Saturday, March 8, 2008

5 Lent


March 9, 2008

The Episcopal Church of St. John the Divine

Moorhead, Minn.


Ezekiel 37.1-14; John 11.1-45

We have two readings today that jar us and make us sit up and take notice. The first, of course, is Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones. The second is the raising of Lazarus. Both are filled with images of the dead being raised to new life.In the vision of the bones, we find bones being given flesh and sinews, and the spirit of God coming into them and giving them life. But the story that probably speaks most deeply to us is the story of Lazarus. And this story takes on much deeper meaning when we examine it closely and place it within the context of its time.


One of our first clues that the something is different in this story is that, when Jesus arrives at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, he is told that Lazarus has been dead four days. This clue of “four days” is important. First of all, from simply a practical point, we can all imagine what condition Lazarus’s body would be in after four days. This body would not have been embalmed like we understand embalming today in the United States. There was no refrigeration, no sealed metal caskets, no reconstructive cosmetics for the body of Lazarus. In the heat of that country, his body would, by the fourth day, be in the beginning stages of decomposition. There would be some physical destruction occurring.


Second, according to Jewish understanding, when the soul left the body, a connection would still be maintained with that body for a period of three days. Bar Kappara, a rabbi of the late second and early third century, wrote:


"Until three days the soul keeps on returning to the grave, thinking that it will go back; but when it sees that the facial features have become disfigured [be decomposition], it departs and abandons it.


“The full force of mourning lasts for three days. Why? Because the shape of the face is recognizable, even as we have learnt in the Mishnah [a Jewish book of learning]: Evidence is admissible only in respect of the full face, with the nose, and only within three days.”


In a Jewish document on mourning called the Semahot we find the following:

“One may go out to the cemetery for three days to inspect the dead for a sign of life, without fear that this smacks of heathen practice. For it happened that a man was inspected after three days, and he went on to live twenty-five years; still another went on to have five children and died later.”


So, what we find here is that, according to Jewish thinking of this time, the belief was the soul might be reunited with the body up to three days, but after that, because the body would not recognizable because of decomposition, any reuniting would be impossible. After those three days, the final separation from the body by the soul would have been complete. The soul would truly be gone. The body would truly be dead.


So, when Jesus came upon the tomb of Lazarus and tells them to roll the stone away, Martha says to him that there will be stench. He was truly dead—dead physically and dead from the perspective of his soul being truly separated from his body.When the tomb was opened for Jesus, he would be encountering what most of us would think was impossible. When Jesus raised Lazarus, what Jesus did for Lazarus was not only reunite his spirit with his body, he also healed the destruction done to Lazarus’s body by decomposition. It would have been amazing. And Jesus would truly have been proven to be more than just a magician. He wasn’t simply awakening someone who appeared to be dead, someone who might have actually been in a deep coma. There was no doubt that Lazarus was truly dead and now, he was, once again alive.


Now, at first glance, both our Old Testament and Gospel readings seem a bit morbid. This image of dry bones in our reading from Ezekiel is not a pleasant vision. Bones are frightening to us. And the idea of sinew and flesh coming together on bones is not a pretty image for us.And in our Gospel reading, we have this uncomfortable story of Lazarus’s death, burial and the beginning of decomposition. Again, unpleasant things for us to be dealing with. These are things we don’t want to think about. But the fact is, we are rapidly heading toward Holy Week.


Next week at this time, we will be celebrating the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. We will be hearing the joyful cries of the crowd as he rides forth. Within 11 days from now, we will hear those cries of joy turn into cries of jeering and accusation. And, within no time, we will be hearing cries of despair and mourning. We, as followers of Jesus, will be facing betrayal, torture, murder and death as Jesus journeys away from us into the cold dark shadow of death. These images of death we encounter in today’s reading simply help nudge us in the direction of the events toward which we are racing.During Holy Week, we too will be faced with images we might find disturbing. Jesus will be betrayed and abandoned by his friends and loved ones. He will be tortured, mocked and whipped. He will be forced to carry the instrument of his death to the place of his execution. And there he will be murdered in a very gruesome way. Following that death, he will be buried in a tomb, much the same way his friend Lazarus was. But unlike Lazarus, what happens to Jesus will take place within the three days belief at that time required for a soul to make a final break from his body.


And this brings us back to the story of Lazarus. We often make the mistake, when thinking about the story of Lazarus, to say that Lazarus was resurrected. The fact is, he was not resurrected. In seminary, I had a professor who made very clear to us that Lazarus was not resurrected. The term he used to describe what happened to Lazarus was “resuscitation.” Lazarus was resuscitated. His soul was reunited with his healed body. But the fact was that Lazarus would eventually die again.


Over the last three weeks we have encountered people who had amazing encounters with Jesus and, after these encounters, we never hear from them again. The week before last, we encountered the unnamed Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. Last week, we encountered the man born blind whom Jesus healed. In both cases, the Eastern Orthodox Church has given them names and, in fact, reveres them as saints. The woman at the well is now revered as St. Photini, a woman who went on to suffer for Christ in Rome. The man born blind is now revered as St. Celidonius the Blind Man, who is believed to have gone on to Gaul, which is now France, where he labored for Christ.


And today, we have Lazarus, who is also revered as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is believed that, following the death of Jesus, he went to Cyprus, where he became a Bishop. In fact, one can visit two tombs of Lazarus. One can visit the empty tomb of Lazarus at Bethany, in Israel. And one can also visit his actual tomb in Cyprus in the Greek Orthodox Church of Agios Lazaros. There, under the altar, is the tomb which is inscribed, simply with


LAZARUS

FRIEND OF CHRIST


The tomb was actually opened in 1972 and human remains from the time of Christ were found buried there.

So, Lazarus truly did rise from the tomb in Bethany, but he was not resurrected there. He went on to live a life somewhat similar to the life he lived before. And eventually, he died again.

But Resurrection is, as we no doubt know, different. Resurrection is rising from death into a life that does not end. Resurrection is rising from all the things we encounter in our readings for today—dry bones, tombs, decomposition and death. Resurrection is new bodies, new understanding of everything, new and unending life. Resurrection, when it happens, cannot be undone. It cannot be taken away. Resurrection destroys the hold of death.

And the first person to be resurrected was not Lazarus. The first person to be resurrected was Jesus. His resurrection is important not simply because he was the first. His resurrection is important because it, in a real sense, destroys death once and for all. Yes, we will die. Yes, we will go down into the grave, into that place of bones and ashes. But, the resurrection of Jesus casts new light on the deaths we must die. The resurrection of Jesus shows us that we will rise from the destruction of our bodies into a life like the life of the resurrected Jesus. We will be raised into a life that never ends, a life in which “sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life eternal,” as we celebrate in the Burial service of the Book of Common Prayer. Because Jesus died and then trampled death, he took away eternal death. Our bodies may die, but we will rise again with him into a new and wonderful life.

So, as we move through these last days of Lent toward that long, painful week of Holy Week, we go forward knowing full well what await us on the other side of the Cross of Good Friday. We go forward knowing that the glorious dawn of Easter awaits us. And with it, the glory of resurrection and life everlasting awaits us as well.

So, let go forward. Let us move into Holy Week, rejoicing with the crowd. And as the days darken and we grow weary with Jesus, let us keep focused on the light that is just about to dawn on all of us.

Amen.

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