Resurrection and Life [Lent 5A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
John 11:1-45

Resurrection and Life

“I am Resurrection and I am Life,” says the Lord.  But this is not that.  This is not resurrection; this is resuscitation.  And there is a big difference.  This, the raising of Lazarus, is a sign of what is to come; it is not what is to come.  It is like the difference between seeing a “Falling Rocks” sign and being crushed by falling rocks.  There is a big difference, a big difference between the sign and the event, between the resurrection and this Lazarus story.

As one might expect of a story in which a four-day old corpse is brought back to life, this is a messy story.  This Gospel story is a story of life and death.  It is a story of trust and grief.  It is full of complex human emotion.  It is full of ups and downs.  It's just messy.  And it's amazing.  And it is raw.  And it is touching.  It feels very much like real life.  And yet, it is very far removed from we might call “normal” life experience.

The build-up to the raising of Lazarus in the gospel narrative is quite long.  And it begins with a pause – a confusing pause.  Jesus, the one who has healed many perfect strangers throughout the Gospel, decides not to heal his friend – a friend he loves, as the Gospel writer reminds us many times.  He lets him die.  And even so, as Jesus approaches his friends' tomb, he weeps – a deep, visceral, very human reaction.  And yet, he weeps even though from the beginning of the story, Jesus knows he will bring Lazarus back from the dead.  The Word became flesh and experienced the same volatile human emotions we all experience. 

This story is an emotional story.  It is that emotion, that desperate grief and pain, seen most profoundly in Martha and Mary, that I think, feels most immediate in this text.  I think many of us have these vivid moments of desperate grief and pain in our own stories.  I can remember as a child weeping in my closet when my Grand-daddy died.  Or praying for Jesus to raise up my Grandpa like he had Lazarus.  The moments feel at once a lifetime ago and yet are never far away.   

The grief and pain that Lazarus' sisters experience and express feels much realer to me than Jesus' opening theological speech or his conversation with the disciples or even the raising of Lazarus.  They are hurting.  Their brother died.  And it doesn't seem fair.  And so, each in their own way, at their own time, they blame Jesus: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

But they were wrong.  He would have died – if not then, eventually.  Because everybody dies.  The whens and whys are shrouded in mystery, but death itself is inevitable.  No one gets around it.  And some folks, like Lazarus, do it more than once.

And because death is unavoidable, sadly, so is grief and pain.  It is a built-in part of the human experience.  There is no way around it.  Like death, sadness is also inevitable – especially if we open our hearts enough to love someone.  Martha and Mary were sad because they loved their brother and he died. 

And Martha grieves even though she knows Jesus.  Martha was sad even though she could recite to Jesus her resurrection theology.  She confronts Jesus even though she loves him.  Martha questions him even though she trusts in him.  He's her Messiah, her Lord, and still she cries.  Because she is human; and it is okay to grieve.  Even Jesus wept.  Grief does not indicate a lack of trust in God; it just means we miss someone we love.

This is a very human story.  It is a story about life and death.  And while as a human race, we have collectively quite a bit of experience with both life and death, we are no closer to figuring them out.  And so, like Martha, we have only the struggle. 

And, I suppose, on our good days we, like Martha, bring that struggle to Jesus.  And Jesus hangs in there with us – in our pain and grief and anger.  Jesus doesn't walk away when Martha confronts him – he could have, he could have just walked away – but instead, he stays with her; he weeps with her.  Because that is what love does – it sticks with us through the pain.

We don't get to avoid pain in this life.  But Jesus is with us in our pain.  He weeps when we weep.  

But in this story, Jesus does more than just weep.  He resuscitates Lazarus.  Martha and Mary's grief is replaced with shock as quickly as their brother emerges from his grave.  And this is where this story becomes the sign.  Jesus is much more than just an empathetic friend.  He is the Resurrection and he is the Life.

But this is not that.  This only hints at the power of God.  This is resuscitation and resuscitations eventually end again in death.  But resurrection is new and unending life.  And while this story is pretty good, resurrection is so much better.  Death is inevitable but through Jesus so is Life.  And as this story assures us, Life is stronger than death.

But in the face of death, trust is hard.  Will we trust the one who says, “I am Life,” with our life?  Will we trust the one who says, “I am Resurrection,” with our death?  And as if that was not difficult enough – to entrust our life and death to someone we cannot see – Jesus asks us to trust also to him the ones we love most dearly – to trust Jesus with our family and friends and children, to trust that he will see them through life and death.
Centuries ago, there lived a well-known Desert Father named Antony.  “Abba Antony once prayed, 'Lord, why are some poor and others rich?  Why do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer? Why do some die young while others live to become quite old?' An inner voice answered, 'Antony, mind your own business.  These things are God's business and none of yours.'”[1]

And what a relief that is.  The one who weeps with us, loves us, hangs in there with us through our times of pain and anger, has made life and death his business.  And so we can entrust it all to Jesus.  “I am Resurrection and I am Life,” says the Lord.  And that is it.    

[1] By Way of the Desert, 100.