A sermon drawn from John 11:1-45
Jesus said, “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. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)
That would be a good stopping point, right?
But one or two people might feel we should think about this story at least a few more minutes. It’s certainly a deep one to think about. And while we’re at it, let’s think about it next to that story about the dry bones we heard from the book of the prophet Ezekiel. (Ezekiel 37:1-14)
Because it looks like something is going on in both of these stories, people probably noticed it already … resurrection. Life, from death, by the power of God.
And if we step back a little further, we’ll notice that the Revised Common Lectionary, the three-year table of scriptures we often use to guide what we read in church through the year, always has scriptures that emphasize that theme of resurrection, or the hope of resurrection, on this Sunday of the year, the 5th Sunday in Lent. In the other two years, either Jeremiah is talking about God making a new covenant, or Isaiah is talking about finding life in the wilderness, and John either has Jesus talking about a seed dying in order to bear much fruit, and or has Mary anointing Jesus for burial – which, because we know this story, we know is also for resurrection. So – it looks like something is going on here, on purpose.
And what it looks to me is going on is this: we have come a long way through Lent, but not all the way, and not even all the way to Holy Week, which starts next week, and certainly not all the way through Holy Week, with its highs and lows – Palm Sunday, but then, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. So the readings for this Sunday are meant to encourage us pilgrims, who are making our way through the whole journey of Lent, with its fasting and its soul-searching and its spiritual hunger and thirst, and then its real loss, to stay the course, because the course is leading to something great.
To resurrection: new life from death, by the power of God. We need reminding that we can trust it that promise, and will see it.
In fact, those readings from the Old Testament are a way of using past experience as prologue, to predict future experience. Ezekiel’s vision reminds us that once, God’s people were exiled in Babylonia, where they felt completely forsaken. And then God did redeem those people and brought them back to Jerusalem. This is exactly why Jesus and all his friends are not IN Babylonia when the events of the gospel takes place, but in JUDEA, where their ancestors had returned to 600 years or so before that.
And can we take a moment to let that timeline sink in to our consciousness? 600 years … from that resurrection envisioned by Ezekiel to the time of Christ … a lot of real-life history took place in those 600 years; and most of it, frankly … felt to “the Jews” … the Judeans … the former Israelites … God’s people … to whom Jesus and his disciples and friends all belong … a lot like their team had just lost the big game and was out of the tournament. In this world, we do often experience loss that feels really final.
That’s a reminder of something important about this theme of resurrection, that we often miss. Oddly, because it’s right there IN the definition of resurrection! But, we miss the significance of the fact that resurrection is life out of death, by the power of God.
Which means that, to experience resurrection, we first have to experience death.
That’s uncomfortable. And may not sound like good news.
Especially if we are feeling alive at the moment.
Because when we’re still alive, we picture hope in terms of staying alive. Getting through March madness, to the Elite 8, even beyond. We think of salvation as being rescued from death. Salvation is what we’re looking forward to when we feel like something bad is about to happen, or even is happening, and we are trying to hold out … endure … until the rescue arrives.
But if we look at this morning’s stories, at those dry bones, and at this long story about Lazarus, that isn’t the kind of hope these stories are telling us about. Lazarus and those bones are beyond rescue. Resurrection hope is really different, it’s not about salvation from death threats, it’s not about preserving the old life, it’s about the possibility of new life, by the power of God.
The seemingly impossible possibility of new life from death.
The kind of hope we deny when we say, sometimes, “Face facts.” “Be realistic.” “That’s life.” When “life” isn’t really what we mean at all.
Because usually when we say “that’s life,” we don’t feel at all lively, we feel the opposite: done, out of options, in a situation we’re just going to have to “live with,” which won’t feel much like living. A situation we need to “make the best of,” which doesn’t feel anything like “the best,” but only like making what isn’t any good a little less bad. We say “that’s life” when we’re “doing without” the good and putting up with the bad, when we’re suffering; sorrowing; mourning; longing for justice, or mercy, or relief.
When we say “that’s life,” we actually mean something more like – that’s death. Unavoidable.
But also – as these stories are telling us: the road to resurrection.
Maybe that’s why the lectionary points us back towards this unavoidable reality behind our resurrection hope for new life every year on the 5th Sunday in Lent?
Maybe because this is about the time when we really need this reminder?
Because we still have a long wait for the new life of resurrection; and because the road to resurrection is hard; because that new life comes from something, from somewhere, that is really a tough place to be: that deep well of emptiness from which, by the power of God, the new life of resurrection springs forth.
Maybe it’s when things start to feel like death that we most need the assurance that new life is already in the works. We need to hear, when it’s only the 5th Sunday in Lent, when we’re in the valley of dry bones, when we’re with Lazarus in the tomb – that word of assurance that something is happening. To us, with us, around us, maybe in spite of us, some process that is … the preparation for resurrection.
The bones Ezekiel saw were dry, very dry – it had taken them a long time to get that way. The people’s loss was real, and felt permanent – maybe, permanent enough that any reliance on their habits and customary practices, their “how we’ve always done it,” had evaporated, and there was room for a new way of life.
Jesus waited a long time … long enough for his friends to give up on every natural option, every chance that there had been a misunderstanding or that Lazarus might still make a surprising recovery, even every chance for the kind of miracle they could have imagined and expected from Jesus, long enough to leave a clear space for the unimaginable, astonishing glory of God.
Waiting like that is hard. Ordinary waiting is hard enough. … And most of us know about the even harder extraordinary waiting, to hear the results of that test or that scan, the waiting in the er or the icu or the results of rehab.
But waiting for resurrection is particularly demanding. We have to let go of things we want to keep; bid farewell to people or places we want to have in our lives; lament loss we don’t want to suffer; listen for God through what may seem to us, and may truly be, a long silence … long enough for us to do all those hard things, according to a timer set by God’s purposes, not by our patience or our preferences. And there is no skipping over it or detouring around it or skimming over the surface of that deep waiting.
So how do we face waiting like that, how do we wait well, through this preparation for resurrection, that we also call death, for that new life?
I would like to have a much better answer than I do.
I would like to have an answer that convinces me that death doesn’t have to feel … anything like death. That I can get through it, when I must, without needing to feel any real loss. I’d like to have an answer that helps me hold all that at arm’s length, or maybe a little further – a safe distance.
But the small personal experience I have of this tells me that even finally letting go of things I know are harmful – something as simple as quitting smoking – feels unbearable on the 5th Sunday in Lent, and even more unbearable on that very first Saturday after Good Friday. And that when we have to let go of something or someone good, beloved, and blessed, that preparation for resurrection can feel far more unbearable.
The only answer I have is that waiting well takes honesty – admitting, not disguising, the truth about its difficulty, its discomfort, its depth.
Honesty with ourselves, and also with God, who hears that cry “from the depths” – even when all we feel is God’s absence.
Honesty, but also trust. Trust that God is listening and present through it all. And that we will see, and feel, God’s goodness and love, as resurrection, in time – however much time it takes.
Fortunately, we have support and encouragement for trust like that, in these stories – which are themselves something of God’s goodness and love that we can carry with us in our waiting – stories that remind us that our hope is, ultimately, in the power of God to bring new life out of death; is resurrection hope.
Because ultimately our hope is in Jesus Christ, who said “I am the resurrection and life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Never die, that is, without rising to new life with Christ.
Images: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Xanthos Rock-cut tomb,” Dosseman, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons