Sunday of Lent 2008
A Lenten Series on John’s Great Teaching Stories:
John 11: The Raising of Lazarus
The story of the raising of Lazarus gathers us again at the water and with this story the living water takes the form of holy tears.
As we enter into this rich discourse, some of my thoughts grow in response to the suggestion in several pastoral resources that we not limit the reading of this story of Lazarus only to our hearing at funerals. This is because it is helpful for us Christians to reflect on the meanings around death at times other than when we are deeply grieving.
The raising of Lazarus is not only about our physical dying. We read on in John that while Lazarus is raised, he is risk of dying physically again not too many days later. Today’s reading ends on a positive note with many coming to believe, but the chapter doesn’t end positively. By the chapter’s end, the authorities have agreed to get rid of Jesus and, early in the next chapter, to get rid of Lazarus too. These two are getting too much attention and the authorities want them dead.
With this story we lean ever so closely into Holy Week, which, the raising of Lazarus helps us see, is different in John than in the other Gospels. In John’s Gospel Jesus calls the shots. His life isn’t taken from him. He gives it of his own free will and in his own timing – all for God’s greater purposes. The raising of Lazarus shows Jesus in charge of the timing. He comes to Mary and Martha when he is ready, not when they want him. They want him to keep Lazarus from dying. Though they wish it was, that is not Jesus’ mission. Jesus stays away and Lazarus dies. And Jesus weeps.
Divine tears flow. Jesus is God’s presence in the flesh, so we see that God weeps. God is moved. God doesn’t sit unaffected in an almighty lounge chair in the sky. God feels and God grieves. “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled” and he wanted to see where they had laid Lazarus. So they took him to the tomb. “And Jesus wept.”
This is the only place in the Bible where Jesus weeps, and the word here isn’t a quiet whimper. There’s a difference between weeping and whimpering. I’m sure you have experience with the difference. I know I do.
Through his tears, Jesus cries out: “Take away the stone from the tomb.” And Mary gasps: “Lord, by this time there will be an odor. It’s too late. You could have fixed it, but you came too late!” But Jesus invites Mary, and us, to now see death differently. Jesus invites her, and us, to trust God to meet us past our dying.
Jesus insists that the stone be taken away, and Lazarus emerges alive. But he is bound from head to foot with burial cloths. He is alive, but he wears the vestiges of death. And Jesus calls on the community to help him to live unbound. “Unbind him, let him go.”
One might ask, “Could not he who raised Lazarus from the dead have also unbound him from the burial cloths?” How un-climatic for Lazarus to be raised, but not freed from the burial cloths. He stood there waiting for someone to get past their shock and fear and help him. How much more impressive it would be if Lazarus had bounded out like football players bound onto a field. But he doesn’t burst out. He stands vulnerably waiting on the community.
So much goes on in John’s Gospel. There are so many layers of meaning. Life overpowers death, but life is still human and vulnerable. There is life and light, but there are also burial cloths and fumbling fingers frightened by the call to help. Did they really have to get involved? Couldn’t Jesus do it himself?
John’s Gospel was written to a community that lived nearly 100 years after Jesus’ birth. They struggled to understand what it meant to mature as Christians. They believed the risen Christ was with them, but it was easy to not catch what this meant. What does it mean when our lives are filled with all the kinds of deaths – relational, vocational, physical, financial, emotional, spiritual?
As Jesus asks to see where they laid Lazarus, so does Christ draw near to our grief. That nearness takes the form of compassion – compassion that rolls away the stone so we can see what is happening on the other side. Out of compassion, Jesus helps Mary and Martha and their friends see what he sees – that the tomb is not the end; that death will not hold life down; that death is a new beginning; that life transcends death. That is what they, and we, are blessed to see in the raising of Lazarus. Out of compassion Jesus calls for the removal of stones so we can look death in the face and see life on the other side.
“Unbind him, and let him go,” Jesus says. Our relationship with those who have died, and with what has died in us – can be seen for what it is. “Unbind them.” “Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s,” the scripture says. “Unbind them, and let them go into that good promise.”
The month of March brings my parents to mind a lot because both of their birthdays were in March, and my mother died in March. When I think of them, I am grateful for the theology that says they are no longer dead in the tomb. I have learned it is OK to unbind them from the restrictions of this life and let them go into the eternal embrace of God.
This story of Lazarus also speaks of those deaths that are not our final dying, but are experienced as little deaths nonetheless. If you’ve ever lost a job, or a close relationship, or a physical ability, or your reputation, or your hope for your children or community or yourself or for God’s creation, you’ll know that these losses are deeply significant.
Yet even in these, Christ meets us with compassion and calls on us to trust still in the gift of unbounded life. God’s compassion helps us see how eternal love meets us in all our losses for God is not defeated by any loss. Though we and God grieve, Luther was quick to say there is never cause for despair. Neither death nor loss takes us from God. God meets us in our dying – our final death and the little deaths along the way.
Easter speaks to this. Easter comes not in spite of Good Friday but because of it. Because Good Friday happened, God brought about the greater good of Easter. Fuller life comes not in spite of loss, but through it. Tears of compassion streaming down God’s face in the form of Christ come as living water. God’s love goes beyond the tomb, beyond the losses, with unimagined life.
It is into this promise that we are baptized. It is of this promise that we eat and drink. These are gifts from the heart of God who longs for us to see what is really true – that “when we are living, it is in Christ Jesus and when we’re dying, it is in the Lord. Both in our living and in our dying, we belong to God, we belong to God.” (ELW #639 When We Are Living)