Death stinks. There have been so many times I have uttered under my breath, “I really hate death.” It is so final, so permanent, so irreversible, so out of my control. The person is gone, and there you are with a gaping emptiness you did not choose or want.
Our children never met Dan’s sister, Cynthia who died at age 35 of a congenital heart defect. We have told them stories and showed them pictures, but while memories are a comfort, it is not the same. They never heard Cynthia’s easy laugh or heard her play the piano which she could do by ear. Indeed, death stinks.
Which is why both Martha and Mary are angry at Jesus for lollygagging where he was for two more days before he came to Bethany. We too, would like Jesus to prevent death before it happens. But Jesus is four days too late to save Lazarus.
When Jesus sees Mary and all her friends weeping, he is greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. And when he arrives at the tomb, Jesus himself weeps and again is greatly disturbed. The people believe that Jesus, like them is expressing his own grief at the loss of his friend—and he is—but he is expressing much more than that.
Jesus is greatly disturbed not once but twice because he, like us, is angry at death, period. He is disturbed that death is fundamental to the human condition—that it is an inevitable part of being human which we cannot avoid nor control, and that death is often the source of our greatest fear and our deepest sorrow.
That is the deep-down difficulty with the COVID-19 crisis that we all are facing. It does not let us deny, ignore or push aside death—instead every day, we must come face to face with its inevitability for us and those we love. We are reminded that we do not know when or how or if it will come, that it is as unknown as it is whether or not we were exposed to the virus at the checkout counter at the grocery store.
It is because of this terrifying truth of human life that we face every single day—pandemic or not—that Jesus waits before he comes to Mary and Martha in their grief. Jesus joins them at the point where death really, really stinks—when death is irreversible, overwhelming and final—to show us unmistakably, that death is not final for God and therefore it is not final for us.
In a move that foreshadows his own death and resurrection, Jesus asks them to roll away the stone from Lazarus’ tomb, and just as Jesus calls Mary Magdalene by name in the garden on Easter morning—leading her recognize him as the resurrected Lord—Jesus calls Lazarus by name—a stinky man dead for 4 days—to come out of the tomb. Lazarus does as Jesus commands him.
Jesus calls each of us by name in this COVID crisis—calling us to life in him even in the face of death. The reality of a God who creates billions of galaxies, who loves us so much as to compress down into human form, entering the most painful part of our existence—death itself—to show us that death is not an end, not something to fear, but it is doorway to a new life, to greater love, to more complete union with God in Christ—that is the basis of our hope and our life right now, here today. The question for us is not to wonder about how or when will I die, but as one who hears Jesus call my name into life—how can I shine the light and hope of the risen Christ who is both my eternal destiny and my present reality?
Jesus gives instructions about that as well. Lazarus comes out of the tomb still bound up in the grave cloths in which he was wrapped at death. He tells Mary, Martha and their friends to “unbind him and let him go.”
To live in the light and hope of the risen Christ is to unbind people from whatever holds them back from fullness of life. There are many opportunities for such unbinding right now.
• Many of you are doing this already by reaching out to neighbors and church members with phone calls, texts and other ways to check-in.
• Many of you are sharing worship to help people feel connected to God and to a larger community.
• During our first Zoom happy hour on Friday, Carol Peterson shared a great idea of calling old friends she had not been in touch with for a long time. She thought she was doing it for herself, but she found she was really cheering up every person she called—and connecting with people she had not talked with in over 5 years brought real joy to both of them. Carol also said we need to think of the glass not as “half-empty or half-full but rather as re-fillable” and we all felt a little less bound after that! Unbound life in Jesus’ resurrection is to always hold life as a refillable glass!
• When this crisis passes, God will call us as the church to new ways of ministry to help unbind those who have been deeply hurt in this time—not just economically, but those who are grieving, those in need community and other forms of support.
And this unbinding always begins with us. We still feel bound by feelings of fear, disappointment or anger—we still find ourselves, through this pandemic, thinking “This stinks!” And that’s okay. For daily, God unbinds us from these feelings and attitudes so we can clearly hear Jesus calling our name back into life and love again. And when we hear our name, we again receive that Blessed Assurance that we are his.
Jesus is the resurrection and the life—and his resurrection life is alive in us here and now. Breathe deeply of the fresh air today, trusting that Jesus’s life in, around, and through you, is the sweetest smell there is!