Our Gospel on this day, the fifth Sunday of Lent, is again taken from the Gospel according to John. The context for the story of the raising of Lazarus is the Jewish leaders’ growing animosity toward Jesus. Jesus has been in Jerusalem, taking part in the feast of the Dedication, which we have come to know as Hanukkah. The people have been pressing him to declare plainly whether he is the Messiah. Jesus tells them to look to his works, which testify to his coming from God.
These long readings from John’s Gospel during Lent have a depth and a power to them that can reach to the very core of our lives. Today we hear about death and new life, about the end of some things, and, perhaps, the beginning of others. Death is always a topic close to home, one that seems to get closer every year. On the eve of Palm Sunday and Holy Week, it’s particularly immediate.
In the first reading Ezekiel is looking at and talking to is Israel. The great nation God had raised up to be a blessing for all the world is gone. There are a handful of exiles in Babylon with a few memories, fewer hopes, and a lot of hate for the people they’re blaming for their problems. That was it. Israel was dead. Ezekiel knew that, the Babylonians knew that, everybody knew that.
So, with Lazarus. Lazarus, like Israel, was dead. Dead. Graveyard dead. In fact, Lazarus was dead past three days and the rabbis taught that after that long, all that was left was corruption. Death ruled over Lazarus.
So, Ezekiel and Jesus saw the reality, the power of death. Jesus was shaken; he was deeply troubled; he wept. Death is the final word creation has to say to us. There is nothing in this world stronger or more final than death, and there is nothing in this world that can rebuild what death tears down.
When Jesus stood at Lazarus’ tomb, he didn’t see death naturally blossoming into new life—they didn’t see butterflies coming out of cocoons, or bunnies popping out of eggs. If Jesus had not called, Lazarus would have stayed in that tomb. There is nothing natural about anything stronger than death.
All of this is the first thing Ezekiel and Jesus saw; and it’s the first thing we see. Death is real and it is powerful and it hurts and it destroys. They saw that. And they saw something more.
What Ezekiel saw, and what Jesus saw, was that God was Lord, Lord even over the dead. God was Lord even over a dead Israel—and so God, and God alone, could call Israel back, and give it new life, and new direction. The wonderful part of this story is not that some dry bones could move—the wonderful part is that the spirit of the Lord would not be stopped, and that even death could not destroy the purposes of God.
So, with Lazarus. The real point to this story is not that Lazarus come back. Before too long, Lazarus died again, and Jesus wasn’t there, and Lazarus stayed dead. So, that’s not much of a point. The real point is that Jesus is Lord of the living and the dead. The real point is that the voice of Jesus carries—it carries even through the walls of the grave, and his word is the clearest word, and the strongest word, and the last word. That’s the good news, that’s what we Christians we see that the word of God, and the purposes of God, and the love of God cannot be stopped, and will not be stopped. Not even by the strongest, and the worst, that the world has to offer.
At the same time, notice that these stories do not promise that everything will be all right as we count such things.
Lazarus doesn’t become a celebrity and go on some first-century Oprah tour talking about tunnels and bright lights and four days’ worth of even-nearer-than- near-death experiences. There’s none of that.
The promise of new life is not a promise that we are in charge and that we will get what we want. The promise is better than that.
The promise is that God, in Jesus Christ, is Lord even of the dead, even of death itself. And that what he says, goes. That’s what we Christians see.
The call to Lazarus is to come forth, to leave the tomb behind. Jesus Christ calls us forth in this age. But Jesus did not raise Lazarus or us alone. He enlisted some to roll away the stone (verse 39). He commanded others to “unbind him and set him free” (verse 44). In raising Lazarus, Jesus not only restored him, but called the community around him to complete what he had begun.
We must choose to despair or to trust; to give up or to go on; to abandon hope, or to let go in faith. That choice is not made for us, but it is offered to us. We see what the world sees, and yet we see more. We see that the dry bones, even our dry bones, can live once more. And we see that the word of Jesus has power. “Come out” the Lord calls. “Come out” into different life, into new life. “Come out” into life unknown and unexplained. “Come out” in trust and in hope.