Hear the Word of the Lord:
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill.3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, “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.” 5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
It’s interesting that Lazarus is introduced to us through his sisters, rather than the other way around. This family was apparently well known to the original audience of John’s gospel. Verse two mentions another story about them that won’t happen until the following chapter. The aroma of perfume and the smell of death are closely linked in these two stories. They are framed by another story, one that contrasts those who believe in Jesus with the religious leaders who are becoming more and more threatened by Jesus and the signs of God’s power working in him. Just before heading to Bethany, Jesus left Jerusalem under the threat of being stoned. After he raises Lazarus, the religious leaders will conspire in earnest to kill Jesus. No wonder Thomas tells the other disciples, “We might as well go too, so we can also die with him.”
Jesus is clear about his purpose from the very beginning. Everything he does has one goal: to glorify God. It may seem cruel to have let Lazarus linger two more days, but Jesus had a reason for waiting to set out for Bethany. This final miracle would surpass the signs Jesus had already performed. For those who still questioned whether or not he was Messiah, this final act needed to be definitive. But his decision to wait certainly caused great consternation among his disciples, and even more for Mary and Martha.
Let us return to the scripture…
17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
In the tradition at that time, it was believed that the spirit of a person finally departed on the third day after death. So on the fourth day, when the funeral was over and the finality of death was starting to settle in for Mary and Martha, Jesus comes to visit.
The fourth day. The first day that it was really real—that there was no chance Lazarus was just sleeping, no chance this was all a bad dream. Both Martha and Mary meet Jesus with the same words: if you had been here…
How often have we used those words? Lord, if you had been here…Lord, if you had come when I asked…Lord, life hurts and I asked for help and I feel like you left me out here to suffer…Lord, it’s too late, the grief is here to stay now.
The door is shut. The tomb is sealed.
Have you ever felt abandoned by God? Has God’s apparent absence in your life made you grieve? There was a time, at the end of my first marriage, when I wondered where God was, and if he still cared about me. It took me a long time to realize that God had not, in fact abandoned me. It was the other way around – I had abandoned God.
God was waiting for me.
When Martha tells Jesus, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died,” it’s hard to tell if she is confessing her faith in Jesus and his power to heal, or if she is accusing him of neglecting his friend.
Either way, Jesus tells her, “I am the resurrection and the life,” and then he challenges her. Jesus asks Martha if she believes. It’s interesting that John always puts this word into its active verb form. John doesn’t talk about belief as a noun, but always as what Jesus asks us to do. And this time, Martha’s statement is clearly an affirmation of faith. “Yes, Lord,” she tells him. “Despite all indications to the contrary, I believe you are Messiah.”
Let’s get back to the story…
28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 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.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
“Where have you laid him?” Jesus asks. In a couple of weeks, another Mary will ask this same question as she looks into an empty tomb. She will weep as Jesus does now. Here, in this long passage of scripture, the most profound verse is even shorter than our New Revised Standard Version shows. The old King James may be more accurate: “Jesus wept.” But why did Jesus weep? Those around him assumed it was for sorrow at the loss of his friend. But Jesus knew before he ever headed out to Bethany that he would be raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus wept, not because he had lost a friend, but because the scene around him was full of chaos, full of the very suffering he had come to eliminate once and for all. Hope for resurrection had been displaced by the havoc of sin and death. Those who accompanied Jesus to the tomb didn’t understand that Jesus wasn’t weeping for Lazarus; he was weeping for them.
The Word of the Lord continues…
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Death stinks. There’s no getting around it. Imagine waking up in that cave,* wrapped tightly in cloth, unable to pull the covering off your own face, because your hands are still bound. It’s dark, and it stinks in there. What you smell is your own rotting flesh, that somehow isn’t rotting anymore. But the stench is still hanging in the cave around you.
And you hear a familiar voice, muffled, but easy to recognize. Your dearest friend is calling to you to come out. You don’t even know which direction the door is, or how to get to it. But you wriggle around enough to get up, and you inch your way toward the light. As you trip over yourself, struggling to get free, there is a gasp from the crowd that has gathered outside this cave. They are as surprised to see you as you are to be there.
And then you must decide. Do you fall back into the tomb, or do you step out into the unknown? Because what lies ahead is completely new territory. No one has ever done this before. No one has ever been completely, unquestionably dead, and then been called back to life after being buried in a tomb for four days.
But here you are. As you stumble forward, that voice you love says, “Unbind him. Unbind her. Let them go.” And the bandages come off, and you can see Jesus standing there, tears streaming down his face, welcoming you back to life.
45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
Death stinks. There’s no getting around it.
But here’s the thing: we can’t experience resurrection until we experience death. We can’t accept new life in Christ until we allow our old, sinful lives to end. What do you need to let die, so that you can come out of your tomb? What binds you to death, and prevents you from living abundantly, fully, as a new creation?
Whatever keeps you wrapped up in a dark cave of pride, hatred, lust, greed, or deceit, or whatever stinks in your life, hear the voice of Jesus calling to you, “Come out of there!”
And then you must decide. Do you fall back into the tomb, or do you step out into the unknown? Because what lies ahead is completely new territory. But you don’t have to go there alone. When Lazarus stepped out of that tomb, there were friends at hand to help him get out of his grave clothes, to support him and love him. That’s what this community of faith is for: to help each of us get unbound.
And what about our church, here on the corner of Center and Broadway? What do we need to let die, so that this congregation can experience new life in Christ? What binds us so tightly we can’t move forward? What shroud keeps us from seeing the neighbors around us? What prevents us from experiencing resurrection?
So here we are. As we stumble forward, that voice we love says, “Come out of there! Get unbound!” We are stepping into new territory. But Jesus is right there, waiting for us. Let it be so.
* Thanks to Teri Peterson for the idea of seeing the resurrection from inside Lazarus’s tomb.