The comedic high point of this story is the dramatic moment when Jesus is ready to raise Lazarus from the dead and calls for the stone to be rolled away from the cave in which his body has been placed. The action is interrupted by one of the sisters of Lazarus named Martha, who has a very practical concern to raise. “Whoa, now, are you sure we want to do that? He has been dead four days, it’s going to stink something awful when that stone is moved!” Well, the irony is that there are a number of things that stink in this story, but the body of Lazarus is not the main one.
Trying to preach a sermon on this story stinks, as is true for many of the stories John tells. John is great for beloved, pithy sayings, but the larger stories are difficult. He only tells seven miracle stories, and he calls them “signs.” They are teaching moments, they are laden with meaning that is revealed by the miracle itself. Yet the learnings are nuanced in metaphors and parallels.
Take the story we are looking at today. The raising of Lazarus from the dead is the climax of John’s gospel, in many ways, and it is clearly the event which causes the death of Jesus. Yet it is not even mentioned in any of the other three gospels. That stinks for the logical modern mind that wants proof and verification of exactly what happened in any situation. The same is true in approaching the differences in the stories about the resurrection of Jesus. The only thing I have found to do is to admire that the compilers of the Bible were willing to put such differing accounts in and trust that each had something to add that was of benefit for Christians and their faith.
Today I’m going to try to enter into John’s way of thinking and identify some of the ways in which the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead might serve as a sign for us. By way of introduction, it is important to know that Jesus had recently left Jerusalem because people had gone so far as to pick up rocks with which to stone him to death for the blasphemy of claiming to be God. He went to Bethany Beyond the Jordan, where John the Baptist had baptized people.
That is where he was when he got this message from his friends Mary and Martha that their brother was sick. Jesus must have been very close to Lazarus, because their message simply said, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But John makes it clear that Jesus chooses not to go directly, but dawdles for a couple of days before going. That stinks.
What is it all about? Did Jesus want to make sure he was good and dead before performing this mightiest of signs, so there would be no confusing this resurrection with resuscitation? Is the point that Jesus is not just our genie in the bottle that we can summon up any time we want to fix our problems? Or is he actually wanting to set the dramatic stage which will force the temple leaders to put him to death?
After the two days are gone he announces to the disciples, “Okay, let’s go back to Judea.” Mary, Martha, and Lazarus lived in Bethany, which was only two miles from Jerusalem. The disciples were incredulous. “Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you there, and now you are going there again?” Jesus gives them an odd answer about the number of hours of daylight in a day, and that Lazarus had died. Thomas, later called the Doubter, said, whether in resignation or exasperation or bravery, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” There was no question in their minds what another trip to Jerusalem would mean, and they were not up for it.
When they arrived, Mary and Martha both expressed resentment that Jesus was not there when they needed him, that he could have kept Lazarus from dying. Losing a loved one brings numbing grief, anger, and despair. Surely we all know the feeling of asking God why he was not willing to do whatever needed to be done to save the life of our loved one.
In the midst of this Jesus has a conversation with Martha in which they talk past each other as Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well had several chapters earlier. Jesus says, “Your brother will live again.” Martha replies, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, shall live; and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She says yes, but here is what she says she believes: “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
That is not a promise that believers will never experience death or that all will be brought back to earthly life if they die. It is a promise that Jesus is the source of life and resurrection and death is no barrier to the life he offers. For believers, even if we die we shall live and shall never die, and Jesus is the assurance of this.
The sign of this truth on that day was for Jesus to show he had power over death, power to give new life. So the tomb was opened and Jesus called Lazarus forth from the tomb and had the people unwrap the grave cloths and let him go. “Unbind him and let him go.” He is no longer a prisoner of death. He is free to live.
As detailed as the rest of the story and the dialogue are, it is curious that it ends here. No “heaven is real” stories from Lazarus; no back slapping and expressions of gratitude from the sisters; nothing. John tells us that many of the Jews who were present to console Mary and Martha believed in Jesus that day, but that others went to make a report to the Pharisees. We get a detailed account of a meeting of the Sanhedrin to discuss this situation. The fear is expressed that if they do not do something, everyone will believe in Jesus and the Romans will get mad and come and destroy the Temple and the nation of Israel. The outcome of the meeting was that “from that day on they planned to put him to death.”
That stinks. Jesus performs this live-giving act and brings great joy, and the response is based on “what does this mean for me?” When negative repercussions are foreseen, the obvious solution is to get rid of the problem. It is clear that for John, Jesus is consciously calling Lazarus out of the tomb knowing that he will take his place there in very short order.
Indeed, in the next story John tells us that Jesus is having a meal in Bethany at the home of his friends. Martha served, Lazarus was at the table with him, and Mary took a pound of expensive perfume with which she anointed his feet. Against the objections of Judas that this was money wasted, Jesus defended her by saying that she had anointed his body for burial. As Jesus says elsewhere in John, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” He is preparing to do that for Lazarus and for all of us.
In what ways can this story mean something to us today? Certainly there is the good news that Jesus is Lord over death and that believing in him leads to eternal life. But I think there is more than that. I think it reminds us that Jesus is Lord in this life as well, and that he wants to give us an abundant life in this world as well as in the next. What are the implications of this?
Well, maybe there is something that has you bound in a tomb. What is it that keeps you from being the person that you want to be and that God wants you to be? Fear? Grief? Isolation from other people? Cocooning in your home with the tv and the computer? I think Jesus wants to call you out of that tomb and unbind you and set you free to be fully alive. When you get used to being in that tomb it becomes your comfort zone, and you don’t even realize that it becomes a place of death and stagnation. It takes a risk to answer the call of Jesus to come out and hear him say, “Unbind her, and let her go.”
Maybe you identify more with the sisters who are outside of the tomb. What is inside the tomb that you believe is gone forever, which paralyzes you from getting on with your life? Is hope buried away in there? The positive attitude you used to have? The faith that used to seem so clear and vibrant? Is your willingness or ability to love sealed away in that tomb because of past hurts or disappointments?
What would happen if you let Jesus unseal that tomb? Would your mind be flooded with fears and negative thoughts about the unfortunate consequences that might come about as a result, as with the Pharisees? Would your instinct be to slam that rock back up against the opening and not take the risk?
On another day when another stone had been rolled away from another tomb, the friends of Jesus faced such questions. My goodness – what now? Part of me says this is a great thing, but what am I going to do with the fact that I denied knowing him, ran like a scared rabbit when he was in trouble, was afraid to show my face when they nailed him to the cross because they might do the same to me? Am I willing to get my hopes up again after having them dashed, am I willing to love as deeply after experiencing the pain of such a devastating loss? Where do I go from here now that the tomb is no longer the last word?
Jesus says, “I came that they might have life, and have it more abundantly. I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live; and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” One of the early church fathers named Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is a person fully alive.” Paul said, “Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” “Unbind them all, and let them go, that they might all be fully alive.”
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
March 30, 2014
Central Presbyterian Church