In his poem “Little Gidding,” T. S. Eliot writes: “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from” (Four Quartets, 1942). The story of Jesus and his friend Lazarus is a story of both an ending and a beginning. Most of us know that Lazarus was brought back to life four days after his death by Jesus – but what else does this story say to us about starting again from what we believe is the end?
Lazarus is someone we know little to nothing about. We know that Jesus loved him, and we know that Lazarus got sick and died in Bethany. But beyond that, there is not much more we can say. There are no records of Lazarus saying or doing anything, no clues to his personality or how he became a beloved friend of Jesus. All we know is that Jesus considered Lazarus a friend, and when Lazarus died, Jesus responded in an incredible way. And it’s because of Jesus’ response that Lazarus occupies a special place in the Bible.
This story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead begins at the end, with feelings of helplessness and despair. Martha and Mary were devasted when Jesus did not come in time to help save their brother. Their friends and neighbors who came to be with the sisters must have felt helpless in their inability to console Mary and Martha in their grief. And Jesus wept openly when he approached the tomb where Lazarus had been placed. So, we begin at the end – in darkness and grief and in Bethany, only a short distance from Jerusalem, where Jesus will face his own death.
But then the story shifts gears. From this end, we become aware that something new is beginning. The story of Lazarus becomes a story of hope because Jesus, we are told, walked Lazarus out of the grave four days after Lazarus had been placed in his tomb! This new beginning is the resurrection hope that lies at the very heart of our Christian faith. And so, when Lazarus was resurrected, the story – which was initially about being at the end and feeling helpless and grief-stricken – becomes a story about a beginning, where we see how God is always working to create and make things new.
There are other stories, other accounts related to Jesus raising people from the dead – so what makes this story different? In the first place, the stories in the other accounts are of people who some thought were just close to death but not yet dead. But that was definitely not the case here. In this story, Jesus arrived in Bethany when enough time had passed that there was no doubt that Lazarus was dead. No one questioned what they would find if the stone that covered Lazarus’ tomb was removed. So, when Jesus arrived and told Martha: I am the resurrection and the life (John 11:25), we are alerted to the fact that something meaningful – something miraculous – was about to unfold. And in fact, Jesus had signaled this even before leaving for Bethany; when talking to his disciples about Lazarus he said, this illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory… (John 11:4).
So, for all who witnessed the resurrection of Lazarus – Lazarus who was most certainly dead, not just near death – it was obvious that what they saw was extraordinary; something that can only come from God. In fact, we are told that some of the witnesses were so impacted by what they saw that they professed their new faith on the spot! Others left to report what they had seen to the Jewish religious leaders. It is clear that for those who watched Jesus bring his friend Lazarus out of the tomb, life would never be the same. The power and presence of God had been revealed. They had seen an ending transformed into a beginning.
So, what is the message of this resurrection story, this miracle that caused such reaction in those who witnessed it? The message lies in what Jesus said: Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die (John 11:25-26). Jesus told the disciples, and then Martha, if you believe, you will see the glory of God.
The story of Lazarus is a lesson about faith – something we hear repeatedly as Jesus prods us to think about our faith, to think about what we believe, even in the times of our lives that feel like endings. How are we to respond to Jesus? Can we respond as Martha did when Jesus said to her, I am the resurrection and the life? Martha said, yes… I believe (John 11:27)! Even during her grief and despair, Martha’s response was certain. I believe.
How does this story – a story that starts in the darkness of the end and becomes a testament to light and a new beginning – apply to us? It applies because it reveals to us a little more about what it means to die. Death that will come to each of us, no matter how hard we try to avoid and delay it, no matter what scientific breakthroughs come, no matter what medical interventions are possible. Whether death comes to us through illness or tragedy or advanced age, it will come. Even Martha struggled to accept her brother’s death – in fact, when Jesus arrived in Bethany, the very first thing Martha said was, Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died (John 11:21).
And don’t Martha’s words reflect what we often think? If only I’d been there or done this, if only this or that had been different, if only God had been present and acted…. But death, grief, and resurrection are all part of our life with God. Endings are a part of life. And what this story teaches us is that in our life with God, we can be assured that in every end, there is a beginning – even in death there is the promise of resurrection, the promise that we will know and experience the fullness of the glory of God at some point in God’s time.
At our core each of us wants to find how we can draw closer to God, how we can be connected to God. Each of us wants and needs to know that God is with us, is for us, is near us. Each of us needs to know that even in our darkest hours, there is hope – that, as T.S. Eliot wrote, the end is where we make the beginning. And we have that hope in the words of Jesus: I am the resurrection and the life.
Last fall, in the span of a week, I had the opportunity to be part of both a funeral and a wedding. In each of those significant life events I reflected on a text from the great spiritual writer Henri Nouwen. Nouwen says that something “very deep and mysterious, very holy and sacred, is taking place in our lives right where we are. The more attentive we become, the more we will begin to see and hear it… the more we will uncover a new presence in our lives.” (Henri J. M. Nouwen, You Are the Beloved: Daily Meditations for Spiritual Living, Convergent Books, 2017). This is true no matter what we are experiencing, whether it’s the ending of a life or the beginning of new life as a married couple.
I am the resurrection and the life takes us to the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to a direct encounter with God, with death, with faith, and with the deep and mysterious gift of life that each of us has been given. God is constantly trying to get us to be attentive to the holy and sacred that is going on right where we are in every single moment of our lives. The more spiritually sensitive we become to that, the more we will uncover the presence of God and experience the reality of resurrection – the beginning in the ending – that is always happening.
In a sermon he preached on this story of Jesus and Lazarus, Johnny Youngblood says that resurrection is not a thing of the past. Instead, he says, “there’s one goin’ on. Every time I see a brother come to Christ, there’s a resurrection goin’ on. Every time I see a man go back to school, there’s a resurrection goin’ on. Every time I see a man hug his son, there’s a resurrection goin’ on.” Youngblood reminds us that renewal and resurrection are continually available to those who believe, for we are forever raised to new life in Christ (“Sermon at the Saint Paul Community Church,” Samuel G. Freedman, Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church, Harper Collins, 1993).
The promise of new life, of new beginnings, contains the possibility of joy if we, as Nouwen urges us, are attentive to the holy and sacred unfolding before us. Eugene O’Neil captured this sentiment in his play called “Lazarus Laughed.” The opening scene has Lazarus stumbling out of the darkness of his tomb into the sunlight, as if he is seeing the world for the very first time. After the strips of cloth that are his grave clothes are taken off him, Lazarus begins to laugh, and then he embraces Jesus. The very first words he utters are Yes, yes, yes. Lazarus then makes his way back to his house, and someone asks him what we all want to know: Lazarus, tell us what it’s like to die. Lazarus begins to laugh more intensely, and then he says, there is no death, really. There is only life. There is only God. There is only incredible joy. The grave is as empty as a doorway is empty. It is a portal through which we move into greater and finer life. Therefore, there is nothing to fear. There is only life. There is no death. And as he says this, his laughter fills the whole house.
I am the resurrection and the life, Jesus said to Martha; those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. In every ending, there is a beginning – the promise of new life for those who believe. Do you believe this, Martha? Do you believe this? There is no death, really. There is only life. There is only God!
Let us pray.
For the life that was in the beginning and is now, for the life that is now and will always be, we thank you, O God. In this great river of life that flows behind us and before us, let us know that we are carried by you. Amen.