THE GAME CHANGER
This week we are looking at the raising of Lazarus in John 11. Once again, the passage is quite long and I will leave you to read it for yourself following the blog.
One of the important purposes of Lent is for us to contemplate who Jesus is and how he saves. Jesus is slowly but surely trying to teach us something new and unexpected. His ministry is building inexorably to his death and resurrection. To depend solely upon the Easter event to understand our faith would be roughly equivalent to trying to understand calculus without learning algebra. I realized this week the lectionary readings have been part of the narrative pattern in John that I had not noticed before.
So, to summarize, over the previous three weeks, we have seen how:
1. Jesus redefines life in his conversation with Nicodemeus: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? ” If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?
2. Jesus redefines how and who can be saved with the Samaritan woman: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!”…“The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
3. Jesus redefines sin with the blind man: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned;”….“I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”
At each point, Jesus takes ordinary vocabulary and adds spiritual meaning. ‘Born again’, ‘living water’, and blindness are each used in non physical ways. Jesus is trying to teach us that when we understand ‘life’ in ordinary physical terms, we miss what is eternal. When we stereotype and exclude, we miss the holy in everyone. And when we try to decide who is in or out of God’s care based upon their (or our) sin, we are blind to God’s love.
With that process of redefinition in mind, this week Jesus redefines death when he raises Lazarus. “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. Do you believe this?” For most of us, life means a beating heart. Death is the cessation of that heart beat. But for Jesus, life means union with God and death means the absence of that connection. (Such an understanding allowed him to go to a cross). As mind warping as it may seem, life does end with the death of our bodies. That doesn’t make any more sense to us than Nicodemeus being told a grown man must be born again.
The point of this story is less about miraculous comebacks from medical death. Even Lazarus still had to face his physical death. It is more about how we face times of impossible darkness. Mary and Martha both ask, ‘Where was Jesus when we needed him?’ The finality of their brother’s death seemed like the end. I suspect many of us have had that thought at sometime in our lives. But this story reveals that it is important to realize that human definitions of death, like human definitions of life, living water and sight, meant something quite different to Jesus.
At first, Jesus seems to use the occasion of Lazarus’ illness and death as a teaching moment—and theatrically at that. In our group, he was described as a magician presenting a grand reveal. But then something else happened. Because, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” He weeps. This is no longer simply an opportunity for spiritual education. This was real people in real pain. It is one thing to say: “ Life goes on’ and it is another to share the gut wrenching pain and suffering of the people you love.
Jesus joins them in that suffering and however you understand life, (see Nicodemeus), Jesus shows us that life continues. Lazarus emerged from deep darkness, emerged from death. The miracle is not a dead man walking. Though that is pretty impressive, the miracle is the promise that there is no condition that God cannot redeem.
That is a faith claim that makes a huge difference in real life. In real Life there are lots of situations in which we cannot see beyond what we know. Loss and deep grief can disable us. In the midst of such pain, getting out of bed can be an accomplishment. Likewise, when people are depressed, they are often angry with themselves because they ‘know better.’ They know they make negative comparisons; they know they see the glass half empty and they know they dwell on negative possibilities. But in real life, they are stuck in a painful loop and their ‘knowing’ doesn’t help. If you have ever known depression or deep loss, you know that in the midst of the pain, it is hard to imagine anything else. We, too, will say, ’Where are you? If you had been present, this terrible situation would be different.”
There are many situations in real life, perhaps not as intense as death, that are grim—situations that leave us lost and unknowing. It can be hard to imagine, much less see how God is in the midst of these times. How do we live in the time of coronavirus? People are getting laid off. Parents are trying to work and homeschool while confined to home. People are lonely and bored. Relationships need distance as much as they need intimacy. How are we to navigate the enforced closeness? The entire economy is threatened. The list of stressors goes on and on. And, perhaps worse, we really have no idea how long this will last or how much damage will result.
But against all human imagining, Lazarus emerged from the tomb and Jesus said: “Unbind him, and let him go.” By definition we do not know what we do not know. But we live in the promise that God will find a way to use the most desperate of circumstances. It may not be when or what we expected, but God will be present. Don’t bother to try to make sense of it. We can’t. We, however, can trust that God is present and God will sustain us. Anyone who has gotten to the other side of grief knows that. The pain of death does not fully recede, but life can and does go on. Our darkness need not bind us. God changes everything we think we know.
Death is not the end. Our darkness is not the end. God is with us. Let it be so.
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.