HOPE BEYOND HOPELESSNESS
EZEKIEL 37:1-14, PSALM 130, JOHN 11:1-45
March 21, 1999 by Tad Mitsui
When I think of the disasters and tragedies that some people, including some of you, have managed to live through, I am astonished that they had courage to endure it all and to come out smiling. Today”s Scripture lessons deal with the kind of despair that defies any notion of hope. And yet, the message is very clear; that there is hope beyond hopelessness. What else is there that can symbolize utter hopelessness than a pile of dry bones or a four day old decomposing corpse? Prophet Ezekiel was told to start preaching to the pile of dry bones. He could not believe what he was told to do. It ignored all common sense. But he did, and spoke the words of the living God to the bones. Lo and behold, bones began to put on flesh, sinews, and skins, and came back to life. Four days after his death, Lazarus was a smelly heap of decomposing flesh. But Jesus told him to walk out of the tomb. And he did. In both cases, life came back through words. Words from the mouths of God”s agents conveyed amazing power of spirit proving that there was hope beyond hopelessness.
I read about a minister who had served as a military Chaplain for the U.S. Marine Corps, who was a witness to the power of the Gospel story. The war in the Pacific was finally over, and he and his regiment were on a troop ship going home. Veterans who have seen action know that going home is not always a happy process. Surviving the battle field leaves one with so much anxiety and trauma. Many of them come home psychologically sick. It is called "Post Trauma Stress Disorder". One such Marine came to see the Chaplain. He was in a deep depression. He was a well educated man. When he was called up into the service, he was in the midst of articling after completing his law degree. But now he was in a state of absolute despair. He had never been able to bring himself to tell the chaplain what had been troubling him; what kind of experience he had gone through, what he had seen, had done, or had been done to him. At any rate, he did not want to go home, he did not want to see any one back home, and he had no more courage to live on, but did not have courage to kill himself either. He was a living dead man. But one morning, the young man came to see the chaplain, a completely transformed man. He said that he had been so excited that he could not sleep that night. The story of Lazarus was the Gospel read at the evening prayer. There was no explanation of the passage nor any sermon on it. It was a simple service of a lesson and a prayer. The message of the son of God telling someone he loved very much to come back to life touched him deeply. In the battle field, soldiers often had to live with sight and stench of rotting corpses. The power of the words loaded with love that defied utter hopelessness had moved him. He gained strength to come face-to-face with his psychological scar.
Resurrection stories are not uncommon in many ancient cultures. The resurrection of the Sun goddess who gave birth to Japanese archipelago is one example. A man who saw her dead, and thus became the first witness of her resurrection, was severely punished, because no human was allowed to know that the goddess could be so vulnerable and died sometimes. There are numerous similar stories of the dead coming back to life in every culture. From this, we know that resurrection stories were a form of ancient literature teaching people the meaning of life and death. So, to try to prove the uniqueness and divinity of Jesus by the stories of miraculous resurrections which he performed does not succeed, because there are many other similar stories in other religions. I am not criticising those people who believe that that was the exactly the way it happened. They must believe what they feel right for them. But the important thing to remember in reading a resurrection story is that each story is different. We must find the uniqueness in each story and identify a distinct message.
What then is the point of the story of Jesus bringing life back to Lazarus? Let us make sure first that we know what it is not. We can all agree that this story is not same as the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Lazarus came back to life, but to become an old man, and to eventually die. Jesus, on the other hand, came back to a different kind of life to live forever. We believe that he lives among us even today. He lives a life that never dies. This is the fundamental difference. In fact, what happened in the story of Lazarus was a story of resuscitation not resurrection. Lazarus did not solve the problem of death; he came back to the same perishable flesh. But Jesus Christ by his resurrection demonstrated that his life was more than physical reality. His life goes on beyond death. His life is more than mere flesh and blood.
What is the meaning of the resuscitation of Lazarus? What is different about this story from other stories is the gruesome details John went into to say that Lazarus was truly dead. In other resurrection stories, of which there are at least four, the dead persons all died immediately before Jesus” arrival, making one wonder if they were only in a coma. But for John”s Gospel, when Jesus asked people to remove the stone that entombed Lazarus” remains, his sister Martha warned that he had been dead for four days and the stench would be unbearable. What could be more hopeless than a decomposing body? Why did John tell the story in such a graphic manner? I believe that John wanted to convey a sense of absolute hopelessness and the ugliness of despair. Remember also, the Jews during those days believed that body and spirit stayed together for three days after death. But on the fourth day, the spirit would depart from the body, allowing it to start decaying.
I think that John is trying to tell us that despair is not only dark and stormy and suffocating, but is also so smelly and ugly in a metaphorical sense that repels relationships. When you fall into such a deep depression of despair and hopelessness, you will not be able to climb out of it by yourself. You need help. But you can not seek help yourself, because you are not in a state to see how help from the outside could do any good. So the one who truly needs help looks hostile, unapproachable, and unlovable. We must remember that often the person who is hostile, spiteful, and difficult to love is lonely and in need of love more than anyone else.
Jesus loved Lazarus. He and his sisters, Mary and Martha, often provided Jesus with hospitality. He stood in front of the tomb where Lazarus was laid, and wept. He wept so much that everyone could tell that he loved Lazarus very much. Then he spoke, despite the ugliness and stench of despair. He spoke forcefully to Lazarus to get up and walk. And Lazarus got up and walked. I don”t want to analyze the power of words of love. But this story has made it clear to us that love intervenes forcefully in the situation where all hope had gone. It tells us that the words of love always give us hope where there is no hope, even in the tomb of our despair. Love brings life back to us, and calls us back to life.