Raising the Dead
We have had several remarkable stories from the Gospel of John during this Lenten season: Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman, Jesus healing the man born blind, and now Jesus bringing Lazarus back from the dead.
These last two are in a group categorized as “signs.” Sign stories include turning water into wine, healing the cripple in the pool, healing the man born blind, and feeding the five thousand. A sign story is a miraculous act of Jesus surrounded or followed by a theological discussion of its meaning. Sign stories usually show Jesus is acting in his own time and not according to external pressures. The primary function of a sign story is revelation, revealing some truth about God’s glory and presence in the world through Jesus’ ministry.
This particular story is a little more complicated because it is about Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and at some level, we know Mary and Martha (if not Lazarus) more personally than the cripple in the pool, the man born blind and the multitudes who ate loaves and fishes.
From Luke’s account of Mary and Martha, we have already seen Jesus in their domestic setting. I’ve always felt a great deal of empathy with Martha, the sister who was “distracted with many things.” We tend to be a little judgmental towards her as she is portrayed in Luke’s Gospel, busily working in the kitchen while Jesus was teaching in their home, complaining to Jesus that her sister Mary wasn’t helping. However, keep in mind that Martha was also an active presence in that story and in today’s Gospel; she is the family member who goes out to meet Jesus in today’s story and who calls her sister to go to Jesus. Martha is also the first to correctly acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God.
And then there is Mary….
We tend to see her portrayed as the mystic, the dreamer, the one sitting passively at Jesus’ feet. However, bear in mind that in Luke’s account, Mary had adopted the form of a disciple at the feet of his rabbi, a role that would have been scandalous for a woman in her day. She is also the one who, in a few more short verses ahead in John’s Gospel, will enter a room full of men, let down her hair and anoint Jesus’ feet with costly ointment, wiping it away with her hair. I think we are too quick to discount how radical Mary’s actions really are.
And then, there’s Lazarus. Truth be told, we don’t know much about Lazarus but we do know that Jesus loved him and Mary and Martha, and at the beginning of this reading their little family is in crisis.
I think all of us here have experienced family crises before and know that they have some characteristics in common. For one thing, there is always an element of imminent danger. At the beginning of this story, we know that Lazarus is ill and in danger of dying. We may forget that Jesus is also in danger in this story. If he returns to Bethany, which is very near Jerusalem, he is likely to be in danger from the authorities. His disciples know this and warn him. We can certainly presume that Mary and Martha also know this, but despite this very real threat to their dear friend, they are desperate and know that they must reach out to him for help.
In crisis situations, there is usually the possibility of miscommunication with other people. Look at the conversations Jesus has with his disciples in this story! They seem unable to grasp the idea that Lazarus’s “sleep” is something other than a temporary nap! Jesus finally has to be blunt and say that Lazarus has indeed died and that he is going to Bethany to wake him.
Crisis situations can be emotional roller coasters. Mary and Martha both react to Jesus’ return with what might be construed as a rebuke (“If you had been here, this wouldn’t have happened”) followed by a statement of faith. Jesus likewise enters the scene in confidence but is overwhelmed by his own emotions when he sees the grief that surrounds Lazarus’ death. The words used to describe his grief also can be translated as describing strong emotion such as anger: is Jesus, the Lord of Life, perhaps overcome by anger at the grief and misery Death can cause?
So, a crisis can produce danger, miscommunication, high emotions. But a crisis can also be a turning point. That is what we see here. This is not just about one family’s crisis but the redemption of the world.
The puzzling question about this story seems to be: why did Jesus wait? Why did he hesitate when he received news of Lazarus’ illness? The answer goes back to the idea of “signs” which Jesus did in his own time and which reveal a truth of God’s presence in the world.
We remember Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana. Think about how his first response to his mother’s request seems almost brusque (“My hour has not yet come”)?
Jesus likewise responds to news of Lazarus’ illness by saying it will be “for the glory of God and the Son of God will be glorified by it.” To the disciples he says that it will be “so that you may believe.” He promises Martha that she will see the glory of God:
“I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”
The raising of Lazarus is a definitely a turning point for Mary and Martha, returning their beloved brother to his place in the family. A journey from despair to hope, from sorrow to joy.
The raising of Lazarus is also a turning point in Jesus’ story. Next week we will celebrate Palm Sunday and begin Holy Week but the raising of Lazarus is really where the Passion narrative begins. For the high priests and Pharisees, this act is the final straw and they begin to plan how they might put Jesus to death. As Jesus says to roll away the stone from Lazarus’ tomb, he is facing his own impending death and the stone on his own tomb.
And this story is a turning point for all of us in the church. As Jesus calls Lazarus forth, he is calling all of us to life, promising that if we believe, though we die yet shall we live. Jesus tells us: “I am the resurrection and the life.” This story is not about the resolution of one family’s crisis but instead the redemption of the world. As Fred Caddock phrased it: “Faith is always first generation, with an immediacy about it that does not distinguish between our being there and his being here.”
Easter is coming!