Every grave, every tomb, every corpse is empty! – a sermon for Lent 5A – John 11:1-45

 I have an old copy of a sermon by John Claypool, entitled “Easter and the Fear of Death” 1997. Whenever the story of Lazarus comes up in the lectionary, I dig out the old typewritten manuscript and once again discover the brilliance of Claypool’s work. I have played with Claypool’s words once before in  a sermon, but this year the laughter it evokes compelled me to once again explore the possibilities of Claypool’s work.  You can listen to the sermon here

“Jesus wept.”

“Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb.”

“Lazarus come out!”

“Unbind him and let him go.”

These phrases echo down through the centuries into my being, opening me to the mysteries of our existence.  For who among us has not wept when confronted by the death of a loved one? Who among us has not been halted in our tracks by the reality of death? Who among us have not gone over and over again come to the tomb, greatly disturbed?

Greatly disturbed, the Greek text could also be  accurately translated as  “groaned inwardly“ or “deeply physically moved”; as if his whole being groaned in pain. Who among us has not come to the tomb of a loved one, greatly disturbed? Death looms large in our imaginations. Death calls our very existence into question. Death moves us to tears. The Greek text often translated ever so briefly as, Jesus wept can also be translated as, “Jesus began to weep.” Who among us has not known the pain of beginning to weep, beginning to grieve, beginning the process that moves us beyond the concerns of this life, into the darkness of the tomb; the tomb in which our deepest darkest fears disturb us to the very core of our being? In each of our lives the pain of loss has moved us into the deepest and darkest of places, where weeping and groaning has disturbed us, shaken us, and moved us to begin to weep tears that feel like the shall never end.

This morning, I invite you to enter the darkness that permeates the mystery of death so that we might feel the contours of our fears. I invite you to gaze upon this photograph of a doorway into the darkness and imagine yourself wrapped in the mystery that is your own death. They say, you know the experts, the psychologists, the psychiatrists, the anthropologists, the spiritual advisors, the soothsayers, the priests and preachers, they say that death, or own death, inspires the kind of fear in us that inspires all our fears. Death, the mystery of not knowing, the fear of not being, this fear inspires all our fears. The fear of non-being, of ending, of what lies beyond our ending, this fear gives birth to all our fears. The fear that there won’t be enough time, gives rise to the fear that there won’t be enough love, enough experience, enough stuff, enough joy, which circles back to enough love, enough time, enough being.

These fears circle back to our ultimate fear that there won’t there won’t be enough time, these ever encircling fears wrap themselves around our being like the ancient bands of a burial cloth, binding us, wrapping us up in circles of fear that constrict our life.  For who among us has not worried about whether or not there’s going to be enough life, enough love for us?

Fear, “they say” you know the experts, “they say” fear lies at the very heart of who we are. Child psychologists describe the phenomenon of fear in children as coming in three basic forms: the fear of falling or failing, the fear of loud noises or catastrophe, and the fear of abandonment.  They suggest that at the bottom of all these fears is the fear of death.  We humans are a strange lot, driven by our fears to commit the most outrageous acts.  So many of us live lives controlled by our fears, and we wrap ourselves up in the fear that there just won’t be enough love for us; or enough success, or enough money, or enough time.  So, we become jealous of others, and we grab all the success and all the money we can before time runs out. We allow our fears to drive our emotions and so jealousy, greed and eventually hatred drive our actions and poverty, violence and war come to dominate our world.  The fear of death is the primal terror that what awaits us at the end of our journey here is nothing but chaos or even judgement or punishment.

“The ancient poet Homer, writing centuries before the birth of Christ, put it quite succinctly, Homer said, “Death is that thing that destroys what we call life and who can remove the terror of it.” What would it be like, do you suppose, if we could lose our fear of death?  What if the dark end of the tunnel that awaits every one of us ceased to be something that we dread and avoid?  What if we look upon our death as a portal, the beginning of a new adventure?  How would losing the fear of death impact the way we live?

In a sermon years ago, the great Southern preacher, John Claypool talked about a little-known play by Eugene O’Neill entitled, “Lazarus Laughed.”  In this play, O’Neill gives us a glimpse of the power of life without fear.  The play begins, where the Biblical story of Lazarus leaves off presuming that the audience is very familiar with the biblical story.

“Lazarus was dead and buried for four whole days when Jesus came to the village of Bethany, had the stone rolled back from the tomb, and gave Lazarus back the gift of life. As the curtain goes up, Lazarus is seen stumbling out of the dark, blinking into the sunlight.  After the grave clothes are taken off of him, Lazarus begins to laugh a gentle, soft laugh; nothing bitter, nothing derisive, an embracing, astonishing, welcoming sound.  The very first thing Lazarus does is to embrace Jesus with gratitude.

Then Lazarus begins to embrace his sisters Martha and Mary and then the other people who are gathered about in astonishment. Lazarus has a very clear look in his eye, nothing far away. It’s as if he’s seeing the world about him for the very first time.  He reaches over and pats the earth very affectionately. He looks up at the sky, at the trees, at the neighbours as if he had never seen them before, as if he is overwhelmed by the incredible all rightness of the way everything is. The very first words Lazarus utters are the words, “Yes, yes, yes,” as if to embrace reality as it is being discovered all over again.

In the play, Lazarus makes his way back to his house and the whole village of Bethany is awash with wonder. Finally, somebody gets the courage to ask what was on everybody’s mind. “Lazarus, tell us what it’s like to die. What lies on the other side of this boundary that none of us have crossed?”

At that point, Lazarus begins to laugh even more intensely and then he says, “There is no death, really. There is only life.  There is only God. There is only incredible joy.” “Death is not the way it appears from this side. “Death is not an abyss into which we go into chaos.” “Death is a portal through which we move into everlasting growth and everlasting life.”

Then Lazarus says, “The One that meets us there is the same generosity that gave us our lives in the beginning, the One who gave us our birth.  Not because we deserved it but because that generous One wanted us to be and therefore there is nothing to fear in the next realm.”

“The grave is as empty as a doorway is empty. It is a portal through which we move into greater and finer life. Therefore, there is nothing to fear.  Our great agenda in this part of life is to learn to accept, to learn to trust. We are here to learn to love more fully. There is only life. There is no death.” And with that Lazarus’ laughter began to fill the whole house in which he was staying. Then, Lazarus goes back to his daily tasks, but there is something different. He is calm and not anxious anymore. He is no longer vulnerable to that fear that diminishes the vitality of life. The house where he lives became known as the “house of laughter” and night after night, you would hear singing and dancing. And the spirit of this one who had come back with this message that there is nothing to fear began to spread throughout the whole little village. The quality of work began to rise all over Bethany. People began to live in harmony and more generously with one another. The conflicts of old died down. Joy settled over this whole little community because someone had come back saying that there was finally nothing to fear. But, not everyone in Bethany was pleased with this turn of events.  The Roman authorities were quick to sense that this one who had lost his fear of death was, in fact, a great threat to the kind of control that they liked to maintain. You realize, of course, that the key to intimidation is always that incipient fear of death.  The way a tyrant holds someone down is by always suggesting that if they don’t obey then something terrible, like death, would be used against them.

One of the cruelest of all the Roman emperors, a man named Caligula, used to say, “Crosses and corpses are so educational.  Let the scum see their blood or the blood of some of their kin and it will so cower them in fear that then we can rule them.” 

So, the Romans were past masters at intimidation and Lazarus represented a real threat. How do you intimidate someone who is no longer afraid of death?  In the play, the Roman authorities move in on Lazarus.  They tell him to quit laughing.  They tell him his house can no longer be the place for parties and all he does is to laugh all the more.  He says clearly, “The truth is, there is nothing you can do to me. There is no death. There is only life.” The Romans were so frustrated that they arrest him.    They take him to Caesarea where he appears before a higher official, but he’s not able to do anything with Lazarus.  And so, Lazarus is taken all the way to Rome.

The play ends as Lazarus stands face to face with the Roman emperor. Here is the man who is allegedly the most powerful of all on the earth.  He says to Lazarus, “You have a choice. You will either stop this infernal laughter right this minute or I’m going to have you put to death.”

And Lazarus continues to laugh. He says to the emperor, “Go ahead and do what you will.  There is no death. There is only life.” The play ends with a man who is no longer afraid of death actually being more powerful than the one who ruled all of the Roman Empire.” (John Claypool, “Easter and the Fear of Death” 1997)

Death is that ancient primal fear that that haunts us and drives us. Death is the mystery that drives us to believe that there’s not enough time, to gather enough love, enough money, or enough power and so we jealously grab all we can so that jealousy, greed, and hatred lead us down the pathway to poverty, violence and war. Death is that thing that destroys life.  Who can remove the terror of it?

Gazing into the darkness of the tomb, my darkest tomb, the darkest tombs of those I have loved and lost, all I can see is the emptiness of the darkness. The good news that the tomb is empty is enough for me. I have no need to see or know a risen corpse. The news that the tomb is empty together with the departure of so many people that I have loved and lost to so many tombs has lead me to believe that life is eternal.            

Sisters and brothers, I do mean eternal in the literal sense; for by definition eternal means that which has no beginning and no end. All too often we forget the no beginning part. Our lives are eternal for we are made of stardust; billions of years old are we.  Death will not be the end, but a continuation of the connection we already have with one another and with the Divine. Just as Jesus lived and died in, with, trough, and beyond God, so too, do we. Jesus died into God and so shall we. Death is not the final word. Death is a very big word, perhaps one of the biggest, words in our vocabulary, but it is not the most important word; love is.

When we live in the Love who is God, when we die in the Love who is God, death is not the final word; LOVE is. I have no idea what lies beyond death; neither does anyone who has ever lived this side of death. I live in the sure and certain knowledge that the tomb is empty.  As empty as any grave, or urn, or corpse that I have ever stood by. There is absolutely no point seeking the living among the dead. Anyone who has ever sat beside someone who is dying knows this. For at the very moment of death, the living are gone. The corpse that held them is empty. And yet they live. They live in our hearts, they live in our minds, and if the love we felt was strong, they actually live in our bodies. The more I learn of science, I am beginning to understand that they live in ways that are beyond my comprehension; for physics teaches us that matter can change its shape and composition and that what was there one minute in one form can change in an instant into another form, in ways that we are scarcely beginning to understand.  So, I am confident that the grave is empty.

The darkness of every tomb, opens my being to the darkness of the night sky; a darkness in which the evidence of stardust continues to light my way and illumine the darkness so that I can see beyond my fears and trust that there shall be enough, enough time, enough love, enough me. For the stuff of my being is born of the very stuff that lights the night sky, the eternal stuff, the stuff that has no beginning and now end; only transformation. It is the mystery of eternal life, that unbinds me from the fears that restrict and confine my life.

It is enough; enough to know what I don’t know and trust that at the source of my being, your being, is the ONE who is, now and ever shall be the LOVE that IS.

Lazarus come out.

Lazarus, the very name can be traced back to the Hebrew for “one whom God helps.”

ONE Whom God Helps, that’s you and me.

Lazarus come out.

Unbind Lazarus.

Unbind the ONE Whom God helps.

Unbind yourselves and let yourselves go.

Loose the tightly bound bands of fear that constrict your life.

Just as Jesus lived in the midst of God and died in God and was raised into God, we too shall be raised for life is eternal. We are made of the stuff of the cosmos.

I can believe the miracle that God, who lies at the very heart of reality, transforms caterpillars into butterflies. I can believe that ugly old bulbs can become beautiful festive flowers. I can believe that billion-year-old stardust can become human. I can believe that every grave, every tomb, every corpse is empty. So, I believe that there is more, so much more, so very much more than I can know or understand. The tomb is empty! Every tomb is empty! Death has no power over you! So, laugh! Laugh to your hearts content, let God hear you laugh!

“Yes, yes, yes, yes, … Be not afraid….yes….yes…yes….yes….Peace be with you….yes….yes…yes… Life is eternal…..yes….yes…yes…yes…

In the reign of God…there is enough love, enough joy, enough happiness, enough kindness, enough food, enough riches, enough time….yes…yes…yes…yes..Do not fear death. Live. Be not afraid. Peace is with you. Yes…yes…yes…yes!



Leave a Reply