Lent 5—Year A
April 6, 2014
At our last Lenten program we listened as each person talked about their view of Jesus, and how it had changed over time. We began this discussion looking at how Nadia Bolz-Weber, that tattoo-covered Lutheran pastor in Denver, went from seeing Jesus according to a liberal Christianity, as a holy person we should imitate, to experiencing Jesus according to an orthodox Christianity, as “God with us”. At one point she describes Jesus as “God slipping into skin.” For her, only this “God with us” can meet us in the dark and dead places of our lives and bring new life.
Remember how John’s Gospel begins:
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. In the Word was life,[a] and the life was the light of all people.
From the beginning the Word that is God brings life and light to creation, so it makes sense that when that Word becomes flesh in Jesus that Jesus would bring life and light to those who live in the shadow of death.
Last week Jesus brings light to the man born blind and this week he brings life to Lazarus lying four days in the tomb.
In first century Palestine Jews wrapped the dead in cloth and laid them in a tomb that was sealed against wild animals. After 11 months the tomb is unsealed, the bones put into a stone box called an ossuary, and placed in the back of the tomb with the other ossuaries.
Death looks like a static thing but we know death begins its work at the moment of conception and continues until there is nothing left of us but nothing.
When Jesus heals synagogue leader Jairus’ daughter she’s just died and lies on a bed in the house.
Jesus raises the son of the widow of Nain during his funeral procession.
Now Lazarus is four days dead and starting to stink.
The prophet Ezekiel’s vision is of people so dead all that’s left are bones bleaching in the sun.
Yet even there giving new life is no trouble for God who begins to knit together a whole people who were lost and dead in exile in Babylon.
If Death is a process that goes from womb to tomb to nothing, what then is life?
We sit here two weeks before Easter and try to swallow what the Bible is telling us. But it needn’t be so hard to believe Jesus has power over death once we remember that God creates all things and holds all things in being at every moment.
I’m here and you’re here, so believing in the power of God to create is not that hard as long as we don’t doubt our own existence.
We may struggle to understand the complexity of how God creates and how God uses evolution to work the divine will, but most of us don’t doubt our own existence.
If you do doubt your own existence just have someone kick you in the shin and that will bring you back to your own reality.
Of course for human beings, bringing nothing into life or bringing the dead back to life seems impossible, though we keep expanding what we can do.
50 years ago public buildings didn’t have AEDs—automatic external defibrillators.
Jesus’s mission, as teacher and healer, is to call our imaginations out of the tomb of disbelief into the new Life of what God can and is doing.
Martha, Lazarus’ sister, believes in the resurrection at the end of time, but she’s struggling with imagining how God in Christ can make a dent in the power of death in the here and now.
That’s where many are today—they’ll show up on Easter Sunday and imagine there is a place God will take them when they die, but in the meantime it’s up to them to make their way through life.
Jesus offers us something much better: a relationship with God in this life and in the next.
Jesus says to Martha, “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?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
I’m struck with what Fred Craddock says in his commentary on this passage: He says, “Apart from trust in God, the world is a cemetery.”
So God gives eternal life to the living, filling them with the Holy Spirit, so that whether we live or die we are the Lord’s.
But this is just mindless talk until we take the leap of faith and believe this is also true for us.
When we use the eyes of our faith we see the Word made flesh in action and that changes everything.
When Jesus brings light and life into our own lives then the darkness of sorrow is overcome and the tomb of fear is emptied.
So what is Jesus asking Martha, Mary, and us to believe?
That he has the power to raise the dead? No, the demons believe as much.
He is asking us to believe and experience that he has the power to raise the dead and transform the living, including us.
Martha says she believes, but what does she do with that belief?
I think she lets her imagination run with it: if Jesus is God’s Son who has the power to save her, then all those problems she thinks about all day are as nothing because she has the Word who is God in her life and on your side.
Normally we don’t include the imagination as part of the faith process. So we say we believe with our minds that Jesus is Resurrection and Life, but we don’t imagine this good news as being active in our lives.
Of course we are naturally willing to imagine all the horrible things that have and will happen to us, but we have to be trained to imagine all the good things that belong to us in Christ Jesus.
Jesus is inviting us to engage our imagination—to imagine what it means that he is the Way, and the Truth, and Eternal Life for us in the here and now and after we die in heaven.
Do you ever imagine heaven? C. S. Lewis does this beautifully in his short book, The Great Divorce, which is about a day trip some residents of hell take to visit heaven. When they get off the bus they are overwhelmed with how real heaven is. Their Hell is an ever expanding industrial wasteland, while heaven is bright and beautiful. The grass is so substantial it hurts their feet, much more solid than the grass on earth.
Jesus says, “Can you believe this? “
With God’s help we can imagine it.
Are we willing to imagine that whatever grave we’re in Jesus is standing at the entrance calling our name?
In our worship and Bible reading we are using our imagine so that his call to come out of whatever holds us in bondage has the power to bring us out, even though we are convinced our situation is hopeless?
At our Lenten study one person said she witnesses this kind of divine power in the lives of the men and women at AA meetings. The first time you see them they look almost dead and in seven months they’ve been radically healed and transformed.
The question for us is what are we going to put our faith in?
In the power of our problems—
In the power of God in Christ to heal and transform?
Are we willing to practice turning our attention away from our dark problems in order to imagine the voice of Christ calling our name and telling us to come out of whatever tomb we’re in?
As we put more energy in the practice our faith in Christ than we put into reciting our problems, then we will also hear the best news of all when he says, “Unbind him, unbind her, and let them go.”