Reflections on the Raising of Lazarus  

John 11:1-45, Lent 5, April 2, 2017

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.”

Few narratives in the Bible grip us like this one of the raising of Lazarus. Jesus, being fully human like us, had some people who were closer than others.  Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are some of the few that are identified as his friends. From the few accounts we do have of this family, we know that Jesus was welcomed in their home (Lk 10:38-42 tells of one occasion where Martha did most of the meal preparation, while Mary attended to Jesus’ teachings). We also read in the following chapter of John where Martha is busy serving again, while Mary anoints the feet of Jesus with expensive ointment. We know virtually nothing of Lazarus other than as a friend of Jesus; he got sick, died, and was raised to life again.

In the opening words of this account we discover the essential details of what is about to come. Messengers come to Jesus with the news of Lazarus’ illness.  Jesus sends a message back that the illness will not lead to death, but rather the glory of God will be made manifest. Jesus and the disciples tarry two days before leaving for Bethany (possibly around 30 kms from their present location).  The disciples show some hesitancy about making the trip because of the animosity between the Jews in Judea and Jesus. Jesus shows little concern, and states unequivocally that his “time has not come yet”, and there is nothing to fear.

As is characteristic of the gospel of John, there is confusion as to what Jesus is meaning regarding the “sleep” of Lazarus, but eventually Jesus states clearly that Lazarus is dead, and that somehow this needed to happen for them to experience what he was about to do to strengthen their faith. Thomas, reveals his courage and conviction as he “rallies the troops” to follow Jesus to this unknown future. Too bad he is primarily remembered as only a “doubter”. Most of us have our good days, and our bad days like Thomas, and wish that we wouldn’t be defined and remembered by the bad ones.

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.”

Jesus’ prophecy regarding the death of Lazarus is fulfilled as he and the disciples reach Bethany. Not only was he dead, he had been in the tomb for four days. Ancients believed that for three days the spirit was not so very far from the body after death, and it was a least theoretically possible for them to be reunited. By day four, all bets were off, and death was irreversible. Given the distance traveled, and the four-day time interval, Lazarus would likely have died before the messengers spoke with Jesus. By now all hopes of resuscitation were gone…it would need to be something more.

Martha meets Jesus on the roadside, with obvious disappointment. Jesus’ words via the messenger about “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”, proved little comfort for Martha at this point. Her brother was in fact dead and four days buried. Had Jesus been there, things might have been different…but he wasn’t.

Martha goes on to make a bold statement regarding the person of Jesus, But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Even after all hope should be lost…she still seems to have some. She certainly has hope for the final resurrection at the end of age in stating, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus then makes a statement and asks her perhaps the most significant statement and question one could ever ask, “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?”  She answers with a confident faith in words that affirm that true nature of this one she called friend, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”  No woman in the Bible ever made such a bold affirmation regarding Jesus. Peter is the only other to do so.

She hurries back to inform Mary, and she too rushes to meet Jesus. Her disappointment is revealed in repeating the words of her sister-” if you had been here…”. It is not a sin to be disappointed with God. The psalms give ample evidence of that. What we do with that disappointment is another matter entirely. Jesus does not rebuke either Martha or Mary for their disappointment. We can, and must be honest with God. After all, he knows our thoughts already.

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.

What follows shows us the humanity of Jesus perhaps as well as any text in the Bible. Even though Jesus knows what is about to happen regarding the resurrection of Lazarus (although Lazarus would eventually have to go through the valley of the shadow of death once again before the “final day”, this was indeed something more than a resuscitation), he still reveals deep emotion at the death of his friend. The Greek word for this emotion shown by Jesus best translates as the sound made by the snorting of an angry horse. As St Paul articulates in his letter to the church at Corinth, death is in fact an enemy, and Jesus in his deep display of emotion would confirm this. There are times when loved ones have experienced prolonged suffering and loss of ability where death many not seem like an enemy, but it is in fact so.  One day this enemy will be utterly, and completely destroyed.

Jesus calls for the stone to be removed from the tomb, and despite her powerful affirmation of faith only verses prior, Martha cautions such a move. She still lives in the “here-and-now”, the place where dead bodies decay, and that process has a certain smell associated with it. Like Peter before her, and like most of us, we can make bold proclamation of faith one day, and show little of that faith the next. We always live in the world of “I believe Lord…help my unbelief”. Those at the tomb obey, Jesus prays to his Father, and then calls out with a loud voice and commands Lazarus to come out from the tomb. He does, and those close by unbind him from his grave wrappings.

For John, this will be the last of the many signs that Jesus performed to reveal his identity and mission. In a few short days Jesus, himself will be raised from the dead, but unlike Lazarus, will never die again. From that day forth, Jesus, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity will forever inhabit this resurrected, glorified human body. This resurrection will be testament that Jesus is who he claimed to be, God in the flesh, and give all future generations hope for their own bodily resurrection. May the response of Martha and Mary, and the Jews who witnessed this event be our response as well…” I believe”. Amen


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