Sunday, March 31, 2024
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“Roll Away the Stone”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, March 31, 2024
Reading: John 11:38:44

A danger for every preacher every year is to try and hit a home run on Easter. The building is full, the music is loud and thumpy, and you want to give something special for those here for the big holy day as well as for the regulars, so you swing with all your might and… hit nothing. Fall over. As a teacher of preaching, I tell students what I think batting coaches tell hitters: just make contact. Homeruns come when you’re not swinging for them. Strikeouts happen when you’re swinging for the fences. So just trying to make contact here with the story of Lazarus.

Odd one for Easter you might think. But it’s also the end of our series on sibling rivalry. Three of the great siblings in all of scripture are Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. Their home in Bethany is a place of respite and retreat for Jesus. Their family of three siblings became a sort of surrogate family for him. He seems to have been at home with them. A friend of mine bought a dream house to turn it into a retreat and invite others for rest, teaching, food, joy. He called it Bethany House, after the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. A place to meet Jesus and recover one’s humanity.

Until Lazarus falls ill. Until he is going to die. Jesus knows this prognosis. Yet he delays. He does not come. Imagine Mary and Martha’s agony. They know the one person who can heal anything, he happens to be like family. But while their brother lies dying, Jesus doesn’t come. On purpose. Until Lazarus is gone. Dead four days. In the tomb. Jesus didn’t even make the funeral. In Jewish tradition at the time a spirit lingers near a body for three days. Jesus waits till that’s done and only then does he turn up. Great timing genius. Where’ve you been? Busy?

As he approaches Bethany, one by one the sisters come out to see him. And one by one they say the same thing, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It’s not quite a rebuke. It’s just a statement of fact. The one guy who could ward off death had more important things to do. Death has blown a hole in this little family of siblings, dear to Jesus. You may remember Mary and Martha had a bit of a tiff in a sermon a few weeks ago. Rev. Lori preached about Martha in the kitchen, Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet, Martha complaining about her sister’s indolence. Well now they have a bigger problem. Death has stolen in and taken their brother too soon. Blasted that little family apart. They wish they were just bickering about chores and who does what. Now they’re puzzled. Lazarus is gone. And Jesus could have stopped it but did not.

We’ve preached on sibling rivalry since Christmas. I think it explains everything. To remind, Sigmund Freud said all our problems stem from rivalry between fathers and sons, caused by jealousy for the mother’s attention. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argued Freud was off by a generation. No, he said, our rivalry is between sisters, brothers. That explains Judaism’s enmity with Islam. Both faith’s rivalry with us Christians. Sibling rivalry explains Russia and Ukraine, Israel and Gaza, China and Taiwan. Intimacy produces rivalry and we’re left with Cain and Abel. Jacob and Esau. Joseph and his brothers. Many of you have told me of alienated siblings. Lost sons or daughters, at odds with one another. Here is the good news: Jesus Christ comes among us as the one we can’t stand and want to get rid of. So, we do so. But he comes back with forgiveness instead of vengeance. The rawest wound in your life, that’s one he means to heal. Someday.

Okay, what’s wrong with now instead of someday? That’s what Mary and Martha are asking. Hey, we had you in our home, believed you about the messiah and Lord business. Saw you heal other people. Strangers. And when we sent for you when our brother whom you loved was on death’s door you didn’t come.

Anybody ever felt like God’s timing and our timing aren’t the same?

So, Jesus asks the crowd to roll the stone away. Someone objects: uh, he’s been in there four days. No one is going to like the olfactory result. Or as the old King James said, “Lord, already he stinketh.” Here’s a late medieval depiction by the great artist Duccio. Lazarus in his grave clothes. Mary begging at Jesus’ feet. Jesus inviting Lazarus out. And I love the guy in yellow, centre right, covering his nose. And they say medieval art isn’t realistic. Another here by the even greater artist Giotto. Mary and Martha both begging. Lazarus in the grave clothes, folks in disbelief. It’s a little cruel that Lazarus is wrapped up tight as a mummy and Jesus expects him to walk out of the tomb on his own. Here’s a depiction from an African context, full of joy. Makes you want to join in. Here’s one from the Netherlands, where it looks like Lazarus has been buried in a church, not a rock tomb, and he is, if anything, really underdressed for the occasion of his resuscitation. Hey, next time maybe bury me in church clothes. You know, just in case?

I love this Lazarus story, partly because it’s not quite an Easter story. It’s the raising of Lazarus, not the resurrection of Lazarus. Because Lazarus will die again one day. You could argue Jesus is doing no favour for his friend here, because this raising will mean Lazarus has to die twice. Wouldn’t wish that on anyone. Resurrection, by contrast, means there’s no more death ever again. After Jesus is raised from the Easter tomb he cannot die again. After today, death itself is dying. Someone raised from the dead has no more to fear from that quarter, or any quarter. Poor Lazarus, if anything, has more to fear. He’s been through death before. And he regrets having to face it again. Thanks, Jesus. Hey, somebody unwrap me. And bring a robe.

This confrontation with death gets Jesus in trouble. Up until now he has stoked controversy with his healings and teachings. But this is the first time in the Gospel of John that Jesus picks a fight with death itself. Now, we’re told, in the passage just after this, the authorities want to kill him. Which is odd if you think of it. Oh yeah, you can undo death. Well, we’ll kill you then. And just for good measure they want to kill Lazarus too. Again. For the second time. So, this raising of Lazarus is a pointer forward to the resurrection of Jesus. But it is not the same thing as resurrection. It is an announcement beforehand. A wink so that we readers know, yeah, Jesus is going to tangle with death. And win. Here, he does a little with Lazarus. He’s going to a lot with his own tomb.

Here’s what I mean. This is a depiction of the resurrection from a 15th century Italian painter, Pierro della Francesca. Awfully triumphalistic, Jesus charging out of the tomb, bearing a flag of victory. It’s not England’s flag, no worries non-Anglophiles, just a cross. The soldiers are still asleep, hinting at their death, in contrast to his life. But here’s what I really love about this image. To Jesus’ right, we see a barren landscape. Winter. Nothing alive. But to his left, we see a verdant springtime landscape, full of green, things growing, things being built. Jesus’ resurrection isn’t just something cool that happens to him. It’s the beginning of a whole new creation. Creation the way God intended from the beginning. Without death. With only growth and life and health. Eden restored, and surpassed, not just the rolling back of a mistake in the garden, but the undoing of sin and death altogether. Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of the resurrection of all creation, the creation as Jesus intends and will one day have. This painting wasn’t for a church. It’s for the town hall in Francesca’s city. The resurrection isn’t just for church, religion. It’s for politics. City planning. Art. Medicine. Culture. Horticulture. Every activity human and creaturely will be raised to resurrection life one day, just like Jesus is.

I remember an old friend who understood himself as an evangelical. I do too, but he wasn’t sure about me. I was newly in seminary so a little snotty about what I was learning. And I told him this about the resurrection: hey, do you know our salvation is bodily, like Jesus’? What? Yeah, you know how it’s important that his tomb is physically empty, his body raised? Uh huh. Well, our tomb will be empty too, we’ll be bodily raised. He thought a minute, and finally said, nah. No way. Our souls go to heaven. Our bodies go nowhere. Wait aren’t you an evangelical? Aren’t y’all into what the Bible teaches? Well, the Bible knows nothing of a disembodied soul going to heaven. The Bible knows of a body raised from the dead, K? An empty tomb, a whole new creation. Not just for Jesus. And then not just for us. But for every creature God bothered to create in the first place. That’s why Easter is such earth-shattering good news. It’s why we break out the brass and the forest of lilies and the best songs and hymns and clothes we got. This is better than souls going to heaven. This is a new heaven and a new earth, and all things made new, us included. Can I get an amen to that?

I’ve been reading a book by David Sedaris, a great humour writer, not at all religious, but a North Carolinian, like me. He writes about his partner Hugh, about living in France, about going to the beach, ordinary things. But in this book Calypso he writes about his sister’s suicide. I don’t go to Sedaris for depth, he’s funny, but not heavy. Then his sister took her own life. It was a culmination of years of depression, housing insecurity, and then bitterness at her family. She blamed her siblings. Here she has this rich famous brother, and he won’t house her? He misses her. Aches at her loss. And the book has a melancholy in it his others don’t. A sibling rivalry that can’t be repaired now because she’s gone. It’s striking that someone we think might not have such problems, because he’s rich and famous, in fact does. Money or fame can’t solve mental illness or other health issues or lack of love or alienation. I find myself wanting to tell him. ‘Hey, you will see your sister again. And your relationship will be healed. I don’t understand how. I just know death is not the end. Christ’s resurrection means a whole new creation, with every hurt healed. I know you don’t believe it. That doesn’t matter. It’s coming anyway. You’ll see. One day soon everyone will see.’ That’s what I often have to say to you about your strained siblings, your lost children, alienated parents. There will be repair. It might not be in this lifetime. But it will come. I promise. Just look at that empty tomb.

Back to old Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. Here’s how Van Gogh paints the little family restored, in 19th century Holland. No Jesus in this version, just the two sisters in their shock. Lazarus doesn’t look great here, does he? Like he’s back at death’s door, not through its threshold the wrong way. But you see the sister’s shock. Wait, this can’t happen. The best they’d managed to hope for was Christ preventing death. That’s what most of us hope for too. That death might happen to other people but not us. Sorry to disappoint. Sometimes Jesus doesn’t move when we want. This is more than she could’ve hoped for though: That death could run in reverse; that life could be born of it? Can it be so? Yes. In fact, things are better even than that. Jesus is bringing a resurrection after which there is nothing but life. Death still claims victories, yes, still including over each of our lives. But life has won the war. And one day life will be all that here is.

A final depiction of Lazarus for this morning, by the 20th century Mexican artist John August Swanson. He uses colours that hardly exist on earth. Colours that can only make us long for a whole new earth. Here Jesus is the one who unwraps Lazarus. ‘Here, let me get all this death off of you, it’s unbecoming.’ As he does, Lazarus embraces him. ‘I knew you’d come.’ Others look on astounded, frightened. Wait, if death isn’t final, what else isn’t permanent? What else can be fixed that we thought couldn’t? Some are on the roof. Others hide behind the great stone. What would be possible if we didn’t fear death? If it had no power over us?

Well. It doesn’t. And we shouldn’t. We still face death, sure. But we know it’s defeated so we can taunt it: ‘Do your worst death. One day you will die, and I will live.’ Death is not to be taken too seriously. It’s not permanent. All that’s permanent is resurrection, and the new creation Christ is bringing, starting today. Amen.