April 2, 2017
Charles F. Kalmbach
I will admit at the very beginning that I am sorry that the story of Lazarus we just heard only comes around once every three years in the lectionary cycle. Although we will find the story only in this Gospel, it assumes a vital part in the life and ministry of Jesus as presented by the author of John.
This is because, far from being just another story about the ministry of Jesus, this reading presents the 7th of 7 powerful signs – or wonders – that Jesus performs during his ministry which this Gospel presents as indications and proof of the presence and power of God in our time. This sign extends the presence and power of God to supremacy over death itself. Not only does it complete the design of the author of the Gospel, but, given its position in the Gospel, it clearly foreshadows the death and resurrection of Jesus, himself.
So if we know the title of the story – the raising of Lazarus – and its significance, why do we need 45 verses to get to the punch line? The answer is that there are a number of matters to address before we visit the cave where Lazarus is lying.
The first matter is that of patience. I have seen it suggested from many sources that the 21st century has left the virtue of patience behind. One reason for this, some pundits claim, is that we are physically moving much faster than we did in the past. On this I would beg to disagree. Way back when I was a student of aeronautical engineering, we had a supersonic transport that could take you from London to NYC in three hours, we regularly achieved escape velocity from the earth’s atmosphere as we sent astronauts to the moon, and it seemed that every year land speed records were challenged and set. It would seem to me that it is information, not people, which is moving faster.
For example, when we type a text message on our phone and press “send”, it immediately says “delivered” right on the screen. But delivered does not mean received or read, much less considered by the person to whom the message is sent. Neuroscientists report that most of us consciously or sub-consciously begin to tap our feet in expectation of a response at the moment the message is sent. It would be interesting if these studies could be extended to how, and in what way, our expectations around the timeframe that our prayers will be answered have changed.
For those waiting in Bethany, it must have seemed forever for Jesus to respond to the message from Martha and Mary that their brother, Lazarus, was ill. Part of the reason for the delay in traveling to Bethany, which is 2 miles from Jerusalem, was that Jesus and the disciples had just fled across the Jordon River from Jerusalem, having been threatened with stoning, as reported in verses just preceding our Gospel reading. In fact, if you remember the Gospel reading from last week, they had also escaped stoning in the 9th chapter as well. So we can assume that a heightened sense of danger was present with the group. Some of the versus I omitted from the reading contains interesting dialogue between Jesus and his friends as he considered and then announced that he would travel back across the Jordon to Bethany.
Ultimately, they arrived four full days after the death of Lazarus. This is an important period of time. Jewish custom in that day considered that the spirit of the deceased lingered around the body for three days after death. So by the fourth day, the person was truly deceased by any account.
Not surprisingly, Martha upon meeting Jesus on his arrival, tells him confidently in words shortly to be repeated by Mary, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”. But to the extent that this was a rebuke, she continued on with an equally confident statement “even now I know that God will give you what ever you ask of him”.
This is the critical pivot point from the interminable waiting for Jesus to a profound statement of faith. Before we even get to the tomb of Lazarus, we witness one of the most important moments in this Gospel. It begins with Jesus’ stating “Your brother will rise again”. To which Martha says, faithfully according to Jewish tradition, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day”.
It is here that Jesus brings the future into the present with the last of his self-defining statements: “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.” He then asks her if she believes this. Her response, known as the confession of Martha, a central focus of the Gospel of John and a verse that many of us learned by heart in Sunday school is “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the son of God, the one coming into the world”.
But in the midst of this profound faithful witness, a strange twist occurs. As Jesus turns to confront the tomb of his friend, he began to weep. Verse 36 – the shortest verse in the Bible – reads simply, Jesus wept. Every time we come to the communion table as we are about to in a few minutes, one of us offers the great prayer of thanksgiving, which recounts our salvation history. It tells of a God intent in bringing us back into communion with God. In the fullness of time, as this Gospel reports, the word became flesh in the presence of Jesus –fully God and fully human.
In this very passage in which the presence and power of God is so strikingly demonstrated in the person of Jesus, Jesus also reveals himself to be very human.
The onlookers, having witnessed his weeping, are reported to have said – “see how he loved him”. Our focus here needs to be on the word love. At the time of the writing of this Gospel, there were a number of Greek versions for the English verb to love, the three most used are agape, philia and eros. One would expect that the Greek verb form used here would be agape – the form used not only throughout the Gospels but by the early Christian community, as well, to denote the self-sacrificing love of God for humanity. It is the form used in John in 3:16: “For god so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life”.
Instead we find in our Gospel today that the author uses philia to denote the love of Jesus for Lazarus– the common every day Greek verb for the ordinary love between friends. It implies affectionate regard, friendship, usually between equals and usually mutual. As one theologian observed, “This is an emotionally profound testimony to the truth of the incarnation itself, of Jesus being truly one of us to the point of sharing our human need for friendship and our grief at the loss of a friend”. So when a discussion turns to the humanity of Jesus, the story of Lazarus is a good passage to remember.
But back to the movement to the tomb. Faith and patience, now also wonder. Imagine the scene. We read “Jesus came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone’”. He then cried “Lazarus, come out!” All eyes were surely on the entrance to the tomb and then a thing of wonder happened.
Lazarus walked out of the tomb. He was not carried out, nor did he crawl out, but he walked out albeit dragging behind him the grave clothes in which he had been bound. This image is in contrast to the Gospel that Pastor Keeler will be reading in two weeks which describes the linen clothes in the tomb of Jesus as being “folded up in a place by themselves”.
On the command of Jesus, a man dead for four days walked out of his tomb.
Our Gospel presents to us a wonderful statement of faithful witness. But it also sets
in motion forces that would lead directly to the arrest, torture and death of Jesus. How could this be, you might ask since you heard me conclude the Gospel reading with “many of the Jews who had seen what Jesus did believed in him”. But in many English translations, the 45th verse does not end with a period, but a comma.
Verse 46 tells us that some of the Jews who had come with Mary and had seen what he did “went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. So the chief priest and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “what are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” But one of them, the high priest that year, said to them, “you know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish” So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.”
As my father would say, the die was now cast. Nor was Lazarus safe. The same group of Jewish leaders signed the death warrant of Lazarus as well, since it became clear that people began to seek out Lazarus and, as a result, began to believe in Jesus. In other words, all evidence of the sign that occurred in Bethany had to be completely and permanently removed.
This wonderful and awesome story of Lazarus foreshadows the end of our journey through Lent and the final weeks to Easter. At the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus wept for his friend. At another tomb not far away in time or distance, others would weep for him. Here in Bethany, death was denied for a time. On another day, fast approaching and at that other tomb death is overcome for good.
Thanks be to God.