Lost in the Wilderness (4 of 4): New Life During the In-Between Times
John 11: 1-45 (selected verses) ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ March 29, 2020
Can you smell the stench of death in the air? Lazarus, Mary and Martha’s beloved brother is dead. He has been dead for four days, and the stench of death is in the air. The stench of death is also apparent in our communities as well. Can you smell it? The death of all things that seemed ‘normal’ to us is in the air. The death of public gatherings ~ as we grieve the opportunity to meet in church, to meet at sporting events, to meet at concerts, to meet for a birthday party or open house. Death is in the air! The death of human contact ~ how we miss a friendly handshake, a hug, a kiss from another, how we miss the touch of another. Death is in the air! The death of all those things we took for granted ~ going to the market and selecting our favourite items. Today, we are rejoice when we walk out of the store with a few rolls of toilet paper, some form of meat and produce. Death is in the air! The death of public etiquette, compassion, and care for ‘the other’ is upon us ~ the hoarding of supplies, people’s annoyance at needing to line-up to enter the market, fear of the other, prejudice. Death is in the air! The death of some of our freedoms that we enjoyed ~ we have witnessed a decrease to our civil liberties that we once took for granted. Countries are taking increasing measures to contain the spread of the virus; and these measures are increasingly becoming extreme. What began as a typical Canadian request for social distancing has, in some provinces, been written into law, and the stern words of our Prime Minister earlier this week saying: “enough is enough”. We have come to realize that the death of all things that we took for granted, all things that we took as normal…all of these have died. The stench of death is truly in the air! Not just in the old, dusty biblical story of Lazarus, but the stench of death is in the air for all of us.
Several months ago, the worship committee at Northwood met and shaped the theme for this season of Lent, that we now find ourselves concluding. We chose to get back to our biblical roots, and lift up Jesus’ 40 day journey in the wilderness and draw some modern-day parallels into our world. We considered how we, too, are ‘lost in the wilderness’ and we brainstormed some of these areas. The areas where we are disconnected and separated from one another and from our faith. Never, in a million years, did we fathom the unfolding of these present-day events and how we would become lost in the wilderness like never before. Amidst these days of COVID 19 pandemic, we truly find ourselves ‘re-inventing’ ourselves as family, as community, and as ‘church’ in this wilderness time.
The first reaction by Mary and Martha to Jesus’ death is anger. You can almost hear the fist-pounding anger in their voices: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”. Do you feel an anger at God for the challenges that are before us? If you do, you would be ‘normal’. In the many, many phone and zoom calls that I’ve been having there is a deep sense of anger and pain in people’s thoughts. How could God have allowed this to happen? How could Jesus have allowed this? How could our world have allowed this? I think it is important for us to be clear that God did not cause this! Jesus did not cause this! This is not a judgement being passed upon us, nor is it any form of punishment. If you, or someone you know, has contracted the virus, please know that this is not your fault; this is not something you caused; this is not something that you had any agency in causing. With the virus, or without, we are ~ each one of us ~ children of God…beloved in whom God is well pleased.
The question, then becomes, where is God amidst these uncertain times? As we continue reading on in the story, we find out exactly where God is on March 22nd, amidst this death and chaos: God is with us sharing our pain. In what is the shortest verse in the entire Bible, we hear where God is right now. Having been led to the place of death by Mary and Martha, verse 35 reads: “Jesus began to weep”. God is weeping amidst the death; Christ is embodying the sadness that is among us; the Holy Spirit is dwelling over the pain that is ours at this time of death. The Holy One is hear with you right here, right now in your pain, in your uncertainty, in this time of death…God is with us right…now!
I think this verse is very significant because it reveals a caring nature of God that we, by virtue of being God’s children, all have inherited. Jesus does not wave a ‘magic wand’ upon the death that is before him; Jesus takes time to meet us in our pain; Jesus takes time to feel our pain; to comfort; to truly ‘be’ with each of us. This text, “Jesus began to weep” is among the most comforting verses throughout all of scripture. The pain your feeling right now….Jesus is weeping with you; the suffering that you are feeling right now….Jesus is weeping with you; the stench of death around all that was normal right now…Jesus is weeping.
We are in ‘odd’ time right now. There is a word that describes this time well: it is “liminal time”. Liminal comes from the latin word ‘limens’, which means “limit or threshold”. Theologian Richard Rohr describes liminal time in this way: “it is when you have left, or about to leave, the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. I you are not trained to hold anxiety, how to live with ambuigity, how to entrust and wait, you will run…anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing”. Rohr goes on to describe how ancient cultures referred to liminal space as “crazy time” because it is like nothing that we have ever experienced before. This time is that moment that occurs between an acrobat swinging the trapeze; she has let go and finds herself in mid-air waiting for the grasp of another who is swinging her way, who will catch her, and who will swing her to safety.
As the text looks ahead, we learn that our God is a God who not only comforts us, but also brings new life. We are reassured that our God brings new life from death; we see Lazarus is restored to life. What I find interesting in the ‘raising of Lazarus’ story, is that Lazarus will not be restored to his former glory. Lazarus does not walk out of the tomb, as if nothing has happened; he does not have an angelic glow; Lazarus bears the marks of death that he has suffered. His hands and feet, even his face will be bound with strips of cloth ~ remnants of the graveclothes in which his dead body was once wrapped.
Friends, our faith will get us through this time…new life will, one day, arrive…but the marks of this liminal / in-between time will be indelible. We will be forever changed. I wonder if our ‘work’ during this liminal / this time of death is to be fully present to the deaths that we are experiencing. I have heard people say to me: ‘I will never take for granted the things I did before’. The touch and comfort of another: handshakes, hugs and kisses from others; the freedom to go and visit others when we wish, to gather at concerts and sporting events, to walk in the park; the value of compassion and etiquette and public decency.
I have already seen evidence of new life coming. Even while the ‘grave clothes’ are still upon Lazarus, I have seen evidence of new life. Communication, like never before has begun to spring up. People are calling, and emailing and video calling and sending cards and we are truly ‘caring for others’. In fact, people are picking up the phone and reacquainting themselves with long-lost friends who we have been ‘too busy’ to contact before this all happened. Families on lockdown have been rediscovering board games, cards and talking like never before. A tenderness is growing towards other because we want others to know that they ‘matter’…that they matter a lot! I have a list of people who have offered to do errands for people who are in quarantine. When I check in with people they have been overwhelmed by the offerings of support they have received. The grave clothes of death are still evident, the stench of death is still apparent, yet new life is coming…it is coming…it is coming!
Will life ever be the same after this? Will we ever live the same? Will we ever love the same? I suspect we all know the answer to these questions. The light of Christ is shining in the world, more so now than I have seen it shine in a long time. A few chapters later in John’s gospel, Jesus will offer an even more profound faith challenge: “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (Jn 20). But for now, the signs of new life and hope are around us and within us. May we truly believe; may we know that Christ weeps with us during this time of death, of suffering and pain; may we feel His presence drying our tears and comforting our pain; and may the Christ light shine through the New Life that is happening in us and through us.