Giving all glory and honour to God.
Lazarus is dead. Our story today is about death. In our society we try not to think too much about death, even though death is our constant companion. We see hundreds of people die fake deaths in TV crime shows and mysteries, and real deaths in the news from Libya and the Ivory Coast and Japan. All of us have experienced in some way the death of a loved one or friend, and probably quite a few deaths. We may have planned for our own death, for all of us are walking around with an expiry date on us, a date we don’t know, but at some point many of us try to get ready through wills and estate planning and funeral pre-arrangement. But death isn’t a topic we like to talk about. It’s unpleasant. It makes us uncomfortable. It scares us.
But this story allows us to reflect on death which will come to us all, and how we react to death among us. Lazarus is a close friend of Jesus, the brother of Mary and Martha, and Jesus likes to stop in at his friends’ home and rest and be entertained. And Jesus gets word that Lazarus is sick. We can all relate to this, hearing that a friend is ill. And in this conversation his followers don’t understand what Jesus means. Jesus says, ‘Our friend Lazarus is sleeping, but I am going to wake him up.’ And they say, well, if he’s only sleeping, he will get well. Once again, the words of Jesus are taken too literally – at that time, sleep was a less harsh term for death, just as we avoid the word dead and say that someone has passed away or has been called home. But then Jesus is direct; he says, ‘Lazarus is dead.’ This sounds hard. Some of us prefer less direct ways of saying this, and avoid saying ‘dead,’ referring instead to someone passing. But sometimes we need to hear plainly. Your friend is dead. Your spouse is dead. The truth may be painful and catastrophic, but hearing it is the first step in healing.
So when Jesus and his group arrive, Lazarus has been dead and buried for four days. And Martha says to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.’ Mary tells Jesus too, if you had been here Lazarus wouldn’t have died. What human, honest words. We try to detect the tone of voice behind these words, and the sisters seem angry. That is one of the stages we go through in our grief when a loved one has died. The sisters can’t keep back their feelings. But they can’t escape from their faith in Jesus either, and I hear this very human mixture of anger and belief when I talk with people in sorrow. The sisters know that Jesus has a unique relationship with God. Martha confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the one promised by God.
Mary and Martha are just like us, for we say too, in hurt and in resentment, if only God had been here, if only God had healed my parent or spouse or sibling or child, if only God had prevented this happening, I would not be going through this pain.
Yet Jesus goes through pain himself, for next in the story it says, ‘When Jesus saw Mary crying and the people who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled.’ Next is the answer to many trivia questions, what is the shortest sentence in the Bible? John 11:35 – ‘Jesus wept.’ It is indeed the shortest sentence in the Bible, and one of the most moving, and astonishing. Jesus, the Word of God made human, God’s child, knows weeping, knows deep grief, knows being moved by the sorrow and hurt of his friends. The word translated as ‘deeply disturbed’ is really more powerful. In Greek it could also be used to describe a horse snorting – it’s trying to convey that such strong emotions seize Jesus that he groans involuntarily.
Here Jesus, who shows us God, is indeed showing us what God is like. Jesus doesn’t show us a passionless and compassionless God who ignores our suffering. Jesus shows us God afflicted with grief as we are, God caring so much that God’s heart is racked by anguish at the agony of God’s people, God sharing our tears. Jesus wept. God weeps.
And if Jesus weeps, God weeps, we can weep too. So often we are told, stay strong, don’t give in to tears. Boys in particular are instructed, men don’t cry. And we express admiration for family and friends who don’t cry at the funeral home or the funeral service, saying, look how composed they are – when in our grief we should act as Jesus does, we should let out our tears and our anger and our upheaval rather than keep them bottled up inside.
Every death is tremendously upsetting to the family and friends of the deceased, even if it has been expected for a long time, whether it’s the only death that day or part of a natural disaster that kills thousands of people. So far this story seems to be about just another death, no matter how much sorrow Mary and Martha and Jesus experience. But now it takes a turn. Jesus is very emotional as he comes to the tomb, with its entrance covered by a large stone, and says, ‘Remove the stone.’ And Martha tells him, ‘The smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.’ In the King James Bible, she says, ‘He stinketh.’ But resurrections happen where things are messy and smelly, not in clean, perfect surroundings. They do move the stone, Jesus prays and then shouts ‘Lazarus, come out!’ And the dead man does come out, still wrapped in the burial cloths used in those days, and Jesus says, ‘Untie him and let him go.’
Well, that’s amazing. Jesus raises Lazarus from death, after four days. Scholars argue about how much of this story is historical and how much is mythical. No one knows if things took place in the way this story is written. But it doesn’t really matter whether or not Jesus literally raised a dead man to life on a certain date in history. For John, writing this story, Lazarus being restored to physical life isn’t what matters most. What does matter, what matters a lot, is what the story tells us, that God in Jesus loves so much that tears flow and emotions become overwhelming. And it matters the most what Jesus tells Martha: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die.’ That is the whole point of this story.
We often hear these words at funerals. This has been called the greatest of the ‘I am’ statements Jesus makes in John’s Gospel, perhaps the greatest saying in the whole Bible. I am the resurrection and the life. We have probably heard these words many times, but we can only grasp at their meaning. For when Jesus refers in John’s Gospel to life, or eternal life, or living forever, he doesn’t necessarily mean what we hear.
Jesus means life in this life. Resurrection and life for him mean resurrection right now, not from physical death, but from living as if we are dead, dead to sin, lost to all that is worth calling life. We may live selfishly, as if we are dead to the needs of others. We may live with insensitivity, as if we are dead to the feelings of others. We may live with hopelessness, spiritually dead. And Jesus calls us from these deaths within life, unbinds us from selfishness and insensitivity and greed and despair, and sets us free to live true lives here and now. As he said, I have come that they may have life, and more abundant life.
And that is good news. Jesus calls to us as he called to Lazarus, and frees us from spiritual death in the lives we live now. But is that all, wonderful as that is? Does this story have anything for us as we contemplate physical death? Yes, it does, and Martha realizes this as she talks about the resurrection at the last day. Jesus is the resurrection and the life in this world, and the next. In him we are certain that death is not the end. William Barclay writes in his commentary on John, in Jesus we know that we are on the way, not to the sunset, but to the sunrise, that death is a gate into a new kind of life.
When we trust in Jesus, when we accept his gift of new life, we enter into a new relationship with God, and into a new life in which life has a new beauty, a new strength, and is free from the fear and futility of life without faith in God. This life in Christ is so rich and beautiful that it cannot end in death. When we believe that God is as Jesus shows God to be, infinitely loving and forgiving and accepting, then we need not fear death, for death at the end of our lives here means going into the eternal joy of God’s loving presence. The Apostle Paul tells the Thessalonians, don’t grieve in the same way as others who have no hope, for since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so we also believe that God will raise those who have died. And Paul says, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us, for I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor things nor things to come, can separate us from the love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus our Lord. Where, O death is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? Death may still be disturbing to us, may still frighten us no matter how much we trust God, but we have the hope that in death we do not perish, for Jesus has defeated death and has taken away its sting. He is the resurrection and the life.
And that is what we take away from this story. That is the truth behind the questions about what may have happened in history. There is another story, about a troop ship returning across the Pacific Ocean at the end of the Second World War. And an army chaplain led a Bible study on this story of Lazarus, and after they studied it an American Marine came to him and said, “Everything in that chapter is pointing at me.” He said that he had been living in hell, the hell of war and of trouble he had been in, so that he felt that his life was ruined. He felt dead. But he told the chaplain, “After reading this I have come alive again. I know that this resurrection Jesus is talking about is real here and now, for he has raised me from death to life.” In his sin and guilt that Marine came to know Jesus as the resurrection and the life, true and abundant life in the present, and true and abundant life that death cannot bring to an end. He knew, and so can we. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.