Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”(Read the whole passage)
Last week we witnessed a Transfiguration moment, the Blind man having his sight restored. It was like the revelation on the mountaintop, eyes were opened to see the world, and see God, in a new way.
But by Wednesday, the euphoria of transfiguration was over. And we descended to the ashes, to the signs of decay and death around us, the evidence that sin and suffering still hold much sway in our world.
And now we begin Lent.
Lent always begins with wilderness. Usually we hear the story of Jesus’ temptation. After Jesus’ baptism, the spirit takes Jesus into the wilderness in order to be tempted. This begins Jesus’ ministry in Matthew, Mark and Luke. But as we explore John this year, through the narrative lectionary, we hear a story that normally comes at the end of Lent, a story that foreshadows Holy Week, a story of death and resurrection.
But with all of Lent still laying before us, there is still a long way until we are ready for Holy Week. We are just entering the wilderness.
So we hear this familiar story of Lazarus with different ears.
The wilderness experiences throughout this story are varied and different, yet they are all about the experience of being vulnerable and exposed. The wilderness is a place where safety and comfort is taken away, it is a place of wandering, a place of isolation.
The wilderness begins with news of Lazarus illness. He is in a wilderness that we all know, the wilderness of suffering. Suffering which leads to death. We have all seen this story before, whether it is a friend or family member. A life threatening illness strikes, yet there is hope for a cure. But the treatments don’t work, the prayers seem to be unheard and death is inevitable. A common wilderness experience.
Mary and Martha are helpless care givers for their brother, and his death brings them into a wilderness of grief. Martha’s a frantic and searching grief, Mary’s an overwhelming and debilitating grief.
Martha meets Jesus on road, she wants answers, she wants to point the finger, she is lashing out. Her grief is a wild and untamed wilderness experience, a roller coaster of emotion.
Mary also meets Jesus on the road, but her grief is different. She collapses at Jesus feet. She is crushed and falling, falling deeper and deeper into despair.
The disciples are also in a wilderness of sorts… they are lost and confused about Jesus’ actions. They have seen Jesus heal and care for strangers, yet here he is delaying to care for a beloved friend.
And finally Jesus, just like the stories of his temptation, is also in the wilderness. This time the temptation is again there, the temptation to rush in and save the day, to use his power to avoid all the pain and suffering of his friends and disciples.
As we enter in Lent, this year bouncing from vignette to vignette, hearing these examples of different wilderness journeys, we can recognize ourselves. We have been there too, we have all been tossed out into the wilderness in just the same ways.
We have been in the wilderness of grief and loss. We have been there in the midst of broken relationships, in the midst of addiction, in the midst of job loss or difficult times making ends meet. We have been through wildernesses of illness and disease.
And we all know that our world and society creates wildernesses of suffering and isolation because of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, class, and whatever other arbitrary divisions and categories for people we create.
And it isn’t just individuals who wander in the wilderness.
This week an entire nation is once again wandering in a wilderness of gun violence, after 17 people were killed in a Florida high school.
And of course, many churches find themselves in wildernesses of decline, wondering about the future, wondering how to keep on with fewer resources and few people to carry the load.
With all these wilderness experiences around us, it may seems strange to practice one as the church… to create one that begins Ash Wednesday and ends on Good Friday.
Yet, we rehearse this Lenten wilderness journey year after year because avoiding the realities of life will not help… we can only pretend everything is okay for so long.
Rather, as the body of Christ, we practice going through the wildness year after year so that we learn how to navigate them when we encounter them in life. We practice so that we know how to make it through. We practice so that we can see the other side…
But even then, there is a deeper message that the Lenten wilderness gives us…
In the wilderness, God finds and gathers us.
As Jesus waits to go to his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus, he does so knowing that his purpose is not to heal people and make them feel better. Jesus has come to announcing the Kingdom of God coming near… and that rushing to make any suffering just go away does not really deal with the true issues of our world.
And so when Jesus finally goes to Bethany, he brings his confused disciples with him. He brings them so that they see that aren’t just wandering around with a gifted healer. Jesus has called them to follow a deeper purpose… to take up their crosses and find new life.
On the way, Jesus stops to collect Martha. He promises her even in her frantic grief that he is the resurrection and the life.
And then he collects Mary, and with her, he simply weeps, he comes along side her in her despair to let her know that she is not alone.
And finally, he comes to Lazarus. Lazarus who has entered into the last wilderness waiting for us all… the wilderness of death.
And here standing in front of the tomb, is not the end of wilderness, not the escape. But rather the farthest out, most vulnerable, most isolating moment of any wilderness journey.
Jesus has gathered Mary, Martha, Lazarus and his disciples as the moment when all hope is lost, when nothing makes sense, when safety, security and healing cannot be imagine.
Surely, the disciples couldn’t have been more confused than when Jesus commands the stone to be rolled away.
Surely, Mary couldn’t have been born the thought of seeing the body of her dead brother once again.
Surely, Martha couldn’t be expected to believe that Jesus was the resurrection and the life in this moment.
Surely, Lazarus couldn’t have been anything but dead, since it had been four days.
Surely, Jesus couldn’t have waited this long to heal Lazarus.
“Lazarus, come out!” Jesus commands.
Who but Jesus could know that the wilderness leads to this place?
It is not the escape or exit from a wilderness journey. Rather, this moment, this Lenten moment at the tomb is the revelation that all the things we think give us safety and security, the things that may protect us and prevent us harm are all but illusory.
We practice Lent year after year because the wilderness is life. It is where we always are.
And it is where Jesus gathers us up. Lost and alone and vulnerable to a world of sin and suffering, Jesus comes and gathers us up.
Jesus comes and gathers up and brings us to the cross and to the grave, to the very places where sin, suffering and death seem to have won and Jesus declares their power over. Jesus declares that the Kingdom of God has come near to us, here and now.
Because in the face of confusion, suffering, grief and death, in the face of human sin, brokenness, failures and faults, in the face of more mass shootings and the inexorable power of decline…. what else is there but to be gathered around Word, Water, Bread and Wine.
When there is nothing else for us,
Jesus gathers us around Wilderness words like, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
Jesus gathers us around water that washes our dead bodies, heals us of our suffering, and unbinds from our sin.
Jesus gathers us around a table of bread and wine, a table that sits next to an empty tomb and has room for all.
Jesus gathers in the wilderness because the wilderness is where we are, and so the wilderness is where God will give live to the world.
The wilderness is where God gathers us around new life.