Death, where is thy sting?

5 Lent.A. 2017
John 11:1-45
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

In one of her short stories the writer Annie Dillard includes a scene in which a family is gathered at a grave to commit a loved one’s body to the earth. At one point the minister intones the familiar words from 1 Corinthians, Chapter 15, “Where, O Death is thy sting?” Upon hearing that, one of the family members looks up. He scans the sorrowful faces of his family and sees all around him row upon row of headstones in the cemetery. And then he thinks to himself. “Where, O Death, is thy sting? Why, it’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked!” (Annie Dillard The Living)

I suspect a goodly number of us can add a hearty “Amen” to this sentiment. Death’s sting does seem to be just about everywhere these days: Outside the houses of Parliament in the UK, throughout the middle east,; on the roads as cars collide in horrific crashes and even here, in our own community, as we gather to say goodbye to those we’ve loved. Death’s sting is all around us.

How, then, should we approach this lesson from the Gospel of John? We know it, of course, as the story of the Raising of Lazarus. Lazarus, the brother of the hard working Martha and contemplative Mary takes ill and dies. The sisters send a message to Jesus: “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” The subtext here doesn’t even need to be written. “Come quickly, or our brother will die.” This is not a note of information. This is a plea for help, it’s an urgent summons. For some inexplicable reason Jesus does not drop what he is doing and hurry back to heal the ailing Lazarus. He dawdles—he takes his time, and it should surprise us not that Lazarus dies. By the time Our Lord steps foot in Bethany, Lazarus has been in the tomb four days. In other words—there can, by now, be no question that Lazarus is sleeping off his illness like a bad hangover. He’s good and dead. Dead as in doornail dead.

Perhaps it should not surprise us that it is Martha who greets Jesus upon his less than timely arrival in Bethany—she would be the one, wouldn’t she (first up and on her heels)—to rush to be the good hostess. However, her first words sound less like an affirmation of faith and more like an accusation: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

And here, it should dawn on us that Martha, Mary and Lazarus are not simply props inserted in a spiritual story. They are real people trapped in a vortex of grief. They are us—you and me reeling from the sting of death as we stand in the antiseptic corridors of a hospital; or listen with dread to the ring of the phone in the small hours of the morning. They are us as we stand at the side of a newly dug grave throwing flowers on the coffin of the deceased. They are ourselves as we pour over photo albums and hold letters written by those who have died, with tears streaming down our faces. They are ourselves and they know the sting of death.

Into this scenario of pain and grief Jesus comes to bring both comfort and life. When Jesus responds to Martha saying: “Your brother will rise again.” Martha replies: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Yet even here, we have the sense that while she’s saying something she believes—she’s not really expecting anything remarkable to happen to her in that present moment. And Jesus responds: “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?” We can almost hear her heavy sigh as she answers: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

Mary also comes and her responses mirror those of her sister: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” And now, we come to both the shortest verse in the Bible in many translations (and one of the most perplexing). Jesus wept. It’s short, but important. We hear it echoed in the Rite II Burial Office of our Book of Common Prayer. “Lord, you consoled Martha and Mary in their distress; draw near to us who mourn, and dry the tears of those who weep….You wept at the grave of Lazarus, your friend; comfort us in our sorrow…” Yet, why should Jesus weep? Doesn’t he know that he has the power to save Lazarus? Of course he does. I don’t believe he’s weeping for Lazarus. He’s weeping for his friends, for those who are reeling from the sting of death. In actuality that two-word sentence “Jesus wept.” forms a key verse in the raising of Lazarus. And this verse offers us a vision of Easter, the fruitfulness of love between God and friends.

Standing there at the grave of his friend Jesus cries out with a loud voice: “Lazarus, come out!” And it seems to me that Jesus’ directive—issued in the Imperative: “Come out!” was a shout meant not just for one man, Lazarus, but for all of us. “Come out! You are not meant for the tomb, but for life!”

If we continue reading John’s gospel we discover that by a cruel irony, Jesus will be put to death because he brought Lazarus back to life. After the raising of Lazarus, the Sanhedrin, the court of the Jews, gathers to discuss the growing problem of this rogue prophet from Nazareth. Beginning with verse 45 of Chapter 11 we read: “Many of the Jews, therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did (in the raising of Lazarus) believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. So the chief priests called a meeting of the council and said: “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” The High Priest, Caiaphas, spoke saying: “… it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”…Verse 53 concludes ominously: “So from that day on they planned to put him to death.”

So, on one level this story is about the death and resuscitation of Lazarus (not resurrection, because, remember, Lazarus will die yet again); but on another it is about the death and resurrection of Jesus. Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus are consumed with grief. They want their brother back, to be sure, but Jesus is also acting to give life to the world—not simply to close friends and acquaintances.

What we learn from the raising of Lazarus is this. It’s not that those who are believers in Christ escape death; but rather that we face death with a new confidence that we are in God’s hand. Ultimately, this story, if it is to have any real meaning for us at all, must become a parable for us in the sense that it must become our own story. Jesus says to you: “Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” What is your answer? And then…how do you live in light of what you proclaim? Do you labor under the sting of death or do you live as a person of hope? This is a Lenten reading—but make no mistake, the light of Easter morning is shining all around it. In Jesus’ name. Amen.