How do we tell this extraordinary story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, (John 11:1-45) exposed from a tomb? He stinks. He has been dead 4 days. He is covered in a burial shroud, saturated with death as he steps out of the tomb into daylight. Life has changed forever for his sisters, now living after his death, filled with grief at his death. The suddenness of it all, the overwhelming loss and absence of a loved one has pulverized the family.
By overturning his death and bringing him back into life, Jesus placed his own life in danger. Lazarus too, is threatened with death again, for the second time for daring to be the living evidence of a miracle. I think about what Lazarus experienced when he stepped out of the tomb. How could he ever go back to how things were before, before his illness, death, absence and raising. His sisters’ prayers are answered: God has transformed death into life but the crowd is loudly and visibly divided. We know, as observers of the story and Jesus’ companions, the hour of Jesus’ own betrayal and death has consequently drawn nearer. Will there be another miracle?
I imagine the endless questions to Lazarus and his sisters about ‘what was it like to be dead?’ The doubt, fear, avoidance, as he’s somehow different now. It might be fake news. Did Lazarus find he had to withdraw because of the constant attention and harassment about what happened to him? And the local synagogue? Will they let Lazarus or his sisters return? The religious leaders in Jerusalem were furious. What did Jesus think he was doing?
This story in John’s Gospel 11:1-45 tells us about the restoration of life to Lazarus, brother to Mary and Martha, who lived in Bethany, good friends of Jesus.
All of us know loved ones who have died, death has created an absence in the world nothing can fill. Our memories, our stories, the shape of our laughter and tears make us wonder of God ‘what if…’ or, ‘if only…’?
But this is not a resurrection story. Lazarus is brought back to a restored, earthly existence. He will again know death. Let us hold in our imaginations, what it must have been like for Lazarus and then reflect why Jesus did what he did.
As we step back into the Gospel story, we are told Jesus wept at the tomb of the dead man, witnessing and sharing the grief of Lazarus’s two sisters, the gathered mourning of family and neighbours, experiencing the devastation and loss of a good friend. Jesus, the Son of God, wept. In the dry, dusty heat, four days after his friend died, Jesus wept in shared grief as he encountered the inescapable inevitability of death. I hear God weeping with us, transforming us in our isolation of loss into shared, dawning hope.
I notice too, Jesus shared his grief, in public, as a man intimately acquainted with grief. Too often our culture has required and expected men and boys not to show their tears of grief, loss or sadness, suppressing it into anger, despair and rejection. God gives us the gift of tears to show our love.
In the dry and dusty desolation of the day, Ezekiel was taken by the Spirit of the Lord into the valley to see the dry bones, full of death and decay, offering a powerful image of despair, the dryness of unending desolation, of non-existence. The presence of the bones speak of times past, long forgotten except God, who told Ezekiel, ‘these are the whole house of Israel’. God said:
Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost, we are indeed cut off.’ Therefore, prophesy and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves.…and you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you and you shall live…’ (Ez.37:11-14)
[Then] Jesus said to her [Mary], ‘Your brother will rise again’…I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. (John 11:23-26)
Hope never dies with God. God’s love never fades into the bones of death. Yes, Lazarus is dead to life, an unavoidable, unsettling truth. Death erases our most important relationships and sweeps away our proudest achievements in its grim tide of forgetfulness and non-being. In response, human life frequently becomes twisted and distorted by desperate attempts to escape or deny death waiting in the background of all our endeavours. We’d rather cling to idols offering false promises of security.
Jesus approaches the tomb of Lazarus, greatly distressed. The Word made flesh embraces the heart of the human dilemma, moved by compassion for us. This picture of hope is so intense and overwhelming, it’s almost impossible to grasp. We realise God who made the cosmos is intimately involved with humankind. God engages with us personally, with unending compassion. He is intentionally, radically on our side, companioning us in our daily joys and heartbreaks, knowing each of our stories from before we were born to death and beyond. We hear again [Romans 8:31]: ‘If God is for us, who is against us?’
As Jesus calls Lazarus to life, we are shown again, God’s intention to make us both witnesses and participants in God’s divine power and life. We are assured our participation in God’s kingdom begins in this present life, this side of death. We think about our discipleship, which is more than simply following traditions and rules, living into the loving life of God. Discipleship involves us as believers, joyfully saying ‘yes’ to divine love and to eternal life, as Christ draws us into community with him. With one another and life with God.
I’m ending with a quote from a poem by the Guatemalan poet, theologian and human rights activist, Julia Esquival Velasquez called: They have threatened us with Resurrection from which I have taken my title for this reflection:
I am no longer afraid of death.
I know well its darkness and cold corridors leading to life.
I am afraid rather of that life that does not come out of death.
I live each day to kill death.
I die each day to beget life.
And in this dying until death,
I die a thousand times and am reborn
Through that love
From my community
which nourishes hope.
You will then know how marvellous it is
To live threatened with Resurrection!
To dream awake,
To keep watch asleep,
To live while dying
And to already know oneself Resurrected.”
The Lord be with you.
Jarvis, C.E., Johnson, E.E. [Gen. Eds]. 2013. Feasting on the Gospels John, Vol. 2 Chapters 10-21. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, USA.
Esquivel Velasquez, J., 1994. Threatened with Resurrection Prayers and Poems from an Exiled Guatemalan. Ann Woehrle, Trans., Elgin, Illinois, Brethren Press