The Death of Lazarus
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But 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.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus 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. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’
Jesus the Resurrection and the Life
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘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 of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘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 said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’
When 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.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The 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. When 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.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
Jesus Raises Lazarus to Life
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus 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 for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I 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.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The 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.’
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, ‘What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’ But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to put him to death.
Another long gospel reading today! This is the last of the long gospel readings for Lent. Next week is Palm Sunday, and instead of a straight-away gospel reading next Sunday, we’ll be hearing a dramatic reading of the Passion story, written by Matthew, performed by you all, the actors. But even as you were listening to the long reading this morning, did you notice tucked in there the shortest verse in the Bible – the one you probably learned by heart early on – in the King James Version: “Jesus wept.”
Setting aside all the other words of today’s extra long reading for minute, let’s just consider the significance of those words Jesus wept. What does it mean to us today that Jesus wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus? What do his tears mean to us?
In our society, in our culture, tears are often dismissed as inappropriate or something to apologize for. We often times try to hold back tears to avoid embarrassment, either for ourselves or the person we are with. Through all this we may suppress or try to hide our human feelings, our human emotions. But tears are a very true, healthy human expression, and this is why Jesus’ tears in this story are important.
“Jesus began to weep.” This verse serves as an authentic mark of Jesus’ humanity. Jesus’ tears are an emotional testimony to the truth of Jesus’ incarnation, that Jesus was and is truly one of us – to the point of sharing our human need for friendship and sharing our grief at the loss of a spouse, a friend, a loved one . . .
Some of the people who were there with Jesus reacted to his tears by saying “See how he loved him!” The Greek word for “love” here is not the verb agapē— which is the God-like, unconditional love that we come across often in the Bible. Instead it is philia, the human everyday Greek word for “friendship,” the ordinary human love we have for our friends. Jesus love for Lazarus is the purely human kind.
Jesus is one of us – he knows our human sorrow, our grief – because he’s human, just like us. All this reminds me of the words of the hymn —
What a friend we have in Jesus,
all our sins and griefs to bear . . .
In his arms he’ll take and shield thee;
thou wilt find a solace there.” . . .
So Jesus is human and he identifies with our humanness. This is one of the ways the story of the raising of Lazarus speaks to our human need today .
There are a couple of other points in the story that particularly strike me when I think about the significance of the story of the raising of Lazarus and the immediate impact it has on our lives.
When Jesus first hears that Lazarus is seriously ill, he doesn’t immediately rush off to see him. He waits an extra two days. There’s some discussion with the disciples about Lazarus falling asleep – and by this Jesus means that he is dead.
But when Jesus arrives on the scene, Martha questions him about his late arrival. Jesus assures her that her brother will rise again, and Martha answers that she knows he will be resurrected on the last day.
But Jesus wants to expand her understanding; he seems to want to tell Martha that it’s not just about the future – and mansions prepared for us in some distant time and place. It’s also about the immediate present. Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” – resurrected life today.
Our first impression may be the same as Martha’s. We tend to focus on our own resurrection as a distant promise, our eternal life with God and Jesus off in a place we call heaven. But what does it mean that Jesus is the resurrection and the life? What if we are raised to new life right now, right here – with Jesus who is here and now?
For Lazarus, the Gospel doesn’t talk about his future with Jesus, it talks about his present. Lazarus and his sisters once again entertain Jesus; they eat with him in their home.
Jesus’ promises – God’s promises – are not just about eternal life with God after we die, not just about God’s forgiveness at the last day. The Gospel makes a difference in our lives now – makes new things possible now – opens up opportunities now – transforms relationships now – – – heals our emotional and spiritual wounds – now . . . The promises of God are present tense, not just future.
Returning to the gospel story for another observation: I think it’s important that Jesus calls Lazarus by name. Lazarus participates actively.
And then after Lazarus hears Jesus and comes out of the tomb still wrapped in the burial clothes, the miracle is not yet over. After Jesus commands Lazarus to come out, Jesus then commands to the crowd to get involved: “Unbind him and let him go.” Jesus commands the community to participate – they are the ones who complete God’s action. Yes, the raising of Lazarus from death to new life is entirely Jesus’ work, yet Jesus invites the community to do something essential and meaningful and important.
Could that mean that we have a part to play in completing the coming of God’s kingdom today – that God uses us to complete his work in the world?
The final verses of the gospel reading today take us into next Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week. These verses are crucial to the plot of John’s passion narrative.
As it turns out Jesus’ resurrection of his dead friend serves as the nail in Jesus’ own coffin. The Pharisees decide to kill Jesus because of this miracle. They see Jesus as a threat. They fear that the Romans will destroy their temple – their whole nation – when they hear about Jesus’ growing power and influence.
Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, made the prophetic statement “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” Caiaphas was speaking an ironic truth in these words, fore-telling that Jesus would die for the nation – and not only the nation and the Jewish people, but for the whole world — for all time.
The plot against Jesus begins with Jesus weeping at the death of his friend. Jesus’ enemies think it will all end on Good Friday. But it won’t end until Easter Day and Resurrection. That’s when we discover what a Friend we have in Jesus – not only in Jesus as the human Presence of God – but also in the complete all-powerful, all- knowing, all-loving God who raises Jesus from the dead!