What Do You Mean, "He's Alive?"

Meghan Humbert, Director of Youth Ministries

Lazarus. What are we to make of the story of Lazarus? Sick and dying Lazarus … left to die by his friend Jesus "so that the Son of Man should be glorified through it". What kind of pastoral care is this … Jesus lingering for two days so that Lazarus is sure to die before he makes it to the bedside? Lazarus. The raising of Lazarus is a strange tale.

After all, in this day and age how is one to make sense of the resuscitation of a corpse four days after its burial? We are much more comfortable spreading Jesus' teachings of neighbourly love than we are resting our faith in the dead returning to life. Yet this is the crux of John's gospel. It is here that the story reaches its central climax. The raising of Lazarus is the final straw. It leads inexorably to Jesus being sentenced to die on a cross. Next week is Palm Sunday. So is the next chapter in John's gospel. To get to Palm Sunday we have no choice but to tell the story of this dead man … walking.

The text is very clear. The story of Lazarus is a 'sign story'. There are seven such 'sign' stories in John's gospel. Remember? Turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana. Feeding the five thousand. Healing the cripple, healing the beloved son, Healing the man born blind, walking on water, and raising Lazarus. These are not so much acts of mercy as they are signs pointing to something that would otherwise remain hidden.

Think of how it is when you are watching for signs of what is really going on … below the surface. Think of watching for the first signs of spring. Recall your inner delight at hearing the bird songs that signal the end of winter's grip. Or think of falling in love … and of your alertness for a sign – any sign – that the one you love shares your passion. Even the smallest thing … a touch, a look, a note … can be a sign of something deeper and more profound than the act itself. And the signs … if there are enough of them and they are convincing enough …can lead you to believe that spring is nearly here or that your love is returned.  There are signs that God is revealing to our congregation.  Signs that something big is about to happen here.  There are signs that something big is needed here.  We see these signs when we walk through Arundel Mills Mall on any Friday or Saturday night and see droves upon droves of teenagers that have nothing better to do and no place better to go.  We see signs when we pass by the easle with the fancy looking graphics that outline where new buildings will be built.  We see signs when we walk by graphs with red markers filled in.  We see that we are making progress towards something big in our future, but we see signs that there is still a ways to go.

As John's Gospel puts it: "Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:30-31).

That you may have life. This is the crux of John's gospel. And it is what the story of Lazarus is meant to signify. On the surface this is apparently a story about a family crisis in Bethany. But the text is clear. This is not so much about resuscitating a corpse as it is about giving life to the world. It is not so much about Lazarus and Mary and Martha as it is about a world caught up in death and sin. To this world Jesus announces "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." Here we stand, two weeks before Easter, already immersed in the mystery of the overcoming of death. And notice … the hour of Jesus' death is set in motion the moment that he raises Lazarus from his tomb. Jesus' own death is the direct result of his gift of life. Jesus dies in order that Lazarus might live. Such life giving power is too dangerous to the powers that be. He must be stopped. Yet in trying to stop him, the authorities enable the very thing they wish to rub out … life that is beyond their control.

Such paradox is the stuff of the season of Lent. The season of Lent is the season of forty days before Holy Week". "It is a time when many Christians fast or live simply, denying themselves of excess". "It is the season when we recall the ways in which we are tempted to wander from lives of faithfulness to God and neighbour". Lent is all that and more, surely. But perhaps in the offense that those in authority take at Jesus' gift of life, we find the heart of this year's Lenten journey. Jesus has offered new birth first to Nicodemus, then living water to a Samaritan woman, then new sight to a man born blind and finally life to his friend Lazarus. And not just to them alone … but to everyone who trusts in him to deliver on his promises.  Can we take steps this Lenten season to bring life to people who might not otherwise know that it exists?

Yet always there is doubt … concern … offense. Those charged with managing the religious affairs of the community are always suspicious of new life that springs up out of their control, without their permission and authorization. In author Barbara Kingsolver's recent novel "The Poisonwood Bible" the story is told of Nathan Price, a Baptist missionary, who takes his wife and four daughters to the Congo in 1959 to bring souls to Christ. Price is convinced that it is "a mistake to bend his will, in any way, to Africa". He will not – cannot – see any native worth in the culture which meets in the Congo. "Tata Jesus is Bangala", he proclaims. He means to say that Jesus is eternal life, but his contempt for and ignorance of the language are such that he actually says "Jesus is poisonwood", the sap of which acts like poison ivy. And so he spends his entire ministry believing that he is proclaiming 'eternal life' when, in fact, all that the people hear him say is 'poison wood'. And I wonder how many are not here because that is precisely what they have heard emanating from the world wide church? The church intends to say 'new life' but pays so little attention to the signs of Christ resurrecting power beyond its authorized limits that its proclamation is more akin to poison ivy. How often is the lived message of the church more oppressive than redemptive? The church dreams of offering a healing balm. Instead it is too often a poisonous plant to be avoided. In spite of our best intentions death, not life, too often predominates.  The church wants to heal the drug addict, but doesn’t want them sitting in the pew beside them.  It wants to be a shelter for those struggling with mental illness but doesn’t want to take the time to sit and listen to them.  It wants to reach out to the youth in the community, but doesn’t want them riding those skateboards down their pristine sidewalks.  It wants to shelter the homeless, but doesn’t want to stop and put a dollar in their cup.  What message does the church send out to the world?  Is it truly a Jesus message of love, and hope, and life?  Can we rise to the challenge in our community and build a place of new beginnings for the least and forgotten of our world?

This lost and forgotten world is also what our friend Ezekiel sees. You remember Ezekiel?  He looks out at his people and he sees death in every direction. It is as if he is in a valley full of bones. Ankle bones. Shin bones. Thigh bones. Hip bones. Everywhere bones. Not a sign of life anywhere to be seen. They are without hope, cut off from the source of all life (Ezekiel 27:11). And the voice of God asks Ezekiel "Can these bones live?". Looking at a community in despair … listening to the cynicism that is rampant among the youngest and the eldest … wondering at the bleak future on the horizon … Ezekiel answers as best he can. "God only knows", he says. And then the Mysterious Voice says "Preach to these bones, and say to them: 'O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause ruah to enter you, and you shall live."

Ruah. That wonderful Hebrew word that means 'wind' … and that also means 'spirit' … and that also means 'breath'. Ruah … the invisible wind which is itself the spirit of God, inspiring us with life with each breath that we take. Ruah … the reminder that our physical and spiritual lives are inexorably entwined. Breathing in both oxygen and divine spirit at the same time. Ruah … the breath of God that gives life to Adam in the garden … and gives life to us still. Ezekiel is not instructed to bring the bones to life. There is no program for 'reviving' the church. God does not teach him techniques for congregational mouth-to-mouth resuscitation or communal CPR. Ezekiel is simply told to tell the bones what is about to happen: "Prophesy to these bones", says the voice, "tell them to expect the breath of new life".

When Ezekiel does as he has been told he hears "a noise, a rattling" and the bones come together … The ankle bone connected to the shin bone, the shin bone connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone connected to the hip bone … the worship life connected to the outreach, the outreach connected to the hospitality, the hospitality connected to the community, the community connected to the discipleship, the discipleship connected to Odenton … well, you know how the song goes.

This is the mystery at the heart of our existence. We are given new life. Life is not a product which we can manufacture … or market. It comes as a gift from beyond the categories that we use to package and confine it. The gift of new life transforms in ways that cannot be predicted or controlled. I have often longed to be able to reach out and hand such a gift to those who I knew were longing for breath. Simply preaching about new life in Christ hardly seemed enough. Surely there was something more that I must have to do. The doctor, at least, can prescribe a course of treatment. But all that we as Disciples can do is to point to the future … to name the signs that point to the advent of Life with a capital "L" on the horizon. And, like Ezekiel, be amazed to discover that in the very act of announcing the life that is surely coming, begin to hear "a noise, a rattling" … the sounds of life emerging from certain death … the very sounds of new beginnings and new vitality …

If you listen very carefully today, you can hear those sounds.  If you listen carefully, you can hear the noises, the rattlings, the sounds of new life emerging from this congregation.  We can hear the new life coming into this community.  The signs of some new resurrection are beginning to fall in line. The signs that this congregation, that this place offers eternal life to all who come.  We will be transformed in ways that we cannot predict and that we cannot control.  Who knows what disciples of Christ we will bring in the new family life center?  Who knows how many young people we will call into a life of ordained ministry?  Who knows how many widows we will inspire to teach and pass on their life lessons?  Who knows how many families in crisis we can save by showing them that the highest priority in the life of their family is not a baseball game, or a football game, or dance practice, or play practice, or piano lessons, or voice lessons, it is teaching their children that Christ is first and foremost that all those other things are possible only through His blessing.

Until I was called upon to preach on the story of Lazarus, I had never really bothered to read further in the story.  But, this time, I took the time to read on and discover that Lazarus continues with his journey.  Not only that, but the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death along with Jesus because so many people were beginning to follow Jesus as a result of Lazarus’s testimony.  I never thought about Lazarus being at the dinner table with Jesus as Mary washed his feet in ointment with her hair.  Lazarus was there.  One of the reasons that the crowd gathers for Palm Sunday and the triumphant entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem was because they had heard about Lazarus.  Now, think about all the young people you see here today.  Each one of these youth attends a school.  Each one of these youth comes in contact with hundreds of kids everyday.  You come in contact with people everyday who have not heard the story of Lazarus, or the story of Christ’s resurrection Himself.  How many thousands upon thousands of people are going to drive by this building as we begin to construct a new building and want to know what we are all about?  With a new website, there is the potential for people literally all around the world to know what new life is coming into this congregation.  Can we be like Lazarus?  After we have had a life altering experience with the Risen Lord, can we take the message and spread the word?  Can we turn the world upside down with the news of his life altering, saving power and grace?  Can we inspire people to walk as one who has come back from the dead to discover a world now filled with hope, faith and love?

Let your walk be a living doxology, a lifelong song of praise to the One who gives new life with every breath you take. And let the sign of the cross on all your foreheads be a living reminder that to walk with Christ is to be led to the poisonwood of suffering … for it is there that God continues to breathe new life into the dry bones of the earth that have been given up for dead. Like the raising of Lazarus, the sign of the cross is given "so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name."

Amen

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