Come Forth! How the story of Lazarus paves the path for us.
As we continue our Lenten sermon series: Close Encounters of the Personal Kind, we turn to the poignant story of the raising of Lazarus in John 11:1-55. It’s an episode filled with drama, angst, and intimate conversations, and it raises the kind of questions we all ask as part of the human condition. It’s a story that shows us how Jesus has the power to come forth from what doesn’t work into new life.
The story begins with a surprise. Jesus receives word that he is being summoned to heal his friend, Lazarus. But as we learned last week, Jesus doesn’t heal everybody who asks for it. Instead of going to his friend, he offers a cryptic remark, “The sickness is not unto death.” He vaguely indicates that staying away would manifest the glory of God. Then he goes about his business.
Will You be True to Yourself Even if it Means Disappointing Others?
By refusing the request, Jesus models something healthy. He was not at everyone’s beck and call. He could refuse things even if it meant disappointing others, including those he loved. How many times have you had to do something similar? It never feels great, but it’s part of living an authentic life. Sometimes we must risk disappointing others to be true to ourselves. Jesus knows how that felt and is with you when you are called upon to make a similar decision. Jesus was not intending to be harsh and insensitive toward his friend, but he had to be true to his mission. Maybe you can remember this story the next time you get into a situation where you risk disappointing someone to do what is right for you.
If You Had Been Here, My Brother Would Not Have Died!
The next scene in the story is when Jesus discerns that Lazarus has died. He travels to Lazarus’ home, where he is greeted by Lazarus’ irate sister, Martha. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died!”
The emotion is raw. Like Martha, we want to think that faith prevents hardship. If God were paying attention, we would be spared from suffering, illness, and death of loved ones. But this story reveals that faith does not keep bad things from happening to us. As in the story, Jesus comes to us and comforts us in our loss and helps us get through it.
The Resurrection and Life
Jesus eyes Martha and declares that Lazarus “will rise again.” This was not a big help to Martha, whose attitude is: “Yeah, yeah, on the last day, he will be resurrected with everyone else. Big whoop. I need him back now!”
Jesus responds with a metaphor—typical of him–that leaves us scratching our heads. “I am the resurrection and life. His saying aligns with his lines where he says, “I am the living water; I am the bread of life; I am the vine; I am the good shepherd.” Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live. And never die.
So, what is going on with this resurrection and life business? The first thing we think of is that he alludes to the promise of an afterlife in heaven. But he also points to something about the quality of life we can have when we follow him.
There is a peace, a sense of purpose that makes us feel truly alive when we align ourselves with the practices Jesus taught. It’s so powerful that it lives on beyond our years here. The people we influence, the good works we do and inspire others, and the kindness and wisdom we offer are like ripples in a pond extending far beyond our time here. They keep going, rippling outward to touch others. In that sense, we never die, as Jesus indicates.
You are the Messiah!
Jesus asks Martha if she believes all this, but she answers an unasked question. She says she believes he is the Messiah, the Son of God, the promised one. It is what biblical scholars call a “Christological confession.” The only other person in the gospels who utter this belief is Peter. When Peter said it, Jesus said he would build his church on this profession of faith. Peter has been lauded for his profession throughout history, but Martha said it, too.
In the last few years, new scholarship has found evidence in the oldest manuscript of this story that the confession may have come from Mary Magdalene, not from Martha, but the reports were later blended. Diana Butler Bass argues that we may have missed the boat on Mary Magdalene. We’ve assumed that she was called that because she came from a village named Magdala. But there is no evidence that such a town existed in Jesus’ time. There is a Magdala village now; some of you have been there. An emerging consensus is that Magdala refers to several villages known for their towers. Thus, when we read Mary Magdalene, it may be a title: Mary the Tower.
Just as Peter is “The Rock,” Mary is the Tower who makes this important profession of faith. That is, John’s gospel puts a counterargument to patriarchal sentiments by showing a woman, whether it was Mary or Martha, who first made the bold declaration of faith. It was never supposed to be an all-boys club doing all the important stuff. Girl power! John says a woman was the first true believer.
After her conversation with Jesus, Martha withdraws to her house and sends the other sister, Mary, to speak with Jesus. She falls at Jesus’ feet and reiterates Martha’s protest. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But instead of holding the anger, she begins to weep. Her flowing tears so move Jesus that he weeps, too. So, much for “big boys don’t cry.” Jesus cried. Jesus grieved. He knew about resurrection, but there is still deep sorrow.
“Jesus wept” is everyone’s favorite childhood Bible memory verse. Two words. But those two simple words indicate how our pain moves the divine Spirit. Jesus weeps with us when we grieve. What a great comfort. The source of our pain is not God, but God weeps with us in the agony.
Already he stinketh!
Jesus physically demonstrates the spiritual new life that he offers everyone. He marches to the tomb and commands some guys nearby to open Lazarus’ tomb. They protest. “Lord, he’s been dead for four days.” I like the King James version, which says, “he stinketh.”
I like to think that Jesus goes precisely to the stinky places. Hotel rooms where desperate people go to drink themselves to death, on the street with odiferous homeless people, in unpleasant smelling nursing homes, into our stinky attitudes. He goes to the places where life stinks and offers new life.
Despite their protestations, the men roll the stone away that sealed the tomb. And Jesus calls out in a loud voice, “Lazarus come forth!”
I imagine some of the onlookers rolled their eyes. Yeah, right!
I like to think of Jesus’ summons to Lazarus as one that applies to us. We are being called from our stinky tombs into a new life, something better.
- You—in that tomb of feeling sorry for yourself. Come forth!
- You—caught up in that way of living that isn’t living- come forth!
- You—who ties your self-worth to your bank account. That stinks! Come forth!
- You–that have curled up your toes already, just waiting to die. Come forth! There is still life to be enjoyed. You still have a purpose. You can live meaningfully.
After who knows how long, Lazarus stumbles out of the cave like a mummy, wrapped in grave clothes. Jesus commands, “Unbind him and set him free.” Again, this is highly symbolic imagery. Sometimes we are called to help unbind each other. Maybe that’s what the church is supposed to be—people loosening the stuff that binds people, keeping them from the fullness of life. Shame, regret, insecurities, and expectations of others can bind us. But they can find a person of grace, understanding, and forgiveness with you. Perhaps you know someone that you can help out of those bonds.
The Sickness unto Glory
At the story’s beginning, Jesus said that Lazarus’ sickness was not unto death. But he did die. I think he meant that there was something even beyond death that his sickness led to. Kind of like saying on a flight, my final destination is not the place I’m flying to right now. Lazarus’ death and resurrection were hubs on the journey, but the final destination, Jesus says, was glory. The glory of how God continues to use this story to give us hope. Of how it shows us a path toward better attitudes and a sense of purpose. In the harshest circumstances, the sicknesses we carry within us can be severe, but the end of the story is not about defeat, failure, and death but about new life, new opportunities, and new ways of seeing the world. Come forth!