April 6, 2014
Mary and I have been spending some time in John’s gospel these past few weeks, as has everyone that uses the lectionary. One of the things we are realizing is that John tells long stories. And today’s is the longest yet. We’ve been trying to talk about these stories without reading the whole thing. But I couldn’t make that work this week. The story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is just too interesting, and the raising of Lazarus isn’t, to me, the most interesting part.
So we are going to work our way through the story this morning. It is worth noting that this story takes place the week before Palm Sunday, the beginning of that tumultuous week that ended up with the death of Jesus and his own resurrection. And it’s only a couple of miles from Jerusalem.
[Read vs. 1-16] Let’s begin by looking at the last of this part of the story. Tensions are running high between Jesus and the religious establishment. The last thing the disciples want to do is go that close to Jerusalem. But Jesus says they have to go, in spite of the danger. In fact, it seems Jesus has decided now is the time to confront him enemies head on. The battle between light and darkness had to be fought eventually. But maybe that’s why Jesus waited a couple of days. He had a lot to think about. He knew the implications of heading to Bethany. And so did Thomas who said to the others, “Come along, we might as well die with him.”
I wish we could hear Thomas’s voice. Was he being flippant? “When did his death wish becomes ours? We all knew this fool was going to get us killed.” Or more along the lines of “Hey guys, we can’t turn back now. If Jesus is willing to take the risk of going to Jerusalem, we are too. We didn’t know it then, but this is what we signed on for.”
And once the disciples finally got it that Lazarus was dead you have to think they were wondering what the whole point was anyway. If Jesus had taken off when he first got word, maybe he could have done something. But now, wasn’t it a little late. Why take such a risk when there is nothing he can do for Lazarus now, anyway? But Jesus left for Bethany and they went with him.
We know that the disciples failed Jesus miserably at the end. But I get the sense from this story that they wanted to do better by Jesus. Their willingness to go with him to Bethany, where they could be so easily grabbed by the authorities, showed more than a little bit of courage. And Jesus had to understand and appreciate that.
[Read vs. 17-32] “When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’” You can understand why Mary said such a thing, but it must have hit Jesus hard. He obviously loved Mary and Martha and Lazarus. We don’t know why he waited those two days, and he still wouldn’t have gotten there on time anyway. But, unlike Mary was unable to do in her grief, we can assume his motives weren’t bad. And hopefully, Mary was able to look back at that and realize it was her grief and pain talking.
When things get hard, when we have been hurt and disappointed by others, we can so easily question the motives of others, even those we love. And that can create even more pain and misunderstanding. And even though Mary was going through a lot, so was Jesus.
Before this encounter with Mary, though, Jesus has that conversation with Martha who had always been in the background while her sister Mary was out front. Martha, too, pointed out to Jesus that Lazarus wouldn’t have died if Jesus hadn’t waited. She too was a bit wrong on her math. That Martha and Mary greeted Jesus with the same accusation tells me that they had been talking about this and already decided that Jesus was at fault without really looking at the fact that even if he had left right away he wouldn’t have gotten there in time. Nor did they give Jesus a chance to tell his side of the story. They had already set the narrative and, frankly, Jesus couldn’t have challenged it if he wanted to.
Martha, though, quickly got past her accusation and basically tells Jesus, that even though he had failed them, there might well be something he could do about it. “But even now, even though you weren’t there when we needed you most, I know God will give you whatever you ask.”
We often think of Mary as the one who is more like the male disciples, but it is Martha who makes a confession that sounds very similar to what Peter had once said along the road. “I believe,” Martha said, “that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the One coming into the world.”
[Read 33-45}] Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. He obviously shared in the grief that Mary, Martha, and all of Lazarus’s friends were feeling. But the story says he was also angry. Why? What do you think that Jesus was mad about? Maybe because he knew that his enemies were wanting to see Jesus in a tomb. Maybe the whole idea that death and heartache are so much a part of this world.
Maybe he was feeling hurt from his encounter with Martha and Mary and getting the same treatment from the crowd. “But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’” Jesus was getting it from all sides, friend and foe alike. What he could have used was some comfort and understanding and grace as he faced heading into Jerusalem. You think he would have earned that from, at least, his friends.
Or maybe he was mad that such a thing as the death of a good brother and good friend had become such a public event. Something as private as personal as this was even being entruded on by his enemies. And it was turning out to be more about him than the loss and grief they were feeling.
He called Lazarus out of the tomb though Martha, who had told him earlier to do something, said he couldn’t do that. Kate Huey who writes for the United Church of Christ worship blog says this about Martha’s reaction to Jesus calling Lazarus from his tomb, in spite of that confession she had just made. “How do we move from just saying what we believe to giving our selves and our lives over to transformation and the new life that God brings? How often, in fact, do we say we believe but live as if we do not? Where does our religious imagination fail us, stop, refuse to move to places of new life and possibility? What does the world tell us about “real life” and how does that contrast with a gospel vision of being truly alive? What do we think we need to do in order to “achieve” or “accomplish” new life, as if it were our doing, and not God’s?” (http://www.ucc.org/worship/
Then, of course, the Lazarus story gets us asking pretty quickly questions about the things that bind us up, keep us from being alive. And then how can we be a community that takes the grave rags off of each other and this whole creation?
So it’s time to wrap up the story, with what has become as I have read the story over the years, the most intriguing part for me. [45-54] This thing of raising Lazarus from the dead becomes the action that pushes the enemies of Jesus over the edge. They are afraid that if word gets out there will be not stopping Jesus, and Rome would not like that.
You can not read the gospels without realizing there are, as Han Solo says in the first Star Wars movie, ‘Imperial entanglements.’ Well actually you can read the gospels without realizing that, people do it all the time. But you really can’t understand what Jesus was about without being aware that his mission, to make the Kingdom of God known, was a direct attack on the powers who were running the current earthly kingdom. And it was all about to come to a head in the next couple of weeks.
As we look at this story, has it ever occurred to you that we hear from Jesus, from Mary and Martha, from the friends of Jesus and his enemies, but not a word from Lazarus? And we only hear one thing more about Lazarus. The folk who want Jesus dead also want Lazarus dead. So they immediately start plotting to kill this guy who was just raised from the dead. People are weird.
Jesus knew the risk he was taking going to Bethany to be with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. There were plenty of people who did not want Jesus leaving alive. So they did kill him. But he left alive anyway. But that’s another story.