The sisters of Lazarus sent word to Jesus, saying, “Master, the one you love is ill.” When Jesus heard this he said, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was. Then after this he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.” When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him; but Mary sat at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise.” Martha said, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” He became perturbed and deeply troubled, and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Sir, come and see.” And Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him.” But some of them said, “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?” So Jesus, perturbed again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay across it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the dead man’s sister, said to him, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus raised his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd here I have said this, that they may believe that you sent me.” And when he had said this, He cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth. So Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.” Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him.
It’s funny the things you remember from your childhood. When I was about five, I had a recurring nightmare from watching the movie “Abbot and Costello Meet the Mummy.” Some of you may have seen it. In the movie there was this Egyptian mummy wrapped in strips of cloth, holding his hands out in front of him as he staggered quickly after the two hapless comedians, trying to grab them. I could just envision that mummy coming after me. Terrifying stuff to a little kid.
That was the image I had of Lazarus coming out of the tomb as depicted in our Gospel lesson, wrapped in cloth, arms outstretched, staggering and stumbling from the tomb. However, I have a new sense of this narrative after I read a reflection by Barbara Brown Taylor entitled “The Dress Rehearsal.” She writes:
“You can still visit Lazarus’s tomb in Bethany. It’s a little way up from the church that bears his name. You just go out the front door, turn left, up the steep cobblestone road, and look for the Lazarus souvenir and gift shop on the right.”
“Directly across the street you can see the entrance to the cave, enclosed by metal railings. For a small fee, you can walk down the winding steps into the wet cellar where the old grave site is—a small round opening in a rock wall down around knee level.”
“You have to bend almost double to get in, and coming out requires real gymnastic ability. There is only one way to do it: you come out head first, with your upper body already out while your feet are still finding the three small steps—looking up as you straighten up, trying not to scrape your back.”
“If it really is Lazarus’s tomb, then he did not come out of it like a man walking out of prison. He came out of it like a baby being born again—first his poor wrapped head, then his bandaged hands, and finally his feet.”
This is helpful. Assuming that this is the tomb of Lazarus, then he didn’t come out of the tomb standing up and staggering like the mummy in the old Abbot and Costello movie. Rather he emerged like a new born baby from his mother’s womb. This lesson is about the interplay between the hope of resurrection and the need to be “born again” as John tells us in the 3rd chapter. There is a strong interconnection between rebirth and resurrection, between baptism and resurrection.
In this passage from John, we learn of suffering and death and the hope of resurrection. We know that Jesus and Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus were all friends. There’s a strong probability that they were of a common age, somewhere around 30. Lazarus was felled by some unknown, unnamed illness. And although we are told that Jesus really loved the guy, we note in the text that Jesus deliberately waited 2 days before heading off to see him. He wanted to make sure that he was dead before he went to call.
When he got to Bethany two days later, He found that his friend Lazarus had been dead 4 days. According to Jewish custom, this meant that Lazarus’s body had officially begun to decay and that his soul had departed. Martha hears that Jesus is at the edge of town and she storms out to meet him. She’s really upset and she confronts him with these words: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” There is reproach and grief and anger and disappointment and a whole lot of hurt in these words. The one who could have made a difference did not, and Martha wants to know why.
Some of you may have wondered the same thing. Someone you love ventures near the edge of life and you turn to Jesus for help. You, like Martha, turn to the only one who can pull your loved one from the ledge of death. You implore Jesus to lend a hand. Martha must have thought, “Surely Jesus will come. Didn’t he heal the paralytic? Didn’t he help the Leper? Didn’t he give sight to the blind? And they hardly knew him. Lazarus is his friend. We’re like family.” “Doesn’t Jesus come for the weekend? Doesn’t he eat at our table? When he hears that Lazarus is sick, he’ll be here in a heartbeat.”
But he didn’t come. Lazarus got worse. She watched out the window. Jesus didn’t show. Her brother drifted in and out of consciousness. “He’ll be here soon, Lazarus,” she probably promised, “hang on.” But the knock on the door never came. Jesus never appeared. Not to help, not to heal, not even to bury. And now, four days late, he finally shows up. The funeral is over; the body is buried and the grave is sealed. Martha’s reproach echoes through the ages.
How many parents of SIDS (sudden infant death) babies have cried out, “Lord if you’d only been here, my arms would not be empty. How many young wives grieve over the bodies of their husbands— victims of snipers and suicide bombers? How many young children can’t figure out why mommy will never come home again?
The grave unearths our view of God.
Why is it that for many of us, when we face death, especially when it’s an “unfair,” an “unjust” death, our view of God is challenged? And that in turn challenges our faith; and that in turn leads to grave questions? Why is it that all too often we interpret the presence of death as the absence of God? As a result when Christ doesn’t respond as we would like, if he lingers, we may get angry and reproachful? Resentment replaces belief. Or we may become resigned and passive. “It’s God’s will and something shrivels inside.”
So I ask, if this applies to you, “Haven’t you lost enough without losing your faith as well?” Especially in the dark times, sinking in the swamp of grief, we need to cling to the words of hope that Jesus shares with Martha. When he tells her that her brother will rise again, she says, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.” But Jesus corrects her. Here I would like to use another word than “believe.” The Greek term “pisteuo,” which is usually translated as “believe” can also mean “trust.” Consider this translation: “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus says. “whoever trusts in me, even though he die, will live, and everyone who lives and trusts in me will never die. Do you trust this?” (John 11:25-26)
Jesus does not say that he has power to give resurrection and life. He says that “He Is” resurrection and life. In him, resurrection and life are a present reality, not just a future hope. Those who trust this have eternal life, no matter what happens to them. St. Paul tells us in the 6th chapter of Romans that we have died with Christ in our baptism and through those self-same waters of baptism we have risen with him—present tense.
This is very different from the promise of a future reward. And it is soon to be demonstrated in what He is going to do with Lazarus. He is about to prove that Lazarus is alive and well, even though his body has lain four days in a tomb. He is about to call his friend Lazarus back from the living heart of God, so that those who think he is dead can think again.
And then Jesus must repeat this whole scene with the other sister, Mary. Please note that everyone in this story is focused on preventing death, while Jesus is focused on outliving it. When he sees Mary weeping, along with her friends, it says in our translation this morning that he “became perturbed and deeply troubled.” The Greek is more visceral than that. It’s enebrim Esato. The passage literally says—“Jesus snorts.” He shrieks; he cries out; he sheds tears, less in grief and more in frustration. They don’t get it and it aggravates him.
He then takes a breath, and then like any good teacher, Jesus decides to show them what he means instead of repeating himself, over and over again. “I am the resurrection” he had just told them. Ok then, let me show you what that means. After thanking the Father for what is about to happen, he commands Lazarus to come out of the tomb.
Lazarus emerged, more like a baby being delivered than a mummy, but there is wrapped shroud cloth encasing his body. And then Jesus commands the people to “Untie him and let him go.” This is a pun. Not only is Lazarus to be freed from the burial cloth, he is to be freed from the misconception of death.
So, in conclusion, Jesus is serious when He says, “I am the Resurrection, and I am the Life.” Not later, but right now. We are reborn by water and the spirit in sacrament of baptism. And because of this, it’s important to note that eternal life is not something we wait around for, it is something we begin living immediately as we are still dripping from the waters of baptism. The question for us is not so much that we believe it but do we really trust that this is true?