Sermon Lent V
“We Are Much Like Lazarus”
The Rev. Robert W. Landry
This story of Lazarus is a familiar story to most of us. And until recently, I have seen this story of the raising of Lazarus as being inaccessible, yet all we know about him is that Jesus loved him and he got sick and died. His sisters, whom we have met in the gospel, seem a little passive aggressive. Their initial message doesn’t ask Jesus to come. It just informs him of their brother’s illness. Then, when he approaches their town, they each, separately, run out and lay the identical guilt trip on Jesus. “Lord, if you had been here, our brother would not have died.”
As for Jesus, he seems unworried about it, when he says: Lazarus’ illness will not end in death, and it will be for the glory of the Son of God. He is, at the same time, he seldom appears to be disturbed by the sights and the sound of mourners wailing and the stench of death. So, for many years, I have read this text and thought hmm, this is odd. And read on. I wonder if this isn’t this way for many of us?
So, I have had an epiphany. And maybe some you have already had this same realization, and if so, I apologize in advance for pointing out what has long been obvious to you. The epiphany is that we are to see ourselves in Lazarus and see the miracle of his restoration of physical life as the beginning of our entry into eternal life that begins the moment we accept Jesus’ offer of a relationship with us.
What we hear in the Gospel of John in The Prologue tells us that Jesus is the light and life of the world (Jn 1:4, 5). The giving of sight to the man born blind (Jn 9) and the raising of Lazarus from the dead (Jn 11) show us Jesus giving light and life to particular human beings. We are invited to see ourselves in them and him in our lives. We are to see ourselves in Lazarus, whose name, a shortened form of Eleazar, means “God helps.” He is from a town whose name, Bethany, means “House of Affliction.”
So, God helps one who suffers from affliction. John takes a friendship between Jesus and this family and an event that has the quality of reminiscence and shapes it to his theological purpose. Lazarus is the “one Jesus loves”; he represents all those whom Jesus loves, which includes you and me and all of humankind. This story, then, is the story of our coming to life from death in this present moment, not just in that future event which is promised in God’s word.
John’s Gospel repeatedly uses the physical realm as a figurative way to point us to the spiritual realm. Water is a metaphor for the quenching of our spiritual thirst through Jesus’ presence; Jesus is the living water (Jn 4:14). The bread Jesus multiplies to feed the crowd is a metaphor for the satisfaction of our spiritual hunger that Jesus brings; Jesus is the Bread from Heaven (Jn 6:35). Sight is a metaphor for the spiritual vision and clarity that Jesus brings; Jesus is the light of the world (Jn 8:12, and chapter 9 where Jesus gives sight to a man born blind).
Here, in chapter 11, the restoration of physical life is a metaphor for breaking free from the bonds of spiritual death into the gift of eternal life that Jesus brings. Jesus is the resurrection and the life (Jn 11:25-6: “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.”).
Jesus responds to Lazarus’ illness with a calmness and composure. He says 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” (Jn 11:4). He is not expressing his hope that, because of the miracle he is about to perform, he will have recognition and praise. “God’s glory” is a reference to Jesus’ own resurrection. His raising of Lazarus from the dead will speed his own death, which will lead to his resurrection, in which we all participate. It is in His death that we are all brought to life, we are resurrected with Christ to new life.
The disciples in our story respond to the news of Lazarus’ illness with indifference. Like most of the people in John’s gospel, they operate at the physical, the literal level. When Jesus says that Lazarus is “asleep,” they don’t get that he means he is dead. When Jesus suggests a journey to “wake him up,” the disciples question his judgment. After all, if Lazarus is sleeping, they figured that’s a good sign that the worst of his illness has past, and, besides, doesn’t Jesus realize the danger that awaits him in Judea?
Then Jesus resorts to plain speech. “Lazarus is dead.” Thomas gets it. He gets that Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead will speed his own death. “Let us also go, so that we may die with him.” (Him refers to Jesus, not Lazarus.) When Jesus approaches Bethany, another complicated conversation awaits him, this time with Martha, Lazarus’ sister. She runs out to meet him and lays her guilt trip on him. “Lord, if you had been here”. And Jesus replies, “Your brother will rise again.” And She thinks he means at the last day. The belief in the resurrection of the body had been introduced a couple of hundred years B.C.E. in the Book of Daniel. Advocated by the Pharisees but not the Sadducees, and it was widely accepted by the common people of Jesus’ day. So, she thinks he is just saying something that people say at funerals to comfort the grieving family.
But he is not just assuring her of the resurrection at the last day, though the gospel of John includes that promise, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.”). He is affirming the “realized eschatology” of John 5: 24: “Anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life. “The detail that Lazarus had been dead four days by the time Jesus got there is meant to underscore that he was beyond resuscitation. The rabbis of the day believed that the soul hovered over the body for three days and after that, there was no hope of resuscitation. “Where have you laid him?” Jesus asks the crowd. They say, “Lord, come and see”. It is hard not to flashback to 1:39 when would-be disciples were seeking Jesus out, asking, “Lord, where are you staying?” And he responds, “Come and see.”
His invitation to us is, “Come from your places of death and see my light and life.” Here, as a prelude to raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus is willing, on our behalf, to come and see death face to face, up close and personal. His response is to be “greatly disturbed in his spirit” (11:33). Other places in the gospels when Jesus shows this kind of emotional, spiritual disturbance that expresses itself in weeping are in Gethsemane (Lk 11:39-46), and when he weeps over Jerusalem (Lk 19:41). These occasions have something in common: Jesus comes face to face with all that opposes him: sin, death, and hatred. His response is weeping and anguish. There may also be an element of indignation, almost of anger.
The Jewish burial rite did not include embalming. The oil and spices used would have held unpleasant odors at bay for a while, but after four days it would have been overpowering. Except that the stench of death here meets the fragrance of the resurrecting power of God’s Son. When Jesus says, “Take away the stone,” the reader can’t help but be reminded of Jesus’ coming resurrection. Our knowledge of the reality of future life colors our experience of present death. Then Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
Lazarus is us, bound by death in our current lives, called to life by Jesus who is the Light and the Life of the world. Jesus stands at the edge of our tomb, shouting “Come out!” We are to substitute our own name for that of Lazarus, hear his command, and walk into the light of day, pulling free of our grave clothes as we go. As we approach the crucifixion of our lord, may we examine our own lives and search for those things which need to be hung on the cross, that when our lord rises we may also rise in glory with him in a new light and life in our lives.