Harrowing Of Hell
November 1, 2015

A Lazarus Moment

The Rev. Kate Wesch


“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.”

Before coming to work at Epiphany more than six years ago, I liked this story, but honestly hadn’t given a tremendous amount of thought to it. Maybe you haven’t either. But there’s someone in this room who has given this story a whole lot of thought and prayer and contemplation, and his name is Doyt. It’s his favorite passage in the entire Bible, and as his associate I stand before you today to preach on this text, a bit of a daunting task.

MY favorite text in the entire Bible has always been the prologue to John’s gospel, those first verses that usher us into this gospel account. You know how it goes:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

“The Word” is Jesus—logos in Greek—and these powerful words of prose have always had the power to draw me right into the story. It’s so distinctive from the other gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John’s gospel account is unique, and it wasn’t until working with Doyt and studying the Bible with him that I heard the idea that Lazarus is the one who wrote it. Lazarus is the Beloved Disciple, and Lazarus wrote the Gospel of John.

Once I began to think about it, it made sense. Who else could write the poetic words of the prologue: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Of course! It was Jesus’ friend Lazarus who had been raised from the dead, who had seen with his own eyes what lies beyond the grave and had returned. Lazarus had experienced the cosmic Christ and had insight because of his experience. That’s how he could write about Jesus as the Logos, the Word existing with God outside the limits of time and space in eternity.

In the context of our story today, Lazarus’ life on earth isn’t finished. Jesus knows this about his friend and so he performs his seventh of eight miracles as recorded in this gospel when he resurrects Lazarus saying, “Lazarus, Come out!”

I heard a story this week that took my breath away. We had just read this passage together, this story of Lazarus being raised from the dead, when a woman I have known for some years now told me of being diagnosed with cancer. She said, “I was sitting there in the doctor’s office when I was given the diagnosis: terminal cancer. On a scale of one to four, I was a 3C. They gave me at most two years to live.”

She described in great detail feeling a rod going down the center of her body with peace emanating from that rod, and a total sense of relaxation came over her. As she sat there absorbing the news, a voice in her head said, “You’ll be okay.”

I asked if the voice was God, and she said, “The voice was of God,” perhaps a messenger of God, but most certainly the voice came from God somehow. That was God’s way of saying to this woman, “Come out!” That was her Lazarus moment, and she identifies it as such, especially fifteen years later. Having survived cancer now twice, she says, “I keep springing up like a weed.” She then went on to add wise words that even so, even after her Lazarus moment, she recognizes that death is not the end, death is only a change. “Rather,” she says, “Jesus is our end.”

As we heard in Revelation, Jesus is speaking to John in a vision and says, “See, I am making all things new. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” This common theme runs consistently through both lessons today. Jesus makes all things new and every once in a while, we have that Lazarus moment where an end turns into a beginning. It may not always be clear, like a resurrection or that overwhelming sense of peace in the face of a dire diagnosis, but they do happen.

So why does Jesus call us out of the depths? The short answer is because he loves us.

The lead up to the raising of Lazarus shows us this in the full version of this story. Jesus goes to Bethany where Lazarus lives with his sisters, Mary and Martha, because they are his friends. Jesus knows his friend is sick, but at this point, Bethany is a dangerous place for Jesus. The Jews have just tried to stone Jesus, and he has retreated to safety across the Jordan River when he hears that his friend has fallen ill. Bethany, however, is only two miles from Jerusalem, easy reach for the people who wish to harm him.

Jesus waits a few days and then travels to Bethany, whereupon he is greeted first by Martha who says, “Come and see.” She is deeply distraught and wants Jesus to see the body of her beloved brother Lazarus. As they are walking towards the tomb where Lazarus has been buried for four days, they encounter Mary, and she too is weeping. When Jesus sees her and those with her also weeping, the text says he was greatly disturbed in his spirit, in his heart, and deeply moved. Jesus wants to know exactly where they have laid his friend so they say, “Come and see.” And Jesus began to weep.

This is such a crushingly beautiful and human side of Jesus, weeping over the death of his friend, crying for the pain of his friends, Martha and Mary, aching right alongside them. And in the next moment, we see the most divine action Jesus does as he resurrects Lazarus from the dead. Jesus shows us his humanity and his divinity in his weeping and in his healing. Jesus shows us God’s love with a human touch and this love is for all of us.

I had a kind of Lazarus moment myself nearly two years ago, and I’ve talked about it before. Some of you will remember. I was home on maternity leave with a three-year-old and a newborn, and things weren’t going very well. Our newborn son had severe colic and never slept. He had reflux and constantly screamed. The house was a disaster. Our three-year-old daughter was acting out and needing extra attention. It was the holiday season. My husband Joel came down with a bleeding stomach ulcer, and I was ready to run away from it all.

In the middle of the night, when darkness and fear often take over, I was once again awake with a screaming baby when Jesus visited. Jesus was there in the room just when I was ready to give up. I was in the depths, sinking further and further into despair when suddenly Jesus was there, and I felt surrounded by light and love. And I knew it would be okay. That was my Lazarus moment. That was Jesus’ way of saying, “Kate! Come out!”

Instead of crawling out of a tomb, I had to climb out of the depths of post-partum depression, and with a lot of help, I did. It was an end and a beginning. Last week, Doyt talked about the long slog of transformation. Climbing out of the depths was definitely a long slog of transformation, but it became a new creation. I have come through the other side. I have been unbound from the grip of depression that held me captive in those early days with my new baby.

When Jesus called to Lazarus in the tomb, Jesus was speaking to his soul: Lazarus, Come out! When the woman sitting in the doctor’s office heard the diagnosis of terminal cancer, a voice of God spoke to her soul: Come out! When I was in the depths of depression, Jesus spoke to my soul: Kate, Come out! Each and every time, Jesus says to us, “Come out! Be unbound from your burdens, and all will be well.”

You are never the same after a Lazarus moment. It is a conversion and a resurrection of the soul. To encounter this kind of love is to be changed. Lazarus was changed, given a second chance at life. The woman diagnosed with cancer was changed, and more than physically. I was changed. In this room we are continually changed by our encounters with God.

We are changed, but the voice of God is present from beginning to end. It is eternal. A Lazarus moment is when God’s voice breaks in, into that temporal space, and calls us out into the land of the living, “come out.”