GOSPEL: John 11:1-45
1Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. (Read the whole passage)
Today is the final Sunday in the season of Lent. This means we stand on the precipice of Holy Week. And unlike the predictions of some world leaders out there, we will NOT have full churches on Easter Sunday.
In fact, the calendar may say that Lent is ending, but it feels like our wilderness journey is just beginning. The school and public services closures that were predicted to last weeks, are now being planned for months. Business are shuttering their doors, the economy is suffering even as the government plans significant supports for businesses and employees alike.
And then there is the truly grim news, reports of more and more confirmed cases of COVID-19. Followed by equally hard to hear news of deaths resulting from the illness.
Our Lenten journey began in the wilderness with Jesus, then moved to the nighttime with Nicodemus. Then into the daylight with the woman at the well, followed by the blindman last week.
Today, Lent gets a little more real. We have been headed here since Advent and Christmas, but we have been able to skim over the real issue for weeks. The themes and images of Lent: desert and fasting, existential questions in the night, social isolation at the well, a community in chaos around the blindman who could now see… they have all skirted the real issue. The real issue that we face today and that will confront us through Holy Week.
It is of course the thing that the whole world has been thrown into chaos over. It is the real thing that all the social distancing measures are about, the real reason why we are trying to flatten the curve.
In fact words the words Coronavirus and COVID-19 have become euphemisms, words that hide the real thing we are talking about.
Jesus says it out loud to his disciples as they plan to go to to Bethany.
“Lazarus is dead.”
Once you make the connection it is unmistakable. Nearly every time you hear the word coronavirus or COVID-19 in the news, replace it with the word “death” and you will be able to see what the panic and fear is about.
But it isn’t just physical death. It is the death of what once was, of what we used to be. The world has changed, and we can feel it. Things won’t go back to what the once were, this won’t be just a little 3 week enforced staycation… this is a game changing moment for all of us.
I once heard an Old Testament scholar describe his experience of receiving a cancer diagnosis. As he sat in his doctor’s office and received the news, it felt like the soundtrack of his life was turned off. All of his dreams, hopes and plans that filled the world around him just disappeared. And there was nothing, silence, emptiness.
Modern people he said, “fill the sky with ourselves.” We loom large in our own little existences. And God…God is far away.
Yet, for the ancient people of the Old Testament, they didn’t see themselves in the same way. They were small. God was big, God filled the world.
And yet these days our soundtracks have been turned down, if not off completely. We have been compacted into our homes. Our hopes and dreams and plans put on hold, or (Hashtag) #cancelled.
We are being made small by a thing that we cannot see, but that we know is there.
As Jesus makes his way to Bethany, Martha comes and meets him on the road. And her soundtrack had almost certainly been turned off by the grief she was experiencing. Her life put on hold by the death of her brother. But perhaps more significantly, I wonder if her experience of God was turned down too. With her brother dead and buried, the God of Life that was supposed to fill the world probably seemed distant or not there at all.
Martha says something that many of us may probably feel.
“If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
She wants to go back. Back to the before time, back to when the soundtrack was on. She wants her brother back, she wants her own life back. And she knows that Jesus, that this one sent by God, could have done something.
Jesus and Martha talk, Jesus promises her bother will rise again, but Martha doesn’t hear it the way Jesus means it. She knows the promises, but they seem far away. Something for later, not something that matters in the present moment, not when there is a fresh body in the grave.
Then Jesus meets Mary on the road. She too knows that Jesus could have done something, yet she seems more resigned to the moment, there is nothing left for her but grief. And so Jesus joins her as he can, weeping with her even knowing what he is about to do.
There is something so very tangible about this scene from the Gospel of John. Those who have grieved a loved one already know it. But as we all face the uncertainty of pandemic, as the days and hours slow to a crawl and the world becomes more and more silent… we know in a new way what that walk to Bethany was like.
We might want our soundtracks to fill the sky again, or we might be resigned to our unknown fate with nothing to do but weep.
But we are are walking to Bethany today, and will keep walking for the foreseeable future…
Yet, even as God feels far away or gone altogether… Jesus does not abandon us to the silence.
Even as we feel small and compacted, surrounded by silence and fear, Jesus doesn’t leave us to wither.
But Jesus doesn’t just show up at the end.
Jesus walks the Bethany road with these grieving sisters.
Jesus walks our down our road of social isolation and pandemic with us.
And Jesus speaks the promise of God to Martha, the imminent promise of new resurrection and new life… even though she cannot hear or comprehend it.
“I am the Resurrection and the Life”
Words spoken to Moses in burning bush, words spoken to disciples fearful of the storm.
And Jesus weeps with Mary, because the experiences of this life cannot just be glossed over with a happy ending. They change us, and so God weeps with us, God sits with us, feels with us, loves us in the midst of all the things of this life.
Jesus doesn’t just skip to end, but walks the road with these sisters, with his disciples, with us.
And only then, once they have walked the road Bethany, once they get to tomb, Jesus shows Mary and Martha that the promises of God are not far off.
And still, as Martha protests because she can still smell death in the air.
And still, as we can hear and see the news, as we feel small and helpless…
Jesus shows us that the promises of God are not far off.
Jesus has stone rolled away.
Then with the same voice that spoke over the waters of creation,
the voice that speaks over the waters of baptism,
with this voice Jesus calls the dead man from his grave.
“Lazarus, come out!”
And out walks death itself.
“Mary and Martha, come out!”
Except it isn’t death.
“My beloved children, come out!”
It is life.
And the promises of God are revealed.
This isn’t going back to the before time. This is the new thing that God is making after.
This is the promise that is revealed on the third day. This is the empty tomb discovered by the women early on the first day of the week. This is what comes at the end of the walk to Bethany.
And we are still on our walk to Bethany.
We are still looking back to the before time.
Yet Jesus declares that I AM’s promise of resurrection and life are closer than we can comprehend.
And we are weeping, resigned to an unknown future.
Yet, Jesus weeps with us, neither abandoning nor forsaking us, but showing us God’s love poured out for us.
And today, Jesus promises, that our Bethany road, our COVID-19 road, our road of life will come to an end too.
And Jesus will call out to us,
My children, come out!
And we might see and hear and smell and feel like death.
But New Life will surprise us, the God of Resurrection will surprise us,
By filling our skies anew, not with our own hope, dreams and plans,
But with the grace, mercy and love of God that meets us on the way.