Vicar Emily Beckering, Fifth Sunday in Lent, year A; texts: John 11:1-45, Ezekiel 37:1-14
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Before we get to what God would have us hear today, I’d like to share how the Holy Spirit has been at work for us this week.
Last Sunday, after praying for God to reveal what we would need to hear in worship today, something very clear and specific emerged from John’s gospel. It was such good news and so life-giving that I thought, “Wow! That’s worth sharing!” So I did share it with some of my friends at seminary during Bible study on Monday. Afterwards, based on how the news affected them, I felt even more convicted about what God wanted us to hear.
Then, on Tuesday morning, I felt nudged, drawn—compelled, really—to read ahead in Journey into Lent, by Susan Cherwien, to her reflections for the upcoming Saturday, which was yesterday, April 5th. Upon reading it, I discovered that she and I had heard the same thing from today’s Gospel. And I thought, “Shoot! Do I really need to say it again when it’s already been written so beautifully?”
Through the people at Tuesday noon Bible study, however, and through more conversations throughout the week, it became evident that the Holy Spirit had led me to Susan’s devotion. It was as if God was saying, “Look, this really needs to be said.” Through all of this, the Holy Spirit was at work to make sure that we could all hear God’s word for us multiple times and in multiple ways if need be. Apparently, God has something very important for us to hear today, and it’s just what we need.
In order to hear it, we must first recognize that Lazarus is not the only one who is locked in a tomb; he isn’t the only one who needs to be unbound and set free.
There is much in our own lives that holds us captive, that binds us, that prevents us from being who God has made us to be. We can feel like prisoners without choices or power: we are in bondage and cannot free ourselves.
Some of us are in bondage to productivity, to accomplishment, to feeling like we always have to do everything perfectly, to have everything under control. Others of us are in bondage to other people’s opinions about us; it can be difficult to make decisions without feeling the need to please or to look good in others’ eyes.
Some of us are chained to defining ourselves by our talents, intelligence, or our perceived lack thereof. These chains can weigh so heavily upon us that we always feel the need to prove ourselves to others.
There are economic binds which we face: we worry if there will be enough, if we will be able to pay the bills and are uncertain about which decisions to make. We are also bound by unethical systems: systems in which we contribute to environmental destruction, to racism, to prejudice, to poverty. We can even be chained by anger, bitterness, unfaithfulness, and comparing ourselves to others. Although we wish that we could live differently, we may find ourselves doing that which we do not want to do; time and time again we hurt those who we love.
Sometimes, these worries and patterns of thought and behavior can become so all-encompassing that we are literally entombed: we can be locked away in a tomb of feeling helpless, of guilt or shame, of insecurity, of hiding who we are in order to win love. We can feel trapped in a grave of sickness, of mental illness, of an abusive relationship, of addictions, of perfecting our body. And of course, there is fear; fear in all of its forms. Fear of what tomorrow will bring. Fear that the end is near or nowhere in sight. Fear of failure: of failing as a partner, a spouse, a parent, a friend, a disciple. In the darkness of the tomb, we may begin to doubt whether Christ’s promises are true or are for us.
Although we are afraid, we can also be terrified by life outside of the tomb that we have come to know so well, and so we may retreat even deeper into the darkness. We may wrap ourselves tighter in that which binds us because we are afraid to deal with it. We can lock ourselves away in the tomb rather than risk exposing that which with we struggle.
All of this can feel too overpowering, too big for us to handle, too shameful for God or for anyone else to know about. Like Martha who says, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days,” we can find ourselves saying, “Lord, don’t go there. Don’t bother. It’s too late. There’s only death.”
We look within our tombs and like Israel say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” “We’ve messed up too much this time, gone too far. There’s nothing left to do, nothing left to say.”
But God does have something to say, and yearns for us to hear it!
God’s word to us today is this: “I am the Lord your God: I am going to open you graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people: and I will bring you back to the land of the living. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.”
Jesus is calling each of us by name saying, “Come out! Come out of ¬fear and out of shame. Come out of loneliness and self-hatred. Be free of the guilt, you are forgiven. Let go of doubt, you are mine!”
See how Jesus loves us!
There is no darkness too thick, no grave too deep, no stone, no sin, no tomb—nothing— that can prevent Christ from getting to us.
The resurrection is not only a future promise that we will be with God in eternity; resurrection is happening right now! Christ is making us new. God would have us live anew, live again today!
But the resurrection is not for us alone; it does not stop here with us.
Jesus speaks to Lazarus and to all who have gathered around him. He says to the crowd: “Unbind him and let him go!”
Sometimes we are so tightly bound in our wrappings that we need the community around us to help set us free. This is why God has given us one another: so that we can surround each other with love in our suffering, remind each other what Christ has promised us, and help each other be on the lookout for what God is doing in our midst. We are at once Lazarus and the community at the tomb. There are many other people already in our lives and some whom the Holy Spirit has yet to lead us to who also long to hear Jesus’ words: who need to be released from everything that ensnares them, from everything that weighs on them.
The Spirit of the Lord has been poured out upon us in our baptisms; God has anointed us to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, to let the oppressed go free, and to preach the Lord’s favor. We do this when, with actions and with words, we sow love where there is hatred, seek union where there is discord, and offer forgiveness in response to wrong. Jesus is sending us out today saying, “Unbind them, and let them go!”
When we do this in Jesus’ name, then by the power of the Holy Spirit, out of the tomb of darkness shall come light, out of despair, hope, and out of the tomb of death, God will bring life for all.