John 11:1-44 (NRSV) - The Death of Lazarus
11 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.”
Jesus the Resurrection and the Life
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.”
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?”
Jesus Raises Lazarus to Life
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.”
This passage strikes me as being extremely dramatic. In fact, I’d go so far as to describe the raising of Lazarus as a dress rehearsal for the grand drama of Easter Sunday.
“Come and see!” the people say, as they invite Jesus to come view the tomb of Lazarus. At the very beginning of the Gospel, Jesus offers the same invitation to the disciples, but his invitation is to come and see true life, not a cold tomb.
“Where have you put him?” Jesus asks the people. Later Mary Magdalene will ask this about Jesus, the most hopeless sentence ever uttered. The answer Jesus will give her is the turning of the tide, the moment the scales tip in favour of life after the longest, darkest hour of human history.
The stones are rolled away and the dead men are raised to life. Lazarus is bound by his grave-clothes, not yet totally free. Jesus will leave his behind having defeated death once and for all.
There’s no doubt the raising of Lazarus is meant to prepare us for Easter. But why does John’s gospel do this? I think it’s because God knows we need a leg up to the Easter story. Last year my 6 year old niece was telling it to me as she had learned it in school and there was this great moment midway when she pronounced that Jesus died on the cross and then cupped her hands round her mouth and loud-whispered, “Don’t worry! There’s a happy ending!” before carrying on. A wise warning from that little sage and something John knew we needed too, for several reasons:
Firstly, the Easter story goes too much against the grain to be easily accepted. Jesus makes reference to lost people stumbling round in the darkness when he is questioned by his disciples about returning to the region of Jerusalem. He also has one of those great conversations with the disciples where they just seem so dim that it makes you feel better about your own inadequate attempts to follow Jesus. Jesus tries a metaphor about Lazarus sleeping which fails completely and has to be explained explicitly. But maybe he proves his own point! We, the children of the world, we are lost; we are blind; we are asleep to the reality of the world as God intends it to be. When the Resurrection occurs we see the misunderstanding of the disciples and we have to admit we would have been just the same. This story is too unlike the destruction and the sadness we often see in the world, so we need help preparing for a good ending.
Secondly, the Easter story is too terrifying to be greeted happily, even by faithful people. Death is a key part of the Easter plan and throughout this passage Jesus asserts that he is glad Lazarus died and he’s happy he came too late. Jesus insists that it is only by allowing Lazarus to die and then raising him to life that the people will experience the full glory of God and truly believe in his Son. Accepting that death is the precursor to resurrection, in the Easter story and in all the parts of our life where we have watched people and plans and hopes die, well, it’s always terrifying. Jesus dying was terrifying. I think he was trying to give people a signpost to say that it was part of the plan.
Finally, as scary as facing death is, believing in new life is too painful to bear. I empathise with Martha so much in this story. She doesn’t want to doubt Jesus’ authority and power so she looks to the past and declares her certainty that if he’d arrived earlier, he would definitely have been able to save Lazarus. She looks to the future and expresses confidence that Lazarus will be raised with the other saints. However, when she looks to the present it’s too painful to hope that Lazarus might be saved, so instead she declares that God will surely give Jesus whatever he asks for, but she doesn’t dare be specific about what she wants. I do this all the time: I tell myself I’m full of faith but then I prepare to not be heard or answered they way I would like. Like Martha, I say that God has his plans and his reasons, and ours is not to reason why. Jesus was probably crying at the lack of hope in that village. It was just too painful to believe in something as ridiculous as being raised to life. It seems sensible to me in life today to not hope too much because low expectations are easier to deal with than a God who doesn’t seem to be responding. This passage tells us Jesus demands that we train ourselves to hope because his story defies all odds and it’s a skill we will need to fully join in on that story.
Emma Rothwell currently divides her time between the Church of Ireland Dioceses of Meath & Kildare where she is the Diocesan Youth and Children’s Officer and Wilson’s Hospital School where she is the School Chaplain.