Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Lost Cause

Last Sunday, I asked the congregation to pretend they were reading the story of the healing of the man born blind in John 9 with all of the theological and scientific enlightenment that was available to a first-century Palestinian. What, then, would we think about a man born blind? As the Pharisees themselves declared toward the end of that reading, "You were born entirely in sins and yet you would lecture us?" They didn't care whether he sinned or whether his parents sinned, as the disciples had asked at the beginning of the encounter. All they needed to know was that this man was born blind, which was God's way of declaring he had and would spend his whole life in darkness. He was a lost cause.

This Sunday (maybe every Sunday), we again need to approach the text of John 11 from a first-century perspective. Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days. Already there will be a stench. Yet Jesus tells them to roll away the stone. Even before we hear it, we know how the story ends. We know that Lazarus emerges from the tomb revivified. And we know how the whole story of Jesus' earthly life comes to an end--with death, resurrection, and ascension. So it is hard for us to imagine the confusion, fear, and discomfort that the crowd felt when Jesus asked them to open his friend's tomb. "What sort of lunacy is this? Doesn't he know that his friend is dead? If he had been here, he could have saved him, but, now that he's dead, what does the rabbi plan to do? This is disrespectful. Imagine how Lazarus' sisters must feel. What is he doing to them?"

Some of the sense of lostness and hopelessness that we should have in our minds when we approach the tomb of Lazarus is conveyed to us in the story of the Valley of Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37). We can almost hear the bizarre, horror-story-esque rattling of each bone coming to its mates. We can almost feel the breath as it blows past us and into the flesh-covered skeletons standing lifelessly in the valley. Yet the prophet recalls how the Lord identified this not as an expected outcome but a complete surprise in a hopeless case: "Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.'" How bad is their circumstance? How dead are they? The people of God are assembled not in the Jerusalem temple nor it a Babylonian courtyard. They are gathered together in graves and cemeteries. Yet, even there, God is not finished with them yet.

The Lord said to Ezekiel, "Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people." God's response to the hopelessness of the people is to bring them back even from their graves. This thigh-bone-connected-to-the-hip-bone episode is about a lost cause receiving new hope. That's the sense we're supposed to take with us to the Lazarus story.

John doesn't bother to give us an editorial explanation this week as he did last Sunday, but he could have just as easily put on the lips of one of the observers, "Never before in all the world has it been heard that someone who was dead for four days was brought back to life." This is a never-before moment. No one saw this coming--no one except Jesus. Will we let ourselves be surprised at the story's familiar outcome? Will we acknowledge how lost we are without the life that Jesus gives us? Will we see that Jesus is the one who comes to take us from a place of hopelessness to the place of God's fulfillment? We must pass through the grave and gate of death to get there, and there's only one hope that can take us across.

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