Year A – 5th Sunday of Lent

A Modern-Day Lazarus

(Ezek.12-14; Rom.8:8-11; Jn.11:1-45)

‘No-one escapes being hurt,’ Henri Nouwen once wrote. ‘We are all wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally or spiritually.[i]

Perhaps pain is the price we pay for being human.

Some years ago in Melbourne, I met a woman named Janine Shepherd. She had been an outstanding sportswoman, netballer and cross-country skier on the Australian Olympic team.

One afternoon in 1986, while bike-riding in the Blue Mountains, she was hit by a truck. She landed on the road so hard that her neck and back were broken, and the doctors didn’t think she’d survive.

But she did survive. In her book Defiant, Janine tells the story of how she survived this disaster, and how she put everything she had into healing her broken body and rebuilding her life. [ii]

For months she was wrapped in a plaster straitjacket and confined to bed. But she was determined to break free. Slowly, very slowly, she learned to walk again, and one day as she painfully shuffled around, she surprised everyone by saying she wanted to fly.

She wanted to get a pilot’s licence, despite the enormous challenges.

Janine’s situation reminds us of the Jewish people in our reading from Ezekiel today. Jerusalem and its Temple have been destroyed, and the people are totally miserable. But Ezekiel offers them hope. He tells them, ‘The Lord says this: I am now going to open your graves; I mean to open your graves, my people, and lead you back to the soil of Israel.’

Within a year, Janine did get her pilot’s licence. Six months after that, she became a flying instructor. But she didn’t stop there. She later became an aerobatics instructor, and then she got married.  

Since then, she’s had three children, she travels the world sharing her story, and she’s written several books. She even took up horse riding.

In her book Dare to Fly, Janine says that she might have gone to the Olympic Games to win medals, but what she’s doing now is far more important.

She knows her story has changed many people’s lives, and she says that every day she thanks God for this wonderful opportunity to give and for all the love she has reaped from it.

Janine Shepherd’s story is about death and new life. It wasn’t a physical death, but her old life was certainly dead. In her TEDx talk (viewed over 2 million times), she says that her disaster had set her free. [iii] 

In today’s Gospel, Lazarus is lying in his tomb, wrapped in bandages. It’s a scene very much like Janine’s, when she was confined to bed, wrapped in plaster and bandages.

Jesus says, ‘Untie him, let him go free,’ and Lazarus walks out, freed from death. Janine, too, was reborn. She cast off her bandages and plaster straitjacket and started a brand-new life.

Janine learnt an important lesson: that she was not her body. The real source of her strength came not from her body, but from her heart, her soul and her spirit. 

She learnt that her true strength never had anything to do with her body. True spiritual strength, she said, cannot be tied to anything that can be lost. Our strength comes from the intangible spirit that lives inside each of us. [iv]

In John 11:25, Jesus says to Martha, ‘I’m the resurrection and the life; whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.’ This is a remarkable offer to each one of us. Jesus is offering resurrection and new life to us all – not just in the next life, but right now. All we have to do is believe in him.  

If you look carefully, you’ll see that Jesus uses the word ‘believe’ six times in today’s Gospel. That’s what he wants from us. He wants us to seriously believe in him. And when we do that, we’ll begin to let go of all those things that bind and trap us, those things that stifle our spirit and hold us back.

Yes, as Henri Nouwen says, we have all been hurt in some way. But we don’t have to be imprisoned by our wounds. 

Just as Jesus says, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ so he says to you and me, ‘come out of your tomb; be freed from your bondage. Don’t live in the darkness, come into the light. Don’t be afraid, but believe in me.’

If we can believe in Jesus the way God wants us to, then we’ll all be like butterflies emerging from our cocoons, set free to begin again.

Just like Lazarus.

Just like Janine Shepherd.

And just like Jesus Christ himself.

[i] Nouwen, H. Bread for the Journey, London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1996, p.214. 

[ii] Janine Shepherd, Defiant.