Raising Lazarus- John 11
Obviously, there is bodily death. Our heart stops beating. Our brain stops working. We breathe our last breath. We grow cold. … But we also speak about death in other ways.
Sometimes when a loved one dies we say things like, "A part of me died with them". The pain of grief can hurt to the point that we feel forever changed. The person we were before our grief is no more. Part of us has died. We can feel like our hopes and dreams dissolve when the person we wanted to share them with can no longer be a part of them.
We sometimes speak about the death of a relationship. When two people stop caring about each other, trying to revive the relationship can feel like trying to re-animate a corpse.
We sometimes say we feel “dead inside”. We can feel like we are zombies walking around, going through the same motions, doing the same things over and over, but not really feeling anything.
We can experience spiritual death when we lose all sense of God's reality. We stop reaching out to God, and turn away from Him. Our lives lose meaning and purpose beyond our own selves. This is what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Romans that we heard today-
“To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom 8:6).
We speak about all kinds of death. But when we speak about death, we are speaking about a kind of finality.
The prophet Ezekiel in a vision (ch 37) is placed in a valley full of very dry bones. It is a place of finality. Ezekiel is standing at the Tyrell Museum and God asks him if the T-Rex can live. These are very dry bones. The life that was once connected to these bones is long gone.
In today's Gospel reading, the finality of death is felt by Mary and Martha, who are grieving the death of their brother Lazarus. Lazarus is dead. His heart has stopped beating. He breathed his last breath. His body is wrapped. His tomb is sealed. His spirit has left. Lazarus is dead. All there is to do is weep.
They believe Jesus could have done something about Lazarus' sickness, at least in theory. If only Jesus had been there a little earlier, then he might have prevented it. But now it's too late. The death certificate has been signed the body is embalmed and in the ground.
Jesus could have done something, but he waits two days. He doesn't come. He loves Lazarus. He loves Martha and Mary, but he waits two days before he comes. They believe he has the power to help, but he waits until it is too late.
Sometimes we can feel like Lazarus lying there in the tomb. We feel like all the life has left us. We are wrapped tight in our grave clothes. We are bound, and trapped. A heavy stone covers the entrance to our tomb. No light gets in. We lay bound in the cold, hollow darkness.
In Ezekiel's vision the dry bones (by the power of God) start to come together. The whole valley rattles as the bones find their place. Tendons tie them together and flesh begins to stretch and cover them. Breath is given to them and the valley that was once filled with dry bones is now filled with living and breathing people. This is God's power poured out on His people. God's power is stronger and further reaching than death.
In the Gospel we read that the one who is the embodiment of God's power hears that Lazarus is ill, but he waits. He waits for two days. Lazarus is on his deathbed and Jesus doesn't come. He doesn't show up when they are calling for him. When Jesus does show up Martha and Mary both say the same thing,
"Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died".
Even Jesus begins to cry now. He cries tears he himself could have prevented by coming earlier. The other mourners look on and say
"see how he loved him! ... Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"
The onlookers know Jesus has great power, but they cannot understand why he waited.
We can feel like this too. Why wait? With all humanity is faced with, why wait? … We can feel our life drained. We feel bound by the pressures of the world, like Lazarus in his grave clothes. We call out and ask God to come and fix things before it’s too late, but He waits. We wonder how long.
It is a Biblical question and a Biblical prayer. In Psalm 6 we overhear the writer's prayer,
"My soul is in anguish. How Long, O Lord, how long?"
(Elaine has a great song about this). Or, Psalm 13,
"How Long , O lord? will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?"
Jesus relates to the pain of the mourners. He weeps with Martha and Mary over their dead brother, even though he knows what he's going to do. He weeps because they are weeping. He is one with them in their pain. Jesus is no Stoic. He weeps with them in their pain and he weeps with us in our pain. They are mysterious tears that leave us wondering,
"could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have prevented our pain".
Couldn't he have prevented the Coronovirus and all the other horrible things that are happening in the world. Couldn't he prevent his own tears by preventing ours? It is a mystery.
The weeping Jesus arrives at the tomb and orders it to be opened. They do and the stench of death drifts onto the mourners. Jesus prays and he calls out to the one he loves,
"Lazarus, Come out!"
Wide eyes are fixed on the dark entrance to the tomb. And to everyone's amazement the dead man comes out. They unbind Lazarus and he is alive. Mary and Martha have their brother back. Who is this man who can call back the dead to the land of the living?
We read about the Word in the first chapter of John,
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. ... "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. … ."
When we realize who we are talking about we see the whole raising of Lazarus as suddenly more possible. If this really is the Word come among us, then of course he can call a dead man out of his tomb. Of course the one who breathed stars into being can give life back to dead human flesh. Of course the one who created the law of gravity can turn water into wine.
Can Jesus deal with our death? Whatever kind of death we are dealing with? Maybe that void we feel inside ourselves? That part of us that dies with the one we love? He is the one who created our loved one in the first place- of course he can. Can he bring life to a dead relationship? Of course the one who created light can shine light into that darkness.
Some of us might feel dead inside. We're just going through the motions. We feel like Lazarus bound and lying in the tomb. The entrance is sealed off from any light getting in. We have lost hope. But, at the word of the one who caused the creation of all things we will begin to feel life coursing through our veins again. When he calls our name we will see light again and the grave clothes that bind us will be removed and we will be alive.
Jesus did this with Lazarus to show the people that he had the power. He did this as a sign of who he was. It was, in fact, the seventh and most amazing sign in the book of John. He has this power.
But there is a mystery in this. First, is that he has the power, but he waits. He has the power to give life to all the death around us. He has the power to pour life back into our lives. He can fix relationships that are dead. He has the power, but he waits. And perhaps a hint of an answer is given when we realize that bringing Lazarus back from death is greater than calling him back from sickness.
The second part of the mystery is that he weeps. He is affected by our pain. When he looks into our lives sometimes he weeps, and angels look at his tears and our lives and say "See how he loves him", "See how he loves her", just as those mourners said about Jesus and Lazarus. This is a mystery because we know that he who made the blind man see has the power to bring life back to the death we see around us. He weeps at our pain, and yet he waits.
Bringing someone back from the dead is a much more convincing sign than a healing from sickness. Lazarus was privileged to experience a foretaste of the power of God that will eventually flood into every corner of our lives. But this miracle came at a great cost. It was this miracle of giving life that will ironically lead to Jesus' death. And Jesus knows it. This miracle is too much and leads to the High priest Caiaphas turning against Jesus, saying (out of fear of the Romans), "it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish". Unknowingly he is speaking prophetically. Jesus has waited because this act will bring God glory, which is our ultimate good. Out of his love for us he will soon be the one wrapped in grave clothes lying in a sealed tomb. And it will be to show us his love. It will be to join us in our death so that he can lead us to life. The power that brought the bones to life in Ezekiel's vision will push Jesus through death and out the other side. And unlike Lazarus, Jesus will never die again, which is the never ending resurrected life he has come to bring us.
Though there is death all around us- though we stand in a valley full of dry bones- at God's Word those bones will begin to rattle and be brought together. God has the power to give life even to dry bones. But, mysteriously God waits. And we weep. And even more mysteriously, Jesus weeps with us. But we know that in the end none of the death that infects our lives will have any power.