March 13, 2016 –– 5th Sunday of Lent
Ezekiel 37:1–14 / Romans 8:6–11 / John 11:1–3, 17–44 (Year A)
LIFE OUT OF DEATH
The most repellant ugliness on earth is death with its many forms of expression. There is a painting in the Prado Museum in Spain by Hans Baldung titled "The Three Ages of Man with Death." On the ground is a newborn baby. The baby is surrounded by three elongated figures. On the left is a beautiful young woman. Next to her in the middle is a shriveled old woman. With one arm she is reaching out and grabbing the shoulder of the beautiful young girl, and with a sneer she is pulling her toward herself. Her other arm is interlocked with a third creature––whether man or woman is indiscernible, for all features have melted down into a rotting corpse holding an hourglass. The image is one of birth, youth, and old age, lived in the presence of death.
We all live in the presence of death, but it only takes a moment of reflection to recognize that we try to hide it. Society mostly segregates people who are dying from the young and vibrant. Medical science does its best to anesthetize people who are dying so they do not feel it. After people die, the mortician tries to make them look “natural.” We turn cemeteries into landscaped “parks.”
Today’s Scriptures bring us face to face with death. Ezekiel finds himself on a plain outside the city of Babylon. His people have been dragged from their homes and led away as slaves. Everything of value and all that gave them life is gone. The bones of the whole house of Israel are dried up; they are cut off and their hope is lost.
It’s too familiar. This is the cry of our own nation with fears of terrorism and cultural disintegration. This is the cry of the poor who are trapped. This is the cry of people who survive a major tornado or earthquake. This is the cry of parents when they hear a son or daughter has been killed in a car crash. This is the cry of a wife when she learns her husband has been unfaithful. This is the cry from children who hurt because the people they should be able to trust are abusing them. This is the cry of the person who thinks there is no purpose in living, nothing to look forward to. The words of Ezekiel are true for all who sense the effects of death: Our bones are dried up; we are cut off; our hope is lost. All of this and more is death, and death is ugly.
Can these bones come to life? The Scriptures today are even more about the promise of life––the gift our God wants to give us, but it is a gift that depends on our willingness and ability to name and confront the full reality of death. Life can come out of death, but only if we are not afraid to admit that we are dying and that it’s beyond our control.
This means seeing death as God sees it. Physical death, as horrible as it is, is not the full picture. Physical death and the horror of dying is what gets the attention (when we can’t avoid it). But even bigger than the ugliness of physical death is God’s word to us that physical death is a tangible result of a spiritual death which characterizes our world. St Paul tells the Romans the wages of sin is death…. (6:23a).
There is an interplay between spiritual death and physical death that becomes clearly visible when God’s Spirit gives us eyes to see. A book on grief recovery traces the story of a boy named Johnny. When five-year-old Johnny's dog dies, Johnny is stunned and he bursts out crying. His dog was his constant companion. Now the dog is gone and little Johnny is upset. Johnny's dad stammers a bit and says, "Uh, don't feel bad, Johnny, we'll get you a new dog Saturday." In that one sentence, Johnny's dad is offering the first two steps in society's grief management program: Bury your feelings; replace your losses. Once you have the new dog you won't need to think about the old dog anymore.
Later John falls in love, and the world never looked brighter––until she dumps him. Suddenly there is a deep darkness. John's heart is broken, and this time it's a bigger hurt. This is a person his heart was fixed on. John is a wreck. But mom comes to the rescue this time and says with great sensitivity, "Don't feel bad, John, there are other girls." In other words, bury the pain and replace the loss. John has steps one and two down pat now. He'll use them the rest of his life.
Shortly after, John's grandfather dies––the one to whom he felt closest. Called home from his school, John saw his mother weeping in the living room. He wanted to embrace her and cry with her, but his dad said, "Don't disturb her, John, she needs to be alone. She'll be all right in a little while." The third piece in the grieving puzzle was now in place: Grieve alone. So he too went to his room to cry alone.
This is the pattern our world gives us: Bury your feelings; replace your losses; grieve alone; let time heal; live with regret; never trust again. This has been society's approach for years. Even our culture’s compulsive consumerism is fed by a desire to forget our mortality––just find something immediate and momentarily exciting to buy that can distract your feelings. All this does is intensify our separation from God
When we try to insulate ourselves from pain and death, we are shutting ourselves off from God. We live in a world of death precisely because we want life on our own terms and take matters into our own hands in an effort to make it happen. God wants us to see that trying to understand our world and live our lives on our own, apart from his Truth, is death. Yet evil knows how to package itself so innocently and even beautifully. Christian Faith means looking at any and everything God calls sin and then seeing in it the ugliness of death.
We cannot do this by ourselves. We need God to help us. Yet the death around us clouds our understanding. We so often run from God because we know he is offended when we choose the things that bring death. It can begin to seem that God is the problem. We even want to blame him. How can we learn to trust?
A little girl hurt her finger and ran to her daddy who was busy studying in his den. She showed him her finger, but he was so caught up in what he was doing that he just looked at it and said, “Oh, it will be all right," and sent her out. She ran to her mother, weeping and crying, and her mother said, "Oh, dear, does it hurt so much?" The little girl said, "No, Mommy, it's just that Daddy didn't even say, 'Ouch.'" She just wanted somebody to say "ouch" with her.
The good news of Jesus Christ is that God not only tells us what is right and wrong, he has chosen to come among us––so much so that God himself says “ouch” with us. We find this in the story of Lazarus. These were close friends of Jesus, and he loved Lazarus and Martha and Mary. It hurt Jesus that Lazarus had to experience the ugliness of death; it hurt Jesus to see Martha and Mary in the despair of grief. So we have the shortest verse in the Bible: Jesus wept. Of course Jesus knew he would raise Lazarus to life from the time he first heard of the illness. So why did he weep when he arrived at the tomb?
Jesus wept because he felt the pain and cared about their suffering. Jesus also weeps for us and Jesus weeps with us. As this fifth Sunday in Lent brings us closer to Holy Week, the theme is becoming clearer: death leads to resurrection. Yet there are many times when our hearts and our minds look at the ugliness of death and wonder if there is any hope. There is hope when we look Jesus because Jesus heals the brokenhearted by becoming one of them.
The letter to the Romans affirms that if we have the Spirit of Jesus dwelling in us we shall rise from the dead. So on this Sunday, the Church calls us to reflect on what it means to have the Spirit of Jesus in us. Just as Ezekiel could sense the new spirit that would come upon his people in their return from exile, we who believe that Jesus Christ is God-with-us can experience a foretaste of resurrection as our lives change from death to life because the Spirit of Jesus lives in us.
Right now Jesus weeps with us when we are hurting, when the ugliness of death comes close. He weeps for us when we do not see or accept the gifts that God offers us. The story of the raising of Lazarus tells us that Jesus is indeed Lord of the living and of the dead. And it tells us this: we can take our burdens to him and he will listen…. he will say "ouch" with us in our time of pain. Death does not have the last word.
Christian Faith proclaims that the truth of God is Jesus, and the truth of Jesus is that life comes out of death. This is the Gospel.