We’ve been working our way through John’s gospel this Lent, stopping along the way to listen in on those long conversations or stories that take place during Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. We’ve overheard his nighttime conversation with Nicodemus about being born anew, with all the complexities and struggles involved with that. We’ve stopped at a well in Samaria and witnessed that remarkable conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman there about water and living water and what really quenches our thirst. We’ve witnessed a remarkable healing of a man born blind, who comes to see in a way that those who are sighted have chosen not to. And we’ve been reminded, at each stop, of the ways that these topics and conversations and stories take place not on some abstract, “spiritual” plane, but are deeply connected with embodied life on earth–our need for water and sustenance, how we are all part of web of existence, how we see or don’t see what is around us.
So today we are nearing Jerusalem with Jesus in this Lenten journey–just two miles away, in fact, we are told; and just a week away from Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem and the beginning of those awesome and awe-full events we remember during Holy Week. The way forward is narrowing. The humanity of Jesus is in full view as he confronts that most human of events–the death of a loved one. “Grief puts us in the largest company on earth,” Helen Keller said.
“Lord, he whom you love is ill,” the message said. It was that 3 a.m. phone call that we all dread. The dividing line between before and after that we’ll remember for years afterwards. There’s no going back to sleep after such a call. But, “Accordingly [John tells us] though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”
Wow, interesting call. No one can blame Martha and Mary for blurting out when Jesus finally arrives, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” If only you had come. If only you had dropped everything to come rescue us or at least be with us, to talk to the doctor, to help us make those terrible decisions. Have you been part of a conversation like that?
“Though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus
was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” Someone has suggested that a decoder ring would be helpful in reading John’s gospel, because he uses certain code words throughout. Stayed is one of those code words. “Where are you staying?” the first disciples asked him. Stay or Abide in me, Jesus said. Jesus was staying or abiding in God before going to Bethany, before facing that death and the death that he knew was coming after that.
There’s no Garden of Gethsemane scene in John’s gospel, no “tears like blood” falling on the ground before Jesus’ arrest, but here in this story about Lazarus’ illness and death is John’s scene or insight into the humanity of Jesus….how he was fully human and yet so open–emptied really–so that he could be fully open to God.
It takes prayer to empty yourself of survival-at-all-cost
[writes one commentator]. It takes prayer to put yourself in harm’s way for another’s sake. It takes abiding in God even if you’re the Christ, to ready yourself to face untruth, torture, and death. Indeed, that is perhaps what makes Christ the Christ–patiently abiding in God rather than running off at every request to save the world, every suggestion that he could and should. [Liz Goodman in Journal for Preachers, Lent 2014, p. 9]
So, Jesus needs those two days before going off to Judea, to Bethany, to abide in God if he is to glorify God through this death and in his own. Glorify is another one of John’s code words, and unlike the other gospels who talk about Jesus’ being glorified by sitting on a throne at the right hand of God, in John Jesus is glorified when he is lifted up on the cross, utterly emptying himself to be filled with God. Jesus tells the disciples, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” And Thomas, who gets such a bad rap for being “The Doubter,” is the one who really sees–”Let us also go,” he says to the other disciples, “that we may die with him.”
The scene that awaits them in Bethany is not unlike other scenes of mourning and grief. The community has gathered to support the sisters. Martha meets Jesus on the road and simply states, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” “Your brother will rise again,” Jesus assures her, and Martha recites the creed, what she knows in her head. “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus cups her face with his hands and says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” In this moment, I am–the name of God. God is. Now. Here. Not just in the future.
Martha returns to her sister and tells her that Jesus is asking for her, so Mary too goes out to meet Jesus. Mary lives less in her head and more in her heart than Martha, so she is weeping when she comes to Jesus, as is pretty much everyone else. “Where have you laid him,” he asks. And when they say, “Come and see”–another theme in John’s gospel– Jesus weeps. Jesus, who lives completely in both head and heart, is overcome with compassion and begins to weep as well. Here are his tears, for them, for Lazarus, for himself, for all of us.
The actual raising of Lazarus occupies only 2 verses of this whole long story. Lazarus himself doesn’t speak or indicate how he feels about being raised from death. And we can imagine, it’s not a totally positive experience.
Writer Mary Karr describes a similar experience–
If you live in the dark a long time
[maybe the dark of addiction, or grief, or anxiety] and the sun comes out, you do not cross into it whistling. There is an initial uprush of relief at first, then–for me anyway–a profound dislocation. My old assumptions about how the world works are buried, yet my new ones aren’t yet operational. There’s been a death of sorts, but without a few days in hell, no resurrection is possible.” [cited in Sermon Seeds, 4/6/14]
After giving thanks for God’s abiding presence, Jesus cries with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” One can only imagine what the scene was like. Wonderful? Horrible? Terrifying? “Dislocating,” at best, as Mary Karr says. This is a temporary resurrection, Lazarus still needs to be unbound by the community, and he will die again. This is a practice run for Jesus, as empty as he is, but he will empty himself even more when it comes time for him to die.
“Many of the Jews who had come with Mary [John tells us] and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.” But if we read on, we know that it was this raising of the dead that sealed Jesus’ fate. It’s not the cleansing of the Temple here in John that is the final straw–he’s already done that in Chap. 2–but the raising of the dead. Death is in charge of death, the Powers say, not God, and certainly not a God who empties himself.
So, this is not really the end of the story; in many ways it’s just the beginning. But this story of grief and death and regrets and what we do with despair and discouragement has to be part of the story if it’s to become part of our story. “He whom you love is ill.” “I have some bad news.” “There’s been a terrible accident.” “We’ve found something on the MRI.” “The level of threat to life on this planet as we’ve known it has increased from high to extremely high.” What do we do with news like this? The time for prevention is over. “Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead,’” not “just fallen asleep.”
So, though he loved Lazarus and Mary and Martha, Jesus stayed where he was for 2 days. He abided in God, he immersed himself in prayer, drenched himself in the Love and Power of God. We dare not skip this step. The world is full of people rushing in with “the solution” to our problems, our economy, our image, our whatever. What the world needs is people drenched in the God of Love and Light and Life, so willing to empty themselves that God can fill them and use them to heal and unbind the world. For we do have a part in this reclamation. “Unbind him and let him go,” Jesus said to the crowd surrounding Lazarus. There are so many graveclothes binding us and our brothers and sisters, human and animal, plant and mineral, bindings of pollution and exploitation, of abuse and oppression, of greed and poverty, of deception and false hope.
Sometimes when we have no other hope–when we are finally brought to our knees, utterly discouraged and spent, when “we admitted we had no control over our drinking,” when we confess that the situation is way beyond us–it is then that we find that “our help comes from God, who made heaven and earth.” A way appears where there was no way. Someone offers to help or invites us to join them. Bread is broken and we recognize the stranger in our midst. A table is set before us. We discover we are part of something far greater than ourselves.
God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God! And let us keep the feast. Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark