Lazarus, Come Out!
The following sermon was preached by Jessica Nipp, Advancement Director, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Monday, November 2, 2009.
Isaiah 25:6-9; John 11:32-44
As Isaiah tells it in chapter 25, the Lord God is planning one heck of a party. It's a really big party—in fact, the invitation went out to all peoples. This is a party of cosmic proportions. A party fit for a king—the king of the universe. And as it turns out, the Lord of Hosts is quite the event planner. An abundance of rich food will be provided for all the peoples at this banquet, along with the finest wines. It will be a veritable feast. All peoples will eat and drink their fill.
Except the host. At this party, the Lord God won't be consuming wine and rich fare. What is God snacking on, in this festive apocalyptic scenario? For our Lord of Hosts, death is on the menu.
"And he will destroy on this mountain/ the shroud that is cast over all peoples/ the sheet that is spread over all nations;/he will swallow up death forever."
It's an interesting image, God as a Death-Eater. And I don’t mean a Death Eater of the Harry Potter universe—a wannabe striving for immortality by trampling the vulnerable. No, this is an entirely different sort of death-eating.
Isaiah's vision of a God who swallows death is deeply impacted by the mythology of the neighboring cultures. Israel's neighbors in the Ancient Near East had compelling cosmogonies: stories of how the universe came to be and rules for understanding how it operates. The Canaanites, for example, knew a god named Mot, who was for them the god of death and sterility. Mot was depicted with immense jaws and a vast throat (the better to swallow you up with, my dear). Being swallowed up by Mot; that was death. So the Canaanites didn't worship Mot—they feared him. Death swallowed everything.
And it's into the midst of those particular cultural messages that our prophet/author flings this little "Isaiah Apocalypse," as it's called. We get the image of a feast – a feast put on by the king of the universe, the Lord God. And here comes God, in a wondrous feat of divine one-upmanship, and swallows—not people into death, but swallows up death itself.
In a culture playing an ever-intensifying game of "My God is bigger than your God," the best apocalyptic hope is a cosmic one. Isaiah makes a bold claim over/against his interfaith neighbors. "My God reverses all the rules!" he claims. "My God swallows up death entirely. Now here's a God worthy of worship. Take THAT, Canaanite Death God!"
And then we have Lazarus in our reading from John. Lazarus and his sisters were friends and followers of Jesus, and so when Lazarus took ill with a life-threatening condition, Mary and Martha sent word to their friend the healer. But Jesus didn’t hightail it to Bethany to take care of Lazarus. He took his time. So much time, in fact, that when Jesus finally enters the scene, his friend Lazarus is dead.
Four days' worth of dead, which in that culture meant most definitively dead. The self – the "nephesh"—was thought to hang around the grave for three days after death, and then it would depart forever. So when Jesus arrived on the fourth day, Lazarus was beyond hope. He was dead-dead, and there was a stench to prove it.
We're at a turning point in John's gospel here. Until now, the focus of the gospel has been the signs and wonders performed by Jesus. Jesus has healed, taught, fed crowds, proclaimed the kingdom and performed other signs that pointed to his relationship with God and his ultimate divine purpose.
And now this ministry is drawing to a close. The gospel narrative is just about to shift from the story of Jesus' life to the story of Jesus' death. For us, this is the shift from the story of a healer, teacher and role model to the story of a Messiah who gives his life so that we may live. The Lazarus narrative is the fulcrum – the publicity that Jesus garners as he performs this mighty sign leads to his arrest and crucifixion. And so we find ourselves on the verge – in that precarious space between life and death.
Now everyone in Bethany knew the rules about life and death. Those rules were clear: when you die, you die. Tombs are for going in, not for coming out. Tombs entrap. Death lasts. And so when Lazarus went in that tomb, everyone knew he wasn’t coming out.
We know that Lazarus isn't the only one stuck inside a tomb. We too have our tombs:
- tombs of overwhelming responsibilities that have us backed into a corner;
- tombs of rising debt and uncertainties about the future;
- tombs of dead-end thought patterns that paralyze us from within;
- tombs of grief and sorrow for those whom we have lost;
- tombs of loneliness, of self-doubt, of despair for a broken world or a broken home or a broken heart;
- tombs that trap us inside.
In fact, we're no less trapped than Lazarus was, dead, bound, his "nephesh" long since departed, the stench starting to rise.
And now here comes Jesus, four days late but proclaiming resurrection and a God that's bigger than death; calling "Lazarus, come out!", announcing a reversal of the rules. Jesus inaugurates new cosmic rules that supercede the ones we all know and fear.
- New Rule: When God swallows up death, death can't stomach us.
- New Rule: When God swallows up death, our tombs have no choice but to spit us out.
That's what Lazarus’ tomb did: it spit him out, regurgitated him out onto the shore of new, abundant life. And we have new life, too—when God swallows up death; when our tombs spit us out.
- Our tombs spit us out when we hear a kind word as it is most needed;
- Our tombs spit us out when we get Recess in the middle of a desperate day;
- Our tombs spit us out when we're served a free meal just as the budget is about to snap;
- Out tombs spit us out when suddenly there's a community to help roll away the stone, just when we feel most alone.
That’s what we celebrate on All Saints Day:
- regurgitating tombs, a death-eating God;
- a Christ who comes to us in our tombs and calls us forth to abundant life;
- a community of saints that is there to roll away the stone;
- life abundant and death defied.
We praise our Lord God for swallowing up death. We praise our Christ Jesus for ending death's power. We raise our voices in thanksgiving, for we know that when we die, death will spew us out and a cloud of witnesses will be there to welcome us to the eternal feast.
And we thank God for the certain hope that when life entraps us, our community of faith will be there to roll away the stone, to unbind us, to celebrate with us the fact that our God is bigger than death.
Jesus is calling: Lazarus, come out! Feast! Serve! Live! Amen.