We are starting in the middle of this long narrative in John’s gospel ~ Jesus begins to weep. Following a long theological discussion with his dear friend Martha, and confronted with the weeping figure of another dear friend, Mary, Jesus begins to weep. As he turns to face the tomb, which holds the body of someone he loves, understandably he cries.
As we near the end of our journey through Lent, we turn our faces towards the cross. And so does Jesus. There is no doubt, there is no question, that this is the moment that seals it. Jesus can make extravagant claims about himself, such as “I am the living water,” and “I am the light of the world.” Jesus can even perform miraculous signs, turning water into wine, healing the blind, casting out demons. But this event is what propels Jesus towards Jerusalem. Today’s sign, the bringing of life out of death, is what ensures that Jesus himself will face death, and soon.
In John’s gospel, no detail is insignificant. “Now a certain man was ill,” we are told, “Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.” The writer presumes we already know who Mary and Martha are; they are well-known among the disciples, more well-known even than their brother, Lazarus. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
Throughout the gospel of John, there are references to someone known as the “beloved disciple.” Much ink has been spilled by scholars over the burning question of who this might be. Traditionally, it was believed to be the disciple John, from whom the gospel takes its name. There are others who would stake their careers on this being a reference to Mary Magdalene. But it’s interesting to read the message the sisters send to Jesus in light of this question: “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” Is Lazarus the beloved disciple? That might be a sermon for another day!
After hearing the news of his friend’s grave illness, Jesus does something rather puzzling. He does nothing. He delays going to Lazarus’ side for two days, despite the fact that, as the text tells us, he loves both Lazarus and his two sisters. Jesus delays, and he gives a reason for delay that is troubling. He says, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory”, and Jesus is going to reveal his glory. But this glory comes at a cost of one dead brother and two sisters who mourn and suffer terrible grief, not only at the loss of their brother, but at the failure of Jesus to act in time to save him. Their reaction to Jesus when he arrives is “Where were you when we needed you? You were not here.”
If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that there are times when we feel this way about God. When things go terribly, horribly wrong ~ a marriage fails, a grave illness is diagnosed, someone - maybe a friend, maybe the vicar, maybe a member of the church - disappoints us or hurts us. We wonder where is God in all of this.
I am reminded of a story about Saint Teresa of Avila, the medieval mystic. One day, the story goes, she was riding along on her donkey, when the creature stumbled and Teresa fell off into the mud. Looking up to the heavens, she shook her fist at God, saying “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them!”
We struggle to make sense of loss and disappointment. Sometimes we are not able to make sense of it for a very long time. We grieve our losses. And why shouldn’t that be the case? Isn’t grief about love, after all? Surely it is natural for us to wonder why? Even to say to God, “You didn’t get here in time”?
But of course there is our time, and there is God’s time. It becomes clear as John’s story unfolds that Jesus is operating very much on God’s time. It becomes clear that the story of the death of Lazarus, painful as it is for his sisters, even for Jesus, is a part of God’s story, and Jesus’ story. It becomes clear that so much more is at stake than this dead man, who was loved by his sisters and by Jesus.
And so we come to Jesus at the tomb, weeping. This story is about Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, the Anointed One of God, yet we see Jesus at the point of utmost humanity – a grown man weeping in public. In order to understand what we mean when we say “Jesus is the Son of God,” we need to understand that this episode takes place, first of all, at the level of his humanity.
I suspect most of us are comfortable with one Jesus or the other: the human or the divine. It is very hard to get our minds around this notion of “fully human and fully divine.” To say that Jesus is fully divine, that he is of the same substance as God is to say something that most people today are not prepared to accept.
C. S. Lewis, who gave us The Chronicles of Narnia, had his own, typically acerbic response. He says the following about Jesus:
“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said about himself would not be a good moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg or else he would be the Devil himself. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.
For some of us, it may be more helpful to take our cues from Martha; she challenges Jesus. When Jesus arrives, her first words ring out as an accusation against him. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” You’re late, Martha says, but then she adds, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”
Jesus reply was “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?”
Imagine being in Martha’s shoes. She is talking with her good friend Jesus, and suddenly she is confronted with a statement that must have seemed bizarre. “I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this?” More to the point - Do we believe this? What do we believe?
Do we believe that Jesus had—has—the power to change our experience of life and death forever? Do we believe that faith in Jesus means that we don’t have to be afraid of death ever again, and that the quality of our lives can be transformed into something called ‘eternal life’? That is the foundation of our Christian Faith, or it should be.
Martha answers Jesus, but not in the way we might expect. Martha does not say, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the resurrection and the life.” Instead, she says, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” Instead of saying, “I believe what you say to be true,” Martha says, “I believe in you. I trust in you. I may not know what you’re about, letting my brother die, but somehow I still trust you.”
When Martha says, “Yes, Lord, I believe,” she is really saying, “Yes Lord, I trust you completely.” And our response - I trust you, Jesus, even though my marriage fell apart. I trust you, Jesus, even though I have this tumour that keeps growing. I trust you, Jesus, even though I don’t know how I’m going to pay the rent this month. I give you my heart, Lord, you who are beyond my comprehension, because I believe you hold me in love through all of it.
In this story, the dead man is raised, it must be pointed out, to die again another day! The death rate for human beings continues to hold steady at 100%.
There is one very puzzling part to this story, one which I have thought about often, one which we spent time discussing in our Lent course and one which I had a bit of a revelation about at 2 o’clock in the morning on Friday. Why did Jesus wait for three days before coming to Lazarus? It was his friend and he was ill. Martha and Mary were his friends and they were desperate, yet he waited. I think it is significant that he waited three days. He needed people to know that Lazarus was truly dead.
It was the final sign. Jesus had spent the last three years telling his disciples in a variety of different ways, who he was, and that he was to die, and in three days God would raise him from the dead. They had not taken any of this in, so this is the last chance. Listen to the echoes of Jesus’ death and resurrection in this account.
We are told that the tomb was a cave and that there was a stone against it.
ECHO: Since Jewish belief held that the soul left the body after three days, just in case we are wondering, Lazarus is really dead. And, he is going to smell. Jesus then pauses to pray. Jesus thanks God for hearing him; and how is Lazarus raised? By hearing Jesus. Like the sheep that recognize the voice of the shepherd who calls them by name, Lazarus hears his name being called, he recognizes the voice of the shepherd, and the dead man comes out, because only the shepherd can lead his sheep out.
ECHO: If Jesus can call the dead Lazarus out – surely God will call the dead Jesus out. Jesus will hear the Father call him and He will come out.
When we think of the resurrection we tend to focus on the hope for ourselves as a distant promise, our guarantee of salvation, our eternal life with God and Jesus in heaven. But Jesus is the resurrection and the life? That means we are raised to life, not in the future, but to life right now, right here, with Jesus. It is not just the death of Jesus but the life of Jesus that brings about salvation. For the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
In one sense, the raising of Lazarus is beside the point in this story. But trust in Jesus is very much the point. Trust in Jesus, who weeps with us when we are weeping. Trust in Jesus, who faces death and suffering, not at a distance, He is not a God up in the sky, but alongside us, with us, in us. As we near the end of Lent - Trust in Jesus, as he turns his face to the cross, and so do we.
We end where we began. Jesus begins to weep, for Lazarus and the sadness of his friend, for himself and the trial he is about to face, and for us. Thanks be to God.