De Profundis: Eternal Life Now

Giotto, 1306-1308

A sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday in Lent at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Rockland, ME. Lections: Ezekiel 37:1-14Psalm 130Romans 8:6-11, and John 11:1-45.

He was a bright young man, 27 years old, and full of passion for just about everything. He was handsome

  • well-educated
  • he’d done well in school
  • He had a wide circle of friends who shared an athletic life with him –
    • kayaking, sailing, skiing, mountain-climbing.
    • He loved taking risks and going off on rugged adventures, the sort Maine is famous for.

Until the fateful day.

  • Why did he decide that day to hop on his motorcycle,
  • Why are some lives snuffed out before they have burned with the brightness they were made for?
  • Out of the depths we all cried – Why? Isn’t that the natural cry of grief?

Lazarus was ill, and his sisters Mary and Martha sent for their good friend Jesus. But when Jesus arrived, Lazarus was dead, and so Jesus got an earful from Martha: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Out of the depths they cried,

  • ‘Lord, where were you when we needed you?’
  • It’s the cry of the heart in the face of the world’s pain.

We don’t like death. And death comes in plenty of forms. I know people whose daily lives are a battle against the death of mental illness, or alcoholism, or cancer.

  • Or there is the death of someone who’s had the door slammed in his face at work.
  • Or the death of the one looking for work but finds all doors closed against her.
  • Or people living constantly inside the tomb of prejudice,
  • or are the objects of fear because they are from another country.
  • Or death comes as we sense in ourselves a long drift into a life that has lost its purpose and meaning.

Over the past weeks the Gospel of John has been telling the story of Jesus’ own battle against the power of death.

  • Nicodemus, a prosperous man who nevertheless feels dead, comes to Jesus in the night searching for a more authentic life.
  • A woman living in the death of scandal for her promiscuity meets Jesus at a well and finds the acceptance she has long been searching for.
  • And a blind man after a lifetime of social and religious ostracism reaches out to Jesus for healing.
  • And then in today’s lesson Jesus faces death head-on when he learns Lazarus is dead.

And so here, just before Jesus faces his own death, he stares the great enemy in the face.  What has been a series of skirmishes between life and death turns into a full-blown confrontation. Is there a power that can overcome even the worst that death can throw at us?

It’s a strange question to be asking before we get to Holy Week and Easter. (That’s where the full war, the greatest struggle will be engaged.) But I think John is saying that God’s answer to death isn’t just an Easter thing.

  • It’s happening every day.
  • New life
  • resurrection
  • eternal life,
  • it’s something we can receive right now.

Do you remember what happens in the story? Martha in despair runs out to meet Jesus as he arrives in Bethany. Jesus tries to reassure her. “Your brother will rise again.”

  • “I know he will rise again,” replies Martha. But somehow that hope in the bye and bye future doesn’t help when you’ve lost someone you love.
  • And so Jesus throws Martha a curve: “I am the resurrection and the life,” he says. “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 Martha. The Greek word we translate “believe” also means “trust.” And that’s what Jesus is really after. Do you trust me that there is more life yet for Lazarus?

He’s talking about new life now.

  • New life for Lazarus,
  • for Nicodemus who came in the night,
  • for the Samaritan woman at the well
  • and the man born blind.

When all these came to Jesus their mind wasn’t on eternal life.

  • The blind man wanted to see,
  • the Samaritan woman wanted to find her own place of dignity.
  • Lazarus’s sisters wanted their brother back.

And in each case what Jesus gave them was new life right then and there –

  • healing
  • forgiveness
  • acceptance
  • a new start on their lives.

Eternal life, resurrection, it’s something happening now. It’s the thing Jesus offers. Again and again.

Nowhere is it more dramatic, though, than with Lazarus. Jesus finally comes to the tomb and orders the tombstone rolled away. And then he shouts – our text suggests he is calling from the depths, it is a verb used only in two other places:

  • it’s the sound of the call that demons make when they are exorcized
  • it’s the verb Mark uses when Jesus is on the cross and the last thing he does is cry out before he dies
  • It’s the cry out of the depths
  • and out of the depths Jesus cries “Lazarus, come out!”

And of all things, the dead man rises and emerges. “Unbind him, and let him go,” Jesus says. And there he is, alive again.

Scholars will argue that this isn’t a resurrection; it’s a resuscitation, because, after all, Lazarus will still face a final death. But it’s a story about God’s power to meet us in our tombs, when we feel there is no way out.

In Jesus, the Creator of the universe, the Source of everything that ever has been and will be, is at work,

  • and those who trust him,
  • who take that life into their lives,
  • can experience healing and eternal life here and now.

And to lay claim to that, to trust it, to let God’s resurrection energy live inside you, is to live in the Spirit

  • to be born again in the Spirit
  • to drink from Jesus’ spiritual well and never thirst
  • to leave our blindness behind and see the Spirit at work in our friends, our neighbors, one another
  • to taste now the peace and healing that we will know beyond death.

Eugene O’Neill once wrote a play called Lazarus Laughed about what happened when Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead. From the first time Lazarus’ friends see him after he has been raised, he is full of joy and laughter.

“What did you see on the other side of death?” they ask. And Lazarus answers, “There is no death! There is no death! There is only life!” And he bursts into a laugh that O’Neill describes as full of acceptance of life and a profound joy. Everything about his manner of life from that point on expresses deep joy and delight – as if everything has a new luster because of what he has learned – including the climax of the play when he faces the Emperor Caligula who is about to torture and kill him, and Lazarus just smiles, unafraid.

Next week, on Palm Sunday, it will be Jesus himself making his own way into the tomb of death, and as his own prayer in Gethsemane shows, it’s the last thing he wants. But watch next week how Jesus does it.

Our of the depths Jesus calls YOU: “I am resurrection and I am life,” he says. “Those who believe in me, though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and trusts in me will never die.”

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