Sunday, March 29 at 10:00 am
Lazarus was dead. There is no doubt about that whatever. Old Lazarus was dead as a doornail – although, as Charles Dickens once wrote in a similar context, I don’t know what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. But that is our old beloved figure of speech, and in these changing times we must hold on to what is old and beloved or we are lost.
So I emphasize, as the Bible emphasizes, this plain fact: that Lazarus was dead.
Three times, we hear that Lazarus, the friend of Jesus, is well and truly gone.
First, when the disciples hear Jesus use the common figure of speech, saying, “He has fallen asleep,” and for some reason they take him literally. No, he explains; I didn’t mean asleep-asleep. I meant dead.
Then a second time, when it says quite clearly that by the time Jesus arrived in the village, “Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.” Why four days? Because the rabbis thought the soul might, possibly, hover near the body for a day or two, even three, waiting to see if it could get back in. But after four days, there was no hope of rising again. So for Lazarus, there was, in the opinion of the people, no hope at all.
And the third time, when Jesus called them to open the tomb, and the man’s sister tried to stop him
– Lord, she said, there is a stench. An aroma. Or in the words of old King James, “He stinketh.”
He is so dead that decay has set in, that’s how dead Lazarus is. The Bible says this, three times, so that we have no doubt. This is not going to be healing the sick, or the discovery of a premature burial, or anything like that. There will be no natural scientific explanation for what is about to happen.
Because, as the Munchkins put it when Dorothy’s house fell from the sky,
“He’s not merely dead – he’s really most sincerely dead.”
Other things are important in the story too – Lazarus had sisters, and above all that he was a friend of the disciples, that Jesus calls him “our friend.” How sweet must it have been to call Jesus your friend! But the real point is that Lazarus was dead.
Yet as we read, we have no real doubt about what is going to happen – and it does. They roll the stone back, and Jesus turns toward the tomb and speaks.
He spoke, says St. Efrem, one of the great Christian poets; no, he bellowed,
“he gave forth a cry like thunder – and Death trembled at his voice.”
Death trembled at his voice. Because that’s the real point of this story, and always has been. That when Jesus cries out, “Lazarus, come forth,” then yes indeed, Lazarus will come forth, obedient to his Lord.
In the ancient church, three stories were told, one after another, to those preparing to be baptized. They are the three we have read in church these last few weeks: the Woman at the Well, a sinner brought to the water of life; the Man Born Blind, who is touched by Jesus and literally sees the light; and Lazarus, who was so dead he smelled, but whom Jesus called back to life.
Together, they are a chance for new Christians (and us experienced ones) to see ourselves, as we identify with the characters. We are sinners; but God forgives us. We are blind; but God shows us the way. And yes, we are dead until God gives us new life.
Not literally dead, of course; not doornail-dead, not four-days-in-the-tomb dead. We walk and talk, we sleep and wake. But some people do these things without really living. They have done bad things, or had bad things done to them which come back, like vengeful specters, to haunt them. Or perhaps they are so desperate to survive, so focused on scraping together their own daily needs, that they have lost sight of the people around them, the emotional needs of friends and family. Or maybe they are just lost, without a compass, living a life devoid of any evident meaning. Walking and talking, but not, if you see what I mean, not really living.
Until Jesus calls them, and they stir. Sometimes it is not fast, not all at once, like scales falling from St Paul’s eyes. When Jesus started calling to me, in my own life, it was more a whisper than a shout, and I was able to ignore it for quite a while. Trust me – being dead was easier than coming back to life. Believing that he was a mean old judge was so much easier than accepting that he was, and always had been, my dearest friend. It took years for me to hear the call, and start truly living.
Maybe you are still resisting, some of you. I still do, sometimes, falling back into my old ways.
Many of us feel trapped these days– stuck at home, climbing the walls, trusting that only by staying at home can we keep each other safe. And we long for the day – soon, I hope! – when the order is lifted, and we can come out into the fresh air again. That will be good!
But how much better is it when we are trapped in a life that is not worth living, and Jesus our friend calls us by. How beautiful, how blessed, is it when our best friend calls, and we stumble toward the light, and begin to live the life he has always meant for us, the life of faith and hope, the life shaped by love?
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