The Wheelbarrow Moment
There is a scene in the story of Lazarus that reminds me of an old anecdote about a wheelbarrow. I don’t know if the story has any basis in fact, but it does make an excellent sermon illustration, and that’s how I’m going to use it today. In a minute.
The scene I have in mind is the second of Jesus’s two conversations with Martha, the sister of Lazarus. Their first conversation takes place outside the village, where she has come out to greet him and offer a grief-stricken rebuke for his tardiness: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v. 21). She is understandably conflicted, as is always the case when a loved one dies. Her friendship with Jesus, her need for comfort, her anger about her brother’s death, and her deep sense of bewilderment in the face of loss all get mixed up in her mind and inform both her rebuke of Jesus and what she says next: “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him” (v. 22). She looks up at Jesus pleadingly, hoping against hope that he’s got another ace up his sleeve.
What he says next must come as a grave disappointment to Martha. It comes across as a platitude, one of those things people say to the grieving that really have no meaning beyond a desire to have something to say. He says, “Your brother will rise again” (v. 23).
You can almost hear the sense of deflation in her voice as she responds, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (v. 25). I expected better of you, Jesus. Right at this moment I don’t need any of your pious baloney, your “Everything happens for a reason,” your “God never gives you a burden greater than you can bear.” If that’s all you have to offer, you can just turn right around and go back to wherever you were when you should have been here keeping my brother alive!
But Jesus does not traffic in pious baloney. He clarifies what he meant, using one of the “I Am” statements that are unique to the way he speaks in John’s gospel—“I am the good shepherd”; “I am the bread of life”; “I am the light of the world”; and so on. It is a mark of John’s very high christology; he puts in Jesus’s own mouth these declarations that hearken back to God’s self-identification to Moses at the burning bush: “I am who I am.” Here he tells Martha, “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 never die. Do you believe this?” (vv. 25–26).
Something in the authoritative tone of his voice tells Martha that she misjudged his earlier statement, and she looks up and says with as much heart as she can muster, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (v. 27).
That’s a pretty impressive confession of faith, but as is so often the case in the gospel of John, there are levels and there are levels. And here is where the wheelbarrow anecdote comes in.
The story goes that a tightrope walker wants to put on a show and make some money, so he stretches a wire over a deep canyon. He says to the crowd assembled on one side of the canyon, “Do you believe I can walk across this wire to the other side without falling?” Many in the crowd regard him in silence, with arms crossed. “Show us,” a man calls out, to a smattering of laughter, “and we’ll believe.”
So the walker leaps onto the wire and walks confidently to the other side. A crowd has started to gather on that side as well, and they politely applaud him as he arrives. He says to them, “Do you believe I can walk back across this wire backwards?” “I doubt it,” somebody says, “but you go ahead and try.”
“Okay,” he says, and proceeds to ease himself carefully back across one step at a time, backwards. This time when he arrives safely, the crowd cheers. They are warming to him. He ups the ante, saying, “Do you believe I can walk across this wire blindfolded?” A woman says, “That sounds crazy, but if anyone can do it, you can.” So he ties a blindfold over his eyes and carefully makes his way back across.
By now the groups on both sides are going crazy. They have never seen anything like this. The man goes and gets a wheelbarrow and asks if they think he can push the wheelbarrow across. They very enthusiastically shout, “Yes!” And he does. The people are amazed, and have gone into a frenzy, erupting in applause and slapping each other on the back in celebration.
The man calls for quiet, mops his brow, and says, “Did you see me walk across this wire?”
“Did you see me do it backwards?”
“Did you see me push this wheelbarrow across the wire?”
“Yes! It was incredible!”
“Do you believe I can do it again?”
“I mean, do you really believe?”
“You have no doubts that I can push this wheelbarrow across the wire to the other side without falling?”
“No! No doubts at all! You can do anything!”
He quiets the crowd again, steps back onto the wire, positions the wheelbarrow, then turns to the crowd and says, “So who will go with me? Climb into the wheelbarrow.”
It’s easy to say you believe, but true faith is more than belief. True faith is a matter of trust, and it gets revealed when trust is difficult. When you have something to lose. That’s why James says that faith without works is dead. If you’re not willing to get in the wheelbarrow, your protestations of faith ring a little hollow.
Martha has her wheelbarrow moment a few verses later, in her second conversation with Jesus. They have arrived at the tomb where her brother Lazarus is buried. Martha’s sister Mary is there, as are a throng of mourners who have come to comfort the two bereaved women. These mourners have conflicting opinions about Jesus. Some of them, when they see him weeping outside his friend’s tomb, say, “‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them [say], ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’” (vv. 36–37). The haters hate, the scoffers scoff, and the skeptics skept. It’s human nature.
Everything is fine—I mean, as fine as it can be at the graveside of someone you love; I guess a better way of putting it is that everything is normal and comprehensible—until Jesus tells them to remove the stone that blocks the mouth of the tomb. The crowd gasps. What kind of nonsense is this? Doesn’t this guy have any respect for the dead? After all, Lazarus has been dead for four days, and the common understanding among first century Jews was that one’s spirit hovers about the body for three days, but then makes its way to Sheol, the abode of the dead. If a person is to be brought back to life, such as what the great prophets Elijah and Elisha did back in the day, it has to be within those three days. After that, the person is considered completely and finally dead.
Plus, by the fourth day decomposition of the body would have begun. In the heat of Palestine, an unembalmed corpse would have started to stink, regardless of how many spices and ointments have been applied. And here is where Martha fails the test. When Jesus gives the order to take away the stone, she steps forward and objects. “Lord,” she says, partly offended and partly embarrassed, “already there is a stench because he has been dead four days” (v. 39).
Jesus looks at her with what I imagine is a mixture of fondness and disappointment and says, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” (v. 40). Didn’t you say you believed that I am the resurrection and the life? Didn’t you say you believed that I am the Messiah, the very Son of God? Didn’t you cheer when I walked over the canyon pushing my wheelbarrow? And now you’re afraid to get in. Martha, Martha, Martha.
The prophet Ezekiel faces his own wheelbarrow moment in the thirty-seventh chapter of the book that bears his name, and he fares a little better than Martha, but mostly because he has sense enough to keep his doubts to himself. In the most famous of the many weird visions he reports, God sets him down in the middle of a valley full of dry bones. It’s a spooky place, kind of like the elephant graveyard in The Lion King. It was probably the site of a great battle or slaughter, and Ezekiel says “there were very many [bones] lying in the valley, and they were very dry” (v. 2).
As he looks around at these desiccated femurs and tibiae stretching in every direction as far as he can see, the prophet senses God asking him, “Mortal, can these bones live?” and he answers, whatever he himself may think of the prospect, “O Lord God, you know” (v. 3). It’s a safe answer, and probably the wisest one under the circumstances.
But he cannot have been prepared for what happens next. Per God’s command, Ezekiel prophesies to the bones, and then watches in terrified amazement as they start moving on their own, rattling their way to a reunion with their former neighbors. Bones join together with ligaments, muscles and tendons attach, vital organs grow back, and it all gets wrapped up in skin and hair.
Much of Ezekiel’s writing comes across as reports of a series of psychedelic experiments, and he must feel that he is tripping indeed as this vast multitude comes back together before his eyes. But God is not done yet. God instructs the prophet to “prophesy to the breath … and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live” (v.9). Ezekiel does so, and the breath of life enters the bodies and they stand on their feet.
In Hebrew, the same word, ruach, means wind, spirit, and breath. A form of that word appears ten times in this short passage. Listen again to verse 9 as I substitute ruach for breath and wind: “Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the ruach, prophesy, mortal, and say to the ruach: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four ruachs, O ruach, and breathe [unrelated verb] upon these slain, that they may live.’” Do you suppose God is trying to get some kind of message across? Something about the power of God’s Spirit?
God explains to Ezekiel that these bones are a metaphor for the people of Israel, who have suffered defeat by their enemies, seen their city taken and their temple destroyed, and gone into exile in a foreign land. God says: “[The people] say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely’” (v. 11). In response to this complaint, God tells the prophet to send a message to them:
Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my ruach within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord (vv. 12–14).
The people have given up hope. If all this disaster has come upon us, they reason, it must mean that God has abandoned us or, worse, that God has been defeated by the gods of the Babylonians. Our holy place is gone, and we will never return to the land of our birth. We will die in exile, as will our children and our children’s children. Our bones are completely dry. We have been dead for four days and our spirit has departed once and for all. If you remove the stone, there will be a stench. Our hopes have been crushed. What point is there in going on? Why not lie down and die and be done with it?
Through Ezekiel, God brings a message of hope in the midst of Israel’s despair: even the driest bones can live again. Through Jesus, God brings a message of hope to Martha and Mary: even one who has been dead four days can live again. Jesus enacts the prophecy of Ezekiel there at his friend’s tomb in Bethany. He opens his grave, and brings him up from his grave. He puts his spirit/ruach/pneuma within him, and he lives.
Jesus calls out to Lazarus, and he, like the sheep that knows its shepherd’s voice, stumbles out of the tomb, his hands and feet and face still wrapped in the grave clothes. Jesus tells the slack-jawed bystanders, “Unbind him, and let him go” (v. 44).
Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Those who belong to the Good Shepherd’s sheepfold possess a kind of life that is indestructible. A life that comes from the Spirit of God. As Paul tells the Romans, “If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, [the one] who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through [the] Spirit that dwells in you” (vv. 10–11).
When you belong to Christ, when you have had the breath of God breathed into you, nothing is impossible. The dry bones can live again. The dead man can come forth from his grave, bewildered and blinking in the sun, but alive again. Truly alive. The one who suffers from depression, addiction, mental or physical illness, crippling fear, or despair can be pulled back from the brink and given a renewed sense of the possibilities of life. Even a nation that has taken a wrong turn, even a world in the grip of powers that want to diminish life for the many to enhance life for the few, even a world where war and injustice and greed threaten the lives of not only millions of people but also the survival of the very planet—even in the face of these plausible reasons for despair, hope and new life can come. Where the Spirit of God is, there is life, and where there is life there is hope.
All we have to do is get in the wheelbarrow.