Sermon for March 26th, 2023
The face of Jesus is shrouded from us today. The images of our Lord which are so familiar and beloved to those of us who worship here week by week, those images, those statues, those faces, are covered in shrouds. And not just Jesus, his mother too. These faces which we know so well and gaze at so often, these symbols of people that we dearly love, they are hidden from us today, and for the next couple of weeks. As we enter the church on this Fifth Sunday in Lent, knowing that we are nearing Holy Week and Easter, knowing that the annual remembrance of our Lord’s death and resurrection is coming soon, as we enter and gaze around today the symbol that we see before us, all around the church, is the very prominent symbol of the shroud. The body of our Lord is shrouded; the body of his mother is shrouded; even the cross is shrouded.
And as we enter and see these shrouds this morning and perhaps wonder about their significance and meaning, at the same time, we hear in the gospel about another shroud. There is another shroud in the room this morning, it’s in our text, only this shroud isn’t covering a lifeless statue, it is covering a lifeless body, or perhaps I should say it WAS covering a lifeless body.
When we meet Lazarus in the gospel this morning he is covered in cloth. He is veiled. He is shrouded. It is his death shroud. Death shrouds are used in our culture far less nowadays, but I think we still more or less understand their use. They are used to cover the dead. You want your loved one to have dignity even in the grave, so you carefully cover them. It is a custom that provides respect to the dead and comfort to the living. Lazarus was wrapped in cloth, most likely by his sisters Martha and Mary, because he was dead. When Jesus arrives at the tomb of his dear friend he is dead; he has been dead for days. The reality of that death is evident to anyone who passes by. You can smell it.
You probably know what happens in this story. Jesus speaks a word clearly and loudly. Jesus says “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus who had been dead moments before walks out of the tomb wearing his death shroud. But it wasn’t covering a lifeless body anymore. Lazarus was alive. Not as a spooky mummy or ghost, but the old Lazarus was alive again, in the flesh. And Jesus says “unbind him and let him go.” He doesn’t need that death shroud anymore, take it off of him. And the shroud is removed.
This is resurrection. This is what resurrection is. Death being transformed back into life. This is an image, a vision, a foretaste of the Christian hope. Not cherubs strumming harps in some cloudy heaven, but dead bodies coming back to life. There are many who would say that this is a foolish and ridiculous hope. Crazy even. Bodies can be resuscitated, they can be brought back from near death, they can be healed, maybe even miraculously healed, but once a body is dead, it’s dead. That’s what the world wants us to believe. Even in the ancient world. The people standing outside Lazarus’s tomb, they believed that Jesus had the power to heal Lazarus, but they didn’t believe that he could bring him back from the dead. Only God could do that.
Now there were plenty of Jews who believed that God would do that, someday. Someday, at the end of time, there would be a general resurrection, when the dead would be raised back to life. God’s people had had glimpses of that. The prophet Elijah brought a widow’s child back to life; the prophet Elisha brought two dead bodies back to life; and then of course there is that famous vision of the prophet Ezekiel that we heard just a moment ago, when the prophet is shown a valley of dry bones. Bodies that are completely dead; absolutely no chance of resuscitation. There isn’t even any flesh on them. And Ezekiel is asked: “Can these bones live?” Well the only reasonable, rational answer to that question is: “Of course not!” Dry bones don’t come back to life; dead bodies don’t come back to life. We know that. People in the ancient world knew that too. But the prophet says: “O Lord God, you know.” And the Lord showed Ezekiel a different future.
You heard how that story ended. Ezekiel saw the dead raised back to life. Ezekiel had a vision of a future day when God would raise the dead back to life and that vision, along with various other visions and scriptures and miraculous events became a source of hope for God’s people; hope for a future when death would be no more and shrouds would become obsolete.
But it was a distant hope and a far-off day. But now that hope was standing right in front of Martha outside of her brother’s tomb.
Jesus told Martha that her brother would rise again, and she agreed with him. Someday, on the last day, on that resurrection day we all long for, he will rise. But Jesus tells her, I am the resurrection. I am that day you are longing for. I am the one who transforms death into life. And Martha wants to believe him. She wants to believe. She proclaims that Jesus is the messiah, but she doesn’t quite understand or can’t comprehend that he is about to call her dead brother out of the grave, because when Jesus tells them to roll the stone away she protests: “It has been four days! There will be a smell.” She doesn’t understand Jesus’s power just yet, not completely, but she will soon.
Can you imagine her joy in helping to rip off the burial shroud that just days before she had lovingly, but painfully wrapped around Lazarus’s body? The joy that Martha and Mary felt watching that shroud come off of Lazarus, that is Christian joy. It is, no doubt, the same joy and wonder that was felt by Mary Magdalene and Peter and John and the other disciples who all saw Jesus’s shroud on the floor in the tomb on Easter Sunday morning. On the floor, not covering a body but cast off, thrown away, being trampled into the dust like death itself. That is resurrection. Bodily resurrection. And that brothers and sisters, is the Christian faith. We believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. We believe in it, because we have seen it. Jesus showed us what resurrection was all about, and we have been promised that his resurrection will be ours too. Yes, we still believe in a general resurrection at the end of time, a great future day, but we can start living that resurrected life now, because we already live in relationship with Jesus who is the resurrection. That is the hope that drives the church.
But, my friends and fellow Christians who I hope share this hope with me, as we approach Holy Week and Good Friday and prepare ourselves to hear again the story of our Lord’s passion, I want to challenge you for a brief moment in time to imagine, looking at these shrouded bodies around us today, imagine what it would be like if these shrouds never came off. What if the shroud of death still clung to us like it clung to Lazarus? What if no stone was rolled away?
As we approach Easter and the glorious, joyful proclamation of resurrection from the dead, it is worth pausing and reminding ourselves of just how precious this hope is. Thank God that we have it, but you know, much of the world doesn’t. It is worth contemplating, for a little bit, just what life would be like if we didn’t have this hope, if we didn’t have resurrection, if we thought that the shrouds were forever. So we will sit with the shrouds for a while, but don’t worry, they’re coming back off.