32 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." 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see." 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!" 37 But some of them said, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?" 38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 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 four days." 40 Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, "Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew 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." 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" 44 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."
I once heard a movie quote that goes something like this: “that’s what living is, the six inches in front of your face,” and whether or not that should be the case, it strikes me as being pretty true. The problems of getting through each day, what with health issues, getting the children to school on time, making sure the bills are paid, making sure there is enough money to even pay the bills, and oh, the transmission on the car just went out, and we are late for dinner with the neighbors, and aren’t we going to finally take that vacation we have been planning on for several years, yeah but what are we having for dinner and did I tell you my niece was coming into town this weekend, and so it goes, day in and day and day. Too much to do with too little time in which to do it. So living really does become getting through whatever is immediately in front of us. Our lives take on the hurried character of attending to whatever problem is right in front of us, and then doing this again and again and again, with very little hope of zooming out to see a bit of the bigger picture that is at work, and because our lives have taken on this totally manic pace, days like this become all the more important. Important because here in this place, we are given the space to zoom out a bit, if only for a few moments. And that zooming out, enlarging our focus from beyond the very present problems that greet us with each waking day, that takes on a very different meaning for today’s worship service. And here’s the thing; our focus could not be any grander than it is today, because today, this day, we look towards the horizon of our deaths, towards those who have already gone before us and just what our own eternal destiny might be. How’s that for a zooming out?
And though we rush from idle thing to idle thing, though our culture has raised distraction to an art form, and certainly one that tends towards the sinful, the reality of death is never really that far from us. Not when those in our worshipping community have lost mothers and sisters, sons and brothers, dear friends, a beloved pastor. So this fresh-faced kid has no intention on lecturing you about the importance of acknowledging our deaths in the face of the culture’s unbelievable and even demonic denial about such things. The reality of death is never really that far from us, just as it was not too far from our distant mothers in the faith, Mary and Martha. They had just lost a dearly beloved brother, one who went by the name of Lazarus, and suffice it to say that they were dealing with it in two very different ways. You can see Martha, all action, channeling her grief, channeling all that emotional energy into making funeral plans. Making sure that the obituary was written, the food ordered and the flowers beautiful. For Martha, the emotional comedown will be at a later point. In that stillness after the funeral, after everyone has gone home and she sits alone. Then the sorrow will hit, but for now, so long as there are things to do, Lazarus’ death can remain an abstract problem, something, in the end, to be fixed and solved. Mary on the other hand, well, she is that raw nerve, that visceral embodiment of the shock, the pain and the utter grief of death. She is a blizzard of sorrow, weeping and wailing loudly lest anyone miss the point that her brother has died. She simply cannot abide the cold and distant injustice of his death, and when Jesus does finally show, a bit too later for her liking, you can better believe that censoring herself is not exactly her first priority, and please do not gloss over her words as though they were less accusatory than they actually are. From Christ’s feet, she hurls these words: “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” How’s that for a greeting?
And while we certainly expect those who have just lost a brother to be deep in their grief, what is, perhaps, unexpected, is to see just how deeply affected Jesus is by all of this. Though he has had plans on raising Lazarus from the beginning, saying things like Lazarus is asleep, that his sickness will lead to the glory of God and not to death, that doesn’t keep him from experiencing the fullness of these sisters’ pain and indeed his own. When he sees Mary looking more like a heap of grief than an actual person, and when he converses with Martha, her grief turned into an abstract problem, and when he steps into the stench of his friend’s already decaying body, four days is a long time, after all, he, himself, is overcome by it all. “Jesus began to weep,” or “Jesus wept,” depending on your translation, the shortest verse in Scripture, because what else is there to say? What words could be added to a vision of God, deep in the flesh, so deep, in fact, that he sees how that flesh decays, grows old and finally begins to decompose and stink. And that is where the glory of God is. Not out in some distant place unaffected by the small human dramas, but right there, right there at the tomb and its stench. Right there where all our myths of self-sufficiency, all our stoic dreams of being able to hold it together in the face of tragedy and pain, all our abstracting away the real problem of this life, namely that it ends, yes, right in that place where all of that is put to rest, there is the glory of God. And not a cold and indifferent glory, but a glory that weeps along side you, a glory that feels your pain, feels your loss so deeply that He, He the Christ who is God’s glory, He, the very embodiment of all that is eternal and true, He, himself is moved to tears. And then moved to action, calling forth his dear friend from the tomb, unbinding him and, with that strong and divine word, calling Lazarus forth from his tomb.
And so as we come to this day, this day heavy with our grief and our own hope, hear these words. You are loved by a God, remembered by a God who knows your pain as his own, a God who comes to your graves, to the graves of those whom we have lost this year and in the years past, yes a God who is there weeping beside you. You are never abandoned in your fear and your pain. Your grief and sorrow is never too thick to keep God’s tears from mingling with your own. For it is in the small, undignified and deeply human moments that the glory of God in Christ shines forth. Ah, but there is more, so much more. While few, if any of us, can boast a Lazarus like-like raising, there exists a more glorious resurrection that awaits you. That great day in which all tears will be wiped away and you will see God face-to-face. Yes, that great day when all the sin, shame and fear will be cast out and God will be all-in-all. The wine poured out and the banquet table overflowing with good things. And make no mistake, those whom we remember today, they already shine in the glory of their Lord. They see Him face-to-face and drink deeply of His mercy and kindness. They sit at the banquet table with Lazarus, Mary and Martha, reveling in the goodness of a God who called them out of their graves. And you, you are those bound for that eternal glory, as well. In the words of the old hymn, the Lord has promised good to you. So when you return to those six inches in front of your face, return to the daily problems that make up our time here on this earth, do so as one who is destined for God’s glory in Christ. Do so with the full knowledge that Christ’s eternal love is not just six inches in front of you, but is the very God in whom you move, live and have your being. And that is true in this life and the next. To Christ, then, be all glory, praise and honor eternal. Amen.