A Sermon by the Rev. Marek Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church
In Fort Washington, Pennsylvania
On Sunday, April 2, 2017
In 2015 a movie called The Lazarus Effect was released. A group of researchers were able to bring the dead back to life. After resurrecting a dog, the researchers were ready to unveil their breakthrough when the university dean shut their project down. The team later resurrected a human only to release the demonic. Advertisers tweeted about the movie using #Evil will rise.
That same year, David Bowie released his final album with a hit song called – you guessed it, Lazarus. The song was intended as an epitaph on Bowie’s own impending death as he battled cancer. The English rock singer appeared in the video covered with bandages lying on his deathbed. He died soon after. Ironically, Lazarus became Bowie’s first top 40 song in 28 years, reaching number 40 on the charts just days after he died. Talk about coming back from the dead!
The idea of resurrecting a human is so compelling that it has captivated writers, poets, film makers and artists alike. Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Van Gogh have painted the raising Lazarus. In his book The Denial of Death philosopher Ernest Becker notes that we spend our lives terrified of death at an unconscious level. Our drive to succeed, our ambition, our efforts to prove ourselves, and the great achievements in culture and history are driven by our efforts to build a barrier against encroaching death. Nagging in the back of our minds is how fragile our lives are.
In today’s lesson Jesus faces death head on. It is the great confrontation and some say the most awesome story in the Bible. It is also the longest narrative in John’s Gospel aside from the Passion, and it is the climax of all the “signs” that John recounts.
Lazarus, Martha and Mary are among Jesus’ closest friends. Their home in Bethany was a sanctuary where Jesus could come and rest, put up his feet and be himself. The Bible tells no story of Jesus being able to do this with his own family. Perhaps there was insufficient understanding at home. But rather than being frustrated in some futile fashion as so many of us are when this is the case, Jesus found a second home where confidences were understood and kept and where we could be himself. It’s something that all of us need. Lazarus, Martha and Mary’s home was the place where Jesus could unburden his heart, just two miles from Jerusalem.
How wonderful it was that Martha and Mary could send a note and know that Jesus would come with no need for explanation. They were wise to ask for help. So few do. So many steel themselves against life’s adversities, especially when illness or death strike so that they wall out the very support they most need. A clenched fist cannot accept a helping hand. Fortunately, Martha and Mary extended an open hand and Jesus took it.
They sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one whom you love is ill,” but Jesus did not drop everything to rush to his friend’s side. Lazarus and his sisters lived in Judea, and Jesus was already in deep trouble with the authorities there. The had all but stoned Jesus the last time he was in Judea.
But there was another reason for Jesus’ delay. He told his disciples, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory….” The ancient rabbis believed that a person had to be dead for three days before their spirit departed. If Jesus rushed to Lazarus, he could only heal a man who was ill or from whom the spirit had not departed. So, Jesus waited two days, because he wanted people to know that when he raised Lazarus from the dead that he will have defeated death. “Death thou shalt die,” as John Donne wrote.
So much of life is about timing. Being in the right place at the right time or being able to make a move, accept a job, settle down with someone you love, buy a house or start a family. Timing is everything. There’s a wonderful Italian expression festina lente, which means make haste, slowly. Jesus never rushed, but he always was on time. There are no stories of Jesus ever doing more than two things on one particular day, but no man in history has accomplished more.
John’s Gospel makes it clear that God’s time and our time are not the same – as with Mary’s request about the wine in Cana. Jesus acts when he is ready. How do we act when someone we love is ill? Can we tell God in prayer and then be patient even when God seems to do nothing?
After two days, Jesus told his disciples that he was returning to Judea. Thomas blurted out “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” These are the marching orders for Christians past, present and future. The disciples are loyal despite their fear. Courage doesn’t mean having no fear, but rather being well aware of the worst that can happen and doing the right thing anyway.
When Jesus arrived in Bethany, Lazarus has been in his tomb for four days, his body has begun to decompose and his spirit has left him. Lazarus was completely and irrevocably dead. Martha half-reproachfully greeted Jesus saying, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It’s so natural. Anger is the first step in grieving. “If only we had gone to the hospital sooner….” “If only we had paid more attention to the signs….” “If only we had tried a different medicine….” Martha knew that if only Jesus been present things would have turned out differently. She said, “I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”
Jesus said, “Your brother will rise again.” To which Martha replied, “He will rise again in the resurrection at the last day,” reflecting the orthodox Jewish belief of her day. But Jesus corrected her with words that have put steel in the backbone of Christians for 20 centuries, saying “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” If your funeral is held at an Episcopal church, those words from Scripture will be read as we commend you to God. They remind us that the abyss of God’s love is deeper than the abyss of death.
Then Mary makes her confession. “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” It is the most comprehensive expression of who Jesus is in the New Testament.
Then Jesus wept. It is the Bible’s shortest verse. There is a price to be paid for loving someone. At death we begin to pay that price, but it is a price well worth paying. Sometime the best that we can do is to weep with those who weep. We Christians do not worship a God who resides far from us, oblivious to all that is going on here. God comprehends the human condition and knows the depths of our pain and grief. So, Jesus wept.
For a few moments there are no words or deeds, just tears. It is the same sadness that afflicted Jesus when he met lepers, healed the demoniac, fed the hungry multitudes or cared for the man born blind. His heart went out to everyone who suffers.
Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha protested, “Lord, there is already a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus replied, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you would see the glory of God.” They rolled away the stone, and Jesus cried out, “Lazarus, come out.” Lazarus stepped forward wrapped in grave clothes, exited the tomb and entered the light.
Miracles do not a Messiah make, but a Messiah can do miracles. If you asked me, did Jesus literally raise Lazarus from the dead and walk on water and change water into wine, I can only say that with God all things are possible. I know these events not as facts, but I accept them on trust. I believe them. What I can tell you for certain is that I have seen good people come to church and become better people, sinners turn into saints, hate-filled relations become loving ones and folks that were dying come back to life.
A tomb that was a cave, a stone that had to be rolled away and grave clothes. A Christian cannot help but move from the raising of Lazarus to Jesus’ death and burial and resurrection. Lazarus was the beneficiary of Jesus’ greatest miracle. But raising of Lazarus hastened Christ’s crucifixion. Some of those who witnessed this miracle reported it to the Pharisees, who gathered the Sanhedrin and plotted Jesus’ arrest and death. The chief priests wanted to kill Lazarus to destroy the proof of Jesus’ divinity. If Jesus could bring the dead back to life, then he could surely dismantle the power of the rulers of Israel. Better to put him to death.
But the raising of Lazarus was only a temporary miracle. Lazarus would eventually would die again, and this time for good. There was a wonderful New Yorker cartoon where Lazarus appeared in heaven at the Pearly Gates before St. Peter, who told him, “Come back tomorrow.”
Let me conclude with a story. When I was studying to become a priest, I spent a summer taking part in a course designed to teach students how to care for people who were ill and sometimes dying in hospitals and how to support their families. One day, I entered the room of a former Navy Seal, lying in bed. As we spoke, I saw that his fingertips were black as coal. He explained that he recently had undergone surgery and when he awoke his hands were completely black. He said, “During the operation, I saw myself looking down on the operating table and heard everything taking place. I heard someone say, ‘We’re losing him.’ Then another person said, ‘We’ve lost his vital signs.’ Then another said, ‘He’s dead.’”
“All of a sudden, I saw the faces of my friends who were Navy Seals who had died in Vietnam and family members who had died as well. Then I heard a voice say, ‘Are you ready to die?’, and I said, ‘No. Not yet.’” When I awoke in a hospital room, my hands were completely black. A doctor later visited me said, “You died on the operating table and then several minutes later you came back to life.” Lazarus! I left his room changed and have viewed death differently ever since.
My friends, God meets us in our tombs and in places where we feel that there is no way out, but death is never the final end. As we approach Palm Sunday, I invite you to take some time to meditate on how the fear of death may be keeping you from living life as fully as God intends. “I am the resurrection and the life,” says Jesus. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Amen.