Fifth Sunday in Lent
Ezekiel 37: 1 – 14
Romans 8: 6 – 11
John 11: 1 – 45
I’m not sure how old I was. I might have been around 13 or so. One Sunday, our Rector, Mr. Pasterfield, challenged us in his sermon to find the shortest verse in the Bible. The one clue he gave us, was that this verse could be found in the Gospels. The rest was up to us. As the Brothers here in the community will tell you, I am often up for a challenge, and this one tweaked my budding inner theologian, so home I went, to see what I could find.
If I remember correctly, it took most of Sunday afternoon for me to find it, and I didn’t have any help from my parents. (In fact, I am not convinced that they knew either what the shortest verse was, or where to find it.) I started by skimming the chapters, and if I thought I had found it, I would count words, and then letters. Slowly I narrowed down the possibilities. At some point in the afternoon, much to my delight, I found it, right there on the thin onion skin pages of the King James Version of the Bible that sat on our bookshelves. It was just two words and only nine letters long: Jesus wept.
In the NRSV which we heard this morning, the verse is longer: Jesus began to weep. That’s four words and 16 letters.
Looking back on that afternoon, that occasion may have been my first real introduction to the story of Lazarus. And like any good story it has stuck with me. It’s not so much that I keep going back to the text, as the text keeps coming back to me.
I still vividly remember the scene in The Last Temptation of Christ: Lazarus looking obviously dead, but alive once again is sitting, sunning himself by the door of the home in Bethany that he shared with his sisters, when men, sent by the authorities to put an end to the rumours that Jesus had raised him from the dead, came from behind and kill him once more.
I remember too, a solitary walk I took from St. George’s College in Jerusalem, over the Mount of Olives, up the steep road on one side of the Mount and down an ancient path, perhaps once used by Jesus and the disciples, on the other, to the village of Bethany. There I saw for myself the tomb where tradition tells us that Jesus found the body of his friend, commanded that stone be rolled away, and that the very dead body come out! and for his friends to unbind him, and let him go. Today that walk is now impossible as the Israeli security wall runs along the back side of the Mount of Olives separating modern day Bethany from Jerusalem. Today, even though it is a walk of just a few miles, you can’t get there from here.
But where you can go, if not to Bethany, is into the dream of God. That dream which God has for each one of us, indeed the dream that God has for all creation, is life, not death. That dream is for all of us, not just Lazarus. The dream of God is for all of us. Lazarus discovered this. Jesus knew this. Paul was changed by this. Ezekiel saw this.
Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live…. I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived….
If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.
Lazarus, come out! Unbind him, and let him go.
We live in a death-denying culture that tells us death is not real. But the reality is otherwise. Death surrounds us. Many live half-dead, puny lives, and because of that, Jesus weeps. Many wish they were dead, and because of that, Jesus weeps. Many are simply waiting to die, and because of that, Jesus weeps.
Jesus wept because his friend Lazarus was dead. Jesus weeps today, because many of his friends live entombed by loneliness, doubt, fear, sadness, or depression. What tomb are you living in today? Jesus wept. Jesus weeps today, because many of his friends live entombed by prejudice, poverty, disease, and violence. What tomb are you living in today? Jesus wept. Jesus weeps today, because many of his friends live entombed by grief, despair, hopelessness, and disappointment. What tomb are you living in today?
The dream of God and the promise of Jesus is not death, but life. The dream of God and the promise of Jesus is not death, but life in all its fullness. The dream of God and the promise of Jesus is not death, but life in all its abundance, for Jesus came that [we] may have life, and have it abundantly. That is the dream of God, and it is for you. It is for us. It is for the world. That is the promise of Jesus, and it is for you. It is for us. It is for the world.
The story of Lazarus is significant, not because it is Lazarus’ story, but because it is ours. We are Lazarus. The story of Paul is significant, not because it is Paul’s story, but because it is ours. We are Paul. The story of Ezekiel is significant, not because it is Ezekiel’s story, but because it is ours. We are those dry bones come to life. The story of Jesus is significant, not because it is Jesus’ story, but because it is ours. We are Christ’s body risen from the dead.
Jesus weeps at everything which entombs us, just as he wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. And like Lazarus he calls us to come out and demands that we too be unbound and set free.
On Ash Wednesday we were invited to a season of self-examination and repentance so that we might be reminded of Christ’s message of pardon and absolution as set forth in the Gospel of Jesus. On that occasion we repented of all the ways in which the culture of death is at work in us and all the places where we have entombed ourselves: our unfaithfulness, pride, hypocrisy, impatience, self-indulgence, exploitation, anger, envy, intemperance, dishonesty, negligence, blindness, indifference, prejudice, contempt, waste and lack of concern. And through his tears, Jesus calls us out of our tombs and demands that we be unbound.
You may not be able to walk from Jerusalem to Bethany anymore, but you don’t need to. Bethany is here and you are Lazarus and Jesus is weeping over all the ways in which you live a half-dead and puny life. That is not God’s dream for you. That is not Jesus’ promise for you. God’s dream for you and all creation is life. Jesus’ promise for you and all creation is abundant life.
As you stretch out your hands today to receive the Bread of Life, hear the words of Jesus spoken once again, but this time to you: Come out! And feel all those bands of death fall away as you are unbound and set free. Stretch out your hands and reach for that abundant life Christ promises, and claim it for yourself. Claim it for someone you love, whose life is wrapped in death. Claim it for our world, which is in such need. Claim it for this nation.
You are Lazarus. They are Lazarus. We are Lazarus. And the dream of God and the promise of Jesus for you, is life in all its abundance. And the dream of God and the promise of Jesus for them, is life in all its abundance. And the dream of God and the promise of Jesus for us, is life in all its abundance.
I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
That dream of God, that promise of Jesus isn’t for another time or another place. It is a promise for now. It is a promise for you. It is a promise for us. It is a promise for all those whom you love.
So listen again to the words of the Gospel:
Then Jesus … came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’… So they took away the stone [and] he 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.’
Lord, unbind us all, and give to us the abundant life you have promised us in your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.
 John 11: 35
 John 11: 39, 43, 44
 Ezekiel 37: 4, 5, 10
 Romans 8: 11
 John 11: 43, 44
 John 10: 10
BCP, 1979, Ash Wednesday Exhortation, page 264 – 265
 2 Corinthians 4: 12
 Op. cit., Litany of Penitence, page 267 – 268
 John 10: 10
 John 11: 38 – 45