Harrowing Of Hell
November 4, 2012

Coming Out of Our Tombs

Preacher: Charissa Jones, MDiv

Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; John 11:32-44; and Revelation 21:1-6a

Our society has a strange fondness for spooky and ghoulish things, and so I noticed this Halloween that for yet another year zombies were all the rage.  The interesting thing is that last week I’d been feeling like a zombie, like some sort of living dead creature going through the motions but with no real vitality.  I get like this sometimes, usually when I’ve been stacking too many activities too closely together while also trying to do complex project planning in my head.

When I let myself get overloaded like that I tend to have a familiar pattern.  Inwardly I start to collapse under the constant spiral of anxiety about getting everything done; externally I adopt a persona I’m going to call the grim-faced pioneer woman – she keeps pressing forward, keeps getting things done, keeps meeting the needs of others, keeps making the journey long past when the journey stopped being fun.  She is determined, reliable, and heroic.

I think real pioneer women were heroic; however, the persona I adopt is really just a zombie roaming frantically from one task to the next, feeling more and more dead by the moment, all the while priding herself on a fierce determination to see this thing through.  And building storehouses of resentment.

But I’m getting older and wiser, so in the midst of my zombie state last week I found that I began a kind of watchful expectation for the appearance of God.  I know that when I get like this, God often gets very creative.  And that if I start looking for the fingerprints of God at work in my life, I will find them – because God is not terribly interested in my zombie, grim-faced pioneer woman persona.  God, one of our scripture readings tells us, is interested in “making all things new.”  Or, as another of the passages says, destroying “the shroud that is cast over all peoples.”

In the Gospel reading for today, we see Jesus literally turn death into life.  Jesus had been away from Bethany and during that time a very sick Lazarus died.  While he’d been sick they sent word to Jesus who had been unable to come back before the death of his friend.  So when Jesus arrives both sisters, Mary and Martha greet him with the words, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Mary and Martha have witnessed some of his dramatic healings.  They acknowledge that he has power and feel certain that he would not have withheld that power had he been in the room with Lazarus.

How does Jesus respond?  I am always moved by this story because we see the incarnate God grieve.  Jesus sees Mary weeping, and sees the surrounding friends also crying and becomes “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.”  He asks about where Lazarus has been laid and they offer to take him there and Jesus begins to weep.

He is genuinely stricken by their grief and shares in their mourning.  He also moves physically toward the tomb, moves straight into the source of their grief rather than drawing their attention away or moving on.

Others at the scene interpret his tears as a sign of affection for Lazarus, “See how he loved him!”  But our narrator has told us that he is moved by Mary, Martha, and their friends.  He understands the grief of those left behind.

Still others voice the observation, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Three times in this story, it is noted that had Jesus been present this would not have happened.  These statements create a dramatic tension and seem to suggest a question like, is Jesus really powerful and really good if he can’t get back in time and prevent the death of someone he loves?

In the midst of loss or disaster this is a common question.  Couldn’t an almighty and loving God have prevented this?

But the story moves forward and we see Jesus, again greatly disturbed, arriving at the tomb.  He asks for the stone to be moved and Martha points out that it has been four days and there will be a stench.  She is speaking from a very rational, practical, and understandable perspective.  She might be a sort of grim-faced pioneer woman, pointing out a scientific truth.  Bodies stink after four days.

But they move the stone, Jesus looks upward and prays, and then does something that must have been most unexpected, he asks Lazarus to come out.  And the narrator tells us, “The dead man came out.”  The final words of Jesus are “unbind him and let him go.”

This story seems to prefigure Jesus’ own resurrection and ultimate power over death.  As with the resurrection, in this story God’s power over death is demonstrated physically.

Over and over again the incarnate Jesus, it seems to me, offered his followers physical illustrations that pointed to larger, spiritual truths.  He performed a long list of extraordinary actions they would long remember, but more than that, he supplemented those with important teachings.  Together they point to a way of living that he envisioned for us.  A way of living marked by being spiritually alive and present to the kingdom of heaven.

I believe that God is daily revealing victories over spiritual deaths, that God keeps stepping in and breathing life into once dead corners of our souls – drawing us into spiritual practices, helping us unravel old established patterns, and calling us back into life.  This is God making all things new.  This is God “swallowing up death forever”, and destroying “the shroud that is cast over all people.”

When I let myself get into a grim-faced pioneer woman state, when I die an internal death at the hands of anxiety, busyness, and false heroics, God chooses to call out, “Charissa, come out of your tomb!”  And somehow, God makes that possible.  I encounter once again, the capacity of Jesus to raise the dead.

On Friday, after a few days of taking some time to care for myself and slow down, I was driving to work and began reflecting on a story someone had told me the night before.  There was something in that story that made me suddenly present to the reality that I am deeply blessed and loved.  I began to cry because, after all that zombie numbness, I was finally feeling something and it felt so good to feel alive once again – alive to the feeling of pure joy.  I sat and soaked that in for a little while.  And then I was aware of something else, I was suddenly aware of the trustworthiness of God: a trustworthiness that makes unnecessary the anxiety and frantic busyness that got me into that horrible zombie state.

I felt like Lazarus exhaling the stale air from his lungs and rediscovering what it is to be alive.

We may long for the hand of God to hold back storms and physical death, but how well do we realize the immensity of the small daily miracles that bring life and healing to our souls?

The small daily miracles that are transforming us, gradually, into saints.