“Lazarus Was Dead”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

April 6, 2014 – Fifth Sunday in Lent

Scripture:  John 11:1-45

 

Lazarus-Tomb

Photo:  Marion Doss

Here’s what we know:  Lazarus was dead.  Really, completely, physically, definitively dead.  Not just mostly dead.  Not comatose, or deeply asleep, or hibernating.  Fully and unambiguously dead.  In the religious understanding of the time, the soul hovered around a recently-deceased person’s body for three days before it completed its journey to the afterlife.  Perhaps during that window of time there was some lingering alive-ness about the person, something to work with, if you will.  There are other miracle stories in the gospels where Jesus brings back to life someone who has died, but those take place immediately after a death.  Interpreters have explained those stories away, saying that the individuals in question must still have had some life in them somehow.  But after four days, as in today’s story, Lazarus was really and truly dead.

Here’s what we know:  Lazarus and Mary and Martha were friends of Jesus.  Close friends, if we pay close attention to what John’s gospel has to say.  In fact, in this gospel, Lazarus and Mary and Martha are the only named individuals whom Jesus is specifically said to love.  His love for others is certainly implied, or stated obliquely, or offered generally and collectively.  His love for others is certainly demonstrated in word and in action on many occasions.  But only here is he said to specifically love a specific person.  Jesus loved Lazarus and Mary and Martha.

Here’s what we know:  Jesus was sad that his friend had died.  Not just, “Oh well, that’s too bad” sad, but stricken to the heart at the death of his friend, and all the sadder when he witnessed the grief of Lazarus’ bereaved sisters.  The scripture says Jesus was “disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.”  Or, in other translations, he “groaned in the spirit” (King James Version), or was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled” (Revised Standard Version), or “a deep anger welled up within him” (The Message).  Maybe he was angry with himself for his delay in answering Mary and Martha’s summons.  Maybe he was angry with Lazarus for succumbing to his illness.  Maybe he was angry with God for allowing such a thing to happen.  However we translate it, however we interpret it, Jesus was deeply sad that his friend Lazarus had died.

 

Here’s what we don’t know:  why didn’t Jesus hurry back to Bethany when word first came that Lazarus was ill?  Why did he tarry there for two more days before going to his friend’s aid?  Why didn’t he get up off his duff and get a move on?  Was the teaching, or baptizing, or whatever he was doing where he was, so important that he could not stop even though his dear friend was on his deathbed?  Or did Jesus have some kind of message from God telling him to wait?  And if so, what kind of a God would allow a beloved brother and friend to die just to make a theological point?
Here’s what we don’t know:  how on earth did Lazarus come back to life?  Was it as simple as the story makes it sound?  Just the words “Come out!” and there he was?  Words in the Bible are powerful things—after all, in Genesis 1 it is God’s words that bring light out of darkness, that bring dry land out of the watery deep, that bring every kind of creature out of nothingness—but still, two measly words, “Come out,” seem woefully inadequate to overcome the permanence of death, don’t they?  And if it was that simple, then why did Jesus raise Lazarus but leave all the other beloved dead brothers and sisters and friends in their tombs?  If it was that simple, then why do our beloved ones still have to die?

Lazarus-Wrapped

Photo:  Lawrence OP

Here’s what we don’t know:  how did Lazarus feel about the whole experience?  What was it like for him to emerge from the tomb, still wrapped in his burial shroud?  Did the sunlight blind his eyes after four days of cave-darkness?  Did the sounds of life overwhelm his ears after four days of stone-tomb-quiet?  Did the return to life thrill him?  Did it terrify him?  Was it a gift, or was it a burden?  Was he delighted to see his sisters, to hear his friends’ voices, to walk this earth again?  Or was he reluctant to leave the eternal home to which he had only just arrived?

And what about his sisters?  Were Mary and Martha pleased, or frightened, or more than a little freaked out by their brother’s reappearance?  Did they rush to embrace him, or did the four-day-stench hold them back?  What did they say to him?  What did he say to them?  How did their family life change?

And what about the crowd?  Did the onlooking mourners give a great shout of joy?  Did they flee and scatter?  Did someone slaughter a fatted calf to celebrate the return of their once-dead friend?  Did the parents clutch their children a little closer and hurry them off toward home?  Did someone approach Lazarus and ask him to write a book about his near-death experience?

 

There’s a lot we don’t know about this story, a lot of questions that are easy to ask and hard to answer, a lot of incredible events that deny logical explanation, a lot of missing details that make it difficult to understand.

But here’s what we know:  Lazarus, whatever else happened, would die again.  His death is not recounted in the gospels, but you can be sure that his immortality would have received at least a mention.  Lazarus, and Mary, and Martha, and the disciples, and the whole crowd of onlookers—they all would die, just as we will.  They all were mortal, just as we are.  Even Jesus—though his story comes to a different conclusion in the end—even Jesus would breathe his last, and yield up his spirit, and die.

And if I am sure of anything about this story, I am sure of this:  every person who witnessed the scene that today’s scripture describes caught a glimpse of their own mortality in the face of Lazarus.  Every one of those onlookers was reminded in sight and sound and smell that this mortal life does not last forever.  Every one of them was confronted by the shortness and preciousness of human life.

And in that moment, every person who witnessed the scene that today’s scripture describes, and every person who has heard this story recounted down through ages, and every person who has known the excruciating finality of death—in that moment, every one of us receives a great gift.  In that moment, every one of us receives an invitation to live in the light of death—not to be gloomy, or depressing, or frightened, or morbid, but to be unspeakably grateful for the time we have, and to revel in the gift of this imperfect, messy, finite, sometimes-painful, always-beautiful life, knowing that it will not last forever.

And in that moment, every person who witnessed the scene that today’s scripture describes, and every person who has heard this story recounted down through ages, and every person who has known the excruciating finality of death—in that moment, every one of us also receives a promise.  The promise that with Jesus, there is no such thing as too late.  The promise that with Jesus, there is no such thing as suffering alone.  The promise that with Jesus, sorrow is not the end, sadness is not the end, suffering is not the end, pain is not the end.  Even the end of our lives as we know them is not the end.  For with Jesus, we are part of God’s story, a story that begins before the beginning and will not end until death itself has been put to death, until Lazarus, and Mary, and Martha, and the disciples, and the whole crowd of onlookers, and you, and me, and every one of God’s imperfect, messy, finite, sometimes-painful, always-beautiful children are reunited for good in God’s very heart.