by Nick Strobel on March 9, 2008
Good morning and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you!
Pastor Pam is with three of our youth going through confirmation on a retreat this weekend. Phil Maxwell is with them too. They first went to the Bishop's Confirmation Retreat for those going through confirmation in our conference. It was held at Monte Toyon in Aptos from Friday evening to Saturday afternoon and then they drove to San Francisco. This morning they attended the early service at Glide Memorial Church and helped in the morning Free Meals Program. They may be now on the road home.
The first part of John has seven signs pointing to who Jesus is: changing water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana, healing an official's son, healing a paralytic, feeding the 5000, walking on water, healing a man born blind, and then our story this morning—raising Lazarus from the dead. In this story we also have one of Jesus' seven "I am" statements.
This is a long story (as you know from the time you spent standing during the reading of the 45 verses)! This morning I would like to talk about the whole story rather than focusing on just one particular piece, although, there will be some parts that I will spend more time on than others.
Jesus is in Bethany across the Jordan River where John had been baptizing. To confuse the geography somewhat, Lazarus, Mary, and Martha are in a village also called Bethany, but this Bethany is two miles east of Jerusalem, on the eastern side of the Mount of Olives or about 15-20 miles from the first Bethany. In the first paragraph of the story we see the two aspects of Jesus, the divine and the human that have always been in tension in the minds and hearts of Jesus' followers throughout the ages. First Jesus seems to have a supernatural knowledge of what's going to happen to Lazarus. Immediately after that we see that Jesus has special friends as a true human would. Verse 5 says that Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. If Jesus and God are one, well then, of course, Jesus loved them—he loves us all. Reading that verse from the view of Jesus as divine seems a bit unnecessary. Reading that verse from the view of Jesus as really human makes more sense—there were some people Jesus had special friendships with, like we all do.
The first paragraph concludes with Jesus waiting another two days. Why wait? In the scripture passage Jesus simply says that this will be for God's glory and so that the disciples may believe. How so? John does not explain how here. I think that this is a faith statement, a trust statement, more for John's, the Gospel writer's, community who are reading or hearing this passage (and that includes us) than for the disciples. The disciples clearly don't understand what Jesus said and think the reason that they're staying away from Bethany is because there are some people there upset enough with Jesus (and them) that they'll stone him. The people of John's community are undergoing all sorts of persecution including being put to death. The book of John was written so that they will continue to believe. Why wait? We don't understand, indeed we can't understand, because we can't see the whole picture but we trust that through it all God is at work.
Some commentaries have said or certainly implied that Jesus waited because he didn't know that Lazarus was going to die. The only word he had received from Lazarus' sisters was that Lazarus was ill, not dying, and a truly literal reading of the Bible would have us think that Jesus believes that Lazarus won't die from his illness. But as believers in Christ we know there is more to Jesus' statement than just the words. We interpret it differently. And if there's one thing we pick up from reading the book of John, it is that Jesus is very deliberate in everything he does and says. That certainly bears out in what follows.
Two days after receiving news of Lazarus' illness, Jesus says, "Let us go to Judea again." The time is right. The disciples protest because of ignorance and fear (being in the dark), but Jesus says that the time is right—it is now time to go. "Are there not twelve hours of daylight?" We will work in the light, not the dark. Jesus knows that his time is coming and it is now time to go. He knows (and John's community knows) that this last and greatest sign he will give, this greatest miracle he will perform, will be the one that leads to his own execution. It is now time to set things in motion.
As far as the information the Bible gives us, no other word of Lazarus' condition comes to Jesus from Lazarus' sisters, but Jesus knows what has happened. He first uses an euphemism for Lazarus' death "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep" and the disciples interpret it literally. "Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right." I wonder if Jesus rolled his eyes or there was a look of irritation or frustration at the cluelessness of the disciples. He has to be explicit. "Lazarus is dead". Perhaps Thomas' statement "Let us also go, that we may die with him" is a sign that the disciples are beginning to catch on to what's going on. Or it could be an example of courageous loyalty to Jesus—we will follow you no matter what. Or is it said with pessimism as if this is all going to end badly so we might as well get it over with? It depends on how you read it.
Jesus finally arrives at the Bethany near Jerusalem. It was at least a day's walk after he set out. Lazarus has been dead for four days, having died as the messenger was traveling to give word to Jesus about Lazarus' illness. The fourth day is significant because it was believed that the soul lingered near the body for three days before departing. Lazarus is really dead, "dead dead".
When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to him. How did Martha approach Jesus? With anger at Jesus' delay? With hopefulness? With sadness and hopelessness? It depends on how you read it. In the male-dominated world of their time, Mary and Martha were dependent upon Lazarus for financial support since they were not married. Lazarus' death now pushes them out to the margins of society. Their way of life is gone; their future is truly bleak. On top of that Jesus is arriving so late after Lazarus' death—four days! How did Martha approach Jesus? We don't know Martha's emotional state—we only get her words.
Perhaps her second sentence tells us that she still has hope that something good will come now that Jesus is finally here: "But even now I know that God will give whatever you ask of him." However, the idea of Lazarus coming back to life is beyond any realm of possibility—he's been dead four days! Martha naturally doesn't catch Jesus' meaning when he says that Lazarus will rise again. She assumes like most other Jews would have assumed that Jesus was talking about the resurrection that would happen in the future. Jesus brings the future resurrection and eternal life into the present.
Here Jesus gives one of his "I am" statements; statements that reveal Jesus' true identity. "I AM the resurrection and the life." This is the heart of this story. Jesus not only says he is the resurrection and the life, but he is also going to show that he is the resurrection and the life with the raising of Lazarus. With "I AM" we remember that that is God's name that God gave to Moses at the burning bush in the book of Exodus. "I AM the resurrection and the life." Leander Keck in one of the Disciple series wrote that Jesus "is the one through whom life is transformed radically when it is rightly related to its Creator." (Jesus in the Gospels, p. 255).
Echoing what he said to Nicodemus in the dark of night in John 3:16 (but now in broad daylight), Jesus continues, "Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die." True life comes when we live in the light and walk in the Way of Christ that leads to God. When we are tapped into the life of the eternal, we are truly alive because that is how God created us to be rather than living a life that is just a shadow of what it could be. The promise of a future resurrection where life continues in union with God after physical death is placed with the promise of a present resurrection where our present life is transformed into an active, practicing belief in Christ.
Then Jesus brings this back to Martha herself (and to each one of us hearing or reading the story), "Do you believe this?" She cannot avoid the decision. Her response is a great profession of faith, a statement of a true disciple, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world." She states the goal of John's gospel.
But Jesus remains where he talked with Martha. Why does he wait? Martha goes to get Mary. Mary comes and says the same thing that her sister first said to Jesus but much more emotional—she says, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died" while crying at Jesus' feet. I can understand Mary's lament and her tears, "Why weren't you here in time? Why did you let him die?" I said the pretty much same thing when my father-in-law died and when my sister-in-law died. These were two very good people who died from cancer. Leslie was only a year-and-a-half older than me. Some might say that Mary (and Martha) should have had more faith and not questioned Jesus' delay, but I feel that it was precisely because of her trust in Jesus that made her say that. Being fully open with Jesus is true faith.
What follows is where the humanity of Jesus comes through very clearly. Jesus is "greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved". Another translation says "greatly agitated" instead of deeply moved. He asks "Where have you laid him?" Shouldn't the divine one already know? Those who accompanied Mary answer, "Lord" (not "Rabbi" but a much better title: "Lord"), "Lord, come and see". Then Jesus cried. John is not clear why Jesus cried, so many explanations have been offered by others, most of them based on a divine view of Jesus. Jesus looked deep into the hearts of the crowd and saw that they didn't understand him or really believe in him. Or he knew that he would bring Lazarus back from the wonderful place of heaven. Or his were tears of anger over the evil of death that came into the world because of our turning away from God. Or he knew what his raising of Lazarus would lead to in the following days. All of these are based on a divine view of Jesus. He has supernatural knowledge of people, of heaven, the cosmic battle with evil or of the future.
I believe that Jesus cried for a human reason: he really loved Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. Lazarus, the age of Jesus, had died before his time. He grieved with Mary and Martha. He cried with his friends. He felt their pain so deeply that he shuddered. The Son of God cries when we cry.
Mickey Anders relates a story of a little girl who came home late from school one day. Her mother was furious and severely scolded her. After her ranting and raving, she stopped to ask the girl, "Why were you late anyway?" The girl replied, "I was helping another girl in trouble." "What did you do for her?" asked the mother. "Oh, I just sat down beside her and helped her cry."
On the corner adjacent to the memorial for the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the people of St. Joseph's Catholic Church that was almost completely destroyed by the blast erected a nice-foot statue of Jesus with his face in his hands and the plaque on it reads, "And Jesus Wept". Anders notes that that statue has brought resurrection and hope and new life to thousands of mourners and survivors.
Our story continues Jesus comes to the tomb, a cave with a large stone in front to keep out grave robbers and he says, "Take the stone away". Either Martha's profession of faith wasn't genuine or she slips like we all do and she says that Lazarus' body is going to stink. Jesus reminds her of what she professed before. She remembers and agrees to have the stone moved away by the others. Jesus doesn't ask for a miracle when he prays, but he gives thanks to God. It is a prayer meant to be overheard by all those standing by. What will happen next is so that the people might believe that God sent Jesus. Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who has come into the world so that we may have life in his name.
Jesus commanded at the top of his voice, "Lazarus, come out!" Jesus is the resurrection and the life. There are no long-winded spells or physical displays or special effects. Jesus commands and it is done. Lazarus finds life. Jesus' final command is for others to help, to participate in the miracle that has happened: "Unbind him, and let him go". Christ continues to call us today to participate in his mission today, to get on board with what God is already doing in the world, to practice what we say we believe. If we believe we will cry and share another's pain so they know that they are not alone. If we believe, if our lives have been transformed, we will roll the stone away and unbind others from whatever weighs them down or constricts them or blinds them so they can be free to fully experience the love of God. "Do you believe this?" Amen.