The Raising of Lazarus
John 11, 1-45.
Today, the fifth Sunday of Lent, is also called Passion Sunday, and we had a long reading about Jesus’ friend, Lazarus and his two sisters. What did you make of it? We all get disappointed in this life when we think that friends have let us down, and if you are like me, then you too may show your annoyance. Did you feel annoyed like Martha that Jesus did not come immediately he got the message about his friend’s illness? Why did Jesus delay? Perhaps he was delaying so he could then do an even greater miracle of healing? I don’t believe that for a second.
When I have difficulty trying to unravel a passage from the bible, as well as praying, I also read a commentary by Bishop Tom Wright on the subject which usually gives a different point of focus. The bishop believes that the story gives us an insight into prayer. We pray for justice and peace, for prosperity and harmony between nations and races, and still it hasn’t happened. Why?
God doesn’t play games with us. His ways are not our ways. His timing is not our timing.
One of the most striking reminders of this is in verse 6 of the passage. When Jesus got the message from the two sisters, the cry for help,
the emergency-come-quickly appeal, he stayed where he was for two days. He didn’t even mention it to the disciples. He didn’t make preparations to go. He didn’t send messages back to say “We’re on our way”: He just stayed there. And Mary and Martha, in Bethany, watched their beloved brother die. What could be harder than that?
So what was Jesus doing? If we think about the rest of the story we can find the answer. He was praying. He was seeking to find the will of his father. He wanted to do what was right.
The disciples were right: the Judaeans had been wanting to stone him, so surely he wouldn’t think of going back just yet? Bethany was, and is, a small town just two miles or so from Jerusalem, on the eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives. Once you’re there, you’re within easy reach of the holy city, and who knows what would happen this time if he had returned.
It’s important to realize that this wonderful story about Lazarus, one of the most powerful and moving in the whole Bible, is not just about Lazarus. It’s also about Jesus. And when Jesus thanks the father that he has heard his prayer, I think he’s referring to the prayers he prayed during those two strange, silent days in the wilderness across the Jordan. He was praying for Lazarus, but he was also praying for wisdom and guidance as to his own plans and movements. Somehow the two were bound up together. What Jesus was going to do for Lazarus would be, on the one hand, a principal reason why the authorities would want him out of the way. But it would be, on the other hand, the most powerful sign yet, in the sequence of ‘signs’ that marks our progression through this gospel, of what Jesus’ life and work was all about, and of how in particular it would reach its climactic resolution.
The time of waiting, therefore, was vital. As so often, Jesus needed to be in prayer exploring the father’s will in that intimacy and union of which he often spoke. Only then would he act – not in the way Mary and Martha had wanted him to do, but in a manner beyond their wildest dreams.
This story is all about the ways in which Jesus surprises people and overturns their expectations. He didn’t go when the sisters asked him.
But he did eventually go, although the disciples warned him not to. He spoke about ‘sleep’; meaning death, and the disciples thought he meant ordinary sleep. And, in the middle of the passage, he told them in a strange little saying that people who walk in the daytime don’t trip up, but people who walk around in the darkness do. What did he mean? He seems to have meant that the only way to know where you were going was to follow him. If you try to steer your course by your own under- standing, you’ll trip up, because you’ll be in the dark. But if you stick close to him, and see the situation from his point of view, then, even if it means days and perhaps years of puzzlement, wondering why nothing seems to be happening, you will come out at the right place in the end.
There is a great deal that we don’t understand, and our hopes and plans often get thwarted. But if we go with Jesus, even if it’s into the jaws of death, we will be walking in the light. The prayer of Jesus at the grave begins with thanksgiving as all prayer should; we take too much for granted. But if, like the Psalmists or Job, you have a complaint about arbitrary injustice or the unfairness of it all, it is right to tell him so. Martha certainly spoke her mind, and, feeling neglected, bluntly reproached Jesus.
A prayer of protest is quite proper. Prayer is a dialogue of learning; in the stillness you learn more about yourself, and God, and the way things really are. You may come to understand ‘Why should it happen to me?’ is answered ‘Why should it not?’ and ‘Why me?’ becomes ‘Why not me?’
‘Jesus wept’ is not an oath; it expresses his grief at the death of his friend and the distress of his sisters; for John it stresses the reality of the Incarnation. This man is truly flesh and blood, who understands a cry of pain and anguish, and shares the pain and hurt of bereavement; if ever you are almost overwhelmed by grief, he understands and shares; and comes to you as he came to Martha and Mary.
The long story about Lazarus whose name so aptly means ‘blessed by God’ is the crowning sign of victory over death. Here Lazarus is dead and buried and decaying, and this resuscitated corpse is a further sign. Jesus not only speaks of the word of life but he himself is the Resurrection. Often we hear a voice that reminds us that in the midst of life we are in death; but Jesus’ commanding voice insists: In the midst of death we are in life. Don’t worry about what happens when you die for he is Resurrection. And there is more to come.
Offering you a chalice, a minister may say: ‘The blood of Christ keep you in eternal life.’ – in other words – keep you where you already are. That’s John’s new theology and understanding after sixty years of prayer and meditation.
Eternal life is here and now; we have passed from death to life already. Yet sometimes you may feel half-dead through bereavement or despair, divorce, or disappointment, redundancy or being told about a life threatening illness and yet you find a new lease of life
that seems like resurrection, a life that is fuller and richer, more satisfying and fulfilling, eternal in quality as well as quantity, here and now. I certainly found that when working in the hospice.
As Easter makes plain, God is in the business of raising the dead. Life is a succession of deaths and resurrections; and when you come to the end of your days and he holds you through death into Life, it will be but one more in a whole series of resurrections.
May we pray. Lord Jesus, give us the courage and strength to follow you, especially when times are hard, so that we may experience your love and help through all our days. Amen