The people who chose our readings for this morning want to make sure we get the point. We heard it from Ezekiel and his dry bones, and from the Psalmist and their call to hope more than watchmen waiting for the dawn to break. St. Paul gives us his take in Romans about the Spirit of Christ giving life to our mortal bodies, and finally it’s clear in the long drama about Lazarus and his restoration to life in John’s gospel. So here it is: God can bring about life even when we think that things will never be restored. We can place our hope and trust in the one who offers renewal.
A Lenten Sermon on John 11.
Far too frequently in life we think the other way. That once something comes to an end, we will never experience joy again. That we will never encounter beauty as we have in the past, or that we won’t discover a new friend or companion now that a relationship has ended. We have great difficulty imagining things differently, and so we stare at the dry brittle bones and think that’s it, life as we know it is over.
And in a sense, of course, it is. That life that we have known is done. The people of Israel in Ezekiel’s day experienced exile. They were forcibly removed from the place they loved, and watched it burn as they left. In the case of Mary and Martha, their world was completely upended when they lost their brother to an illness. The life so cherished is no longer.
Many of us don’t like talking in such stark terms. We think somehow if we can game it right that things can go back to the way they have always been. We live in a fantasy of our own creation, imagining what could have been if things had been different. Or that we can somehow stop time’s marching on day after day, and avoid the change that inevitably comes. The kids growing up. Or getting laid off from a job we loved. Or seeing friends move away. Or getting back to “normal” in a post-pandemic world. We want time to stop, change not to happen, the pain not to come. But it does.
And yet the more important question remains what happens next? What happens when we encounter a difficult point in life? What do we do when something we loved comes to an end? What’s our response when we are faced with the loss of someone close to us? How do we move forward when it looks as if nothing new will ever emerge again?
This Lent I’ve been working my way with you through the questions given to us by Frederick Buechner to help us do the hard work of Lent. That hard work involves asking who we have been in our life and who we are becoming. To see if we can learn more fully what it means to be the person God has created us to be. This week that question is: “Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo? Which is the one that makes you happiest to remember?”
Often those points we’d most like to undo revolve around chances not taken, or the words we left unspoken, or words we should not have uttered at all. The times in life we most want to redo include breakdowns in relationships, or jobs we chose not to pursue, or the way that we allowed someone else to make decisions for us. In nearly every one of these scenarios, we lament the loss of something or someone we held important. We wonder if things would have been different if we just had gone down a different path.
And those happiest times? Well, they nearly always include the way in which we were brave and embraced new life. Of cherishing a relationship and choosing to honor commitments and vows rather than giving up. Of adventures taken that you didn’t think you could do. Of the moments of love that you might have missed if you hadn’t paid attention. Of picking up the pieces when your life was decimated, and moving forward.
In our Gospel, Mary and Martha both express their desire that Jesus had come sooner. Maybe they wish they had sent word earlier to him. Rather than waiting to see if Lazarus pulled through, sending a message as soon as things looked a little off. And of course, they also blame Jesus a bit too. You can hear it in that line they both utter in the story, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Lord if you had intervened when things were going south in my life, I wouldn’t have had to experience the pain. If you had brought healing, things could have remained just as they always had been.
But that’s not what Jesus wanted to bring to Mary and Martha, or even to Lazarus that day. Jesus didn’t come in order to return things to the way they had always been, but rather to bring about wholesale change and renewal. To offer resurrection. To cause new life to burst forth from the grave. From that very place where we thought nothing new could ever emerge at all.
Mary and Martha from that day onward would have a ready response to what was the happiest moment in their lives: when Jesus rolled back the stone and called their brother out from the grave. It was then that they truly experienced who Jesus was and what he could bring to them and the world. Just like Ezekiel’s dry bones, Jesus brought the ability to hope and trust that even when things have completely ended, new life is still possible.
Not in the same way, mind you. That is just that fantasy thinking. Lazarus had undoubtedly been changed in that experience, as had his sisters. But that made their time together all the sweeter. They had seen the worst, and then they had experienced a complete 180. There would be no stopping the joy they encountered with one another in the days and years ahead. They would cherish every moment in a more profound way.
Whenever we experience moments of change in our lives, our anxiety spikes. We think that somehow we will never find happiness again. But that’s not what we know about Jesus. In this liminal time in our parish where things are in the midst of changing, it is so easy to look back to the past nostalgically, or to think that things will never be as good again. It is much harder to look into the unknown and realistically assess where we are, and then to trust and hope that the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in us. That our future is indeed one of promise. That God continues to be about the business of bringing new life.
And those moments that we most cherish? They’re the ones when we didn’t give into fear. When we believed God would remain with us even during the difficult days, helping us through to the other side. When we refused to give in to the belief that new life wasn’t possible.
How we respond to the difficult times in our own lives often defines both what we wish we could undo, and what we are happiest to recall. When we responded in faith and love and hope, we often experience immense joy. When we give in to fear or anger or despair, we nearly always want to take those moments back. As you consider the question of what you most would like to undo, and what makes you the happiest to remember, may you see that it is often when you are choosing life that you encounter joy.
So on this day as we gather to pray and listen and laugh and remember and dream together, may we always trust that God cares deeply about our lives both individually and collectively. That new life is always feasible. And that God will remain with us no matter what lies before.