The Voice That Wakes the Dead

Paradiso by Gustave Dore

A Sermon originally delivered to Calvary Community (Reformed) Church on November 1, 2015.
Text: John 11:32-44

“If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

“If you had been here, [he] would not have died.”

Have you ever uttered words similar to this? “Lord, if you had been here, things would have been different.” Of course, few, if any, of us would readily admit this, even to ourselves, but think about this from the perspective of your darkest moment. Maybe that was a long time ago, perhaps that is now. “Lord, if you had been here, things would have turned out differently.”

The words are strong, they are heavy. But they are not wrong. If Jesus had been there sooner, things may have very well turned out differently. The beginning of this story is one that plays out even today.

Word came to Jesus that his friend Lazarus was ill. Jesus was close to this family. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus spends some time at the home of Martha and Mary, and at the beginning of this story, the writer looks ahead to when Mary will anoint Jesus with perfume and wipe his feet with her hair.

Their brother, Lazarus, was ill and Mary sent word to Jesus that the one whom he loves is ill. From this, we can see that Jesus had a rather close relationship with Lazarus. The word simply came that Lazarus was ill, no indication as to the severity. No indication as to whether he ought to jump on a plane or simply driving was sufficient.

But before Jesus gets to where his friend is, he has already died. Martha goes out to meet him, “‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’”

Mary hears that Jesus is coming, and she goes out to meet him, tears streaming down her face, filled with a mixture of sadness and anger, denial and confusion. She throws herself at his feet. She spoke, we would like to think, calmly and with great reverence, but I think that her voice was filled with desperation and sadness and anger, “‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’”

And Jesus saw her weeping, and everyone else with her weeping, we are told that he was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” and from this we may infer that he was likely feeling a similar mixture of anger and grief. Perhaps he was feeling in similar ways to when he wept over Jerusalem in Luke’s gospel. And Jesus wept. We ought not over-sentimentalize this, but we cannot also think that Jesus was somehow immune to the emotions of humanity. Indeed, Jesus was sinless, but save this, he was human in every way, and this would include emotions. “‘Where have you laid him?’” Jesus asked. “‘Come and see,’” Mary replied.

And the whispers arose amidst the crowd, “This man can bring sight to the blind, could he not stop this man from dying?” Why did he do anything? Why couldn’t he do anything?

***

Death is a reality of life. We can do great things to extend life and to stave off death, for a while, but we cannot eliminate it. The paradox of this is that death causes so much sadness and grief and anger and paint. We experience this when a pet dies, and even more significantly when loved ones die. Everyone dies but each and every time it feels like a punch in the gut, like the rug has been pulled out from under us. Even for those of us who have the strength of the hope of restoration, the death of a loved one is painful.

I have to wonder, though, if this may be because deep down we know that it is not right. I wonder if in the deepest recesses of our beings we know that this is not the way it is supposed to be. We can almost feel the fact that death was not a part of the creation that the Divine proclaimed to be “good.” And so we struggle against death with every ounce of our being. While we do not have to face death with fear, but it is not a friend. Death is an enemy and our spirit knows it.

***

Jesus came to the tomb and the stone at already closed it, and Jesus requested the stone to be moved. Perhaps Martha thought that Jesus wanted to look upon his friend one last time. Perhaps she wondered if one of his miraculous acts was on his mind. But she cautions him, “‘already there is a stench, because he has been dead four days.’”  The subtext is clear. He’s dead. Tradition was clear that by this time the soul was gone and he had passed the point of no returned. But hadn’t Jesus raised others? Yes, but never after this long. Immediately after death anything is possible, but four days? His soul is gone, his body is decomposing. He’s undeniably dead and nothing can be done to change that.Jesus replies but he does not scold. He reminds her that she would see the glory of God. I am sure that still not quite understanding, she had the stone taken away, and no sooner than this happened, the stench of death began to escape from the dark portal to the realm of the dead. Jesus looked upward, and I can imagine that for a moment time stood still, the breeze may have seemed to abate and the ambient noise faded into the ether. Scripture records Jesus’ prayer, but who knows if everyone — or anyone — could hear it. After he finishes he continues to stand for a moment with his eyes closed and lifted up, bathed in the light of the afternoon sun.

He then shifts his gaze to the cave-turned-tomb and stares intently into the dark. And glaring down into the darkness, Jesus cries with a loud voice, commanding the darkness and shaking the stones so that all could hear — “Lazarus, come out!”

At first there was nothing, and then into the light steps Lazarus still wrapped in the burial cloths. What a sight! I imagine the crowds would have been in absolute awe — shock really — and that Martha and Mary would have been beside themselves with what they had just witnessed. When he had fully emerged, Jesus ordered, “‘Unbind him, and let him go.’”

And this  is all that we see of Lazarus. We know knowing of his reaction or his experience. We know nothing of what the remainder of his second life looked like. He just fades away into the annals of time.

But, you see, this story is not really about just Lazarus. This story was really a dress rehearsal of sorts for a similar, but far more significant event, that was to happen not long after when we will see another death, another tomb, and another person emerging from the door which is only supposed to swing one way. Indeed, in the raising of Lazarus we have a foretaste of Easter, and Easter is, itself, a foretaste of the great and final resurrection when Jesus will once again stare down into the darkness of death and call forth no one person, but all of the saints of all times and places, whom we now know as the great “cloud of witnesses.”

***

So why are we spending so much time talking about death? Today is All Saints’ Day — a day when we remember those who have been taken from us and a day that we can give thanks for those who have been given the gift of seeing God.

All Saints’ Day is not just for remembering saints with names like Augustine of Hippo, or Francis of Assisi, or Paul of Tarsus. But also whose saints with names like Victor and Donald and Jay. Saints who may not be known beyond their own communities, but saints whose names are nonetheless prominently engraved on the stone rolls of the Kingdom of God. And as with Shakespeare’s Mark Antony, we do not come to praise those who have gone before, to to praise the One who as called them out of darkness and into his marvellous light.

And so it can seem that death always has the final answer, after all, we are all headed for the grave at some point. But here we see a disruption in this narrative in calling Lazarus back to this side of the veil.

So, let us give thanks for all the saints, extraordinary and ordinary — those known to the whole church of Christ, and those who may only be known to us. And we know that for them, the grave is not the final word, but the final word comes from the One who calls to us and frees us from that which binds us, and sets us free.

And it is because of this that we can live into our calling here on earth, that we can live into the desire of the Divine to be a blessing to the world, to visit the sick and imprisoned, to feed the hungry, to give sight to the blind, to release the captive, to clothe the naked, and to bring forth justice and peace in a lost and broken world which is so loved by God. This assurance does not bring us out of the world, at least it ought not, but it should drive us into deeper engagement with the world. Because truly, what do we have to fear? This gives us the power to shake our fist with the Apostle and proclaim, “‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’” And it grants us the confidence that not even death itself can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

We can have the confidence that Jesus does not just have the ability to save souls or hearts or minds, but Jesus has the power to break even the seemingly unbreakable bindings — as William Barclay notes, the voice of Jesus is the voice that wakes the dead.

Amen.

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