Sermon Title “Out of the Grave” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden
Good morning! As we are working our way through the season of Lent, we do so with the faith that we are going to arrive at Easter and Christ’s resurrection. As Steve Barton noted in his children’s story a couple weeks ago, Lent means “lengthening of days.” It is no coincidence that the Church has put this season at the transition from late winter into early spring. As you know, last Monday afternoon was the beginning of spring, but sometimes we have to hold on through cold and snow and rain until we get there.
New life is something we all want, right? Well, maybe. The lesson of Lent — maybe this year in particular — is that new life doesn’t come easy. I could give you all kinds of examples, but I’ll start with one which I know is familiar to some of you. A joint replacement — a new knee or a new hip — has the potential to give someone who is uncomfortable less pain and greater mobility. Who wouldn’t want that? But even if the expense is not an issue, most people don’t get a joint replacement until they have to: either the pain has become so bad it is effecting your daily activities, or you’ve had an accident or a fall and something is broken and must be fixed. A joint replacement means surgery, usually a hospital stay, and rehabilitation: there is pain with the new joint and a lot of therapy involved for the new joint function the way it’s supposed to. I’m guessing this sounds familiar to some of you.
It is no coincidence that the Old Testament reading for this Sunday is Ezekiel 37:1-14. This was the inspiration for the Call to Worship, and it is Ezekiel’s vision of a valley of dry bones. God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones, and through the word of the Lord the bones come together and are attached with sinews and have flesh, but no life. And then the breath of God comes from the four winds, and the bodies stand on their feet and live. And God says to the people of Israel, “I am going to open your graves and bring you up from your graves, O people. I will put my spirit within you, and you will live.” This was a vision of promise for the nation or Israel, not necessarily a literal event, but I have to wonder — is it comfortable having all your bones re-connected, and ligaments and tendons re-strung? When you’re dead, none of that matters, but being alive can be painful. Being alive takes work.
Our reading from the gospel of John tells another death to life story: a different grave which is opened. As with last week’s story of Jesus healing a man born blind, I had Lodema read only a portion of the story this morning, and I’d like to fill in some of the earlier part of that story. You are welcome to follow along in John chapter 11 if you have a Bible with you. I mentioned last week that the gospel of John is structured around seven signs or miracles which Jesus performs, beginning with turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana. Raising Lazarus from the dead is the last of those seven miracles, and the one which pushes the Pharisees over the edge. Jesus is not merely a one-off heretic or a false prophet, he is getting a lot of attention and attracting a following, and he must be stopped. The only way to be sure Jesus can no longer teach and heal is to kill him.
The beginning of chapter 11 reminds us that Jesus was a friend of Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary. These sisters send a message to the disciples that their brother is ill. And when the disciples tell Jesus, he says, “This illness won’t kill him, it is for God’s glory.” I don’t know about you, but being ill for the glory of God is not something I’m in a hurry to sign up for. Maybe it’s better than just being ill, but this might not end well. After some further conversation and some cross-talk about whether Lazarus is asleep-asleep or asleep-dead, Jesus tells the disciples, “Lazarus is dead. I’m glad I wasn’t there so that you may believe, but let’s go now.” Bethany of Judea is precisely where the disciples do not want to go, because it’s a stronghold of the Pharisees who are out for Jesus’ blood. Thomas say, “Let’s all go so we can die with him.”
You are probably familiar with the rest of the story. Jesus travels to Bethany with his disciples, and Martha goes out to meet him on the road. Martha, Mary, the disciples, and Jewish mourners from inside the house all follow Jesus to the tomb where Jesus weeps for Lazarus. Some of those present say “See how he loved his friend?” And some of the Jews say, “He opened the eyes of a blind man, couldn’t he have kept his friend from dying?” And Jesus demands that the stone be removed from the mouth of the cave where Lazarus is entombed — even though Martha isn’t sure that’s a good idea — and Jesus prays aloud for the sake of the crowd which is gathered and then says, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus, still wrapped in strips of cloth, comes out. And Jesus says, “Unbind him and let him go.”
This is technically the last we know of Lazarus, although in chapter 12 the Jews talk about Lazarus: specifically the need to kill him. Again? He has to die again? By violence, this time? Apparently so. In John 12, so many people are coming to see Jesus and Lazarus, that the Jewish leaders determine they have to put Lazarus to death, for the crime of being alive, I guess.
New life is a tricky business. There’s a reason why we’re not all rushing out to get new hips and knees — it’s expensive, it’s painful, and living into that new reality with rehab takes a lot of effort. Nekeisha told us something last Saturday at the Women’s Retreat which should not have been a surprise to anyone: it takes more energy to change than it does to remain the same. Dying is the expected trajectory of life. If we do nothing for long enough, we’ll get there sooner or later. New life — getting that new knee, getting chemo, making new friends after the death of a loved one — that kind of new life comes with a cost. Of course, that kind of new life is temporary, like the resuscitation of Lazarus — probably like the skeleton army which Ezekiel saw in his vision, too. Death is at the heart of Christianity: not just Jesus’ death, but our own. I’m sorry of this is news to you, but new life isn’t just an improved version of the lives we already have and are comfortable with; new life means dying to the lives we know and lining into something new in the kingdom of God. The physical loss, pain, or sacrifice which I have mentioned is a metaphor for the loss of ourselves as being the center of our lives. When we die to ourselves, the thing which gives us new life is the breath of God. It is the confession that we believe in Jesus the Christ, we have made him Lord, and only the grace of Jesus can give us the new life we need.
There are so many ways to die to ourselves, and none of them are easy. Our redemption from death was purchased at a terrible cost and we should never use that grace as an excuse to sanction behavior which does not honor God’s love for us and God’s love for all people. I think we limit the power of God’s Spirit — God’s breath — if we claim that new life is only for individuals and individual sin. This week and last week we have talked about Jesus healing specific people — a man born blind and Jesus’ friend Lazarus — but the reason this got folks so angry is because Jesus was threatening an entire system, a Jewish system perpetuated by the Pharisees, in which the law was used to shame and put additional burdens on ordinary people. Jesus is not trying to abolish Judaism or de-fund the Pharisees; he is trying to get them to see that their pursuit of the law has blinded them to the needs of the people — the folks whom the law was supposed to be caring for. Jesus is trying to lead the religious leaders into new life, and they are having none of it. It’s easier to kill Jesus and Lazarus than to have to examine themselves and how they have treated others.
I believe that the cycle of dying and experiencing new life is one which spins out throughout our lives. I made a commitment to Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior when I was a teenager. That was a sincere commitment, but believe me, I didn’t have life all figured out when I was 16 years old, no matter what I thought at the time. I have had to renew and revisit and re-evaluate that commitment. I live in hope, but the reality is, I will never get it right. I’m not in pursuit of perfection, I’m just trying to put effort into following Jesus every day, because I know that living into new life takes effort, and that I cannot do it without the breath of God’s Spirit. This is not a commitment for myself alone. As a church I want to confess that new life is not just for us as a collection of individuals. Justice is not just us. If we are concerned only with ourselves, and are willing to turn a blind eye to others who may be suffering because of unjust systems that we are a part of, we need to confess that we have not seen ourselves and others clearly. We need to confess our need for the breath of God to breathe on us and give us new life.May God’s love rain down on us and on all people. May we commit ourselves to the reign of Christ and his kingdom. Amen