With perhaps a few exceptions, most of us in this room have seen the Hollywood movie version of Frank L. Baum’s epic story The Wizard of Oz. We probably all have some particular memory of it, from the intense technicolor in which it was rendered, to the stormy intensity of the Kansas tornado. So many things became part of our cultural references – the principle characters of the girl, the wizard, the scarecrow, the tin man, and the lion. And of course flying monkeys and munchkins.
The entertainment industry has a way of shifting our focus away from the reality of death. It may be by humor, or music, or by masking the reality of demise with camera angles. Sometimes there’s dramatic lighting to reduce the impact. Or the strategic cutaway in which the possibility is left open – maybe they died, or maybe they didn’t.
The story of Jesus summoned by Mary and Martha to the side of their gravely ill brother Lazarus and his untimely death is unique to the gospel of John. It feels very real compared to many other stories about Jesus and his life-giving activities. The truth is that death challenges us, it is a heavy weight upon us; it can shake our faith. And the death of Lazarus was no exception.
From this and other gospels we know that Jesus was a close friend of the sisters and their brother. He was a frequent guest in their home and Bethany where they lived, is well described in the bible. So we are not necessarily surprised at the depth of Jesus’s emotional response upon his arrival there. Especially his tears.
Isaiah the prophet spoke of tears born of hardship. God’s people Israel wept in exile in Assyria as once they had wept in the wilderness. They wept for the disgrace of their circumstances, for the loss of their homeland, and for the toll of death upon their community.
They needed to weep, Isaiah knew. Weeping is cleansing. The storm before the calm. And Israel needed that. They’d had their fill of death. Death from privations, and death that came for children and elders too weak to endure the changes. Death purely from dismay and from broken-heartedness. Every day it was shrouds and sheets over the still forms of beloved ones.
We should know from shrouds and sheets ourselves. After twenty months of pandemic the numbers still mount up. At times quickly, then more slowly for a while. We feel the weight of it.
And there are also the ones we lost during pandemic time to accidents and untreated illnesses and advanced years. Beloved ones who could not be honored, remembered and celebrated because we could not gather. Millions of still forms under blankets. Empty places at the table. Ashes in vases and urns still unplaced. Tears that have not yet been released.
Isaiah spoke a beautiful vision of God’s answer to tears. “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast…and he will destroy on this mountain the shroud…and the sheet that is spread over all nations.” The prophecy is not just to Israel, but to all peoples and all nations. Because death comes to all peoples and all nations. We know the weight it.
The Revelation to John is a very challenging work full of symbolic images, difficult to understand. Most passages are very discomforting. But John’s community also needed to hear a word of hope in the face of their own mortality. Their world was dangerous and perplexing, their lives changing and challenged.
In the eleventh chapter John comforted his people in echoes of Isaiah. Be gone O tears. Death be done. There is a place where death does not reign. A high mountain, a shining city holy with faithfulness. God’s place. God is there tending the tearful, lifting the weight of death.
We hear these biblical words of comforting hope from Isaiah and John most often at funerals and memorial services. We get the message that God’s great gift and promise is all about heaven and the hereafter. But there’s more to it than that. Much more.
Jesus could have arrived at Bethany in time to heal his friend Lazarus. But with great intention, he didn’t. After getting the news he announced to his disciples that Lazarus would not die. Jesus said that it was God’s teachable moment. And accordingly he waited two extra days before traveling to Bethany. His disciples said nothing, taking Jesus at his word.
By the time Jesus arrived, Lazarus was four days in the tomb. He was not merely dead, he was really most sincerely dead. Mary said, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” Such was her faith! Or, was it anger and criticism?
When Jesus began to weep some people took it as grief. But others raised a difficult question. Jesus could cure blindness. Surely he could have healed Lazarus! Jesus was still disturbed as he went to the tomb. The Greek words convey something more than grief – frustration, anger even. “Take away the stone” was all he said. Martha protested: the stink of death was strong in the air.
Jesus spoke again, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” So the heavy stone was taken away. Jesus gave thanks to God. For the life of Lazarus? No, for hearing what Jesus had to say. And for letting the crowd listen in as once again he revealed himself as God’s own living Word, sent to be heard by all, and believed. His words were commanding: “Lazarus, come out!” And he did, still a dead man until Jesus spoke the final words of grace – “Unbind him, and let him go.”
We need to hear this good news now as much as ever before. Belief permits us to see beyond the constrictive wrappings of death and the inevitability of the tomb. Death is real, but God’s Word of grace and love for our present life, spoken right out loud is still more real. Whenever we hear God speaking to us through Jesus, stones are moved, tombs are opened and in this life we are lifted up. And what could possibly be more glorious to see than that?