The Raising of Lazarus: Life Out of Death

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Gospel reading

Today we hear about God’s power over death in the story of the raising of Lazarus. Think of today’s Gospel reading as a foretaste of Easter, a preview of something greater still.

Jesus is in a town called Bethany across the Jordan, when a messenger arrives from a town in Judea, also named Bethany. The messenger is sent from his friends Mary and Martha, asking him to come heal their brother Lazarus, who is seriously ill. Now, unbeknownst to all but Jesus, Lazarus is already dead. Considering the distance between the two Bethanies, it turns out that Lazarus must have died the same day the messenger was sent. Perhaps this explains why Jesus was in no great hurry to head out.

Now, in what is one heck of a prophetic double entendre, Jesus explains that “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.” The double meaning lies in the phrase “that the Son of God may be glorified.” On the one hand, it can simply mean that Jesus will receive honor. On the other hand, it can mean that he will be crucified; for throughout John’s Gospel, glorification is a code word for Jesus’ crucifixion. And indeed, later we’re told that the chief priests plot to kill Jesus precisely because of the stir he caused by raising Lazarus.

By the time Jesus and his entourage arrive at Bethany in Judea, Lazarus has been dead four days. This is significant, because according to popular Jewish belief, the soul stayed in the vicinity of the body for three days and then departed to its final destination. So, after four days, the expectation would be that the soul was irretrievable. Martha approaches Jesus and gently reprimands him for his late arrival. Even so, she declares her continuing belief in Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus’ response is the poignant and profound statement that we hear proclaimed at just about every Christian burial: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.”

After a similar scene is repeated with Mary, we find Jesus expressing an unexpected emotion—an emotion that the English translators have done their best to obscure! Here is a literal translation of verse 33: “When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he angrily snorted in his breath and agitated himself.” In other words, Jesus was angry at something or someone, and he began to fume and to make himself upset. Why the anger? Maybe he was angry at the mourners’ tearful lack of belief. Maybe he was angry at the power of sin and death. Or just maybe he was angry because circumstances were forcing his hand. The miraculous sign that he had intended to do all along was going to be a very public event, witnessed by a crowd of Jews from Jerusalem. And Jesus must have known how the Judean authorities would react, that they would seek his death.

With no explanation, Jesus moves from an angry snort to tears. Here we see the divine Son of God, the Word made flesh, God Incarnate, at his most human. He weeps purely out of empathy for Mary and the others, even though he knows that their mourning is about to be replaced by wonder and amazement.

Determined to do what he came to do, Jesus proceeds to the tomb, orders the stone blocking the entrance to be removed, prays to his Father, and then yells out to Lazarus: “Lazarus, come out!” And the dead man does come out, despite the fact that his hands and feet are bound and his face is covered with a cloth. The Church Fathers understood this part of the story as a miracle within a miracle. They imagined that Lazarus’ body was miraculously transported to the mouth of the tomb. The other alternative is that Lazarus woke up bewildered on a stone shelf, rolled his legs off the shelf, and hopped like mad toward the light issuing from the mouth of the cave. If that is the case, I can understand why St. John omitted this bit of comic relief from an otherwise solemn account. In any case, Lazarus is then untied and resumes his life. But there is one complication: later we are told that Lazarus, like his master Jesus, lives under a death sentence.

John shares this account of the raising of Lazarus in order to make two points: one theological, the other pastoral. The theological point is stated by Jesus himself, namely, that Jesus is the very fount of life beyond the grave. The pastoral point is that, by hearing this account, the world may come to believe in Jesus and may share in eternal life.

And yet, so many find it hard, if not impossible, to believe this story of resurrection (or the story of Jesus’ own resurrection). Resurrection just doesn’t fit into their worldview. God has offered us a singular sign of his power over death, and people reject it precisely because it is singular. We have been taught that “seeing is believing,” and admittedly, none of us here has witnessed the resurrection of a dead body. But I claim that each of us here has witnessed life come out of death. Have you ever witnessed enemies reconcile? That is life out of death. Have you grieved for a loved one who died, sure that your life was over too, then one day realized there were still things you were meant to do in this world? That is life out of death. I remember the day my own father died. After spending all night in the hospital, we came home in the wee hours, exhausted and drained, to find that my father had fixed dinner before he died. We ate that dinner in remembrance of him. And I recall thinking that it was a sign of God’s providential care. Again, life out of death!

All of us, if we but keep our eyes open, can be witnesses to the reality of resurrection life. Little resurrections happen all around us every single day. Given this evidence, is it really so hard to believe that the Living God is more powerful than death? All I can say is that I believe it with all my heart!

© 2017 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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