Finding Easter in the Dark
Text: John 11: 1-45.
I nominate Lazarus as the poster child for Lent 2020.
We know almost nothing about Lazarus, his interests, his life’s work, whether he was married, had kids, if he had a delightful or a troubled childhood. All we know about Lazarus is what Scrooge tells us about his business partner, Jacob Marley, in the opening scene of A Christmas Carol, “Marley was dead: to begin with.
There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
“Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it... You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail” (Stave 1 of A Christmas Carol).
John could have easily started this chapter in the same way: “Lazarus was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt about it.” In John’s story, Jesus tries his own simple simile. He speaks of the death of Lazarus as “sleeping,” but the wordplay flies right over their heads as they reply, “No problem, Jesus, if he is sleeping, he’ll wake up.” At this point, Jesus jettisons simile and tells his thick-skulled disciples, “No, you fools, Lazarus is dead, dead as a door-nail.” What then do we know about Lazarus? He is in the forced solitude of death.
“The forced solitude of death” has a haunting resonance in Lent 2020. In a mere matter of weeks, you and I have become A students on “forced solitude.” I keep waiting to wake up one morning and the virus will have disappeared, gone the way of melting snow days after a blizzard. I can jump in my car again and drive where I want to drive, sit down at a local restaurant and enjoy an evening’s fare, sit in a movie theatre and get lost in another world for a couple of hours.
And, yet the virus stays and it grows and it kills. It drains our health care system and exhausts our health care workers. It assaults our economy, our patience, our forbearance, our faith. It keeps us confined when we need some space. It does not care that nerves are frayed or even if we are down to our last nerve. It is like those noseeums that I first met in Scotland that buzz about not clear to the eye, but annoyingly, and in this case, deadly, present nonetheless.
I am preaching this sermon from the pulpit of Cove Presbyterian Church. Cove is a church that sits atop a hill in a small village just south of Charlottesville. It is a beautiful spot in the beautiful state of Virginia, especially as the gorgeous palette of Spring colors are beginning to explode around us. I preach here almost every Sunday of the year, but today it feels more like a tomb than a sanctuary. The people I love are not here. You are at home, sheltering in place, thank God while I am preaching to empty pews. To the degree that is a lively metaphor for the church in the 21st century, I nominate Lazarus as the poster child for Lent 2020.
I nominate Mary and Martha as the poster children for Holy Week 2020, only a week away. Mary and Martha both get right in Jesus’ face and says, “You blew it. If you had come here when we sent for you, our brother would still be alive. We asked you to do something and you let him die.” You tell him, Mary! You tell him, Martha! I, too, want a Jesus, especially in these mind-boggling days, who does something and does it right now. I want Jesus to put an end to this virus not simply because it is isolating and inconveniencing you or me, but because it is making health care providers I know and love sick and daily it is killing people of every skin color, gender identity, physical size and shape, nationality, and political persuasion across the globe. Move over, Martha. Move over, Mary. I have my own plea for Jesus: “End this virus and end it right now!”
In Holy Week, Peter wants Jesus to do something, to fight back when guards come to arrest him. Pilate wants Jesus to do something, to plead his case when Jesus is hauled to the praetorium for trial. At the beginning of Holy Week, an enthusiastic crowd wants Jesus to do something, so they wave palm branches as people do for the entrance of great military leaders, but Jesus has no campaign speech to make; he will let his life speak for itself. Mary and Martha are the poster children for those of us who want Jesus to do something right now, to do something so obvious that anyone in their right mind will know that Jesus is not a dead-man walking; he is the child of God walking.
In this long story told only in John’s Gospel, the first thing Jesus actually does is not what we might expect. Jesus weeps. The disciples, Mary and Martha, want him to do something and what does he do? He weeps. If you never believed that Jesus was as human as you are, as I am, then read again the first thing that Jesus does when he comes to town. He weeps. He too loved Lazarus. He does not say to these two women, “Stand aside, buck up, I’ve got this.” No, tears fall for his fallen friend and even though he is a man beloved by huge crowds, standing in broad daylight, Jesus weeps.
Of course, he did. Of course, he does. Jesus weeps when this virus kills more unsuspecting victims here and abroad, when sick people die because we fail to provide the ventilators, tests, and protective equipment necessary to reduce the spread of the disease and to save some of the sickest. Jesus weeps when talented people cannot find work and pay their bills, because most every company is also in some form of quarantine. Jesus weeps when people downplay the deadly, invisible reality of this virus and refuse to self-shelter, but instead, often unknowingly share this disease.
In the face of the death of Lazarus, what does Jesus do? He stands with Mary and Martha and honors their grief and shares his own. Jesus weeps. That is the first thing he does; it is not the last. Jesus also has a deadly serious conversation with Martha about Easter, about the day when the tomb will be empty, when death will be shown to be the ultimate foe for us but hardly a foe for God. To her credit, Martha believes far more than what most people I know believe. She believes that one day in God’s great future, God will resurrect all who have died, including her brother, Lazarus.
With eyes still damp with tears, Jesus looks in her eyes and says what I have said by a thousand gravesides, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” Martha gives a “yes, one day” response, but clearly not the response that Jesus wants. Jesus honors her grief, appreciates her faith, but he pushes her to consider a deeper, more vital, faith. So, with tears still in his own eyes, he tells the stinking four-day-old Lazarus to come out from the tomb and when he does, Jesus says, “Unbind him.” Jesus weeps and then Jesus delivers his friend from the bondage of death.
Last Sunday was the Fourth Sunday of Lent, known at Laetare Sunday, from the Latin, “to rejoice.” I, for one, can use some rejoicing right now. So, in this bizarre Lent of 2020 that is moving with the speed of a wounded turtle, I nominate this Fifth Sunday to be another “Laetare” Sunday, a day for us to rejoice that while our isolation is ongoing, our dislocation is real, our despair is palpable, our fear is unrelenting, Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Jesus is the One who unbinds us and gives us life even the deadliest of times. Jesus is the One who guides us to find Easter even in the dark.
I can think of no finer reason to rejoice. I hope you will join me.