Sermon: “Jesus Wept”
Presented at ARK Community Church in Dalton, MA
April 6, 2014 (Fifth Sunday of Lent)
This morning’s reading from Ezekiel 37, and our Gospel reading from John 11, are parallel stories. They both deal with the same issues, are presented in similar ways, and both demonstrate how utterly powerless we are in the face of death and darkness: readings we do well to consider on this, the last Sunday in Lent before Palm Sunday.
Let us pray…
Lord God, we ask that your Holy Spirit fill each and every one of us here this morning. Open the scriptures before us, and enable me to clearly communicate what you intend for us to receive here today. Make your gospel come alive within each and every one of us, driving all darkness from our hearts.
We rejoice in this opportunity to encounter new revelations and a deeper understanding of your unconditional, living, infinite love; and we ask that we be amazed and transformed by that love. Help us to embody your gospel, and to live it, in all that we do, think, speak, and are; both individually and jointly, as members of this congregation which stands before you as a portion of the Body of Believers who share your Gospel with their neighbors in this community.
In Jesus Name, Amen.
Both of our readings this morning deal with dark times, placing us within the narrative of those who have lost all hope, those who have nothing whatsoever left, and see nothing in their future.
We all have such valleys of darkness in our lives, times when the walls close in, times when the way forward is not just unclear, but entirely nonexistent. Times when we cannot see beyond that dark horizon that we cannot penetrate; times when all hope dies and death itself seems all too near at hand, or perhaps not near enough.
I’m sure that many folks are in this place of darkness, suffering and loss today. In thinking of such darkness and despair, I ask you to keep in your thoughts and prayers the families and co-workers of the two firefighters who died in Boston on March 26th; the families who are seeking their loved ones amidst the mud in Darrington, Washington; those grappling with the sudden and unexplained disappearance of their loved ones on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, and the families of those 500 political prisoners sentenced to death in Egypt on March 29th.
Such were the times in both of our readings this morning. People in both of these passages are dealing with the sudden and unexpected loss of something that was important to them, and of people whom they loved. There was no time to say goodbye, only time to despair, and to grieve. Darkness had forever covered those whom they loved.
In the book of Ezekiel, we read of the Plain of Bones, a metaphor for the death of Israel, destroyed by the Babylonian Empire. Those who survived were now strangers in a strange land, prisoners, exiled far from their burned and broken homes. All hope had died, they did not see any future for themselves, nothing was left. They saw themselves as dead. They had no reason to move ahead, no reason to live; nor could they go back, for there was nothing to go back to, not even their faith, because with the temple destroyed, even God had no home.
And yet, Ezekiel wrote about hope, hope beyond human understanding or even human imagination. It was the hope of God. Ezekiel’s said that God would not let go of Israel, even though Israel was wandering and lost, believing God was dead or had abandoned them. Through Ezekiel, God promised Israel that those dead and scattered dry bones would live again; because God’s presence, and God’s love for us, is not restricted by our human imaginations, nor by our human limitations. God IS, and God’s Hope is a hope that persists when all other hope dies. God’s Hope is the hope that will bear fruit even though the blackness around us is too thick and too heavy for us to bear any more. God’s hope is in the light that God created out of darkness.
That same hope is in the story of Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha. A man who had already died, a man for whom all human hope was meaningless. A man who had already passed beyond the dark horizon that Jesus would soon face himself. Lazarus was already there among those anonymous and scattered bones, as we all someday will be. He had been engulfed by that blackness that we are all painfully aware of, and have seen in those painful recent events I mentioned. And, we all know we must someday face it ourselves, alone against the empty blackness that eventually engulfs all people, all nations, and all hope.
And yet, the New Testament narrative of Lazarus is not completely in parallel with the prophesy of Ezekiel.
In Ezekiel’s vision of the Plain of Bones, we see that God’s hope and power revives a broken and destroyed people, already as good as dead. God commits to restoring them to the Promised Land, and it won’t just be a land that breathes again, but it will be a land again filled with the fullness and joy of life.
But, Ezekiel’s God is distant, dictating to the people of Israel what God will do. God is remote, not experiencing what the people are experiencing, even though God takes note-of, and has compassion-for, their suffering.
We see similar things in the story of Lazarus. We see the finality of death, the brokenness of those who survive, and, finally, the unlooked-for restoration of that which had been given up as forever lost. It is the power of God that brings about that restoration, resurrecting Lazarus when all hope for him was gone.
But, in the story of Lazarus, there are three major differences.
First, the story of Lazarus is a very personal one. The narrative does not speak of dry bones and a mass of unnamed people, as it does in Ezekiel. We have names, and we have faces. We see individual reactions, and it is Lazarus’ dead body we speak of: a specific person; and, we are told a person who now stinks, because he has been dead for four days. We find ourselves inside a very intimate scene, all of our senses attuned to what they heard, saw, felt and smelt as we stand with them before the tomb of our friend and brother, Lazarus.
But then comes the next difference: Jesus wept.
Jesus is portrayed in the book of John as Immanuel, “God with us.” This message is central to the Gospels. The God of Christianity is a God that is no longer at a distance, as in Ezekiel. God is not separate from us. God is with us, Immanuel, here and now: God walks among us as a human being, in the form and life of Jesus. Our faith tells us that through Jesus, God experiences all that we experience, God feels all that we feel. God knows, deeply, and personally, all of the pains and fears and victories and defeats and joys of life, just as we do. God laughs when we laugh, God hurts when we hurt, and God weeps when we weep.
And in that weeping, Lazarus was restored to us. Returned from the darkness that is beyond the reach of human imagination and human hope to walk among us again. Lazarus is us. God did not let go of him, and will not let go of us. The most central and essential message of the Gospel of Christ is that no matter how hopeless life becomes, no matter whether we are at death’s door or in the prime of life, no matter what we see for our own selves in the future, and no matter what worth (or lack of worth) we place upon our own continued existence, God not only loves us, but is at our side, rejoicing with us, laughing with us, suffering with us and weeping with us; walking with us through the good times and the tough times.
Our scripture readings today emphasize this, that God walks with us even across that dark horizon and into death itself. God’s Hope lives, even when we have lost all hope for ourselves, and even when we are beyond all human hope.
And so, our lives do not end in death, but in God. God promises, and demonstrates through the tears and life and death and resurrection of Jesus that that which is dead and beyond all hope will live again.
And then there is a third and final difference. It is not God alone who frees Lazarus from the bonds of death. We have a role in it, too. It is those who believe who must step forward and complete the process of freeing Lazarus from his shroud. God no longer does the work alone, nor does God do the work for us. Instead, the work is done with us. The redemption of Lazarus is not complete without our participation.
Just as the people of Israel found in the prophesies of Ezekiel; and just as the disciples found in the resurrection of Lazarus, we all have stories of redemption and restoration beyond human hope or understanding. We have all been touched, at one time or another, by God’s tears and God’s compassion. We have all seen miracles that came to fruition as a result of our personal participation with others to meet the seemingly insurmountable challenges that are before us. We will see such miracles again, and in fact have already seen them in some of the stories we’ve heard in the media with regard to the events I mentioned earlier. We are not alone, we are not lost in darkness, and God is not separated from us.
Our Lord God is in Heaven with Lazarus, and is with Jesus, and is here on Earth with us: Immanuel. God always has been, and always will be, there for us in the darkness, waiting for us to see the light.
Copyright (c) 2014, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or gaining) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)