A TOMB WITH A VIEW
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
April 2, 2017; 5th Sunday in Lent, Year A
Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-45
“Those who believe in me,
even though they die, will live…”
There’s an old story about Sister Mary Margaret, who worked as a visiting nurse. It was back in the day when nuns still wore habits. One day, the good Sister was driving around visiting homebound patients. It so happened she ran out of gas.
It also happened she was just across the street from a gas station. She walked over there and asked the attendant if he had a gas can she could borrow.
“Sorry, Sister,” said the attendant. “Some guy was here yesterday with the same problem. We loaned him our gas can, but he never brought it back.”
What to do? What to do? The gas was so near and yet so far. But necessity is the mother superior of invention, so she came up with a creative solution. The Sister opened up the trunk of her car and pulled out an old-fashioned bedpan: one of those old metal ones they used before the age of plastics. It even had a kind of spout at one end. She brought it across the street, paid the attendant to fill it up, then slowly made her way back across, carrying it carefully in front of her like an offering, so nothing would spill.
She was just in the process of pouring the gas into the tank when the local Presbyterian minister pulled into the gas station. He stared out his car window in astonishment at this rare sight: a nun in full habit, emptying a bedpan into the gas tank of a car.
The minister turned to the gas station attendant and said, “If that car starts, I’m turning Catholic!”
That would have been a miracle. And miracles, as we all know, are one of the best ways to bring a person to faith.
That’s what John, the Gospel-writer, seems to think. The first dozen or so chapters of his Gospel are one miracle story after another.
Only John never uses the word “miracle.” The word never occurs in his Gospel at all. He speaks, instead, of signs. Each of those signs points to something significant Jesus has done, something that reveals a piece of the puzzle that answers the question of who he really is.
The greatest miracle story John tells is the one we read today: the story of the raising of Lazarus.
It begins this way: “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany…” He’s a close friend of Jesus, as are his two sisters, Mary and Martha.
It’s no ordinary illness Lazarus has. He’s in mortal danger. Fearing for their brother’s life, Mary and Martha send Jesus an urgent message: “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
“He whom you love”: Mary and Martha are counting on Jesus’ friendship.
But Jesus doesn’t rush right over. He takes his time finishing up whatever it is he’s doing. By the time he arrives at the outskirts of Bethany, several days have passed.
He turns to his disciples and announces, “Lazarus is dead.” Who knows how he knows it, but he just does. Just at that moment, they see Martha walking purposefully towards them.
Her intention is to give Jesus a piece of her mind. And she does: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
If you’ve ever been in a home where someone has died before their time, then you know how emotionally raw, how chaotic, the scene can be. In accordance with Jewish law, Lazarus’ body had been placed in the tomb immediately, but the funeral brought little comfort. Emotions are still raw. The pain is very real.
But the next thing she says shows what a powerful woman of faith Martha is: “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Whatever could she mean?
Jesus says, “Your brother will rise again.”
“Of course he’ll rise again. Everybody knows God will raise up the righteous dead on the last day.”
What Jesus says next is the most important saying in the whole story: and one of the most important in all the New Testament: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” he asks her.
Martha’s response is extraordinary. She proves herself in that moment to be one of the first apostles, by what she confesses about him: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” She says it even before he performs his mighty sign.
Martha sends word to her sister Mary, who likewise comes out of the village to meet him. Trailing her are all the people who’ve been sitting shiva, back at their house. She offers the very same rebuke: “Lord, if you have been here, my brother would not have died.”
But Mary doesn’t stare back at him in defiance. She collapses at his feet in a heap of despair. Seeing the tears on her face, and on the faces of everyone else, Jesus is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.”
Then comes the shortest verse in the New Testament: “Jesus wept,” as many of us learned it in the old King James Version.
Jesus continues to be visibly upset. As they arrive at Lazarus’ tomb, John tells us he’s still “greatly disturbed.” He orders them to take away the stone from the entrance to the cave.
The tomb is rather small: just a hole cut into the rock, with a small chamber inside. According to burial practices of the day, bodies were laid inside roughcut stone tombs like this for a number of months, until the flesh decayed. The bones would then be removed and placed into an ossuary, or bone-box, and the tomb reused for someone else.
There was no embalming. No concrete vault. No preservation of the body. Everyone expected that what went on behind that stone was decay — and, in that hot climate, that it would proceed rapidly. That’s the reason for Martha’s objection to Jesus’ command to remove the stone: “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” (Some of you may remember the glee with which Sunday-School kids of years gone by would receive those ultimate gross-out words, from the King James Version: “Lord, by this time he stinketh.”)
But Martha’s objection is about more than mere physical decay. Jesus is proposing they put aside the ritual-cleanliness taboos of their culture and breach a barrier few people would ever imagine crossing: the barrier between life and death.
The heavy stone symbolizes the firmness of that barrier. Once Lazarus’ body was placed inside, and the stone rolled across the entrance, his sisters were quite certain they’d never look upon his face again. The next time the stone is removed, only his bones will remain.
But Jesus is audacious enough to pay that boundary no mind. When he calls Lazarus by name — and the once-dead man comes stumbling out of the tomb, all bound up like a mummy in his burial-cloths — everyone who sees it knows they have witnessed something truly extraordinary. It’s a mighty sign indeed: a sign of new life, such as they never imagined they would see!
Finally, there is that gracious instruction Jesus gives, to that crowd as they’re staring, slack-jawed, in disbelief: “Unbind him and let him go.” With those words, Jesus calls the church into existence, to do what the church does best. For what is it we do, as a community of the faithful, but unbind people from the bonds of death that hold them back? “Unbind them and let them go” is perhaps the oldest mission statement of this and every Christian church.
You may be wondering about the title I’ve given this sermon: “A Tomb with a View.” It’s more than just a bad pun.
I got to thinking about the tomb of Lazarus, and what it signifies.
Think about how tombs are designed. Whether it’s the roughcut stone cave of first-century Judaism or one of those Victorian granite mausoleums — such as you still run across in some older cemeteries — there’s one feature of those structures you never see: a back door. The doorway into a tomb is meant to be a one-way passage.
Once a body’s laid inside, the entrance is sealed. Its occupant crosses over the threshold — carried by the pallbearers — and is never expected to pass that way again.
When Jesus gives that command to roll away the stone, then calls Lazarus out by name, he’s reversing the usual order of things. To the consternation of all who hear him, he’s raising the possibility that the pathway into the tomb is not one-way. And when those people see Lazarus come stumbling out — probably just as surprised as they are — they realize they are witnessing a wondrous sign indeed!
We’ve got to be careful, though, what we call this sign. What Lazarus experiences, in the Gospel story, is not resurrection. It’s not proper to speak of the resurrection of Lazarus. Instead, the miracle is generally referred to as “the raising of Lazarus.”
We could just as well call it his resuscitation: because that’s really what it is. Even though four long days have elapsed, and even though his body “stinketh,” Jesus brings him back to life. Lazarus is restored to home and family, and — so far as we’re aware — he lives out a normal human lifespan. At the end of that lifespan, Lazarus undoubtedly dies, this time for good.
This is not the same thing as will soon happen to Jesus. What happens to him is more properly called resurrection. When Jesus emerges from a similar tomb, from behind a similar large stone, he has not returned to life to die again one day. From that day forward, Jesus is living a wholly new sort of life, a resurrected life: an eternal life. The apostle Paul refers to him as “the firstfruits of those who have died.” His resurrected life is the first sign of a rich harvest, promised by God to all those who trust in him, and who — by his redeeming grace — are judged worthy.
While the tomb of Jesus — like any other first-century rock-hewn tomb — had but one door, there’s no evidence he passed through that doorway on his way back into this world. None of the Gospel-writers tell of any witnesses who saw him actually walk out. No, according to the New Testament, the resurrected Jesus appears to many different people in many different places, often unexpectedly. On one occasion, he shows up in a room filled with his disciples, a room whose doors are locked.
When, in the Bible, the angel comes to roll the stone away, this is not happening in order to let Jesus out. In all likelihood, he’s out already — and he didn’t need the stone to be rolled away in order to do so. The reason the angel rolls the stone away is so the Easter witnesses — his disciples, and even those terrified Roman guards — can see in. The stone is a barrier that affects us, not him.
Many of you probably know C.S. Lewis’ famous children’s books, The Chronicles of Narnia. In the first and most famous of those books, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the four Pevensie children, who are the principal characters, enter the magical land of Narnia. They get there by passing through a large, ornate wardrobe in a disused bedroom in the house where they’ve been staying.
Lewis, of course, meant those stories to be deeply grounded in Christianity. I think it’s very possible he meant the wardrobe to be a symbol of the tomb of Jesus.
But note well the progress of those children’s journey. The first one to discover the portal into Narnia is Lucy, the youngest child. She enters the wardrobe by its front doors, fleeing the footfalls of a person she perceives to be a threat. She presses her way back through the hanging garments (that smell vaguely of mothballs), and finds — to her astonishment — there’s no back to the wardrobe at all! Lucy presses on, and eventually comes out to that snowy landscape where a single gas streetlamp is glimmering, and where she and her brothers and sister will have all sorts of magical adventures in service to Aslan the lion. Aslan is, of course, a symbol of Jesus Christ.
The point is, the children are certain there’s but one entrance to the wardrobe. As thinks most of humanity, as they ponder this experience called death. But Jesus promises us a tomb with a view. The vista we will one day see from there is, by grace, a pathway to a new world, a new sort of existence: following the trail blazed by this one we call the resurrection and the life.
Copyright © 2017, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.