Yr A ~ Lent 5 ~ John 11:1-46
Four days ago Mary and I sent a note to Jesus telling him that our brother Lazarus, who Jesus loves, was ill. We were hoping that Jesus would come right away, but he didn’t, and our brother Lazarus died. When I heard that Jesus was finally coming – too late – I went out to meet him. I spoke with one of his disciples who told me that Jesus had received our note much earlier but chose to not come right away saying that Lazarus’ illness was not the kind that leads to death. And yet he died.
I wasn’t really sure what I was going to say to Jesus, but when I saw him I blurted out, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” I don’t know what I expected, or what I wanted him to say or do, but I knew that he and God were as one so I just left it for him to decide.
Jesus said to me, “Martha, your brother will rise again.” I said, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” That’s what our Jewish faith believes – that at the end of days all who are righteous would be resurrected. I was grateful that Jesus had judged Lazarus to be righteous. I mean, he was a very good, faithful man. He deserves resurrection in the last days!
Then Jesus said something I’ll never forget. He looked me very intently in the eyes and said, “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.” And he asked me if I believed that. To be honest, I’m not sure I completely understood him, but I trusted him, and so I said, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
I pondered that as I went and got Mary. She was at home mourning with friends and relatives. When she came she flung herself at Jesus’ feet, as usual, and started loudly weeping and wailing. The mourners who followed her did the same.
I noticed that Jesus had a strange reaction to all this. It was like he was really angry or something. His face looked like a snorting animal! I couldn’t figure out what made him so mad. Was it that Lazarus had died? Was it my questions? Was it the wailing? I’m still not sure.
Jesus asked where Lazarus’ body was, so they showed him. Jesus softly and quietly shed a tear. You could tell he loved Lazarus! But that didn’t stop the grumbling I heard behind me as somebody wondered out loud why Jesus couldn’t heal Lazarus like he did the blind man!
Then, as Jesus turned toward the tomb that angry look, or maybe it was frustration, came back to his face. He asked that the stone be rolled away. I couldn’t help but speak up about the smell. After all, Lazarus had been in there four days. It would not be pleasant at all.
Jesus’ face softened again as he looked at me and reminded me to trust in God and trust in him and his teaching. Sometimes that’s hard!
And he prayed a strange prayer – because usually Jesus prayed in silence, but here it was like he wanted everyone to be sure that what he was doing was about God’s presence and power and not just his. And with a loud voice he said, “Lazarus, come forth!”
I was stunned! I mean, my brother was dead. Death was the end, until the final resurrection. Nothing could change that. What did Jesus think he was doing?
And the next thing I knew Lazarus was standing there!!! I don’t think I’ll ever know what to make of that.
And Jesus said to unbind Lazarus so he could experience new life. I wonder if that’s what Jesus meant by saying “I am the resurrection and the life”? I wonder if new life now is what we’re supposed to embrace? I know that after today I will! And lots of people who were there that day understood it too.
But some didn’t get it. Some went off to tell the Pharisees that Jesus was teaching strange and contrary things to how we’d always learned it.
But as for me, and my sister Mary, and my brother Lazarus, we will never forget that for all of us new life began today!
I have to start with a confession. I’ve always really disliked this story. In all my years of ministry I’ve managed to avoid having to preach it. I gave you some hints in that monologue about where I landed after wrestling with it this week. Seeing it through the eyes of the wonderful character of Martha really helped me come to a new and better place about this story. But I’ll begin with telling you why it has always irked me!
Why, after all that great theological dialogue, especially between Martha and Jesus, why did the story end with the ham-fisted, let everyone off the hook, easy way out? It really bothered me. For me, Lazarus coming out of the tomb completely undermined the entire theology of resurrection and cheapened it to resuscitation.
After the exquisite “I am the resurrection and the life” in the end Jesus goes “abracadabra come back to life”. It didn’t impress as a sign and wonder, it ticked me off. I didn’t look at it as an example of Jesus’ awesome healing power, I looked at it as raising an impossible-to-answer theological conundrum that has been used for very bad or at least unhelpful purposes over the centuries.
The same is true for any healing miracle, to an extent, but for some reason this one felt different to me. The conundrum is this: if faith in Jesus can bring Lazarus back to life how come my loved ones remain dead? And you may instantly counter with “but it’s just a theological metaphor” – which I don’t disagree with – but you do a disservice to the story if you don’t take it seriously and deal with what it says.
Ok, so that was my challenge with this text. Then I had this insight this week:
Last week, the man born blind received the gift of sight. I concluded that the story was actually about the theological gift of insight, but I don’t have a problem at all with the idea that Jesus actually may have given him physical sight. But perhaps that’s because my sight has never been an issue?
Maybe I’d have the same misgivings about that story as I do with Lazarus if vision was a personal issue for me? I have a very good friend who is a minister who happens to be physically blind. She has helped to teach me to be very sensitive to how we should treat blindness stories in the bible, but I wonder if she would feel about last week’s blind man story like I do about Lazarus?
Once I was at a church event where a person offered a theologically lovely, well thought out and well-presented reflection on the healing of the paralyzed man in the pool at Bethesda – John 5:1-18. Jesus encounters the man, asks him if he wants to be healed, the man says ‘yes’, and Jesus says, “Get up. Pick up your mat and walk,” and the man was healed.
One of the participants in the group was a person in a wheel chair, and upon hearing that story this person became very emotional and left the room. While the rest of us revelled in the profound metaphorical and theological meaning of the healing, that person was devastated by the story. It was like they were being told that their desire for healing was apparently not enough to pull it off like the guy in the bible.
I am exceedingly fortunate that I’m not blind, and that I have no physical or cognitive disability to contend with in my life. So those healing stories don’t affect me all that deeply and I can treat them with philosophical and theological detachment. Maybe the Lazarus story irks me because it’s more personal – and no amount of faith or miracle working is going to bring back my Mom or Dad, or either of my two brothers who have all died.
And that leaves me with the theological conundrum I mentioned earlier. And an even more pressing question: how on earth do I preach this story that irks me? So I go through a bunch of questions…
What purpose do miracles in the bible serve?
Do they raise your admiration of Jesus?
Do they help convince you that Jesus really was of God and therefore he could do what no one else could ever do? Can Jesus still be of God without miracles?
Are we of God?
Would it make a difference to you if every miracle story was prefaced with “there once was a man” giving us an indicator that what followed was a parable or teaching story rather than an historical event?
Is there a difference between resuscitation and resurrection?
What does resurrection mean for us?
When does resurrection happen?
Are we anticipating being part of the resurrection?
Or are we already part of the resurrection?
That was the revelation that Martha had with Jesus.
And that was the revelation I had always missed in this story, until this week!
If the story had ended in verse 27, with her confession of faith believing in the common Jewish understanding of resurrection at that time, Lazarus would have to have stayed in the tomb because resurrection, for them, happens at the end of days – at the end of time – in the final judgment.
But we hold to a different meaning of resurrection. Resurrection for us means that when one aspect of life dies a new aspect is born or renewed – like the changing of the seasons, or even the dawning of a new day! For Christians, resurrection needn’t wait for the end of days. Jesus tells us when it’s available – it’s available now, “in him”. He says it plainly: “I am the resurrection and the life!”
So when I connected those dots I saw the whole passage differently. I finally had “eyes to see!”
The raising of Lazarus is simply a concrete example of Jesus giving new life NOW, as opposed to in the final days when all are resurrected together.
Could it be, perhaps, that Jesus is actually trying to teach us a new meaning of resurrection here – not so much about the physicality of it but about the timing?
Maybe I shouldn’t be hung up on the idea of Lazarus miraculously coming forth but focus in on the idea that Lazarus came forth NOW, not later – now, not at the end of the age. Perhaps Jesus is teaching us that resurrection isn’t only applicable to a great happening in the far off future but is something that, through him (I am the resurrection and the life!), is operative in the here and now!
That’s an interpretation I can get behind!
Lazarus is “unbound” at the end. Unbound from what? Bandages, surely – but what do they represent?
Perhaps Lazarus, and Martha and Mary, and you and I, all need to be unbound from our limiting understanding of resurrection as a far off event that only happens when you physically experience death – and be released from our bondage into an understanding that death and resurrection are theological concepts that describe endings and beginnings that happen all the time while we live.
Every time we experience the end or dying of a relationship, or an ability, or an activity, or a habit, or whatever – there is something vitally, spiritually important about to happen – a new thing, a renewal, a new chapter, a resurrection.
None of this denies anything about Jesus’ resurrection after his death on the cross: but it does greatly expand and extend the theological concept of resurrection and opens us to the possibility of embracing new life in the here and now right in the midst of what seems like our greatest failures or hurts.
It’s not just the ultimate drama of Jesus on the cross that beckons resurrection – it’s also the way we understand and experience our life as persons of faith. We are in a constant state of ending and beginning, of dying and rising during our lives. We are people of constant resurrection.
How do I know this? Because Jesus told us, and now we can hear those words more deeply:
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die to something in the here and now, will live and be renewed in the here and now, and everyone who lives and trusts in me will never stop experiencing new life.”
And for me, the Lazarus story is redeemed, and it becomes a rich expression of the awesome spiritual pattern of dying and rising that people of faith in Jesus experience in profound and wondrous ways.
And this then becomes a perfect Lenten story – not just because of the obvious foreshadowing of Jesus’ own death and resurrection, but also because it reminds us that we are not alone. Jesus is with us at the many “tombs” in our lives – just like he was at Lazarus’ tomb – reminding us it’s not the end, and offering us renewal.
And as theologian Meda Stamper says, “having Jesus at our tombs also means that we must follow him to his!”
And so, people of faith, people of resurrection, we turn our eyes toward Jerusalem.