Un-Zombies Get New Life

A sermon based on John 11:32-44
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on November 1, 2015
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Halloween sure is fun. Lots of different costumes. But boy what a lot of zombies these days! I saw zombies in yard decorations way back in early October–and there were plenty haunting doorways for treats this weekend.
For a number of years now the youth of America have been obsessed with zombies . . . and not just at Halloween. Zombies seem to be all the rage.

In case you don’t know, zombies are fictional humans who have died and become reanimated to be the living dead characters found in horror films and other pretend frightening stories.

A few years ago our son Robin was a costumed participant in a zombiewalk–an event where dozens of people dress as zombies and parade through town.

And Robin was not the first in our family to explore “zombiedom.” Our older son Jordan likes them too. And he surprised me one day while I was in seminary by engaging me in a very intriguing conversation over coffee about how Jesus fit the zombie genre since he died, was buried, came out of a tomb, and then walked about in a post dead life. I was stunned by the thought, it had never occurred to me . . . But I found it hard to argue with him at least with respect to those similarities.

Of course my own generation has had an interest in undead monsters. Actually most of us have likely seen such characters growing up. While Bela Lugosi starred in The White Zombie as far back as 1932 and other zombies films were made back in the day, mostly we earlier generations knew living dead creatures as ghouls, mummies and vampires, or by name, Dracula and Frankenstein. All of these brought-back-to-life undead beings like zombies, are make believe monsters stories which tend to be about the havoc and fear they cause and the efforts by humans to stop them.

I suspect that most of us who hear the story of Lazarus at first have some sort of images of a mummy or zombie-like-guy in death rags emerging from the tomb. That’s to be expected given the wide spread cultural images of the undead, but that’s where the similarity ends. In today’s story of Lazarus there’s not fear or terror, but rather amazement and awe at the miracle of Lazarus getting a second chance at life, real life not a zombie-life existence.

There’s no sense of fearing by any one at Lazarus’ resuscitation or concern about how to stop him from living–in fact it is Lazarus’s death that people dread. That’s actually how other Bible stories about people being raised from the dead go. Death is mourned and second chance at life is rejoiced. There’s no monsterness to it. Instead it’s about God creating life out of death.

Obviously in our tradition Jesus’ resurrection is the greatest story of God creating life out of death. Anyway we look at it Jesus’ life goes on and on in some respect. Death doled out by an empire of man could not stop the life of love lived as God incarnate. It powerfully resonates in human history and in many human lives. Jesus’ life continues to influence humanity. In a broad symbolic sense we could even argue that earthly power’s horrible way of death and it’s dead love are given new life through the risen Christ.

And at least for Christians it is actually through that continuing life of Jesus that we ourselves get new life. One might even say in retrospect that a number of us have left behind a zombie-like life . . . dead ways of being.

Last week we sang “Amazing Grace” and we are going to sing it again today. It was written by John Newton a former captain of a slave ship who was once blind to the death-to-life life he was leading and to those that he was causing. In a moment of conversion Newton was able finally to see. Jesus saved him from the death of his truly awful wretchedness and gave him new life. The slave trader in his new life becomes a minister and hymn writer seeking justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God.

And you know what? Lots and lots of us come here from trouble places. For some reason we like to imagine that others live nearly untroubles lives, but most of us in fact have had troubled lives. We all have stories. Our stories are often scarier than zombie tales because they are real. They kill our zest for life . . .maybe even make us dead to life in many ways. I’ve mentioned before that I was raised in a very troubled home. I look back and I realize how very dark (even suicidal) a time it was for me as young adolescent. And then I felt compelled to go to a neighborhood church. That church showed me a lot of love and kindness and care. They showed me Jesus. He gave me self worth beyond what I’d ever known before. Jesus did his miracle stuff and raised me from that scary dead-to-life troubled way I was in. His love resurrected my life and I went from there to . . . to live fully. Many of us have stories like that. The still somehow living Jesus’ efficacious effects can and do bring us to life in a fully living way.

God wants to save us from dead to life living. It’s a Scriptural theme. The Bible has more “raising from the dead” stories besides Lazarus’. Christians focus mainly on Jesus’ resurrection, but actually there are eight other stories of individuals being raised besides Jesus– and one other story that refers to numerous people being resurrected. Of the eight individuals who were raised from the dead three of them occur in the Old Testament. Elijah brought back to life a boy. And Elisha who asked for a double portion of Elijah’s anointing raised a boy while alive and then Elisha’s bones touch another man’s corpse in a grave and brought that dead man back to life.

In the New Testament Jesus outdoes Elijah and Elisha by bringing back to life three dead people, his friend Lazarus (Jn 11:43-44); a young man (Lk 7:13-15) and a little girl (Mk 5:27-43). Just a little side note, the little girl’s resurrection is the first female resurrection suggests the equal status females take on in the Jesus movement. In his life, on earth we are told Jesus raises more than the prophets of old each did , and makes sure one is female.Then upon his death – actually at the very moment of his death– Matthew 27 (52-53) reports that “tombs . . . opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised” AND that “After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” Jesus’ sacrifice leads to many being given new life, and his resurrection on Easter then leads to them welcomed back to the living.

There are two more resurrections in the New Testament. After Jesus ascends to heaven the Peter raised a women named Tabitha, here too it is important that the first story of a post Easter resurrection is a woman. (Acts 9:36-42). Later Paul gave new life to a man (Acts 20:9-12).

Not one . . . not one of the numerous raising the dead events in the Bible leads to fearful acting monsters or dread. None of the resurrected in the Bible become ghouls or zombies. They all received the gift of new life – and then live it out until they die rejoicing again in the ordinary cycle of life . . . Except of course Jesus, who one way or another lives on and on in history transforming dead and deadened lives into new fully lived lives. “Jesus lives!” has been our Easter mantra for 2,000 years. We do not chant or sing “Lazarus lives!” But it doesn’t mean the story of Lazarus is not important. The Lazarus story is from the Gospel of John written long after Jesus lived and died and was experienced as risen. “Jesus’ lives” can fairly be said to be John’s mantra.

That Gospel begins by describing Christ as the Word of God being made flesh. And just before Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead in Chapter 11 (25) He– the Word of God incarnate– says:

“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will not die.”

Only eighteen short verses later the Words of Christ prove this quite literally. We are told Christ said “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus comes out. But he is still bound in funeral cloth. Christ’s next words to his followers are “Unbind him, and let him go.” Lazarus is not a zombie. The once-dead-now-alive Lazarus is not a threat to anyone. As we heard the goal is not to stop him. The Word of God commands Lazarus to come to life and commands the Jesus’ followers to free him.

This story like many we have looked at so far this year has layers of meaning. It’s perfectly alright to think of it as proof of a miracle which proves Jesus is divine. Surely it has long had that as one of its meanings. But it is also okay to think the story’s importance is not in recounting an historic event, but as a meaning-full story.

The top layer most people get is that Christ is powerful and can do miraculous things that even death can’t stop. We know that is true in Jesus’ own life and death and resurrection story. Here it is true in someone else’s life. We can actually even hear Jesus’ own story echoing in Lazarus’ story. There is death, mourners, entombment, stones moved, funeral wrappings, even a caring woman named Mary and a risen body. The meaning seems to be that we too can experience a resurrection. 1

Many believe resurrection is a heavenly thing, and it may very well include that, but the story of Lazarus is a very earthbound one. On earth Jesus brings new life to a man dead to the world and at the very moment of that new life Jesus on earth commands his followers to unbind and free the one given new life so he can be unbound on earth. Jesus who is known as Immanuel “God is with us” aids Lazarus whose name means “God helps.” These meanings sum up the difference between Jesus’ Easter resurrection and Lazarus’ resuscitation. The Easter event means God is with us. The Lazarus event means God helps.
It struck me as I was working on this sermon how today’s lesson is the very opposite of a zombie story. Living dead are given new life. John Dominic Crossan, a preeminent New Testament scholar, it turns out seems to agree with my sense of it. But Dr. Crossan as you might expect puts it in a much more academic non-zombie way. He writes:

For John’s gospel, the process of general resurrection is incarnated in the event of Lazarus’s resuscitation. [A] . . .movement from process to event. But I can imagine peasants all over Lower Galilee who would have said with equal intensity that Jesus brought life out of death and would not have been thinking of the heavenly future but the earthly present. Life out of death is how they would have understood the Kingdom of God, in which they began to take back control over their own bodies, their own hopes, and their own destinies. 1

In Jesus’ death there is new life. In his resurrection on Easter there is hope for new life for all who’s life is at a dead end whether troubled by disease, accidents, abuses, misdeeds or wrongs. Whatever has deadened us can be overcome!

As I said, we can choose to believe Jesus really raised a dead man back to life, but beyond a miracle for a long gone man is there continuing meaning today? I believe it is to remind us that one of Jesus’s greatest gifts was and is taking dull dead life and making it so vibrant and new that it feels like being what I like to think of as “un-zombied.”

Easter is a gift that goes on after Jesus’ life. Jesus is in fact still Immanuel, “God is with us.” And we, we are all Lazarus the one God helps. For Christians the ultimate undeniable Truth in the Lazarus story is how Jesus gives to those of us who are in a troubled dead-end life – new life.

And that will always be so because “Jesus lives!”

And because of that, all of us Lazarus’ can live.


1. Crossan, Dominic John, Jesus a Revolutionary Biography.