionally, Lent serves as a time of preparation for those who will be baptized during Easter. Perhaps you have been journeying with us here at St. Matthew’s for some time, or maybe you’re new, and have never been baptized. Hear the voice of Jesus, the resurrection and the life, who has entered into the depths of your despair and who stands now at the entrance of your tomb and calls you to come out! For those of us who are baptized, may this season call to memory what our baptism means: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again: death no longer has dominion over him…So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus,” (Romans 6:3-9, 11). Let us therefore set our mind on the Spirit who is life and peace, the same Spirit that raised Christ Jesus from the dead and who dwells in us that we, like Lazarus, might be resurrected also. Amen.
Sermon was preached by Jonathan Turtle at St. Matthew’s Riverdale
on the fifth Sunday in Lent, April 6th, 2014.