When Death Stares Us in the Face

When Death Stares Us in the Face

Pastor Mitch Coggin March 26, 2023 Lent A

As we come nearer to Holy Week, all the stories we have been reading about Jesus are coming to a climax. Jesus continues to face questions about who he is and from where his authority comes. In today’s story the crisis is more personal in nature.

We all understand the pain of losing someone significant in our lives and that was the case for Jesus. Lazarus and his sisters were Jesus’ closest friends. The scripture says that Jesus was told that Lazarus was ill. This friendship makes his reaction to Lazarus’ illness even more confusing. Jesus seems to diminish that by saying that his illness would not lead to his death. So Jesus waits a few days before he arrives in Bethany.

When Jesus arrived, everyone questioned Jesus’ lack of immediate response. Martha was the first to greet him. She blamed Jesus saying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” For Martha, Jesus could have made a difference but he wasn’t there and after four days, it was too late. Even so, she gave him an opening, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him”.

Then Martha and Jesus have a short but powerful exchange about resurrection. Martha sees resurrection as something that happens in the future saying, “I know that [Lazarus] will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

Jesus corrects her using the Greek word, pisteuo, that can mean either “trust” or “believe.” Jesus describes resurrection as something that happens right now—resurrection and life for anyone who believes in him. Using this distinction, Jesus is saying, “Those who trust in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and trusts in me will never die. Do you trust this?” In other words, Jesus is saying that when we trust with Him we begin our eternal lives right then and nothing that happens to us can alter that.

A short while later Mary repeats Martha’s accusation during their darkest moment. When she saw Jesus, she knelt at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw Mary and the other’s weeping, it triggered for him his own loss. The Jews react to Jesus’ tears saying, “See how he loved him!” They also, like Mary and Martha, questioned Jesus’ response remembering the healing of the blind man and wondering why Jesus could not have healed Lazarus.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes that two different words are used here for weeping. Mary and the others are wailing out loud. Jesus sheds tears. Jesus is sad about Lazarus but also is disappointed that everyone else has given up on Lazarus.

All those who were present, look into the face of their own despair. They ask Jesus, “why weren’t you here and Lazarus has been allowed to die?” We all struggle with what could have been done in the face of our own despair.

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb and thanked God for what was about to happen and called Lazarus out of the tomb. Jesus sees beyond what we can see. Can you imagine Jesus praying for us in the midst of our own despair?

Jesus was doing something with Lazarus, he wasn’t doing something to Lazarus. In the face of crippling hopelessness we often think that God is doing something to us. We are looking for someone to blame. We fail to see that God is right beside us through the work and words of Jesus. Lazarus emerged into the light because Jesus was there, smiling through his tears.

Ezekiel’s vision is also given for a people who have lost heart and are suffering a death of the spirit. Their temple has been destroyed, their holy city plundered, their leaders maimed and put in chains, and their soldiers killed. Ezekiel witnesses the soul of his people gradually wither and die.

Ezekiel was led to a valley of bones, an ancient battle site, left to scorch in the arid heat. God asked Ezekiel a ridiculous question, “Can these bones live?”.

Ezekiel gives the smart answer by not giving an answer, “Only you know, God.” Whatever happened in the desert valley that day, Ezekiel played a part. God instructed Ezekiel, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.” The scripture says that “breath came into them, and they lived.”

Ezekiel is asked to do something that makes no sense. Is faith trusting that God will bring life to dead places? Is faith believing that we can conspire with the breath of God in us to move toward the impossible even when we do not know the outcome?

God breathed his Spirit into impossible deadness and new life emerged. The spirit of God breathes into us new power and gives us courage to do what frightens us.

Do we trust, as Jesus said, that God is breathing new life into us?

Can life happen again in our desert of despair? Only God has the answer, but the first step is ours. Faith is trusting that God is bringing life to our dead places.