Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | March 9, 2008

2008.03.09 “Lazarus Who Laughed; A Conversation with Martha, Mary . . . and Lazarus”

Central United Methodist Church

“Lazarus Who Laughed;

A Conversation with Martha, Mary . . . and Lazarus”

John 11: 1 – 45

March 9th, 2008

            “When he had said this, Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  – John 11:  43 – 44, The New Revised Standard Version


     For most of us, the scene is familiar; too familiar. Someone has died. We visit the family, in their home, or, more commonly today, at the funeral home. Grief is written over their faces. People converse in hushed tones, as if they might wake the dead.  There is crying, and sometimes, even in a culture fearful of emotions, there may even be screaming and crying.  

      Amazingly, the words that we hear now are the same words that they heard then:  “Jesus said, ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life, those who live and believe in me shall never die, and even though they die, yet shall they live.’ How many times have I said those words?   How many times have we heard them?

      As preacher Fred Craddock notes, “The church clings to these words like few other sayings of Jesus. The scene of Jesus with two grieving sisters, weeping at the grave of their brother and his friend, has offered comfort and hope unmatched by any other resource, biblical or otherwise.  Most Christian funerals allude to these words or this scene.” (Fred B. Craddock, “A Twofold Death and Resurrection,” The Christian Century, March 21-28, p. 299.)

      This scene, and these words, so loved, are from the 11th chapter of the Gospel of John. They mark the fifth conversation of Jesus we have heard over these Sundays of Lent, first with the tempter in the wilderness, with the religious leader Nicodemus, the Woman at the Well, and last week, the Man Born Blind. 

      In truth, this conversation is not so much as conversation as a confrontation, with Death.  It is the final sign in John’s book of Signs: just as the healing of the man born blind portrayed Jesus as the Light of the World, here by the raising of Lazarus Jesus is portrayed as the Resurrection and the Life.  

      Even though the story is beloved by us, it raises many questions.

      After receiving word that his friend Lazarus is ill – even unto death — why would Jesus delay?  The reason Jesus gives is to make it an occasion to show God’s glory. It fits with what we learned last week about the man born blind: the question in life about misfortune is not what the cause is or whose fault it is, but to see it as an opportunity to do whatever – in the name of God – we can do to aid those who are ill and comfort those who grieve. 

      By the way, unless you are Jesus, don’t try this at home.  I don’t think you would appreciate the ambulance crew saying, “Let’s give it a few minutes and really make this interesting.”

      The second question raised is, “Why, in this story, is Jesus so full of emotion?” When Jesus sees Martha and those with her sobbing, the texts say, variously, “a deep anger welled up within him”, or “he was deeply moved and troubled.” (NIV)  On the way to Lazarus’ tomb, occurs the shortest verse in the Bible (and thus our favorite for memorization), “Jesus wept.” (11:35).  And then it says, “Then Jesus, the anger again welling up within him, arrived at the tomb.”

      Perhaps Jesus hated the ruin and sorrow that death brings to life, seen in the swelling in Martha and Mary’s faces, the tears of his friends, and the stench of his friend Lazarus.  Perhaps this is Jesus seeing in the death of his friend Lazarus a vision of his own death, soon to come.  Indeed, this is the great irony of this story: Jesus is experiences something like Gethsemane, for he knows that calling Lazarus out of the tomb means he must enter it. The verses that follow this story make this clear: the belief in Jesus generated by raising Lazarus prompts the religious leaders to plot Jesus’ death (11: 45-53).  

      Or perhaps the tears and emotion Jesus displays in this story speak so powerfully to us because they show us, Jesus, God incarnate, sharing the plight we share: our weeping, our anger, our dying.  God is not outside our sorrows; God shares them, and is with us, in them.  Jesus wept.  Surely God must weep at the state of the world, at our inconsolable sorrows. “Blessed are those who mourn, said Jesus, for they will be comforted.”

      And what are we to make of the final scene?  How could a man dead four days come back to life?  How could he walk, with hands and feet bound tight? And he’d better keep his grave clothes handy, for Lazarus was raised only to die again:  there is no Lazarus out there still walking around.

      It seems to me that the point of this story is not that corpses come back to life, any more than Jesus’ did at his resurrection, or than ours will in some future fantastic resurrection.

      No, the point of the story I think is made best in Jesus’ words with Martha, when he says, “Your brother will be raised up,” and she says, misunderstanding, “I know that he will be raised up in the resurrection at the end of time.”  And Jesus says, “You don’t have to wait for the End. I am, right now, Resurrection and Life. The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live.  And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all.  Do you believe this?”

      This is huge, and important. Let me say it again: Resurrection Life does not have to wait for death to begin, it must not wait for some future resurrection to begin; it begins when we — with Jesus — put our trust in God, who alone transcends death.  That’s how I believe Jesus faced his own suffering and death on the cross, tears notwithstanding; that’s what I believe Jesus’ Resurrection is about; that’s how I believe we best face our own.

      In 1928, the playwright Eugene O’Neill wrote a play entitled  “Lazarus Laughed.”  The play was not a commercial success; in fact, it closed just a week after it opened on Broadway; but I believe O’Neill got it right.

      The play picks up where the Biblical story leaves off.  As the curtain goes up, Lazarus stumbles out of the dark, blinking into the sunlight. After the grave clothes are taken off he begins to laugh a gentle, soft laugh; nothing bitter, nothing derisive, an embracing, astonishing, welcoming sound. The first thing he does is to embrace Jesus with gratitude. Then he embraces his sisters and the other people gathered there.

      He has a clear look in his eye.  It’s as if he’s seeing the world for the very first time. He reaches over and pats the earth affectionately. He looks up at the sky, at the trees, at the neighbors as if he had never seen them before, as if overwhelmed by the incredible brightness of the way everything is.  The first words he utters are the words, “Yes, yes, yes,” as if to embrace reality as it is discovered all over again.

      Lazarus makes his way back to his house and soon the whole village is in wonder. Finally somebody gets the courage to ask the question on everybody’s mind. “Lazarus, what is it like to die? What lies on the other side of this boundary that none of us have crossed?”

      At that point, Lazarus begins to laugh even more intensely and then says, “There is no death, really. There is only life. There is only God. There is only incredible joy.  Death is not the way it appears from this side.  Death is not an abyss into which we go into chaos. It is, rather, a portal through which we move into everlasting growth and everlasting life. The One that meets us there is the same generosity that gave us our lives in the beginning, the One who gave us our birth. Not because we deserved it but because that generous One wanted us to be and therefore there is nothing to fear in the next realm. The grave is as empty as a doorway is empty.  It is a portal through which we move into greater and finer life. Therefore, there is nothing to fear.  Our great agenda is to learn to accept, to learn to trust. We are put here to learn to love more fully. There is only life. There is no death.”  And with that his laughter began to fill the house in which he was staying.

      Lazarus goes back to his daily tasks and yet there is something different.  He is now a non-anxious person.  He is no longer vulnerable to that fear that diminishes life. The house where he lives becomes known as the “House of Laughter,” and night after night, you can hear singing and dancing.

      Soon, the spirit of this one who had come back with this message that there is nothing to fear begins to spread throughout the whole village. The quality of work began to rise all over Bethany. People began to live more humanely and more generously with each other. There does not seem to be the occasion for conflict there used to be. In fact, a joy settles over the whole community because someone has come back saying there was finally nothing to fear.

      But not everyone is pleased with this turn of events. The Roman authorities are quick to sense that this one who has lost his fear of death was, in fact, a threat to the kind of control they liked to maintain. How do you intimidate someone no longer afraid of death?

      So they move in on Lazarus. They tell him to quit laughing. They tell him his house can no longer be the occasion of parties and all he does is laugh all the more. “The truth is,” he says, “there is nothing you can do to me.  There is no death. There is only life.”

      The Romans are so frustrated they arrest him. They take him to Caesarea where he appears before a higher official, but he’s not able to do anything with Lazarus. And so he’s taken all the way to Rome.

      The play ends as he stands face to face with the Roman emperor, allegedly the most powerful man on earth.  He says to Lazarus, “You have a choice. You’ll either stop this infernal laughter right this minute or I’m going to have you put to death.”  And Lazarus continues to laugh.

      And Lazarus defiantly says to the emperor, “Go ahead and do what you will. There is no death. There is only life.” (As told by Rev. John Claypool on the Chicago Sunday Evening Club’s 30 Good Minutes, in a sermon entitled, “Easter and the Fear of Death”, Program # 4024, First air date March 30, 1997)

      In our time, Henri Nouwen, in his book “Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring, put it this way:

      “When we reach beyond our fears to the One who loves us with a love that was there before we were born and will be there after we die, then oppression, persecution, and even death will be unable to take our freedom.  Once we have come to the deep inner knowledge — a knowledge more of the heart than the mind — that we are born out of love and will die into love, that every part of our being is deeply rooted in love, and that this love is our true Father and Mother, then all forms of evil, illness, and death lose their final power over us.  (Henri Nouwen, Our Greatest Gift:  A Meditation on Dying and Caring, p. 17)

      “I am, right now,” says Jesus, “Resurrection and Life. The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all.  Do you believe this?”


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