Lent 5, Year A: Ezekiel 37:1-14 / Psalm 130 / Romans 8:6-11 / John 11:1-45
“Pull yourself together.” How many times have we heard that? Just get yourself out of that hole you are in and get on with things. “Pull yourself together.” (Sometimes I even say it to myself.) There are times we can remedy a difficult situation with a few, simple changes, and move on. And then there are circumstances when it would be an insult to suggest we can possibly “snap out of it.”
Life’s troubles seem to fall into three major categories. The first layer is, “I’ve got this,” I just need a day off to re-group, to clean house, make a fresh list. The second layer is when we know we need to call on our support network – friends, family, co-workers – the people who will offer practical support and stand with us, to see us through. That third layer is the one that goes way beyond our human capacity, and I think that is the one we are being confronted with today – challenged to look at those times when the chaos is too great, darkness and despair too deep, circumstances too overwhelming, things seem so far gone for there to be any possibility of turning around.
Out of the depths, God calls us.
Have you ever had those situations when you can imagine a rescue? Maybe the rescue looks like winning the lottery. Long ago, I had been out hiking for a day and was lost, and I remember just wanting to be rescued. I was cold and miserable, and I could imagine a helicopter lowering down a ladder to pull me to safety. Of course, I had pictured what that should look like and precisely when it should come (right then would have been good) … How many times in the Exodus did the people of Israel cry out to God, to be delivered from their distress?
Out of such depths, God calls us.
It is not so hard to claim our faith when things are going well … when we are reaping the harvest, enjoying abundant gifts … in the springtime of love … witnessing new life and the joy of children … enjoying a vacation … glorious days when all seems just about perfect. Of course we believe in God – we see the evidence of God’s life-giving spirit at work in the world.
And this is not the picture we have in the Valley of the Dry Bones, nor in the mourning for Lazarus. These are the times that call for real faith. Disturbing, heart wrenching times – that seem all the more tragic when we hear that Jesus is also disturbed by what he encounters. Grieved at the death of his friend, witnessing the sorrow, and confronted on his responsibility: Jesus weeps.
And out of the depths, God calls us.
How do we possibly get our minds and hearts around these images, and our own sad circumstances? The pain, when all seems lost? At such times, to “pull ourselves together” is an impossible task. And I don’t believe that is what God is asking of us.
In 2005, when my spine took a disturbing spin and I was learning to walk again, I found myself in a scene like nothing I had ever encountered. It was more than the physical challenge and the pain, and previous formulas of regrouping, and getting things figured out and carrying on, were woefully inadequate. There was an indescribable chaos that told me life as I had known it was forever changed. The support of loved ones, as helpful as it was and as grateful as I was for it, was simply not enough. I could barely put one foot in front of the other, much less imagine crossing the long desert ahead.
The worst part was the nightmares, when I would finally sleep – I faced the terror of falling, lying in a heap, abandoned in the dark on some desolate road. I would have grasped for a helicopter rescue, but I don’t believe I would have found it truly helpful. Friends had already been there, and there was nothing they could really do. I had to lie in that valley, that tomb.
“If only you had been there to prevent this,” they say.
But, really, are we looking for a vending machine God who responds to our prayers with neatly packaged solutions? Or do we want a relationship?
In the wee hours one morning, awakened by yet another nightmare, I had a profound sense that Jesus was not telling me to pull myself together, nor was he saying that I could just stand up and walk … but was right there on the ground with me, there in the pain and despair. It was only then that I could be led out, to accept a new way of life. For me, this is when Jesus gets street cred. This is a Jesus I can follow.
“And Jesus wept.” He wept at the death of his friend Lazarus, he wept with Martha and Mary. And perhaps he wept, too, because people did not understand that they could, would be delivered from such despair … that there would be new life – after the desert, after the grave.
At this point in a long scripture passage, it is tempting to rush to the end and sigh with relief that dead bones walk, that Lazarus comes out. In this long season of Lent, it is tempting to fast-forward to Easter. Yet it is at this very moment that I believe we need some slow-motion footage, some storyboards, even, to study the scene. It is here in their grief that we hear the confession of faith: Martha, with no visible assurance of what is to come, affirms her belief that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. And Jesus gives thanks to God, pointing to the source that is making the improbable a reality. This is faith before the resurrection, faith before Easter.
From where does our faith come? Dry bones are knit together and animated, given life … Lazarus emerges from the tomb … And today, we can look to the good work that happens when we come together to raise funds for a worthy cause, to help people in need. Signs of resiliency. Evidence. We can point to results and say, “See: Look what God can do! Of course I believe!”
Yet we are asked to put our trust in something more than outward flesh, more than tangible signs – to do so on a timeline that is not our own – far beyond the reach of our own capabilities and influence – out of our control.
To set mind and heart on the Spirit of God that is somewhere in the elusive “out there” requires more faith than I can usually manage. To recognize Jesus, with us even in our deepest pain, is something I can do. There is much about God that I do not yet understand, but I do know this Jesus – who came into our human condition, who waits with us and bears our burdens with us, who points us to the source of eternal hope, and gives us the promise of resurrection. This is faith I can hold onto when all seems dry, barren, and lifeless … and we don’t have to wait for it.
As we near the end of our Lenten journey, as we approach the Cross, may we be mindful that this is where we confess our faith, in the one who came to share our pain, the one who weeps with us.
For it is out of this depth – this real, believable, flesh-and-bone depth – that God calls us into new life.