Gospel John 11:1-45
1 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.
One of the tasks of a preacher is to live with the Scripture text all week. To let it soak into the life around you and to let it speak. And I once heard a preacher say that the best thing we can do as readers of scripture is to fall in love with the text. To fall in love with it. To dig into it and live with it until we love it.
I am thankful for this preacher’s wisdom, because without it, this week would have been difficult. Because I’ve struggled with this week’s reading. And let me confess to you why – I don’t know if I believe it.
Did it really happen? Did Jesus really raise Lazarus from the dead? If cell phones with cameras existed back then, could we have recorded Lazarus stumbling out of the tomb? I don’t know. And all week, I try and I try and I try to really believe it, that it happened, but it just doesn’t work. Maybe it is because there are so many people who haven’t been raised from the dead.
So I don’t have a clue of how to make sense of what happened the day that Lazarus died and then came back to life. I don’t have a clue.
But as I have wrestled and fought with the text, in the end, I have fallen in love with it. Not because I understand it, but because there is truth in this story. And so, I just want to share with you some of the truths that have brought me some comfort out of a story that is quite uncomfortable.
The story begins with illness. Lazarus, brother to Mary and Martha, friend of Jesus, has fallen ill. They send word to Jesus, but Jesus doesn’t seem concerned about it. He says, “This illness does not lead to death.” Which seems pretty confident. So, he and his disciples stay two days longer where they were.
But then for some reason, something changes and Jesus says, “Let’s go back to Judea. Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep and I am going to wake him up.” Lazarus had fallen asleep – it was a metaphor for death. But the disciples didn’t get it, so Jesus had to be clear: Lazarus is dead, he said. And then there is this quick but beautiful line from Thomas, of all people. Thomas said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” And this is the first truth that jumps out at me in this text – We need to go into places of death…together.
We weren’t made to face death on our own. When someone has died, it is important that we not leave people to face it on their own. But rather we face death as a community. Together. As a people. Because let’s be honest, a death in the community is a tear in the social fabric for all of us. It impacts the entire community. “Let us go also,” Thomas says. When a community gathers at a funeral, we don’t come as individuals to pay our respects to the person who has died. We come as the body of Christ. And together, we carry this beloved child of God to their place of rest. We need to go into places of death…together.
So they go. The disciples and Jesus travel to Bethany. And when they arrive, they find out that Lazarus has already been buried for four days. Martha sees Jesus coming, and so she goes out to meet him. And then she says those haunting, haunting words…
Lord, if you had been here.
Lord, if you had been here.
I don’t know if there is a more truthful and heartbreaking phrase than that one. Lord, if you had been here…but you weren’t.
As many of you know, this past week, Ryan’s brother-in-law, Adam, was killed in a car accident. He was 30 years old, a wife and 2 kids. And all week long, those words kept echoing throughout my thoughts, “Lord, if you had been here.” Where were you, God? Where were you when the collision happened?! Where were you when he breathed his last? Where were you when his heart stopped?
Lord, if you had been here. We can all say these words, I suspect, about some part of our life. Lord, if you had been here, my marriage wouldn’t have fallen apart. Lord, if you had been here, I wouldn’t need to numb myself with another drink. Lord, if you had been here, my body wouldn’t be the source of such pain. Lord, if you had been here, planes wouldn’t vanish from the sky. Lord, if you had been here, then killers wouldn’t storm army bases. Lord if you had been here, then soldiers wouldn’t suffer PTSD and become killers.
Lord, if you had been here. But you weren’t.
It is a phrase that is on the lips of Mary and Martha. Both of them speak those words. And it brings comfort to hear someone so close to Jesus, like Mary and Martha, to ask the same question that we so often ask.
And it is a pretty brave thing to say too. To speak that way to Jesus. There is a lot of blame in those words. Lord, if you had been here. Sometimes we get mad at God and sometimes we don’t think we can say things like that, but this text shows us that we can. Because it does. Twice. And notice what Jesus does – he doesn’t go anywhere. He stays right there with each of them. And so the second truth I hear in this text is that we can say hard things to God. We can be mad at God. And the greatest news is that when we do say those words, Jesus won’t run away. But rather he will stay there with us. When you are kicking and screaming mad at God, God will remain with you, when life is at it’s worst.
And then Jesus will ask you to take him to places of death in your life. Jesus’ very next words to Mary are, “Where have you laid him? Take me there.” Jesus wants to know where the tombs of our life are. So that he can go there, with us, and bring life out of them. Where have you laid him? Where are the dead parts of your life? Show me. Take me there. God journeys with us to the dead places and seeks to bring about life in those places.
And so they do. Mary and Martha take Jesus to Lazarus’ tomb. And the first thing Jesus does is he cries. He weeps. And it is the shortest verse in the Bible, because nothing can describe pain this deep. Only tears will do. We try and we try to use words but they fail us, don’t they? No words can match what we feel inside. “When death comes, there is nothing you can say. There are only oceans of pain to feel. Jesus, because he is human, feels it, too.” The first thing Jesus does when we show him the dead places in our life is he weeps. With us. And for us. Because as we all know too well, words just won’t do.
And then Jesus says, “Take away the stone.” But the people protest. They say, “Lord, no, he’s been dead for four days. It’s begun to stink.” We don’t like to look death in the eye. We don’t like to see it. We don’t like to smell it. In fact, we’d rather avoid it at all costs.
Jesus says, “Roll away the tomb.” The people say, “But it stinks.” Jesus says, “Do it anyways.” Because Jesus knows that the only way to shine light into the darkness is to go into the darkness. The only way to bring life out of death is to face the death.
The stone is rolled and away and Jesus hollers out, “Lazarus, come out!” And he does. But notice what the text says. The text doesn’t say, “Lazarus came out.” No, it says, “The dead man, came out.” Isn’t that strange? It doesn’t say, “The previously dead man” or “The one who was dead.” It says, “The dead man.” This is a dead man walking and his hands and feet and face are still bound in burial clothes. There is this sense that he is still dead! He’s not fully alive yet. There is something left to do until the resurrection is complete.
And Jesus says to the people, “Unbind him and let him go.” You, unbind him. And let him go. Jesus’ raising of Lazarus is not complete without the help of the people. And this may be the greatest truth that comes out of this story. Like, I said, I don’t know if it happened the way it says. But what I do believe, is that God is always, always, always seeking to bring life out of death. And God invites us to participate in it.
God needs your help to bring life out of times of death. And I see it happening in our community. When you show up to serve a meal to hungry people and you show love to strangers you’ve never met, you are bringing the dead to life. When you go to Al-anon, and you support other people who struggle with an addicted loved one, you are bringing the dead back to life. When a friend drives all the way up from Iowa just to attend your mother’s funeral and then has to leave before they can even say hello to you, that friend is bringing the dead back to life. When you watch a handful of kids who have to sit at the funeral home for hours, so that the community can support a grieving family, you bring the dead back to life.
It’s a hard text. I don’t know what it all means. I don’t know what happened that day. But I love this text. But there is truth in it.
Truth we need to hear… We are called to face death together. We can take everything to God and God will not leave us. And God invites us to participate in bringing life out of death. Amen.