This story of the death of Lazarus in John 11:1-45 comes at a critical time in our lives as we face into unimaginable changes to our way of living and keeping in touch in this time of Lent.
The story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead begins with assurances and remembrances of love. We are reminded Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha are a family to whom Jesus was strongly attached. Mary is the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her hair and anointed him with precious oil before he was killed. Martha is the one who is busy about the daily demands of life as she kept an eye on Jesus as he was speaking, and Mary is one who listened to what was being said and as she learned from him.
The responses of the two sisters to their brother’s illness and subsequent death is also our response to the loss of a beloved one. Grief and mourning overtake us and bury us too in the grave.
Jesus had a range of responses to his disciples, to the sisters, to the local community who had come to do ‘shiva’ with the family and to mourn together, just as we sit and share our grief. At this point in our lives, we too can remember and imagine our own grief; how sometimes we wanted an explanation, at other times we wanted company, we wanted consoling, how we wanted to rage against God, life and our circumstances, and perhaps we wanted to give up and retreat. Jesus recognises and experiences such grief himself to its fullest extent.
Jesus was told of Lazarus’ illness but continued with what he was doing. He did not immediately drop everything to go and see his ill friend. So we need to hear Jesus’ initial words to the drama unfolding in Bethany.
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.(v.4)
We are reminded even though we have demands and a timetable for God to act, God’s listening, responsiveness and acting is not at our command. The unhurried nature of Jesus’ journey suggests not only that all things are possible with God, but the anxious pleas of followers do not always match the divine plan. The decision to delay did not reflect Jesus’ disregard for this faithful family, but a desire to glorify God according to a different timetable. It is an opportunity for us to understand how glorifying God is life-giving and life-changing and unending irrespective of our circumstances.
The disciples were not to be overwhelmed about whether Lazarus was going to die or recover; rather, they were invited to believe the glory of God would be revealed in Jesus (v.4).
We also need to understand in this first part of the story of Lazarus, the willingness of people to wait with patience and courage for the coming of Jesus. Suffering and grief are not avoidable, they are part of our human condition.
In this human life, Jesus as the Son of God made human is always inviting us into a loving relationship with him and his response to our suffering is tears and shared grief for humanity, for illness and death.
This doesn’t stop Mary and Martha asking the question we all ask at such times: ‘where were you Jesus?’
Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died. (vv.21, 32)
Jesus’ journey to Bethany, to see his friends was on his way to Jerusalem. It could be argued by raising Lazarus from the dead, this was what tipped the authorities into planning Jesus’ own death. The disciples’ betrayal of Jesus and their abandonment of him and Jesus’ lonely death is an emphatic reminder of Jesus’ love for all as he understood God’s presence in the world and what was being offered. The question asked by Mary and Martha is silenced by Jesus’ actions at Lazarus’ tomb and in his own death on a cross.
The light of the world is Jesus, and he does not promise us immunity from all dangers, rather the light speaks to us of persevering, not giving up when the going becomes hard and unforgiving, when all around us dies and the things that were familiar and comforting are taken away from us. Our illusion of control is shown to be simply that, illusory and we are once again able to hear the invitation to trust and believe in God.
In the meantime, we can see love, trust, and patience remain on trial; so too is our human expectation of God’s response to us which we want now! John’s Gospel story-telling emphasises Jesus’ resurrection power. For the moment, however, Martha and Mary must wait. Their waiting is as instructive to us as Jesus’ eventual appearance, as we realise even the disciples cannot ‘will’ God to act immediately and so we cannot have our wishes fulfilled in the manner of our desires.
We must wait on the Lord and be of good courage. We suspect in the meantime, our hearts are troubled, like Mary and Martha and Jesus’ companions on the way. Christ is revealed to us, not in moments of glory, but in the places of suffering. It is in Bethany, in the house of affliction the presence of God is experienced and revealed.
Lazarus is raised as evidence of resurrection life, but even for Lazarus, life in the flesh will remain a temporary condition. Jesus weeps at the death of Lazarus and at the sisters’ bereavement. He is well aware of the agony of dying and of being left behind. In Jesus’ life and in his death, we remember there is a time to reveal the glory and love of God and there is a time for us to die.
The incarnation of God’s Son is not an imagined dream but an intimate and intrinsic engagement by God with the world, an active solidarity with its suffering. The unleashing of the God of life in all of us is a gift, a moment to see God’s glory and to be rejoicing and glad wherever we are.
Jesus’s death and his suffering redeems us all. Suffering is not an end in itself, but Jesus’ suffering for the world is, so he may redeem the world from its suffering. We understand how our time is bounded by being born and dying. Today we ask God to help us live in ways that prepare us to die. We are then freed to live so that living or dying we can be confident our lives are in God.
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. (vv.25-26a).
As with all of us who grieve the loss of people we love, Martha and Mary are faced with the question of how they will continue to live.
Our responses, like the two women, bring us to the same place, the same answer and the same hope:
“Yes Lord, I believe, I trust, I place my confidence in you”; and we see as Christ continues to come into the most heart-broken places of the world, yesterday, today and tomorrow.
My sisters and brothers as we isolate ourselves from each other, close the church buildings and change our ministries as we try to keep others and ourselves safe, and as we find ourselves unable to gather and be together, to grieve together for the losses we and others are facing with suffering, I point you to this story of hope, a story of life and trust in Jesus whom we follow.
Please keep yourselves safe and in touch with me and with each and with God and I continue to pray for your well-being, with love and abundant blessings.
The Lord be with you.