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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.”

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Life Out of Death: The Raising of Lazarus

By the Rev. Darren Miner

We’re two full weeks away from Easter, yet already we get more than a glimpse of what resurrections means. All three readings today deal in some way with the subject of life coming out of death.

Ezekiel tells us of a vision in which he looks over an ancient battlefield strewn with the desiccated bones of Israelite soldiers. He is told to prophesy to the bones and bring them back to life. And he does! Helpfully, Ezekiel also tells us the meaning of his vision: the dispirited and subjugated people of Israel, exiled in Babylon, will be given a new spirit of life and will be returned to their homeland.

St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, contrasts life in the flesh with life in the Spirit. Life in the flesh, we are told, is no life at all, but living death. Now, when Paul speaks of “flesh” he is not speaking of our physical bodies or of the material world as such. He uses that word “flesh” as a sort of code word to speak of creation alienated from God, humanity focused on self-gratification. Life in the Spirit, on the other hand, yields peace in the present and eternal life at the Resurrection.

'The_Raising_of_Lazarus',_tempera_and_gold_on_panel_by_Duccio_di_Buoninsegna,_1310–11,_Kimbell_Art_MuseumFinally, we come to that long, but fascinating, story of the raising of Lazarus (whose name appropriately means “God helps”). This story is not a vision, like Ezekiel’s, and it’s not a theological treatise, like Paul’s letter. It purports to be a historical account. But unlike a newspaper story, this account clearly has a theological and a pastoral purpose.

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