A sermon for the fifth Sunday of Lent

Take away the stone, he says. Open the grave.

The dead man’s sister protests: He died four days ago, she says. It will stink.

But Jesus tells them to take away the stone, and they do it.

Then he looks up to heaven, and he prays. He looks back to earth and cries out in a loud voice: Lazarus, come out!

And even in death, Lazarus hears Jesus calling his name. He hears the voice of the one who knows each of his sheep by name, whose sheep know his voice and follow him. He hears that voice, calling to him, Lazarus come out!

And out he comes, stumbling into the light. Bound in his burial wrappings, his face covered by a cloth.

He lives. Lazarus lives.

Unbind him, Jesus says.

Unbind him, and let him go.

This has to be one of the most poignant stories in the Gospel.

We see an emotional Jesus, grief spilling over into tears, weeping with Mary and the mourners who are with her. We’re drawn into that sorrow, even though our perspective is different.

Because we know the story. We know how it ends. We know that Lazarus will live. And yet we are there with Mary and Martha, wanting Jesus to explain why he didn’t come sooner.

Yes, we know that our God can bring glory out of human suffering, but that doesn’t mean we don’t still feel the pain.

We hear this Gospel on the fifth Sunday of Lent, the last Sunday before we move on to immerse ourselves in the great drama of Holy Week: the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the betrayal, suffering and death, and – finally – the glory of the resurrection.

If Jesus’ command to come out is the beginning of new life for this man Lazarus, it’s also the beginning of the end for Jesus’ own human life on earth. Bringing Lazarus back from death is the very thing that makes the people want to turn out in crowds to see Jesus for themselves the next time he enters Jerusalem. It’s the very thing that makes the religious leaders want to do away with him.

They’re afraid the miraculous things he’s doing – the things that are attracting so much attention – will attract the attention of the Romans, too. And the empire wasn’t known for tolerating upstart heroes of the people.

So the chief priest tells the council that it would be better to get rid of Jesus than to risk having the conquerors come down on all of them. And from that time on, they look for a way to have him killed.

And it wasn’t just Jesus – they wanted to get rid of Lazarus, too, because everyone was making such a fuss about this miracle man, the man who died and came back again. Which seems sort of ironic, doesn’t it – that being dead, and then brought back to life, would put someone in grave danger of losing his life.

So after this, Jesus goes into hiding for a while, but the next thing you know, he’ll back in Bethany, attending a dinner in his honor at Lazarus’ own home.

Martha will serve – of course!

Lazarus will enjoy the meal at Jesus’ side.

This is the night when Mary will anoint Jesus’ feet with rich perfume, and wipe them with her hair. The rich scent that fills the house – invisible, yet inescapable – foreshadows his death.

But in the meantime … They talk. They eat. They drink.

This is what resurrection looks like in ordinary life.

Lent calls us to new life, too – even as we go with Jesus toward the cross. It’s our opportunity to practice resurrection in ordinary life.

For Lazarus, that meant accepting his role as a living example of the great things that God can do. The power of God’s love.  But sometimes it also just meant doing the things that living people do. Like eating and drinking with friends.

And maybe it’s the same for us. For us, I think there are two things that stand out as essential in this, and maybe they appear to contradict each other, but I think they might in fact just be two sides of the same thing.

The first is to grab life and hold it tightly.

The second is to be willing to let go of it.

To live that resurrected life now, we have to grab on to it – and be ready to let it go.

What I mean by grabbing on to life is to cherish every good thing about it. Enjoy it while it lasts, in spite of the fact – or maybe because of the fact! – that it won’t last forever.

And learn to let go of things that are not really worth worrying about. Focus on what matters. This second point might be easier to understand, if harder to practice.

When you’ve faced what you thought was the very worst that could happen, and come through to the other side, you learn to stop wasting energy on what might happen, and focus instead on what is happening, now. Focus on appreciating every good thing that life on this earth has to offer. Seize the day! Make the most of this moment, before it’s gone.

Starting, of course, with human love. Cherish your family and friends.

I think of the bravery of Paul Kalanathi, the young neurosurgeon whose book When Breath Becomes Air tells the story of how he grabbed on to life after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He and his wife, Lucy, dared to bring a new life into the world, even as his own life was nearing its end.

They decided “we would carry on living, instead of dying,”[1] is how he put it.

Pay attention to the beauty of God’s good earth: Love the beauty of little things, like those daffodils that are popping up along our front walkway now. Enjoy the lovely scenery that is coming alive again all around us here in this part of the world.

“Every day,” the poet Mary Oliver says, “I see or hear something that more or less kills me with delight.”[2]

Take pleasure in good food, especially when it’s shared with people you love.

And look for signs of God’s presence everywhere. Because if you look for God’s presence, I promise you, you will find it.

Be grateful, for everything. Gratitude is a way of cultivating that awareness of the divine.

“To be grateful,” the 20th-century mystic Thomas Merton wrote, “is to recognize the love of God in everything” we’ve been given.[3]

Find your purpose in life. Live to make this world better: By serving those in need. By contributing to good causes. By political action.

And even just by being a joyful, faithful presence here among the living. Your purpose might be simply to let others see that in you. If you can show people what love and faith look like in ordinary life, that’s something.

Or maybe your purpose in life is to let others see your wounds and know that while you won’t deny them, you won’t let them define you, either. Because we all carry pain of one sort or another in this life, and it helps to be able to walk together with that. If can you show people what grace and courage look like, that’s something.

Learning to live, to be truly alive in Christ – that might not sound like the traditional self-denial of Lent, but this too is one way to express the purpose of the season. And now that season is almost over.

If you had some Lenten practice that you’ve drifted away from, or if you never got around to starting one, it might seem that there’s no point to worrying about it now.

Like Mary at the tomb of Lazarus, you might want to tell Jesus it’s too late. But it’s never too late to turn back toward life in full, to life as it is meant to be lived. That kind of abundant living has no season.

Even in death, Lazarus hears the voice of Jesus calling to him to life.

And this is our story, too. Even when our hearts are dead, that voice comes through loud and clear. He knows our name. We know his voice. We hear Jesus calling us to come out.

Can you picture yourself in that tomb: trapped in that dark, airless place. hobbled by the all the things that would hold you back if you let them?

I am the resurrection and the life, Jesus tells Martha, and we are as hopeful – and sometimes as confused – by that statement as she is.

I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day, she says. She doesn’t know that Jesus means something more than that. Something more immediate.

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly – that’s the Good Shepherd’s promise to us.

So come out of your tomb. Step out of those wrappings. Step forward, and begin again to live the life you were made for.

Amen.

 

[1] When Breath Becomes Air, p. 144.

[2] “Mindful,” Mary Oliver.

[3] Thomas Merton in Seasons of Grace by Alan Jones, John O’Neil.