Raising of Lazarus

“Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he stayed two days longer…” This is not what we would expect. We would expect Jesus to drop everything and go, either to be with Lazarus when he died, or to heal him. Instead, Jesus waits until Lazarus has died. Then he says to the disciples, “I am glad that I was not there so that you may believe.” That sounds rather callous; Jesus allows Lazarus to die just so that he can demonstrate his power in bringing him back to life. And this is a man whom Jesus loved! There is something very odd about this story. Right from the start we are being told to expect the unexpected. Indeed we have been warned of this earlier: Jesus says, “This illness is not unto death; it is that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it.” Now in John’s gospel Jesus is glorified by his death on the Cross. At the end of this story we are told that the chief priests decided to kill Jesus as a result of this miracle. In fact, the whole story has been told in a way that compares it to the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is a kind of curtain raiser, an overture, in which many of the key themes are stated. But it is not just a scaled down version of Jesus’ death and Resurrection. Jesus’ death was quite different from Lazarus’s. Lazarus died the ordinary death of a human being. Jesus’ death was a battle with the Prince of Death, a battle which Jesus won and so was glorified. Lazarus was brought back from the dead to live a few more years on earth with his beloved sisters. This was not Resurrection in the Christian sense, for Lazarus would die again. Jesus was raised from the dead by his Father in heaven and he would never die again; on the contrary, he had initiated a new way of life which we can be part of, if we choose. Comparing the story of Lazarus with the passion of Jesus helps us to see more clearly the uniqueness of what Jesus did.

In this story, as John tells it, the death of Lazarus was not a random event. It had a purpose. That was true of Jesus too. The Romans thought they were crucifying just another inconvenient rebel. Jesus knew his death would change the world.

A crucial point in the story of Lazarus was that Jesus loved him. The sisters send a message saying “He whom you love is sick.” Jesus is so overcome when he comes to Bethany that he bursts into tears, and people say, “See how he loved him.” And Jesus’ own death was also a story of love – Jesus loved the Father and did all the Father wanted him to do; Jesus loved the whole world and so died for the world. Here is a Song of Love unknown, unknown in the history of the world. Lazarus died so that Jesus could show the power of his own love and raise him from the dead. Jesus died so that God could show the power of love to destroy death itself and usher in everlasting life.

Those of us who know Harry Potter cannot but think of the moment when Harry offered himself for Voldemort to kill since this was the only way Voldemort’s power could be destroyed and the people Harry loved be delivered. That may be just a story, but it is a story which has been enacted many times in real life – Maximilian Kolbe, Oscar Romero, Mother Maria Skobtsova are only some of the great host of Christian martyrs who died for love of others; and even the tangled, ambiguous history of war can be redeemed a little by the courage of men and women who died in them to save others. The passion and resurrection of Jesus was never a purely one off event. In a way it is an ideal form – the ultimate death for love which produced astonishing life giving results. Every death for love before and after that of Jesus participates in that story.

Who can enter into this Resurrection that Jesus won from the Cross? Jesus tells us, “I am the Resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live. Do you believe this?” Martha says she does and then Lazarus is raised. In fact, the word ‘believe’ appears seven times in this story. John is really making the point that the story of Jesus’ own resurrection which we are about to embark on is one that we must believe, even though it is so extraordinary, because belief will give us the joy of eternal life.

Our story is not just a theological account of how Jesus saved the world. Like the Passion itself it has its human interest. In a few deft strokes John gives us pictures we can easily believe. Thomas, so often labelled a doubter, shows his love for Jesus, “Let us also go that we may die with him.” That promise is not kept any more than Peter’s later one “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you.” But both disciples speak out of love, a love which has not yet grown enough to embrace death; but one day it will.

Then there are Martha and Mary acting in the same character we have seen in Luke. It is Martha who leaps up to go and meet Jesus. She is the pragmatic one who actually shows the greater confidence in Jesus’ power to raise people even from the dead. Mary frankly seems a bit more pathetic: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Yet it is her tears that move Jesus to weep. Even the bystanders have their part to play: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Jesus will show he could do more than that, but they echo the less kind words of the bystanders at the Cross: “He saved others; himself he cannot save.” And then at the tomb the story runs in reverse. It is Jesus who orders the stone to be moved from the tomb making us think of the stone that will be removed from His tomb. We have the earthiness of Martha’s comment “Lord, he stinketh” reminding us of the squalour we shall see on Calvary, that Place of the Skull full of rotting human remains.

And finally, the raising from the dead. Here it is as if the details we know from Jesus’ own raising have been simply rearranged. The empty tomb is not yet empty, but becomes so. In Matthew there is an earthquake and an angel rolls back the stone. Here it is Jesus who commands the stone to be moved and Jesus who commands the dead man to come out. Jesus is God and not even the dead can resist his command. Once again the grave clothes appear, not as in John’s account of the Empty Tomb with the napkin that has covered his face lying by itself; with Lazarus “his hands and feet are bound with bandages and his face wrapped with a cloth.” Like, but not quite like the resurrection of Jesus.

And there we have what is perhaps the main point of this wonderful story. Lazarus is raised from the dead and comes stumbling blindly out into the sunshine, and that is astonishing, showing the great power that Jesus has, which must come from God. But this is not Resurrection. John wants us to know that the Resurrection which comes with Jesus is far more than a calling back into life. It will be a whole new kind of life, a life going on with Jesus for eternity; but what that means we can only start exploring in two weeks time.