The second life of Lazarus is still a mortal life--he will die again; and yet, it points to the resurrected life, to the abundant life in Christ that we can live even in the midst of lament.
Ezekiel 37: 3 . He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’
John 11:44 Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
The Second Life of Lazarus
As a child, my parents, my sister and brother and I, like many of you, lived far from home. My father was in the Navy, so we lived wherever he was stationed, and every summer we visited home, the small town in Texas where my father’s family goes back generations, and where our grandmother and many of our cousins lived.
Every summer vacation, we piled into the station wagon and drove to a place my parents called home, but where we children had never lived.
Like those born in exile, we grew up knowing that someday we would return to the land of our ancestors.
During these past weeks of our physical separation from each other, the biblical laments of separation have echoed in my mind. The people of Israel lamented their separation from the land of Israel. The people of Israel in exile lament separation from the Jerusalem Temple. The people of Israel lament separation from one another.
In the time when Ezekiel lived, families were forced apart, sent to different corners of the Mediterranean world, the entire world as they knew it; and many had been killed, separated by that huge gulf between life and death. So many had been killed that they could fill a valley with their dry bones.
The laments of separation are so important to the biblical story that the book of Psalms has been liberally seasoned with these songs in a minor key. A whole book of Lamentations, seldom read in our own generation, reminds us that sadness and lament have always been a part of the experience of the people of God.
A great teacher of preaching was asked, “Do you think our church should have a praise band?” and he answered, “Sure, as long as we also have a Lament Band.”
The lament of the human condition, of all who seek to be faithful to our Creator, hangs over these stories: for Mary and Martha: “If you had been here, Jesus, our brother would not have died.”
For Ezekiel, “These dry bones can live, God, if you want them to, so what have you been waiting for?”
It’s the age-old conundrum for people of faith: If God is powerful, and God is loving, why do people suffer? Why do people die? More specifically, If God is loving and powerful, why are there pandemics that kill some, permanently weaken others, and force the separation of families, friends, and faithful congregations?
Four professors—a Presbyterian, a Methodist, and two Lutherans—do a podcast called “Sermon Brainwave.” I descend to my workshop in the basement and listen to them while I plane and sand and shape wood to build a guitar. These scholars read the texts closely with thoughtful attention to the original language. They expound on the historical and cultural context, and argue gently with one another about academic questions as I plane, sand, and bend wood.
This week, their argument over the story of Lazarus felt less academic. The question was, Is the story of Lazarus a resurrection story, or not?
The Methodist and the two Lutherans said, Yes, it is a resurrection story, and the Presbyterian, Matt Skinner, said, No, it is a resuscitation story. Lazarus is raised from the dead, Skinner says, he is not denying that John is clear about that—but Lazarus lives again only to die again someday. He wants to make a distinction between the resurrection of Jesus who also was truly dead and was raised for eternity, and Lazarus, who was resuscitated by Jesus and walked out of the tomb to live a new life, but a new mortal life nonetheless.
Karoline Lewis, one of the Lutherans, argues that this is a resurrection story, that John intends this story to give us a foretaste of Easter, of the permanent defeat of death’s power. Everyone reading the story already knows about the resurrection story at the end of the Gospel—that’s what keeps us reading John even when he is esoteric and heavy-handed.
The story of Lazarus, a regular guy like us with two sisters who have the same questions you and I have, his story of rising from the dead nails down John’s theological claim that resurrection is not just for Jesus. It is for us, too.
The humanity of Jesus saturates this story of Lazarus. Jesus is delayed, caught between the urgency of whatever needs keep popping up in front of him, and the important need of the illness and then death of a close friend.
Certainly in these days, we feel that tension between the urgent and the important, between the urgency of being physically present with friends in need and the importance of keeping our distance while we wait for the inevitable fading of the pandemic’s power over us.
During these weeks of our physical separation from each other, the biblical laments have echoed in my mind. Throughout the Old Testament, we find songs and poems lamenting separation. The people of Israel are separated from the land of Israel. The people of Israel in exile are separated from the Jerusalem Temple. They are separated from one another.
In exile, families were separated, sent to different corners of the Mediterranean world, the entire world as they knew it; and many had been killed, separated by that huge gulf between life and death. So many had been killed that they could fill a valley with their dry bones.
The lament I share with other people of faith is that we are in our house, but we do not feel fully at home when the community of faith cannot gather. Whether in a school lunch room, or a storefront, a thatched hut, or a cathedral, the church gathers; that’s what we do.
With Mary and Martha, I want to file a complaint: “Any time now, Jesus. What is taking you so long?”
John does not tell us why Jesus was delayed. What he does tell us is that Jesus wept. What he does tell us is that we are not alone in our sadness. That, I suppose, is why the Bible is full of lament.
Those of us who were born before 1960 witnessed a period of the greatest institutional strength the mainline church in the United States had ever seen. Church budgets grew along with programs. Our denomination had influence in the community and the world; for at least three generations, young people grew up in the church and stayed in the church and raised their children in the church, loyal to the denomination. Sanctuaries were full every Sunday.
Everyone always sang on key.
For much of the last three decades, the mainline church has been awash in anxious nostalgia. Every issue of a Presbyterian magazine carried an article that laid out what we need to do to recapture that golden age of the post-World War II church.
The theological problem with this anxious nostalgia becomes clear when we read of the vision of Ezekiel and the raising of Lazarus.
Whenever we begin to think that we have the power to shape the church of Jesus Christ into our own vision, we become functional atheists. We leave the Spirit of God out of the equation.
It is God who joins the dry bones together; it is God who puts sinew and skin over the bones; it is God who calls up the wind that moved over the waters at creation to breathe life into the bones. It is God who can bring up people from their graves. It is God in human flesh who cries out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” and raises him from his four days of decaying, stinking death.
I remember a conversation I had with a couple of physician mission workers in Haiti. Their work consists of running a combination church, school, medical clinic and community center in a village outside of Port-au-Prince.
When I had spoken to them years ago, they painted a beautiful picture of the bright light of hope they had brought to this village through the worship and fellowship of the church and the sense of community; through the fresh water wells they had taught the people to construct, the children who loved attending school and learning to read; and the hope and health they could bring to the men, women, and children with HIV or AIDS through anti-retroviral drugs.
The earthquake a few years later destroyed the school, the church, the clinic, the plumbing from the wells, many of the houses and the shacks in which the people lived, and killed many of their village. Everyone they know has lost a family member in the earthquake. The cholera epidemic that followed wiped out many more.
My question to them in the aftermath of disaster was this: “After seeing all that work destroyed, how do you hang on to hope?”
Jeannine said, “We have always known that everything we do is temporary. With the government corruption in Haiti, none of what we do is going to bring about a stable and sustainable society. All we do, when we show a little faithfulness, is give people in a land of darkness a window into the light of God in Christ.
“This present world is passing away.
“The hope we have comes from knowing that death and destruction do not get the last word in a world being redeemed by Jesus Christ. Our hope is in him, what he has done, what he is doing, not in ourselves.”
The question “Why” is not answered in our texts today with an easy explanation. There is no philosophical or theological mind trick in the Bible that satisfies the question of theodicy, the problem of evil.
There is, instead, a story. Whether it is resuscitation or resurrection or both, it is the story of life after lament. Lazarus is scarcely mentioned again in the Gospel. This is all we know of Lazarus’s second life: In the next chapter, we are told that Mary and Martha gave a dinner for Jesus and Lazarus was at table with him.
But, in the Greek, John actually tells us more than that. He tells us “and Lazarus reclined on Jesus at the table.”
John’s vision of Lazarus’s life after death, after resurrection or resuscitation, is an abundant life, a life in close intimacy with Jesus, God in human flesh. Lazarus will die again, and John suggests that it will be at the hand of religious leaders who want to deflate the momentum of Jesus. But before that, he gives us another foretaste of eternity—sitting at table with Jesus, head resting on his shoulder, with family and friends, in the kingdom of God.
Resurrection for eternity? Or resuscitation to spend our remaining years of this life more full of gratitude, closer to God, than ever before? Or, is it both?
In the summer of 1968, my family drove from New Jersey to Texas, but it was not on vacation this time. It was to move.
We discovered, however, that the home to which we returned was not the home state my parents had left ten years before. Specifically, the civil rights movement had brought to the surface all of the racial turmoil that had long been held down beneath the surface of tradition, privilege, and political power.
The school where I started fourth grade was in the throes of adjusting to its first year of racial integration.
The City Council and the School Board continued to struggle with the new reality of integrated swimming pools, parks, school faculties, and law enforcement.
On my first day of school, I learned that while living in exile in New Jersey, I had picked up a foreign accent and strange expressions such as “Youse guys,” instead of the more grammatically correct “y’all.” I had to fight my way in to the homeland to which I had grown up yearning to return.
And yet. And yet. When I lay down to sleep at our grandmother’s house, out on the sleeping porch with my parents down the hall, my grandmother down the hall in the other direction, and surrounded by my brother, sister, and several cousins in cots and sleeping bags, I felt something new and yet familiar.
As my sister and I looked out into the night from the screened-in porch on the second story, we saw the lights of Wesley Street, the main drag that was the setting of our father’s stories of high school. We could see through the branches of a pecan tree, in a line of neon signs, the blue neon sign in the distance of the Royal drive-in, our new favorite hamburger joint. We could hear the distant sounds of traffic. I have heard that our clearest memories are those moments in which we experienced a strong emotion, so something important must have happened in that instant when my sister turned to me and said, barely above a whisper, “We’re home.”
When this threat of the pandemic is over, we will exit our houses with the echo of Jesus’s words about Lazarus in our ears: “Unbind him and let him go.”
We will never be the same.
We will be even more glad and grateful for every opportunity we have to gather here in our new home, resuscitated. We will celebrate a foretaste of the life to come, resurrected, when death is past and pain is ended and there is no more sorrow or weeping, and we hear the words of Jesus, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”