“Confrontation at the Grave” — Sermon by Rev. Brian Combs, 4/5/17

The canvas tent has been stood at attention beside the burial vault and the plastic folding chairs organized into rows.  The green AstroTurf is rolled out like a manicured lawn and the pile of dirt is waiting for its return to the earth.  The gravediggers lean against the backhoe, quietly eager to fill the six-foot deep hole.

As the long black limousine pulls in, the gathered are already well defended.  A few are armed with casseroles in hand, hoping that food will inoculate grief.  Others memorialize the moment, refusing to call it anything but a celebration of life.  Most just hide behind dark sunglasses on a cloudy day.

But at the edge of the grave, despite our best attempts at avoidance and diversion, there always comes a reckoning, a moment when every funeral becomes a confrontational experience. Where we are forced to be theologians, to decide what we really believe about death.

After picking out the casket and agreeing on the flower arrangements for their deceased brother Lazarus, Mary and Martha are alone at the tomb, left to stare at one another and wonder what, if anything, happens after people die.  Four days later, a close friend of the family, Jesus, shows up and then breaks down.  Apparently, even the Son of God can be reduced to tears.

Why is Jesus weeping?

John 11:32-44 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”Jesus began to weep.  So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”  Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.  Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”  Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”  So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me.  I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.”  When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “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.”

Congregational Responses:
He’s crying because he lost one of his best friends.
Death makes even God cry.
Jesus realizes he must die to save the save the world.

Like many other pastors, Will Willimon was serving a little church in rural Georgia, when one of his members had a relative who died.  The funeral was in a hot, crowded, off brand Baptist country church.  Well, I had never seen anything like it.  They wheeled the coffin in; the preacher began to preach.  He shouted, fumed, flayed his arms.   “Its too late for Joe,” he screamed.  “He might have wanted to do this or that in life, but it is too late for him now.  He’s dead.  It’s all over for him.  He might have wanted to straighten his life out but he can’t now.  Its all over…”  “But it ain’t too late for you.  People drop dead everyday. So why wait.  Now is the day for decision.  Now is the time to make your life count for something.  Give your life to Jesus!”  Well it was the worst thing I had ever heard.  Can you imagine a preacher doing that kind of thing to a grieving family?” I asked [my wife] Patsy on the way home.  “I’ve never heard anything so manipulative, cheap, inappropriate.  I would never preach a sermon like that.”  She agreed.  “Of course,” she said, “the worse part of all is that what he said was true.”

Jesus is weeping because he has already offered the Samaritan woman living water, brought a little boy back to life, taught that the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, and still no one believes.  Not the religious authorities that are plotting his demise, not the crowds that have chased him all over Galilee, not even his own followers.

Still, with bloodshot eyes, a shaking spirit and a quivering voice, Jesus responds, No matter how deeply you might be buried, my love is too big for every tomb. Roll away the stone!  No matter the stench of your corpse, my love is furiously administering life support. Lazarus, come out! No matter how tightly the bandages of demise are wrapped, my love is forever liberating. Unbind him, and let him go!

And then, bones started rattling, and eyes started opening, and the dead man came alive.  But in the Gospel of John, the miracle wasn’t for Jesus’ benefit, wasn’t even for Lazarus’ benefit, but it was performed for our benefit, our conversion.

At today’s funeral, we all have a decision to make. Do you believe in hiding behind your sunglasses and staring into the pit, or submitting to the fatalism that what’s dead always stays dead, or do you believe that Easter is on the far side of every cemetery?  What do you believe?  Because what you believe about death most reveals what you believe about God.

If you’re anything like Mary and Martha and the well defended, feeling a little uncertain in these wilderness days of Lent, then join the billions of other Christians who have clung to their faith by reciting the Apostle’s Creed saying,

“I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.”

I believe in the resurrection of the body.

Amen.

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