Sunday March 19, 2023 – 4th Sunday of Lent
Scripture: John 11:1-44
This year, during Lent, we have been reading stories about people who encountered Jesus, people whose lives were changed because of their encounter with Jesus. And today, we probably have the most dramatic story of a life that was changed by an encounter with Jesus. At the beginning of the story, Lazarus is dead. By the end of the story, after Jesus shows up, Lazarus is alive.
When I read this story, three thoughts come immediately to my mind. The first thing I think of is how hard this story is for any of us who have ever lost a loved one, how hard it is to read the story of Lazarus for any of us who have prayed through our tears for just a little bit more time with a loved one.
My second thought is to wonder if Jesus was also changed by his encounter with Lazarus. After all, Lazarus had been his friend, and Lazarus had died. We hear that Jesus wept at the grave of his friend. I think that all of us are changed by grief – we aren’t the same person after we have experienced grief as we were before… even when we have figured out how to keep on going; even once laughter returns to our life; even when we have reconnected with the people in our life, and even when we have connected with new people. Grief changes us; and so I wonder if Jesus was changed by his experience of grief at the death of his friend.
My third immediate thought is that I wonder what Lazarus’s post-death life was like. We read stories and newspaper headlines about people who have had a near-death experience, and how their subsequent lives have been changed and shaped by that near-death experience. And here we have Lazarus – his experience wasn’t a near-death one, but an actual death experience. Did he live the rest of his life appreciating every moment as it came, savouring every conversation, relishing every hug, seeing the colours of the sky and the trees with increased vibrancy? Or did he mourn the loss of his connection with God that he had experienced when his body was dead and in the tomb? Did he live the rest of his life longing to get back to the love and the peace that he had experienced there? His post-tomb life must have been different than his pre-tomb life, and I wonder how he was changed.
Those are my thoughts, my ponderings when I read this story; but the question that I always wrestle with when I read this story is the same question that I ask every year on Good Friday. Why did Lazarus have to die? Why couldn’t Jesus have just transformed him without the pain and the messiness of death and the tomb? We hear this same question in the form of an accusation on the voices of his sisters, Mary and Martha when they cry out to Jesus – “If you had been here, my brother would not have died!”
Their accusation becomes even more heartbreaking to those of us who overheard Jesus and his disciples, because Mary and Martha had sent word to him ahead of time to let him know that his beloved friend was sick. We read that Jesus and his disciples lingered for two more days in the place that they were before making the journey to Bethany. And when they did finally get to Bethany, Lazarus was already dead and buried. It might not have made a difference in the outcome – after all, Lazarus had been in the tomb for 4 days by the time Jesus and his disciples arrived. He wasn’t just dead but he was dead-dead. But I always wonder if, just maybe, if Jesus had rushed to his friends’ side, the story might have been different. Why did Lazarus have to die?
The thing about being a follower of Jesus is that it doesn’t protect us from death. Lazarus had to die because every human dies. Jesus doesn’t remove death. Stopping death isn’t the good news of Jesus’s message.
But the good news of Jesus is that death isn’t the end. We see this every year on Good Friday and Easter – when Jesus dies and it seems as though death has won, every year resurrection is waiting for us on the other side. No Good Friday lasts forever, even when it seems as though the pain goes on and on and on. Death isn’t the end of our story. Pain isn’t the end of our story. Abandonment isn’t the end of our story. No Good Friday, no time of pain and suffering lasts forever. Easter is always coming.
And so the good news in this story is for you any time you are going through Good Friday moments in your life. Suffering is not the end of your story. Pain is not the end of your story. Abandonment is not the end of your story. Your gut-wrenching grief is not the end of your story. Your life is going to bloom in ways that you could never expect in the right now. Resurrection, in whatever form it might take, is waiting for you just around the corner.
And even more than that, even as you wait through your Good Friday times, the other part of the good news is that God is with you. God isn’t like Gonzo in A Muppet Christmas Carol – incidentally, the very best Christmas movie ever. If you have seen this movie, you might remember that when the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come appears at the end of the movie, Gonzo, playing Charles Dickens, says that this part is too scary for even him, and he will meet the viewers at the end of the story. This isn’t God’s way. God doesn’t disappear on Maundy Thursday and say “See you on Sunday!” God is present in the pain of crucifixion. God is present in the suffering of a child abandoned by a parent. God is present in the suffering of a parent who loses a child. God is present in the heart-breaking tears at the death of a friend. God is present in all of these times because God has been there before.
And so even though Jesus doesn’t remove death, and we don’t get to bypass around death or suffering or heartbreak, even still God is with us and death is not the end. Easter is coming.
And just as Lazarus left the tomb and began again, we too are continually being given the opportunity to begin again. The way of Jesus doesn’t bypass the valley of the shadow of death, but rather travels through death, through anything that seems to be an ending, and on to new life and new beginnings. Even the longest night eventually ends, the sun comes up, and a new day dawns.
And so the question I leave with you to ponder this week is, how are you going to live your new beginning? As you emerge from the shadows of the tomb like Lazarus, as you step into the rising sun of a new day, how are you going to live your resurrected life?
And may it be so. Amen.
Image Credit: “Lazarus” by Robin on flickr