What Jesus Said to Lazarus, He Also Says to Us

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Lent 5
March 26, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: When Jesus heard that his friend Lazarus had died, he did nothing for a few days. Not because he didn't care but because he saw in this death an opportunity to show his followers more clearly who he is and was. The story is complex and raises lots of good questions.

The story we read today from John's gospel about the raising of Lazarus also raised lots of questions for us. Let's look at some of those questions, recognizing that there's no way we'll get to all of them. The text is just too rich for that.

But let's start with a question that perhaps you've never considered. Or at least never considered seriously: Would you have wanted to be Lazarus?

Set aside for just a moment the theological import of this story and what it says about Jesus - and, oh, my, does it say a lot about Jesus. Instead, think about what it would be like to be dead for a few days and then to be resuscitated.

First, wouldn't you be confused beyond imagining? Lyrics from a song by that old rock band Chicago come to mind as the thoughts they express must have come to the mind of Lazarus: "Does anybody really know what time it is?/Does anybody really care?" And Lazarus must have wondered not just what time it was but what day, what year, what century.

And don't you think you'd want to know why, of all the people who died a few days ago within 500 miles of Jerusalem, you were the only one brought back to life? Lazarus may even have wondered if he had done something wrong.

And might you also not be a little disappointed that life had gone on without you, even though you haven't been dead long? What if someone already had rearranged or rented out your room to someone else? What if your family had sold your dog or given your clothes to charity? Wouldn't you feel as if you were now going to be a burden on your family, who surely did not expect this either?

In a poem about Lazarus, Charles Darnell writes this in Lazarus' post-resuscitation voice:

Those who know me, loved me, know me not now.

I am not the phoenix reborn with youth and soaring strength,

Just Lazarus, already tottering to my second tomb.1

Even in miracle stories, it turns out, there are practical implications to consider.

Unusual stories prompt difficult questions

So when John tells such stories in his gospel, we are perfectly free to ask the obvious questions that people inevitably ask or at least wonder about. The author Jonathan Swift understood that reality when he wrote about Gulliver and his travels. He knew, for instance, that one thing readers were going to want to know was how a man who, compared with the tiny Lilliputians, was monstrously large - well, how did he relieve himself when nature called? Swift answers that question. You could look it up.

Authors of stories that on their surface seem unreal or unbelievable can - and should - expect some hard questions from their readers. So we ask: Would you have wanted to be Lazarus?

Another question the story raises: What did you make of Jesus at first dismissing the news that his friend Lazarus was ill? Remember what he said? "This illness isn't fatal. It's for the glory of God so that God's Son can be glorified through it." That's the way the Common English Bible translation puts it.

But the illness was, in fact, fatal. Lazarus was so dead, in fact, that he had been lying in his tomb for four days before Jesus showed up. Mary confirms her brother's death by telling Jesus this: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn't have died."

So maybe Jesus needed a descriptive word besides his declaration that Lazarus' illness wasn't "fatal."

A more literal translation of the Greek puts Jesus' words this way: "This sickness is not to death" or "is not unto death." But almost any way you slice it, the likelihood was that the disciples heard Jesus say that Lazarus wouldn't die.

Once more, the disciples don't understand Jesus

So when Jesus then tells them that Lazarus has "fallen asleep," the disciples don't understand that Jesus means he's really dead. And as we know from reading all four gospels, that was far from the first time that the disciples had proved incapable of understanding Jesus. So before long Jesus had to give them the story straight. "Lazarus is dead," he tells them. "For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe."

Whether the disciples understood or not, the point then was - and the point now is - that Jesus knows what he's doing. And knows why he's doing it. In other words, we can trust Jesus.

The gospel of John, more than the other three gospels, is focused on what John calls "signs."

The word for "sign" here is the Greek word semeion, which in Latin is "signum," from which we get such words as "signal," "insignia" and "signature." Semeion or signum also can mean a sign from heaven, which is how John uses it in what biblical scholars call John's "Book of Signs," which begins in chapter 1 and goes through chapter 12.

So "sign" can refer to a "miracle," and John records seven miracles of Jesus, the raising of Lazarus being the seventh.

One important thing to remember about the Lazarus story is that it was what led the Sanhedrin, the temple leaders, to decide that Jesus had to die. A few verses after what we read today from John 11, it says this about the Sanhedrin: "So from that day on they planned to put him to death."2 But the Lazarus experience was also what led Martha to become a more deeply committed follower of Jesus. Note that Martha already believes that Jesus is the Messiah, and she says so. But Jesus draws Martha into a deeper faith and only then raises Lazarus.

The Jesus who loved Lazarus loves us, too

The late - and great - Catholic scholar Father Raymond E. Brown, by the way, also asks difficult questions about the Lazarus story and the shock of his renewed life. He writes this:

Jesus restores physical life to Lazarus, but does that make Lazarus better off than he was before he died? Does it bring him closer to God than the life possessed by all those who walk the face of the earth? The real marvel is not simply that Jesus can restore the dead to life but that he can give a life impervious to death." But then Brown adds this intriguing insight: "Lazarus comes forth from the tomb in his burial garments because he will need them again when he dies a second time. His being raised is a sign pointing to the resurrection of Jesus, who will leave his burial garments behind in the tomb, never to be needed again.3

Brown also notes that the Lazarus account was written nearly 60 years after the death of Jesus and 30 years after the earliest gospel writings. So it reminds the early community of Christ followers that the Jesus who raised Lazarus is as present to that community and to those in centuries to come, including us, as he was to the witnesses who directly experienced him. What Jesus did for the community of Judea or for Lazarus, Brown says, Jesus continues to do today through the Holy Spirit, who dwells within the faithful.4

In other words, this Jesus, so dear a friend of Lazarus that he wept at his tomb, is our friend today, too. And that is our assurance that death does not have the final word. Jesus is the one who weeps with us when we are in pain.

So go ahead and ask all the hard and even impertinent questions you want about Lazarus and what Jesus did for him. Those questions should lead you not to pity Lazarus but to the joyful conclusion that Jesus loves you and me as much as he loved Lazarus and will bring us home to dwell with him.

A laser focus on heaven can blind us to needs here

Which means you can quit worrying about your eternal future and get to work fixing what is broken in this life - for you and for others. Jesus, after all, began his ministry by promising that people could live in the kingdom of God today.

Which means that our job is to demonstrate in small ways what that kingdom looks like when it comes in full flower so that people will want to be part of it. So if in the kingdom there will be no poverty, we work today to eliminate poverty. If in the kingdom there will be no racism, no illiteracy and no homelessness, we work today to eliminate those scourges as well.

We can, of course, be so focused on heaven that we're no earthly good, but that's not what Jesus wants for us because our eternal future is safe in God's hands.

When Lazarus came out of the tomb, Jesus looked at his friend and said this: "Unbind him, and let him go." That's what he's saying to us today, too. He wants us to be liberated - from sin, from whatever enslaves us, from death. So hear his voice today and come out of whatever has you entombed.

You have been liberated to live the generative life Jesus wants for all of us. Thanks be to God.


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