Updated: Aug 5, 2021
“Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany… [but] when Jesus heard it he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death.’” So begins one of the most famous miracle stories of all time – with Jesus confidently assuring his followers that his dear friend Lazarus was not going to die. Except that he did die – and Jesus seems to have known all along that he would. In fact, it appears that Jesus allowed it to happen –reassuring his friends that Lazarus’s illness would not lead to death and having them wait where they were for an extra two days before going to visit their sick friend.
This seems like odd behavior for our Savior, who we usually find springing into action to heal perfect strangers – even when it puts him at odds with the authorities of his time. Jesus’s friends Martha and Mary seem to wonder about Jesus’s behavior as well, telling him, “If you had been here, [our] brother would not have died.” Jesus’s unresponsiveness isn’t very comforting for us either as we struggle to deal with the coronavirus/COVID 19 pandemic that has created so much anxiety in our lives. We are already worried about illness and death and tired of waiting for things to get better – do we really need to hear a story about how Jesus allowed someone he loved to die? Like the people who watched the incident, we too wonder, “Couldn’t the man who in last week’s gospel opened the eyes of the blind beggar simply have kept this man from dying”?
Evidence from the other six signs in the Gospel of John suggests that, yes, he could have – but how much help would that be for us who, because we are human, continue to face threats of illness and death without Jesus’s divine ability to heal them? What would we learn? Many people would be happier if Jesus had simply cured his friend because it would have been consistent with the idea that Jesus is some kind of a rapid response superhero who swoops in to perform miracles in response to any and all prayers. But that’s not how it works – and that’s not what happens in the story. Despite the fact that the gospel writer makes it clear that Jesus loves both Lazarus and his family – he does, after all, openly weep at the death of his friend – this scripture reading is not about Jesus preferentially saving those who profess to love him. It is about something much bigger than that. It is about Jesus offering us a way to transcend our need to be rescued from earthly dangers – about Jesus showing us the way to relinquish the anxiety and fear about the horrors of human weakness that are bearing down on us with terrifying speed and power.
My son Nick, who is a fan of horror films, refers to the Fifth Sunday in Lent (Year A), as “Zombie Sunday.” Think about it: our first lesson tracks Ezekiel as he carefully follows the directions of the Lord to prophesy to a collection of bones in order to make them come alive, after which we hear St. Paul admonish the Romans that setting our minds on “flesh is death,” and, for the finale, we have the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, complete with Lazarus wandering out of the tomb, smelling like rotten garbage and trailing dirty bandages behind him. The mummy lives! These lessons have more than the usual Sunday scripture gore content, it’s true, but this night of the living dead action is strange for a reason. It demonstrates that God is able to imagine, consider, and do things that are far beyond our understanding, and one of those things is to overcome human death –to resurrect us.
All of today’s scriptures are about resurrection –not the cheap, human notions of resurrection with blood-sucking demons, pinheaded monsters, or unsettled spirits. This is not a resurrection where some of us will shed our human skin and travel to another world of perfect pleasure while the rest of us face the flames of eternal punishment. This is a resurrection of the spirit. This is the resurrection that happens when all human beings recover the God-given goodness that lies deep in our hearts. This is a resurrection of hope.
The exiled Jews to whom Ezekiel prophesied did not even believe in life after death. They thought that breath was life and when breath stopped, so did life. For them life after death meant having your physical remains where they belonged – and generations of their people had died outside of Israel. They desperately longed for God to allow them to return to their homeland so that their bodies could be whole. But their bones were scattered and their well of hope dried up; they had ceased to breathe. But just when they were at their most desperate, God sent Ezekiel to prophecy to them and direct the Spirit – the ruach, the breath – to breathe life into them – to restore their lives.
This is what God always does – when we allow it – when we call to God with confidence and humility. We are human beings, made of flesh and bone – and our humanity guarantees that we are susceptible to illness and death, anxiety and depression, fear and selfishness. God knows this. It is why Jesus allowed himself to experience hunger and fear and illness and cold. Jesus’s very existence tells us that our flesh matters – but it is not what matters most. What matters most is spirit – and we cannot allow our worries about our flesh to crush our spirits. “To set the mind on the flesh is death,” St. Paul tells us, “but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” We get anxious when we focus solely on things of this life – on comfort, money, and material possessions. We become afraid when we allow ourselves to believe that other human beings are focused on the same things. But our scriptures tell us that even in a valley filled with anger and pain and disease – with bones that have no flesh – with families that have been separated and broken- with supplies that have dried up – God can bring life. God can bring life to arid bones and to parched spirits, to souls mired in concerns of the flesh, to hearts longing to go home again – and to people longing to live “normal” lives again.
But we have to wait. We have to wait until we are ready to accept God’s mercy – and to experience what it means to live only in God. After all, Jesus made the disciples wait to go to their friend Lazarus, even though he knew that during that delay, Lazarus would die. Jesus did not answer the prayers of Martha and Mary as they would have liked either. He did not save their brother. He allowed them to suffer – to mourn and to weep and to fear. He gave them time to consider and question and worry and wonder until they knew, deeply in their hearts, that any life they could want -and any rebirth their brother could have – would come through Jesus Christ their Lord.
Waiting is hard – and it is easy to fall into the trap of believing that our weak flesh is all that we are. It is easy to become afraid and anxious about the sicknesses of this world. But we are not just creatures of flesh and bone. We are children of God. Our primary life is not of flesh, but of spirit. We need not wait for the Lord with fear and frustration. God has already heard our cry – and God will answer it. We can bear this dry and breathless time of darkness because we know that Jesus has the power to raise not just Lazarus from the power of the greatest and deepest darkness of all – but every one of us as well. AMEN.