LAZARUS, COME OUT!
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way."
Charles Dickens, when he wrote that introduction to A Tale of Two Cities, was talking about the time just preceding the French Revolution, when the rich grew ever richer on the backs of the poor and the few squandered the resources of the many. If you asked the rich and powerful how things were going, you would get the list of superlatives. If you asked the poor and those who voiced dissent from the government, you would have generated the opposite list. There have been many such times throughout history, and there are those who would say that we are in such times now.
I don't believe, however, that analysis of the political situation is all that Dickens' words have to offer. In addition to social commentary, we can also hear in the words of Dickens the choice that God lays out before every human being...the choice we make of how we will view the world, the choice between death and resurrection.
Easter is a time when we tell the story of Jesus' resurrection from the dead. But the reason we tell that story is not just so that we can feel happy for Jesus or relief for his disciples. The whole point of the Christian message of Jesus' death and resurrection is that there is good news in it even for us today, in the here and now. That good news is that any day can be for us "the best of times," if we will see it through the eyes of the one who has risen from the dead. The point is not just that Jesus rose from the dead, but that Jesus rose from the dead so that we, too, can conquer death. What seems like defeat can be turned into victory in the hands of God.
All through the Gospel accounts, Jesus indicates that in the spiritual realm things look very different than they do here. Those who think they are important in this world don't really amount to much, and it is those who live lives of service to others who are the leaders in God's kingdom. In order to save your life, you have to be willing to give it up; in order to receive you have to start giving your resources away. The rich will wail and the poor are blessed...the worst of times are the best of times in the view of the Kingdom of God. In the worst of times, the Bible says to "rejoice and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven."
The message of Jesus' death and resurrection is that the difference between darkness and light...winter and spring... need have nothing to do with our outward circumstances. The death and resurrection of Jesus has made possible our own resurrection and transformation, not just at the point of our physical death, but in the here and now. Eternal life–abundant life, is now.
I think that is the point that Jesus makes when he raises his friend Lazarus from the dead. When Jesus calls Lazarus out from his tomb, he doesn't come floating out as a glorious spirit and ascend into heaven. That is part of the resurrection message, and Lazarus will get that later. But at this point, Jesus calls Lazarus back to the life on earth he had been living. He is still Lazarus; he still has two sisters; and actually his life on earth is now much more complicated because he has become a celebrity...the proof of a miracle of Jesus, and the Pharisees now want to kill him.
We talk about this aspect of resurrection less often. We sing of the amazing miracle of the resurrection of Jesus. We are grateful at every funeral for the assurance that even when our physical bodies give out, we are still very much alive; and we are able to continue that life in all its complexity and richness if we will accept God's love and move into the Light of God's grace. But the story of Lazarus shows there is more to it, even than that. We don't have to wait until our bodies disintegrate to know what resurrection life is all about. Just as Jesus called to Lazarus to continue his earthly life in a new way, so he calls to all of us to be transformed and renewed...to come out of our tombs and truly live.
The worst of times, the age of foolishness, the epoch of incredulity, the season of Darkness, the winter of despair, nothing before us...that is the view from the spiritual tomb. You become wrapped up in it like graveclothes and feel like a rock has sealed you in. The world must be dark, because dark is all you can see. You despair; you lie down on your bed and give your hearts over to the darkness because there seems to be no other answer.
Ah, but there are people gathering outside of your tomb. Your friends and family have gathered...they cry for you because you are sealed up in the darkness, and they, too, feel helpless. They rail at God for the injustice of it all. There is someone else who has joined the crowd outside your tomb. It is Jesus. As it turns out, there is something your friends and family can do. Jesus instructs them... "Roll away the stone."
They think he's crazy. "It's impossible, Jesus," he's too far gone. She has been in the tomb too long. He's dead, Jesus. She's beyond hope. We're sorry, but there's nothing we can do. "Take away the stone," he says. "Stop being mad at God and do your part." They gather together...it is a large, heavy stone. They roll it away. They watch and wonder.
Now there is daylight flooding the tomb. You can't see it, because you're wrapped up in graveclothes like a mummy. You would think it was only a delusion anyway. You're dead. There is no hope. It is dark and will always be so. Don't even think about light. You'll be disappointed. The stench of despair comes from you. It is the worst of times. You hear a voice. It sounds distant because of all the stuff covering your ears. It must be a dream. No, it sounds like a real voice...calling your name. "Lazarus, come out!" Something stirs. The call has power, "Lazarus, come out!" It echoes in your ears... "Come out! Come out! Come out!"
You are on your feet, although you don't know how. You still can't see or really move well, but somehow you got up at the call of the voice. It makes no sense. You are dead. There is no hope. But still, you find yourself hobbling toward the sound of the voice. You hear people gasping as you stagger to one place that looks a little lighter than the others.
Your friends and family see you in standing beside the stone. They are dumbfounded, amazed, wondering what Jesus will do next. But the next job is theirs, and the next words of Jesus are addressed to them. "Unbind him, and let him go." The graveclothes are sticky and messy from the ointments and spices. The smell of death is still wrapped tightly around you. You feel a touch from the outside. The cloths of death are coming off. Someone close to you is doing for you what you cannot do for yourself. More light is visible. Your arms feel more free. Suddenly the cloth comes off of your eyes. There is color and light and love and rejoicing. It is almost too much. You see the face of God. You live. It is the best of times.
The message of Easter is that you don't have to stay in the tomb. Jesus is calling to you to come out...to see that it is God who has the power to change despair to hope and foolishness to wisdom. It is God who can make the blackest of days into something that will be called "good" throughout the centuries. Jesus rose from the dead, not just for his own satisfaction but so that it would be obvious to everyone that God's intention is for all of us to have life...life eternal, life abundant...beginning now and lasting forever.
Despair and fear are the workers of Satan that seal the tomb. They surround you with darkness, and make you believe there is no way out. They are liars. They are wrong. Just outside your tomb all those who love you have gathered and Jesus himself has come. The stone itself knows its Master and would roll away of its own accord if there were no one there to move it. The power of love is calling to you to come out. Come out of the tomb. Despair is a lie. Wherever God is, there is hope, and there is no place in heaven or on earth or even in the depths of hell, where God cannot go. You cannot be in a place or a condition where God cannot reach you.
"Where can I go from your Spirit?" asks the Psalmist. "Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,' even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day." No matter how dark your tomb, God can turn it into a womb of life.
And for those waiting outside, Jesus also has a word. Don't just stand there...help push the stone. We can't just sit around and expect God to our job. If we are unable, God will act. But we are expected to do all we can to help others out of the tomb. Push aside the blocks that keep the light from getting in. We need to clean up our lives so that we do not become stones that block others from seeing the Light of God. And when someone steps out of a dark tomb, still wrapped in the trappings of death, we need to be the ones to help unbind them. Every one of us as Christians is called to minister to those who are bound...to help set them free from whatever is preventing them from enjoying abundant life, even as once others helped us as we stepped out of the tomb ourselves.
Come out! Out of the tomb and into the Light! It is the best of times, it is the age of wisdom, it is the epoch of belief, it is the season of Light, it is the spring of hope, we have everything before us...Come out! Taste and see that the Lord is good. Come out of your winter and into the Spring. The Lord is calling your name, but you must get up and come out. It doesn't matter that you can't see clearly just yet. All Lazarus had when he first stood up was a vague sense that it was a little less dark. There is a community of people who love you waiting to help you take off the graveclothes. Jesus is calling...Come out!
© 2003, Anne Robertson
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