DEAD MAN WALKING
20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.[f]Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world”…40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
(John 11:20-27, 40-44, NRSV)
It was Benjamin Franklin who famously said that “…in this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Though it should be noted that sometimes we get a reprieve from our taxes, even if it is only 3 days. While we all have April 15 seared into our brains as tax day, this year we get a reprieve until April 18. How is it that this year we get to hold on to our money for 3 extra days you ask? The answer is a little complicated, though not as complicated as the IRS and the tax laws. This year April 15 is a Saturday which means we get to put off paying our taxes to the next day. The next day, April 16, is a Sunday which buys us another day. Also, in Washington, DC, April 16 is Emancipation Day, the day in 1862 when President Lincoln signed the law freeing the slaves. Emancipation Day is a legal holiday in DC. However, it will not be observed until Monday, April 17. “Under the tax code, legal holidays in the nation’s capital affect the tax-filing deadline across the nation. So April 18, a Tuesday, is the tax deadline [for 2017].” This year we can all be thankful to President Lincoln for emancipating us from our taxes…for three whole days, but hey, it’s better than nothing!
Some years we get a brief reprieve from April 15, but what about that other certainty in life. Has anyone ever gotten a reprieve from death? For Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha, it was quite the opposite. Lazarus died twice--not because he had a near death experience, not because he was clinically dead for a short period of time. Lazarus actually died twice. Once in today’s passage and again at the end of his life.
Keep in mind that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were Jesus’ close friends. It only made sense that when Lazarus became seriously ill, that Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus to come right away. The Contemporary English Version (CEV) picks up the story here.
4When Jesus heard this, he said, “His sickness won’t end in death. It will bring glory to God...” 5Jesus loved Martha and her sister and brother. 6 But he stayed where he was for two more days.
7Then he said to his disciples, “Now we will go back to Judea.”…11 Then he told them, “Our friend Lazarus is asleep, and I am going there to wake him up.” 12They replied, “Lord, if he is asleep, he will…[wake up on his own].” 13Jesus really meant that Lazarus was dead, but they thought he was talking only about sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead! 15I am glad that I wasn’t there, because now you [have a chance to believe].
17When Jesus got to Bethany, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18Bethany was only about two miles from Jerusalem, 19and many people had come from the city to comfort Martha and Mary because their brother had died.
20When Martha heard that Jesus had arrived, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed in the house. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22Yet even now I know that God will do anything you ask.” 23Jesus told her, “Your brother will live again!” 24Martha answered, “I know that he will be raised to life on the last day, when all the dead are raised.”
25Jesus then said, “I am the…[resurrection and the life]. Everyone who has faith in me will live, even if they die. 26And everyone who lives because of faith in me will never really die. Do you believe this?” 27“Yes, Lord!” she replied. “I believe that you are Christ, the Son of God. You are the one we hoped would come into the world.”
28After Martha said this, she went and privately said to her sister Mary, “The Teacher is here, and he wants to see you.” 29As soon as Mary heard this, she got up and went out to Jesus. 30He was still outside the village where Martha had gone to meet him. 31Many people had come to comfort Mary, and when they saw her quickly leave the house, they thought she was going out to the tomb to cry. So they followed her.
32Mary went to where Jesus was. Then as soon as she saw him, she knelt at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33When Jesus saw that Mary and the people with her were crying, he was terribly upset 34and asked, “Where have you put his body?” They replied, “Lord, come and you will see.”
35Jesus [wept], 36and the people said, “See how much he loved Lazarus.” 37Some of them said, “He gives sight to the blind. Why couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?”
38Jesus was still terribly upset. So he went to the tomb, which was a cave with a stone rolled against the entrance. 39Then he told the people to roll the stone away. But Martha said, “Lord, you know that Lazarus has been dead four days, and there will be a bad smell.” 40Jesus replied, “[Remember I told]…you that if you had faith, you would see the glory of God?”
41After the stone had been rolled aside, Jesus looked up toward heaven and prayed, “Father, I thank you for answering my prayer. 42I know that you always answer my prayers. But I said this, so that the people here would believe that you sent me.”
43When Jesus had finished praying, he shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The man who had been dead came out. His hands and feet were wrapped with strips of burial cloth, and a cloth covered his face. Jesus then told the people, “[Unbind] him and let him go.”
45Many of the people who had come to visit Mary saw the things that Jesus did, and they put their faith in him. 46Others went to the Pharisees and told what Jesus had done. 47Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called the council together and said, “What should we do? This man is working a lot of miracles. 48If we don’t stop him now, everyone will put their faith in him. Then the Romans will come and destroy our temple and our nation” (John 11:4-5, 11-48 CEV adapted). From that time on the religious leaders began to plot how they might kill Jesus.
There is debate about what to call the miracle Jesus worked with Lazarus. Some scholars refer to it as the resuscitation of Lazarus, as if all he needed was CPR. Others refer to it as the resurrection of Lazarus, which is also problematic. After the resurrection of Jesus, he no longer occupied a physical body. Instead he was a spiritual entity with what some have called a spiritual body that was no longer bound to the limitations of earth. Recall how Jesus appeared and disappeared to Mary Magdalene, his disciples behind locked doors, and the pair on the road to Emmaus. Clearly when Lazarus came out of the tomb he was in his physical body, not a spiritual body following resurrection. So as to avoid the words resuscitation and resurrection, I simply say that Jesus brought Lazarus back to life.
Another crucial point in this passage is the response of the religious leaders when they heard of the miracle. They never denied the miracle, instead they feared that as Jesus’ following grew that he might attempt to lead an insurrection which would result in Jerusalem being crushed by the ruthless Roman army. To prevent the possible wrath of Rome, the religious leaders decided to take matters into their own hands and find a way to eliminate Jesus.
This story from the Gospel of John, is a different story than we find in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In these synoptic Gospels, the religious leaders decide to kill Jesus after he has cleansed the Temple, after he threw the money changers out of Judaism’s holiest site. We’ll talk more about this on Palm Sunday, one week from today.
The most famous portion of the Lazarus passage is the shortest verse in the Bible, John 11:35, where it simply says, “Jesus wept.” When was the last time we wept? “Frederick Buechner once said that it would help us all if we would keep track of the times and events in our lives that bring tears to our eyes. They may be happy or sad moments. It may be the occasion of a funeral or wedding or…when the flag goes by or ‘Taps’ is played. It may be at an unexpected time or place. But, whenever you are stirred to such depths, these are times…[when perhaps God is trying to get your attention]. These are the emotional hot spots in our lives, when something breaks through the veneer of hardness in which we tend to entomb ourselves. These occasions are like windows through which the light of God’s love gets in to us…Check the times and places where you weep, said Buechner, and you will see the places where [maybe] God was getting through to you.”
So why did Jesus weep in today’s story? Maybe Jesus wept because he realized what lay ahead of him. Maybe he wept because it had been three long years since his baptism when he heard God say, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Was God still pleased with him, Jesus may have wondered. If so, why would God send him into the heart of darkness in the week we call Holy. Why would God send his Beloved to suffer? Why would God send his Beloved to die? Why would God not answer when Jesus cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” No wonder Jesus wept with Mary and Martha at the tomb of their brother. Perhaps staring into Lazarus’ tomb made Jesus think of his own tomb which drew closer day by day. Jesus was there to call Lazarus out of his tomb, out of death itself, but who would call Jesus out of his tomb? What if no one did? And so he wept at the tragedy and brokenness of it all. And then he worked a miracle just as God would work a miracle with Christ in the fading darkness of Easter morning. AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
April 2, 2017
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
God of broken dreams and empty tombs, you meet us when we feel empty, without strength or purpose. You are present in the midst of our stress and our grief. And in better times, you greet us with fulfillment and joy. You are with us when life is going well. As we hear stories of your people who have had experiences similar to our own, grant that we may know your transforming presence as they did. Bring new life to us that we may walk as your people, affirming your gifts and celebrating your love.
Through Jesus who is the Resurrection and the Life we pray. AMEN.
Adapted from Lavon Bayler’s Fresh Winds of the Spirit, Book 2, p. 63