There once was young man in the prime of his life. My goodness, he was something. All you had to do was ask him and he would tell just exactly how something, something he was.
Mind you, not everything in this young man’s life was roses. He didn’t think so anyway. All you had to do was ask him and he would tell you just exactly how hard his life was. You see, he had a brother who was kind of a tool. All he did was work all day and then come home, eat, and go to bed. The next day, his brother would be up at dawn, work all day, come home and eat, and go to bed. The next day, well, you get the picture. It was hell living with his brother. Seriously, a living hell of uber-responsibility and boredom.
And then of course, there was the young man’s father. Everyone thought the old man was a prince, a king, a king of kings even. He was honest, loving, generous, and really, really healthy. Disaster, thought the young man. The old guy is too good to get himself killed by accident and too healthy to die anytime soon. I’m stuck here, the glorious, gorgeous, madly in love with himself young man thought. Stuck here in Nowhere Town with the brother from hell and the utterly divinely wonderful father who won’t get out of my way. What is an up and coming prime specimen of man like myself supposed to do?
And so the young man determined his plan to take charge of his life, to make himself into the man he always knew that he was destined to be. He would ditch the tool, snitch the old man’s money, the money that ought to be his, that would be his one day anyway, and he would run like the dickens toward the lights of the city and the life he knew should be his. And in that moment, the young man began to die.
Life was pretty fabulous in Somewhere Town. The up and coming young man had everything he could want, everything his father’s generosity, his father’s money, could buy. He had the cool leather jacket, the Ray-Ban shades, the cherry red Lamborghini. He had a different girl every night. He had the best tables at the best restaurants and the best wine to drink while he waited—not very long because of course he was really really cool and up and coming—for the very best of the best food.
Life was really really good—until one morning, the up and coming young man stuck his debit card in the ATM and was rewarded with the blue screen of death flashing: Insufficient funds…Insufficient funds…Insufficient funds. Well, how could that be? He had tons of money. He tried again…Insufficient funds…Insufficient funds. Well, OK. Fine. I’ll just use my credit cards. Denied. Denied. Denied. The fancy hotel kicked him out. The car was repossessed. The girls politely declined. And the maître d sneered. And he died just a little more.
He was hungry. Very, very hungry. So hungry that the slop he gave the pigs looked – well, a little tasty. Every the banana peels and the orange rinds and the leftover heels of the bread looked a little more appetizing. Until one morning, as he munched on a potato skin spread with lovely coffee grounds, he came to himself. Even my father’s slaves have better food to eat than this. Perhaps if I just apologize, perhaps if I throw myself on my father’s mercy, perhaps if I promise never, ever to be such a dumb apple ever, ever again, perhaps my father will let me sleep in the barn and eat a little of the leftovers from the table. I am as good as dead. I will go home before I die. And so, the very down on his luck, nearly dead, and oh so dirty young man crawled and hobbled his way toward home.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch….the older brother fumed. As if his life of incessant work, work, work hadn’t been bad enough, now, when he finally gets done working and comes home, just looking for a little peace and quiet, he has to deal with the sounds of his father’s weeping, the sight of his father’s grief. For crying out loud, that no good son of his father was gone. Why could nobody else see what a good thing that was? Why were all the neighbors standing around the yard, weeping and wailing, sitting in the parlor, eating them out of house and home? What was his father thinking to mourn so long and so hard for someone who had treated the both of them so badly?
My son is dead, his father cried. My son, whom I love is dead. And, as the older brother stormed from the house in anger, he did not know, he could not see, just how dead he was, too.
And then one night, as the father stood at the gate deeply disturbed in his soul and weeping for love of his sons, he saw far off in the distance his beloved younger boy. The father, filled with compassion, ran to him, threw his arms around him and kissed him, shouting as he went, “Celebrate! Kill the fatted calf! This son of mine was lost and is found; he was dead and now he is alive! And so the neighbors and friends and servants—and even the animals in the yard—jumped for joy, praising God and giving thanks.
But the elder son stood in the dark. My son, beloved son, come out of the dark, the father called. Why should I, the son shouted back. I’d hate to interrupt all the fun—who needs me at a party for that son of yours? I need you, the father called. I love you. I cannot bear to lose you. Come—out of the dark.
That’s the invitation. That’s the gift that is waiting for each one of us. That’s the call that God desires above all else to place upon our lives and our deaths. Come out of the dark. Live. Let go of all that binds you, all that holds you in the grip of deathliness. Let go and let God give you the gift of life. That is the invitation that drew the younger son home. That is the invitation that called Lazarus from the grave. That is the invitation we hear through the darkness that so often surrounds us. I love you. You are mine. Come—out of the dark.
We want to take this story of Lazarus and consign it to the ash heap of history or worse yet, to myth, to airy tale. That was then, we say, when people were less sophisticated and wise than we are, when modern medicine hadn’t made the difference between death and deep unconsciousness or coma so clear. This is now when we all know better. We want to say that dead is dead and therefore, if Lazarus even existed, he couldn’t possibly have been actually dead, or, in the words of that great philosopher Monty Python, a definitely deceased ex-human being. We want to claim either a rational explanation for Lazarus’ amazing comeback—or else that the incident didn’t happen at all—but was merely a metaphor for the rejuvenating effect of Jesus’ charismatic personality on the people who followed him.
Of course, that’s what we want to do. Because if we were to allow God this type of power, the power to roll back the stone, to call us forth from the grave, to command sin and death to unbind us and let us go, if we were to admit that the miracle of life rests in the hands of our holy God, then all of our excuses for remaining in the grave would be seen for just that, excuses to stay dead when we could be enjoying life abundant and giving thanks to God. If we were to admit this kind of power to our God, then standing outside in the dark and refusing to come in to God’s marvelous light would be shown for the stubborn sinful stupidity that it is.
This is what I believe. This is what I have seen over and over again in the lives of God’s living saints, in your lives and in mine. This is what I know to be true. God has the power to stand before the open grave of our lives and command the demons of sin and brokenness and death to unbind us and let us go. God can do this—because God has done it. The younger son was restored to life. Lazarus came forth from the grave. Jesus the only Son of God rose from death into new and eternal life. God can do this. God can do this for you and for me and for all the saints who have gone before and for the saints who are yet to walk the earth. God can throw open the gates of hell. God can call forth the living from the dead. God can defeat the power that death continues to hold over us. God can because God has.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the stone has been rolled away from the grave. The lost have been found. The dead have been restored to life. The party is on and we are all invited. Come out of the dark and rejoice.