John 11:1-451 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." 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?" 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." 45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
The amount of cultural energy that is spent denying the reality of death is extraordinary. If we could somehow transform that energy into fuel for cars and homes, you could say goodbye to ever-rising gas and oil prices, of that much I am certain. I cannot tell you how we got to this place, culturally, how the only real certainty about life became not an enduring reality to be encountered but a minor if certain inconvenience to be managed away. We almost seem to treat death as a sort of failure, rather than the inevitability that it actually is: it is though dying itself could be overcome if we only found the right mixture of dieting, exercise, and medicine. That no human has yet bested death seems to more a reflection of human failure rather than an accepted reality which none of us will avoid, no matter the time that we spend trying to pump youth back into our bodies. Now of course the progress that has been made in extending and improving life is, in and of itself, a good and God-given thing. No one, myself included, would want to go back to a time before modern medicine, but the point is that we often ask of these more than they can ever give us. A good diet and steady exercise are a poor way to achieve immortality, but such is what we expect on some level. So when people do, culturally speaking, fail, that is, they die, we tend to have them do so privately so that we might not be remind of this reality: we ask people to die quietly, sterilely and out of public view. This charade cannot last, though, and we all know this. No matter our attempts to contrary, Lazarus’ fate awaits us all, and death, that truth we cannot manage away, rages back at us from the neat confinements that we have established for it. And not an approachable and generous death, but the sort of death that is debilitating in its effects on a family, the kind of death that renders you numb and wordless in grief, the sort of death that is devastating because it is so very final.
In short, the sort of death that these two sisters, Mary and Martha, are experiencing. Lazarus, the one whom Jesus had loved and their brother, has died. Look, if you will, at how very real their grief is. They can not cover up it with hollow cliché and empty sentiment. No, their pain is too urgent for that. So when Martha sees their beloved Jesus approaching, this Jesus who had cured the blind and fed the hungry, she greets him with this message: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died, but even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of Him.” What to make of such a statement? Is she right? Is this even a fair accusation to put at Jesus’ feet? Would Jesus’ bodily presence when Lazarus fell ill have somehow saved him from death? Or is it the expression of one who simply trying to make sense of what seems a random and meaningless death? Whatever the purpose behind the question, please note first what Jesus does not do. He does not chide her for grief, as if somehow being a disciple of Christ implies not feeling real pain or loss. Nor does he attempt to offer some theological explanation for Lazarus’ death. The “why” behind the question remains unanswered, but both the death and its attendant grief are accepted as real, as true. This is even more clear as Jesus greets Mary. She cannot get out one sentence before she begins to weep. To this, Jesus himself begins weeping. Weeping for the loss of his friend, weeping for the grief that is now extravagantly on display in his other friend, Mary. Yes, the savior of the world, the God made flesh, meets this loss with a heart darkened by grief.
And it is precisely into this grief, this undignified, sloppy and tender grief, that Jesus speaks and enacts the ultimate word of promise: “I am the resurrection and the life.” Yes, this is one of those circumstances in which the context is just as important as the words themselves. For it is precisely as Martha and Mary grieve the real loss of her brother that these words are spoken. It is not into some thin and approximated grief in which the full emotional toll is being kept at a safe distance. No, Jesus gives the promise of the life eternal right in the midst of undignified mourning, a promise of resurrection spoken to a woman with eyes blood shot and puffy from tears and a voice hoarse from wailing. This promise of the life and the resurrection hangs in the same air that is putrid and weighed down with the stench of Lazarus. So true is the promise of life eternal in Christ that it cannot be spoken any other way.
And so let us not fool ourselves or indulge in empty fables. We all know death to be real, and we sit under its heavy and cruel sentence. We mourn in fresh and potent grief those who have just died, and we sit silent in the desiccated grief that has accompanied us for months if not years. A sudden flash of memory, brought on by a smell or a song, brings the whole mess back to us with disorienting force. And admitting the reality of these things, this is not a sign of a weak faith or of human failure. As we have seen, being a follower of Christ, joining the ranks of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, well, this does not insulate one from emotional hardship and pain. Nor are these realities somehow an indication that God has left you or is punishing you. For remember that the Christ himself wept at his friend’s tomb, wept with the sister who could not stand because of grief. No, living the truth of this pain is the mark of honest living, and the Gospel always commends honesty, honesty about ourselves as those who tremble in the face of death and honesty about the Christ who stands at edge of death calling with a mighty voice that the stone must be unrolled, that the stone must be unrolled.
While you might not undergo the same miracle that yanked Lazarus out of the tomb, be comforted by this reality, dear people of God. The same Christ whose word called forth his friend has already done the same to you. At the font, in those waters of baptism, Christ stood and proclaimed you his own, giving you the life eternal from which death cannot snatch you. No, this does not appease the physical reality of death, nor does it make it, our own or our loved ones, any less real, any less devastating, but it does suggest that while death in all of its terrible reality is genuine, it is not final, not the last word. For that Word, that last and final Word, well that belongs not to us in our fear, or in the decay of our bodies, but to the Christ and him alone. The final word belongs to the God who stands with us in our grief, the God who weeps right along side us, the God whose heart breaks at the death of those whom He loves. Yes, the final word belongs to the God who refuses to live without you, the God who will hang on a cross and then go ahead and conquer death, hell and the devil, so that you may never experience this God’s absence. Yes, the final word belongs to the Christ, the one who waits on the borders of death to call your name, proclaiming with a gentle and authoritative voice that you must “come out” of your tomb, for you are to be resurrected by the God whose love knows no limit, not even the limits of the grave. Rise then, dear people, for Christ has called you by name. In the sweet name of Jesus, amen.