The story of Jesus reviving Lazarus is the hinge upon which the entire narrative of the fourth gospel swings. It is a story rich in Easter allusions, not-so-subtle winks at Jesus' own death, burial, and resurrection. It is this very event which causes the high priest Caiaphas and the rest of the religious establishment to decide to put Jesus to death (it says in 11.53: "So from that day on they planned to put him to death"). It is a story that shows us the power of Christ, the power to resuscitate a man who had been four-days-dead and sealed in a rock-hewn tomb. I suppose some would argue it's the most powerful of all of Jesus' signs; it tops healing the sick, restoring site to the blind, causing the lame to leap, and even feeding more than five thousand people with a handful of fish and bread.
It's a story that captures our imaginations as we visualize Jesus standing before the cavernous tomb, the smell of death hissing from the behind the stone as its rolled away, breaking the seal between the deceased and the living. We see him standing there like the great concrete statues strewn about cemeteries: strong, determined, yet with a calmness that can hold back the cosmic power of the Creator of the universe. He calls out Lazarus by name and we can swear the very onion-skin pages of our Bibles flutter at the power in his voice. Then, almost comically, wrapped in strips of cloth, with a handkerchief over his face, out hops Lazarus-the one who had been dead, but is now alive. Why, we may even pause to marvel for a moment at the evangelistic outcome of verse 45: "Many of the Jews, therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him." This is no doubt one of the most memorable and captivating stories in all of Scripture, but I have to tell you, it captures my attention in a different way.
You see, while it is easy to get swept up in the resolution of this story, to focus one's attention on the powerful outcome of Christ's presence at the tomb of his beloved friend Lazarus, I'm more than just a bit...distracted by the beginning of the story. You see, I can't help but wonder: why did Jesus "stay two days longer in the place where he was" after getting word from Mary and Martha that "the one whom he loved was ill"? Seriously. Now, I know-I know-some folks will say, "Well, Jesus knew Lazarus would die, and he knew he was going to raise him from the dead, so Jesus just hung out a little while as a part of God's plan and then went on to Bethany." I suppose there's room for that argument, but if I'm honest, it's sounds a little too much like those easy one-liners some preachers give at funerals, those sort of theologically-veneered words that only attempt to speak to the spiritual complexity of the moment: "God needed another angel in his heavenly choir, so he called your boy home...God's ways are higher than ours...(and I swear a friend of mine told me he heard a preacher say this at the funeral of a little child) God needed another flower in his garden, so he picked yours." I suppose there's room in the text to say that Jesus tarried two days more because it was part of his plan (perhaps verse four suggests such a position), but if I'm honest with you, that just doesn't sit well with me and what I believe about Jesus.
It just doesn't seem right that Jesus would let his beloved friend die, that he would allow Mary and Martha to go through the pain of losing their brother, that he would stay in the place where he was long enough for the family to gather, for the mourners to come around, for the tomb to be opened, for the body to be prepared, for the funeral to be held, for the casseroles to be dropped off, for the stone to be rolled back over the entrance of the tomb, and the body of Lazarus left to decay. It just doesn't seem right.
I'd like to think that if it had been me it would have gone differently, because, friends, I'm telling you right now, if Denise and Charis (my best friend John's two sisters) sent word to me that my best friend was ill, lying in the ICU, and didn't have long to make it, I believe I'd be in the truck heading south! Sure, there's the Lord's work to do, but isn't that part of it too? I'd bet most of us would do the same if we got such a message. I tell you, it just doesn't seem right to me-especially given all the trouble the fourth gospel goes through to tell us how much Jesus loves Lazarus. It just seems like he would have headed on down to Bethany as soon as he got word: "Lord, the one whom you love is ill," to which Jesus would've answered, "Alright boys, pack it up; we're heading back to Bethany; Lazarus isn't doing well and I'm going to go heal him." After all, wouldn't healing his sick friend have been a powerful sign too, one he had done before, one he knew he was capable of doing? Wouldn't healing Lazarus avoided the broken hearts of two sisters, family and friends? I'm telling you, it catches me every time I read this story, but I think another verse in this text may shed some light on this quandary.
In many English translations it's the shortest verse in the whole Bible, John 11:35, "Jesus wept." The New Revised Standard Version captures the proper conjugation a bit better: "Jesus began to weep." It's interesting to me what causes Jesus to begin weeping. In verse 32 it says, "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." It's important to notice these are the same words Martha uses in verse 21, after which, Jesus gives Martha a compact lesson on eternal life and resurrection, offering her one of the "I am" statements laced throughout the fourth gospel. The story goes on to say in verses 33-34: "When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?' They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.'"
It's that phrase-uttered just before we're told Jesus began to weep-"come and see," that is filled with more meaning that we may first realize. In three other places in the fourth gospel that exact phrase is used: Jesus speaks these words when we calls Andrew and Peter in 1:39; Philip speaks them when he calls Nathaniel to join him in following Jesus in 1:46; and the Samaritan woman at the well speaks these exact words in 4:29 when speaking to the people in her village about Jesus. In every case (including the one before us when the weeping mourners respond to Jesus), these are words of invitation, words that invite one to draw closer into the life of God's kingdom, to witness the inbreaking reality of God. It's at the speaking of these words that Jesus begins to weep, and I think it may be because they are words that have triggered something deep within our Lord, the emotional straw that broke the camel's back. These were the words used to call people into the kingdom, perhaps words Jesus had used to call Lazarus, and now they were being spoken to him. And maybe, just maybe, those words-those three words-released in Jesus what he had been holding on to since he got word from Martha and Mary at least four days before. I've been there; I've been in that place when a word opens the floodgates of held-back emotions.
I remember when I got the message. It was almost eight years ago. I was sitting in my office, getting somewhat settled for the day, when my cell phone rang. It was my dad-Dad doesn't call me, or anyone, really, for that matter. When I answered the phone, I heard my dad say on the other end, "Son, your grandma ain't doing too good. It won't be long now. Just wanted to let you know and ask if you'd do the funeral." I hadn't really done a funeral at that point in my time as a pastor-I had been to a few, but hadn't actually put one together, but I told my dad I would because I couldn't imagine who else would and I didn't want some preacher who didn't know my grandma trying to preach her into hell and everybody else into heaven. Dad told me they weren't sure how long Grandma would hold out, but it could be a week or two. It wasn't-it was a day or two.
The next phone call came, and I packed a suit, a white shirt, black shoes, and a tie along with my black leather bible, and Sallie and I drove down to Enterprise. Looking back, I wasn't really upset; I was fine. I mean, I went to my home church and talked to people like nothing bad had happened. Showed up at the visitation, and there was my dad, my two aunts, and my uncle standing by this rather showy casket that I was sure one of my aunts or uncles picked out, because there was no one Grandma or Dad did. I was fine. I shook hands with people who knew me even though I didn't know them, saw people I hadn't seen in years-maybe decades, was hugged by total strangers and people I had known my whole life. Still, I was fine. I saw Grandma in that box wearing a dress (I didn't know she still owned one; most of my life she wore jeans, t-shirts and flannel shirts, and if she wore shoes they were black rubber boots or old, worn-out white tennis shoes); her hair was fixed, and she was wearing makeup-I was quite sure she didn't know what makeup was. I remember too, her glasses were clean: Grandma's glasses were never clean. I saw her in that box, but still, I was fine.
The next day came, and I put on my suit, my white shirt, tie, black shoes, and I carried my bible and the five by seven note cards I had scratched the service down on. I was fine. I arrived at the funeral home the hour before with the rest of the family; there was time for more awkward handshakes and hugs, more introductions of people who knew me without me knowing them, more time to look at Grandma in that box, but still, I was fine. Eventually, the funeral director asked all the friends to have a seat in the chapel; he pulled the stiff, accordion divider closed, and shut the doors leading into the parlor. He told us we'd have a few more minutes with Grandma before the service. A few of my folks stepped out the side door to burn one more cigarette before the service (I suspect they thought I might be long-winded), while the rest just sort of mumbled to each other or counted the threads in the carpet. I was fine though.
After a few minutes passed, the funeral director walked back in and gave a few instructions about the service, and then he said, "Before we go out, I'm going to ask the minister to offer a word of prayer." I was the only one looking around; I forgot I was the minister! I was fine. A prayer is easy. I did the same thing I have done countless times before and since: I took a half step forward, looked around the room and said, "Let us pray." In that moment, I saw people I know hadn't darkened the door of a church in decades, folks who drank, cussed, smoked, ran around, lied, cheated, and stole, folks who were decent enough, but likely wouldn't make anyone's list of "outstanding citizens" bow their heads and close their eyes like it was something they did every day after lunch. I said, "Let us pray," and the next word out of my mouth was "God..."
That was it. Turns out, I wasn't fine after all. My throat closed up, my jaw felt like it was going to shake loose from my head, my eyes were burning and heavy. I tried to say more, but I couldn't. All I could say was "God..." I had put off the inevitable for as long as I could. I had resisted the urge to mourn believing there was something more important, some task that needed tending to first, but I couldn't hold it back any longer. That word broke the emotional levy, and in that room, in that moment, there were no easy one-liners that could console me, no bumper-sticker religion that was going to make me feel better, no proof-text of a bible verse that could convince me to dry my tears and cease my sobbing. No, in that moment I needed the kind of faith that made it ok to weep, the kind of faith that made it alright to mourn, the kind of faith that recognizes the reality of pain and grief that comes with life and death. I need that kind of faith, and I believe we all need that kind of faith.
Because when the time comes, the quaint sayings we offer to others won't be enough to sustain us. We need a faith that tells us it's ok to be overwhelmed, that the weight of the world is impossible to carry alone, that when our hearts break and our minds are troubled, we have a God in Christ who has been there too and will go there with us time and time again, because he's never going to leave, never going to give up on us, and never means even beyond death itself! That's the kind of faith we need, and thanks be to God that is the kind of faith we have! That's the kind of savior we have in Christ Jesus, whose heart breaks when our hearts are broken, whose mind is troubled when our minds cannot be still, whose eyes weep when we can't hold back the tears anymore. That's the kind of savior we have, the kind of God we have in Jesus, one who doesn't dismiss our distress as a lack of faith, but is always there, calling us back, reminding us in winks and whispers that death does not have the last word, that a grave is only a temporary plot, that there will always be life where there once was death. Amen.
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