Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
Fifth Sunday in Lent – Second Sunday in ZOOM Church
March 29, 2020
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘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?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So, they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I know that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
Many of the Jews, therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
The story of Lazarus appears in the lectionary on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, almost the thirtieth day of the penitential season, just a week before Palm Sunday. Presumably the lectionary editors thought that the story of a man brought back to life would give people a little glimpse of what Easter might have in store after a long spell of privation and Lenten discipline. But it’s a difficult read in the midst of a pandemic. It just seems a long way away from us. Someone dies and Jesus brings him back to life. A miracle. Well, yes, wouldn’t that be great?
Of course, in the story, the people don’t know the outcome. We see and hear the anguish – that Lazarus’ sisters Mary and Martha are prostrate with grief, that many others had come from Jerusalem to mourn with the family. Lord, if you had been here, says Martha, my brother would not have died – and then Mary too – if only, if only you had been here. Jesus himself, as someone in the lectionary group said, is like a divining rod for the emotion that surrounds him. He hears their grief, is drawn to it, he shares it, and he himself begins to weep.
And part of the feeling that Jesus has perceived and shared is the persistent human longing to change the reality. That is a question for all of us, and all the time. If only, if only. I can remember feeling it as a child when reading about Peter Pan. If only, if only I could fly. And as we grow older it comes upon us in all kinds of ways. If only she would call. If only the diagnosis were different. If only I could go there one more time. If only I had not quit. If only I had quit. If only this crazy pandemic never happened. If only we can somehow get through it. If only you were here, Lord, we would be okay.
The forty days and nights of Lent are a whole season of saying, if only. It intentionally reminds us of the longing for something different that underlies our busy lives. Lent makes us stop and consider the fundamentals.
But this year all of us have been forced into a deeper Lent – and not out of religious conviction! We are all giving up a lot. Giving up our freedom of movement and association. For some, giving up our jobs. Giving up our income and security. As long as this lasts, we are living more simply. Forced to figure out what is essential.
The time of Lent is supposed to be devoted to spiritual renewal. And whoever we are, and whether we are enjoying it or not, that is what this Lent is forcing almost everyone to search out. As people go walking alone, and live cramped with relatives, find new ways to work and to socialize, the questions are basic. What do you care about? What do you believe in?
The Spanish word for Lent is Cuaresma – related to the word forty, cuarenta. Those forty days, so symbolic in the Bible – the forty days and forty nights in which it rained and rained on Noah and his companions in the Ark. The forty days of Jesus’ solitude in the mountains. The forty years of the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness.
And here is another forty – quarantine. Quarantine, coming from the same root, was the forty days that a ship suspected of carrying the plague would be forced to anchor away from the harbour. A quarantine is a cuarenta. The specific time of withdrawal from society while you wait until you are no longer contagious. Sequestered from all others. Quarantine and cuarenta and cuaresma – Lent.
Unfortunately for us the forty days is a metaphor – it’s not an exact count – it just means, a long time. We have no idea how long these conditions will persist. And we cannot know the outcome. We cannot know the illnesses, the deaths, the loss of livelihood, the many changes that will emerge. And we cannot know what good things may be called out from this time, to flourish.
What we do know is that Jesus will be drawn to our grief and anxiety, like a divining rod, that he will weep. That his journey with his followers is the sign of God’s own presence with humanity.
At the end of the day there is new life. Not just in the story of Lazarus, but in all our stories. What we have given up on will be brought back to life. What is dead and decaying will be unbound and made whole. This time will end.
And for this we give God thanks. Amen.