Jesus is moved to sorrow when his friend Lazarus falls ill and dies. Then, in a dramatic scene, he calls his friend out of the tomb and restores him to life.
1Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
7Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
17When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
28When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
45Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
I remember as a kid repeating the apostles and nicene creeds and mentally checking off, yup, ok, got that, God, Jesus, Holy Spirit, trinity, maker of heaven and earth, came down from heaven, spoke through the prophets. Until I got to the second to last line. We look for the resurrection of the dead. What? We do?? I had been to a lot of funerals by the time I was 10. Lots of older great aunts and uncles in my family, and my parents believed that children had their place with the family at viewings and funerals. I experienced it as a peaceful time to be with family and cry. I was not looking for the resurrection of the dead. That would be horrific and impossible.
I grew up in a little church in the country. Literally had a dirt road on one side. I played kickball and hide and seek in the church cemetery as a kid. Not in a disrespectful way, but in the way that I would joyfully run in to join my friends, silently greeting Mr. Lingle, Mr. Eelman, Mrs. Espenshade, Mrs. Batdorf, and Mr. Shertzer, who had always sat next to our family in a pew and gave me and my sisters butterscotch candy from his pocket. These were my friends, who now lived both in the cemetery and with Jesus, cause you could do that when you were dead. I was not looking for their resurrection. But every Sunday I would say, “We look for the resurrection of the dead.”
Another thing I didn’t understand was this business of new life. I hadn’t died, my life was the same as always. But I was supposed to believe in a new life in Christ. Getting a little older, I could theologically express what that meant. You should die to sin, and be raised to new life with Christ. Drowning the old selfish part of you and remembering your baptism each day. But it still felt hollow and like this was a part of my faith that I just accepted at face value without experiencing it.
But the more I experienced of this world, and the more saw, I learned that physical death isn’t the only death we experience. We grieve lost relationships, and marriages that have ended. We lose work or the ability to work – we lose our role or our identity. We lose community or place as neighborhoods change. We lose our youth – we lose our hair – we lose bits of our children as they grow – and our parents as they age. Whether it’s moving, switching jobs, losing faith, or anticipating a future loss – the losses each of us have racked up are a death to something in us each time.
We live in a world that has been caught up in death for a long time. We kill each other in so many ways that the evening news doesn’t even report on. We watch calmly as others die from poverty, hunger and malnutrition, and homelessness. We stand on the sides as people are bound by unemployment, poor education, disease, lack of health coverage, child abuse, gun violence, discrimination, pollution, destruction of the environment, unsafe working conditions, and all the laws, policies, practices and attitudes which contribute to these conditions. And we throw up our hands and resign ourselves that we must live in death, the grave clothes must stay on there’s nothing we can do.
While we call this scene “the raising of Lazarus,” that the actual sign Jesus performs takes up just two verses of the forty-five of this story. The miracle is less than 5% of the story. Typical of John’s Gospel, what matters most isn’t the action itself, but rather Jesus’ interpretation of it and our response to it. So what else happens in this story?
Jesus expresses his humanity and is over come with grief as he stands with his grieving friends. Jesus seems to have a plan. Jesus delays his travel, even though he knows Lazarus is near death. He says to them, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Reminiscent of what he says about the man born blind – that those circumstances would also show God’s glory. He knows Lazarus has died, and then he plans to go – to awaken Lazarus, so that his disciples and presumably the rest of the people gathered there would believe.
But when he gets there, he gets involved, he is affected – “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” He has just said that he will awaken Lazarus, but apparently the thought of his friend enclosed in a tomb, and the grief of his friends, is too much for him. For all of us gathered here, who know the pain of burying a loved one – your Savior knows that pain.
But Jesus has a job to do – and includes the rest of Lazarus friends and family in it as well. He includes them in this miracle. Gives them a task and a role to play. First, they have to roll away the stone. He calls lazarus out, and they are to unbind him and let him go.
The community, in other words, is commanded to participate in God’s action, to bring it to its desired end and outcome, to join in completing God’s redemptive act. Lazarus will die again, of course, hopefully after a long life well lived – but the community now empowered to unbind and set loose will endure. Indeed, it has endured, persisting through the centuries in works of courage and mercy, justice and freedom.
So also the promises of God we announce are not only about life eternal with God or even about God’s forgiveness at the last day. Rather, the Gospel should make a tangible difference now, make things possible now, open up opportunities and options now, transform relationships now. The promises of God are present tense, not just future. Jesus empowers those who gather – whether they believe what their eyes are seeing or not, whether they confess that this miracle is really from God or not – Jesus brings them into the miracle and tells them to loose what has been binding. Sometimes we need to admit death so that God can start bringing about new life. Funny, Lazarus didn’t ask to be resurrected, but his friends and siblings certainly pleaded on his behalf. The disciples were mostly confused, as per usual, but its Thomas, we proclaims, let’s go too – let die with him too. Now, did they mean let’s die with Lazarus too? Let’s catch whatever bug he had, and Jesus can raise us too. Or did he also believe Jesus life was in danger now as well, and his disciples. Whichever “him” Thomas intends to die with – he’s is the one who strides boldly toward it, and names it as such. Poor Thomas, who gets a bad rap for supposedly doubting his lord’s resurrection appearance after easter, is actually the first in line to run towards that mess, firmly trusting in Jesus.
Our Lenten celebration must serve to remind us that the paschal mystery represents a victory over death. We know the end of the story, even as we read from the points of view of the confused disciples. The victory over death does not mean that death does not happen. Loss and decay are facts of this fallen world. But death does not win. Look for the resurrection of the dead. Look for those places where Jesus and his disciples boldly go. Look for the glimmers of light, the signs of new life, and wherever the community is commanded to unbind what has been bound up, take hold of the grave clothes and trust in Jesus words.