This evening our reading is from the Gospel of John. I am excited and enthralled by John’s Gospel, it is so different from the three synoptics. It is like a mature wine, something to savour, full of depth and body. The product of a lifetime of reflection on those momentous events he experienced as a young man.
I sometimes feel that this Gospel is like an Advent Calendar, crammed with little windows to open – or maybe like a Pass the Parcel game at children’s parties with all the layers to unwrap. With a gift behind every window and revealed by every unwrapped layer:- maybe a new revelation, – or a truth to learn; an idea to ponder;. Food and fire for the imagination
Tonight’s reading was a recounting of that tremendous event, the raising of Lazarus from the dead. An event which caused so much consternation to the hierarchy that they raced ahead with the plans to silence Jesus. But for us it is a story of faith, of friendship, and the depth of God’s love for us all.
We all need friends don’t we. People with whom we can relax and just be for a while. Martha and Mary of Bethany and their brother Lazarus were obviously very close friends of Jesus. More is said about them in the gospels than any of Jesus‘ friends, including most of the 12 disciples, and yet – we actually know very little about them.
We do know that they lived in Bethany which is about 2 miles from Jerusalem and we know that Martha was the head of the household. Mary definitely lived with Martha and possibly Lazarus did too, but that is unclear from the bible. Lazarus may have had his own house. Mary was the one who later anointed Jesus’ feet with fragrant oil and wiped them with her hair.
Some authorities suggest that they were a leading family in Bethany, and well known in Jerusalem society. But Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, a community for the disabled, suggests, in his wonderful book: “Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John.” that Lazarus may have been handicapped in some way, probably with a serious disability, hence the special love that Jesus felt for him and that the two sisters were unmarried in order to look after him.
We can’t tell what their situation was, but we do know that Jesus loved this little family. They were his close friends. So, when Lazarus became seriously ill, the sisters sent a messenger to Jesus, saying “the one you love is ill”. They did not ask anything of Jesus, but he would want to know about his friend and the sisters trusted Jesus to respond appropriately to their need.
But Jesus did not drop everything and rush to be with them, as might have been expected. Instead he waited 2 days before setting off. It seems very likely that Lazarus had died before the messenger had reached Jesus, as John tells us that Lazarus had been dead 4 days by the time Jesus finally arrived in Bethany.
Martha, always the organizer, the active one, went to meet him saying “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
It is not a reproach, but a statement of her trust in Jesus. And Jesus replies: ‘Your brother will rise again’
Martha assumed that Jesus was referring to the Jewish belief in the great resurrection on the Last Day but Jesus said to her: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?’
Martha was a practical woman and this was too difficult for her to grasp fully but she trusted Jesus implicitly and she answered to the best of her ability:” Yes Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world”
She proclaimed her trust and faith in him and was content that whatever happened in the future was in his hands.
Meanwhile, grief-stricken Mary, Mary the thinker, Mary the dreamer who sat enthralled at Jesus’ feet, listening to his words to the exclusion of all else, was still in the house, weeping, listless and broken, surrounded by the mourners, unaware that Jesus had arrived at the village. So Martha hastened to tell her.
When Mary heard that Jesus had arrived the change in her was dramatic and she rushed to meet him, closely followed by the mourners, who assumed she was going to the tomb to cry there.
When Mary saw Jesus she flung herself, weeping, at his feet, and her words were the same as Martha’s. ‘ Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’
Jesus asked ‘Where have you laid him?’ And the mourners said “Come and see”
When Jesus saw Mary’s distress, he too began to weep at the realization of the depths of grief and sense of loss suffered when a loved one dies. Although he was divine, he was also fully human.
The mourners said, ‘See how he loved him!’ Maybe they missed the point here. Jesus was not weeping for the death of Lazarus—He was weeping with and for those who were living. Pope Leo the Great said “In His humanity Jesus wept for Lazarus; in His divinity he raised him from the dead.”
As we look at Jesus weeping, it comes home to us how much Jesus loves us all.
They went to the place on Mount Olivet where the tombs were situated. These were hollows in the mountain shaped into square chambers, with a ledge at the far end for the body.
Corpses were placed in the tomb on the day of death, but it was not sealed for a day or two, in order to be certain that the person was definitely dead. In that climate, decay set in rapidly, so the tombs were sealed on the fourth day as death was then certain.
Jesus said “Roll away the stone” and there was consternation. Martha had now joined them and she protested that the smell would be too great. She would not want to see the decaying remains of her beloved brother. Jesus insisted and so the stone was rolled away.
But Jesus did not enter the tomb to see for himself as they all expected. Instead he stood at the entrance, prayed to his Father and then shouted in a very loud voice, “Lazarus come out”
And Lazarus came out. – Still wrapped in all the bandages and cloths of his burial. They must have regarded the sight with both amazement and horror – it was a corpse walking.
But Jesus just said calmly: ‘Take off the grave clothes and let him go.’
And Lazarus got his life back.
When untimely death came for Lazarus, and his sisters were bowed down by grief, Jesus came to them and shared in their sorrow and loss. Sometimes, when life becomes unbearable through tragedy or illness or death, we shout at God or turn away from him because we feel he has let us down. When terrible things happen, we say “Where is God in all this? “
But God is never absent. He is always there with the children he loves, whether we acknowledge him or not. He is with us to comfort and support, sharing in our sorrows and distress, enfolding us in his loving arms.
Jesus said ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’
Two weeks ago, we celebrated Easter – the Resurrection of Jesus. This was a very different resurrection to the raising of Lazarus.
Lazarus had been called back from the grave but in time would die again. Jesus rose from the dead in glory, to return to his father, his mission completed.
And we, the Easter people, saved by his death and resurrection, must throw aside the grave clothes, the wrappings of apathy and failure and sin, that hold us in thrall, and, trusting in our Lord and friend, go forward in the Resurrection light, confident in the promise of eternal life.