The Rev. Frank
In 1993, Victoria, Griffin and I were living in Rome, Georgia. We worked freelance at writing and photography, mostly concerning the Appalachian Trail in specific and backpacking in general. In late February of that year, we got a good solid snow in the North Georgia mountains. We loaded up in our Jeep and our friends Joe and Monica Cook loaded up in their car to head to Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail to get some pictures of it in the snow.
En route, we made our way over snow-covered roads without a hope of a snowplow to clear the way. We took our time, making our way gingerly around the twisting mountain roads with a narrow shoulder separating the roadway and a steep drop off on one side, a mountain on the other.
As we neared Amicalola Fall State Park we topped a rise to find a turn just a bit sharper than I was counting on. I twisted the wheel of the jeep a little too enthusiastically for the icy conditions and the car turned sideways. I turned the wheel back the other way gently and the car spun round, this time facing the edge where the hillside fell away steeply. We had only been going about 25 miles per hour when we topped the hill and were going considerably slower as we approached the edge. But we were sliding out of control, though we were moving slowly we were nonetheless moving inexorably toward the rim. Pumping the brakes gently was to no avail. The closest I got to prayer was the desperate thought “God help us.” I remember thinking that we weren’t likely to get out of this one unscathed.
The Jeep slid to the edge of the pavement, hit the narrow dirt strip and the tires found their purchase on the soil and we stopped. In front of the Jeep, all we could see was treetops. I was nervous as I pulled up the emergency brake, shifted the manual transmission into reverse and let up on the clutch. Soon we were backing up and driving away safely under control. My heart was beating hard in my chest. I really thought that day was going to end up in an emergency room if not worse. Driving up to the mountains on a whim turned quickly into a life or death experience.
I am sure that many, if not most of you, have experienced those times of feeling like you weren’t going to make it through this one. I know that we have cancer survivors among us as well as those who have been in bad car wrecks or other accidents. Many of us have faced times when out of the blue, death rears its head and we wonder if this is not the time. There are many near death experiences in life. In fact, when looked at from a wider vantage point, life is a near death experience. People you know and love die. And you yourself face times of confronting the fact of your own death.
We even say that the only certainties are death and taxes. As I often say, the mortality rate for humans is hovering at 100% and has been holding steady there for 2000 years. Even Jesus did not escape death. Jesus might have escaped from the power of death in his resurrection, but Jesus died first.
I used to be practically paralyzed at times with fear of death. As a young child I tended to be a hypochondriac, fearful of the many things that could fell me before my time. Probably an outgrowth of being hospitalized with Encephalitis for weeks, my fears were still extreme. Even in my teens I would have panic attacks from time to time, my heart beating rapidly and breathing getting shallow and quick as I confronted the idea that I too would die someday. I took refuge in the idea of the rapture, placing my hopes in the concept of Jesus returning before I did have to die. Into my twenties, I would sometimes get a panicky feeling if I was faced with my own mortality.
As I wrote in Friday’s newspaper, “We are all understudies for the role of the one whose health is failing and for whom death is an immanent threat.” Yet, there have been some exceptions to the finality of death. There were a few in Jesus’ ministry—Jairus’ daughter, the son of the widow Nain, and Lazarus—who were resurrected by Jesus. Three exceptions of one kind, but on the other hand all three did die, twice in fact.
Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter soon after her death. The son of the widow of Nain was raised within 24 hours. Both of these miracles, given the medical knowledge of the day, were closer to a near death experience. Then we come to Lazarus—the big test. Lazarus is dead and buried for four days. He is so certainly dead that Lazarus’ sister notes there is a stench of death about the tomb. A very unsavory olfactory image, but it notes that they were quite sure that Lazarus was really and truly dead.
Lazarus was fully and completely dead and then raised again to life. Was Lazarus happy about this arrangement? We honestly don’t know what Lazarus thought about coming back. There are no stories that survive of Lazarus feelings. Did he want to come back? Was it even fair that Lazarus was then doomed to die yet again? That’s the part that must have been so difficult for either Martha or Mary if they later had to attend Lazarus’ second funeral. But we know little of what they experienced or thought.
We are told that Jesus returned to the home of Lazarus, Martha and Mary not long afterwards for a dinner in Jesus’ honor. And we know the effect his resurrection had on others as John records that there was great interest in Jesus following the resurrection of Lazarus. There were those who conspire to not only kill Jesus, but Lazarus as well to quell the growing interest in Jesus. John chapter 12 records,
“When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.” (John 12:9-11)
John gives the Lazarus incident the credit for the large turnout of people waving palm branches as Jesus entered Jerusalem. It was the day after the dinner at Lazarus’ home that the entry into Jerusalem took place and John writes,
“The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. It was also because they heard that he performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him. The Pharisees then said to one another, ‘You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!” (John 12:17-19)
That was Sunday, the Sunday we now remember at the beginning of the Palm Sunday service. The following Friday afternoon at 3 p.m. Jesus would die on the cross. Things were winding down very rapidly and it all began with Jesus’ calling Lazarus out of his tomb.
But I don’t think Jesus resuscitating his friend Lazarus is the main point for us this Sunday morning. Yes, the event was significant for Lazarus and his sisters. But there is a different significance for us today. The key to me is that Jesus promises eternal life as a current event, not something that happens in the future.
Notice the dialogue. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” At this point Martha expresses her faith in the resurrection to come saying, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
But Martha used the future tense and Jesus corrects her making sure that she understands the promise of new life is a present tense event. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Jesus did not say, “I will be the resurrection and I will give life.” Jesus promises a life-giving transformation in the present. At that point, Martha replies, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” Martha expresses present tense faith even though her brother is still dead and buried.
This is, of course, what we do at every funeral we attend. We do not see any evidence of rebirth, any sign of new or eternal life. Yet, we too stand by the grave and pronounce that what we see is not absolute. New life is God’s ultimate answer to those who believe.
But the thrust of this passage for me comes in the closing words, “Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’” This statement is, for me, both immanently practical and clearly metaphorical.
First, the practical. Lazarus was prepared for burial. His ankles would have been tied together and his wrist bound in front of him. He would have also had a strap around his chin. Then rather than being wrapped mummy-style, there would have been a large burial sheet under the length of his body that in once piece went up his back over his head and down the front. This shroud would have been further strapped around in place with wrappings. Lazarus was quite literally bound up in his burial clothes.
Beyond the practical, Lazarus was bound to death. Lazarus needed to get separated from the power of death. Yes, he would die again one day, but Lazarus did not have to live under the bondage of death. For each of us without Jesus is bound to death and we need Jesus to unbind us from the power of sin and death.
I can tell you the day that the bondage lifted for me. It was during a youth group meeting at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. Still living in Rome, Georgia and Victoria and I were working with the High School youth group. A member of the group, 16-year old Tannika King wanted to be baptized.
As the youth group was her real community within the church, the baptism service was conducted during our youth time with the youth group joining Tannika’s Mom in presenting her for baptism. Everyone there for the service presented Tannika. Victoria and I were asked to be her Godparents.
Just as she was baptized, her head still dripping baptismal waters on the floor, Father Al Daviou said a prayer and then made the sign of the cross on Tannika’s forehead with oil and said, “Tannika, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”
I could scarcely believe the appropriateness of those words. For me at that moment they transcended mere words to show me the greater truth. Eternal life starts now. We talk about eternal life as if it were a distant possibility, something we hope to have in the future. Yet the promise of scripture is eternal life that starts right here, right now. In Tannika’s baptism, she made a public faith commitment with eternal consequences. Though I pray that Tannika outlives me, I know she will die some day (unless of course the Lord returns in the meantime). But that death that awaits her holds no power over Tannika, for she was unbound that day at St. Peter’s and so was I.
I don’t look forward to death. And I don’t enjoy dwelling on the prospects. But that knowledge, that eternal life has already started, set me free from those panic attacks. You too can be set free. You too can be unbound.
Jesus is still declaring that death is not the ultimate answer and the grave is not stronger power than the love of God. Jesus calls to you to come out of the grave. Grab hold of the certainty of eternal life. It’s not some distant prospect. You can be unbound right now. Amen.