Well, today we have the creepy reading from Ezekiel, raising up dry bones, knitting them together and the walking dead roaming all over the valley. Then we have Jesus inviting a smelly, dead man to walk out of his tomb. When do the zombies show up? Let me tell you a story about how there’s dead, and then there’s dead:
Pat and Mike were working together on a construction job, building a two story building. Pat fell from the second story and was knocked unconscious. Mike ran for the doctor. The doctor came, and, taking one look at Pat, proclaimed: "He's dead." Just then Pat came to and heard what the doctor was saying. Bleary-eyed, trying to sit up, he said, "I ain't dead." Mike pushed him down, saying: ”Lay back down, Pat. Listen to the doctor. He says you’re dead."
There’s dead, and then there’s dead. Dead folks roaming around in the first reading, then stinky Lazarus stumbling out of his tomb in the gospel. These readings presage the biggest event of all, on Easter Sunday, when Jesus himself will join these ranks of the undead.
A lot happens in this lengthy gospel so let’s break it down: Lazarus, a very good friend of Jesus, the brother of Mary and Martha is seriously sick. His sisters send word, begging Jesus to come and heal him. But Jesus doesn’t go. He says something odd about how this will glorify God so he stays away.
After a couple of days, Jesus says; “OK, now let’s go to Lazarus and wake him up.” But he knows that by now, Lazarus is dead, not just asleep.
They go to Bethany and hear that Lazarus has been dead for four days. Martha comes charging out, yelling at Jesus for letting her brother die. Jesus starts talking about resurrection but she doesn’t want to hear it. “My brother is dead now!” Jesus says, “I AM talking about now, right now. Those who believe in me will live. Do you believe Martha?” And she says, “I believe.”
Martha goes and gets her sister Mary, who also comes to blame Jesus for her brother’s death. Mary, the Jews and even Jesus began to weep. Our incarnate God, our friend Jesus, feels all too human pain and sorrow over the loss of dear Lazarus.
Jesus goes to the tomb, weepy and sad, then pulls himself together. Now he is no longer just our friend Jesus but our Lord Jesus. “Take away the stone,” he orders. Martha points out that her brother has been dead for four days and now he stinks.
Jesus reminds his friends that if they believe, they will see the glory of God. He looks up to heaven and thanks God for listening to him. Then he shouts; “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man comes out, his hands and feet bound with strips of trailing cloth. Jesus says, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Now, there is a terrible repercussion for raising Lazarus from the dead: it was the last straw for those who hated Jesus. Lazarus walking out of a tomb meant that Jesus would be going into a tomb.
What Jesus did was sign his own arrest warrant. It was all downhill now. Down toward darkness, down toward his suffering and death on the cross. In the very next chapter of John, the authorities are plotting to kill Jesus. They can see that Jesus isn’t just a really powerful magician. Nope, now he’s actually raising people from the dead. Deeds like that will attract way too many followers.
We are on the road to Jerusalem now, walking with Jesus toward his death. He knows that going to Bethany and healing Lazarus will ensure his own death on the cross. There is a dreadful inevitability of these last weeks of Lent as we plod toward Holy Week, toward the death and resurrection of our Lord.
But every year, we remember both the dark suffering of Jesus on Good Friday then the bright joy of Easter, the incandescence of that moment when Mary finds the empty tomb. We declare, indeed, we shout that ‘Christ is risen, the Lord is risen indeed.’
Isn’t that like life itself? We enjoy warmth because we have been cold. We appreciate light because we have been in darkness. We experience joy because we have known sadness.
We grieve the deaths of our dear ones at the same time that we joyfully remember them with so much love. Sadness and joy are two sides of the same coin. Our Good Friday grief informs our Easter joy. Aren’t we looking forward to that bright and sunny day?!