In one of his more famous homilies, Augustine preached on the three times that Jesus raised someone from the dead. The first time is the raising of Jairus’ daughter in Mark 5. Jairus’ daughter was dead in the house, notes Augustine. Her death symbolizes the sins that we commit only in thought, that are “in the house” and unseen. The second time is the raising of the son of the widow of Nain, in Luke 7. When Jesus encounters the son and the widow, his body is being carried outside the city for burial. His death symbolizes the sins that we actually commit – they are “outside the city” and can be seen by others. And the third time is the story we just heard in this morning’s gospel, the raising of Lazarus. Lazarus has been dead three days, and Augustine says he symbolizes sins that have become habitual, that have festered so long that there is a stench. The punch line – to which Augustine builds and delivers as only Augustine can deliver – is that no matter how dead we may be, Jesus is able to raise us to new life.
In the early church, the scriptures we’ve been hearing over the five Sundays of Lent were the same scriptures used to prepare catechumens for Baptism at the Easter Vigil. [After two or three years of preparation, in Lent the catechumens made one final push of preparation– a final review, really, of things they had already discovered. ] In broad brushstrokes the Scriptures of Lent sketch out “everyman’s” spiritual journey. The spiritual journey begins as we did on Lent 1, in the “wilderness” with the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. There in our “wilderness” we discover Jesus knows about wilderness, too, that he has been there. The journey continues with the risk of drawing near to Jesus, as did Nicodemus in the lesson for Lent 2. Maybe at first under the cover of darkness, like Nicodemus, but nonetheless taking the risk to draw near to Jesus. Step 3 is taking the risk of letting Jesus draw near to us, as did the woman at the well, whom Jesus told everything she had ever done, with no judgment whatsoever. Step 4 is allowing Jesus to touch us – as he did the blind man in the lesson last week – in order to restore our “sight” to see “not as mortals see… but as God sees,” to look on the heart.
This morning’s gospel lesson – the raising of Lazarus – is the culmination of the journey. Here we learn the power of Jesus to raise from the dead.
It matters not how “dead” we may be. Perhaps we have died only “in the house;” to all outward appearances everything looks fine, yet inside we are “dead,” and we know we need resurrection. Maybe, like the widow of Nain’s son, we are dead and already being carried outside the city; we are “dead” enough that others can see we are dead. Maybe in some ways we are even as Lazarus – so far gone that there is a stench. “Can these bones live?” we might wonder. “Take away the stone,” says Jesus. “Come out!” he says to us; and then, “Unbind him, and let him go!” It matters not how “dead” we may be – whether in the house, outside the city, or long enough that there is a stench – Jesus has the power to raise us from the dead.
A twelve-stepper once said to me that he’s seen people in the 40’s start all over again. And people in their 50’s. And people in their 70’s! We are never “too far gone” to be raised, never too old to receive new life from Jesus. We can always, all of us, no matter the circumstances, be raised up. Jesus’ invitation to new life is for everybody!
We need but let Jesus in. 1) To let Jesus in to our “wilderness” – which we all have inside. Jesus has been there; he knows what it’s like. 2) To let Jesus in to our lives. To take the risk, like Nicodemus, of drawing nearer to him. It can be under the cover of darkness, but new life is available to those who take the risk of letting themselves draw near to Jesus. 3) To take the risk, as did the woman at the well, of letting Jesus draw near to us. He sees everything we have ever done; but shows absolutely no judgment whatsoever. 4) To let Jesus touch us, as did the man born blind, and heal us and open our eyes so that we might look on the heart. 5) Like Mary and Martha, to let Jesus in to our places of “death,” even when we know that we have been dead so long that “there is a stench,” and to trust that he can raise us no matter how “dead” we may be.
This week, the last week of Lent before Holy Week, I invite us to consider the places in which we are in need of resurrection. These places may be “in the house” – nobody else sees or knows about them. These may be places outside the city, where others do see and know about them. Or there may be places in which “there is a stench,” in which we have been dead a long time. If we let him in, maybe we will see how much he loves us. Maybe we will hear him say, “I am resurrection and I am life.” Maybe he will command that the stone be rolled away from us, and we will hear him say to us, “Come out!” And we will be unbound let go. As much as we might want to be raised from the dead, Jesus wants to raise us from the dead. Why not take the risk of letting him near? Why not let him in? Letting him in to our lives is what our hearts want; and it’s what Jesus wants, too.