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When I was 15 years old and in grade 10, my good friend Patti’s father died of a massive heart attack. She had been at school that day when she was called to the office and delivered the tragic news. She loved her father dearly. When I got home from school that day, totally distraught by what had happened, my parents sought to comfort me by telling me that after Dr. Kennedy had collapsed in his dental office, he had been rushed by ambulance to our local hospital. There he had been taken into the care of the only resident surgeon in our small town, Dr. Warma. Not surprisingly, because we lived in a small town, the two health care professionals had been golfing buddies. I can still remember my parents telling me how hard Dr. Warma had worked to save his friend that day, doing everything he could to bring him back to life, but it was just not enough.
One of the most troubling details in the story of the raising of Lazarus is the way that Jesus delays coming to the aid of his friend when he finds out he is ill. Unlike Dr. Warma who did everything he could to save his friend before he died, Jesus does nothing and this actually seems to be an important part of the story.
In the 45 verses of scripture it takes to tell the story of the raising of Lazarus, the only repeated phrase is spoken first by his sister Martha and then a few verses later by his sister Mary. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. ” Underneath we can hear the subtext “We called for you two days ago when we knew how much trouble our brother was in. What took you so long? If you loved him so much, why didn’t you do everything you could to save him?”
Over the years, I have consoled more than a few caregivers, medical professionals and family members who wondered if they had done everything they could have to help someone who ended up dying. For the most part they had done everything humanly possible.
The way the story of Lazarus reads, not only did Jesus, who is supposed to be the ultimate caregiver, healer and friend, delay arriving at the side of his friend who was ill after being sent for by his sisters, he delayed coming on purpose. Listen again to verse 5: “although Jesus loved Martha, her sister and Lazarus, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” Why? “because this illness is for God’s glory” or, as Eugene Peterson says in a slightly more helpful way in his translation “so that it will become an occasion to show God’s glory.”
Those of us who are familiar with the story of Lazarus are sometimes inclined to go directly to the moment Lazarus comes out of the tomb, released from all that binds, him when looking for something we can relate to in this story. And yet that event occupies only 2 verses of the entire 45 verse story. We’re naturally drawn there because it’s the dramatic conclusion, but in fact it’s probably the most difficult section of the story for most of us to relate to.
I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had over the years with people who have struggled with this story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the grave. Many of us just can’t get beyond the fact that people who have been dead for three days do not come back to life. If God or Jesus can breathe life into the dead, they wonder why none of their loved ones have returned home from the funeral home. This kind of thing just doesn’t happen in real life. What does happen though, what we can relate to, is the experience Mary and Martha have of praying beyond all hope for their brother to survive his illness.
Lots of us here today know what it is like to wait at the bedside of a loved one or sit in the waiting room of a hospital or lie awake at night praying for a family member or a friend we are desperate not to lose. Many of us know what it’s like to be given a diagnosis that threatens our life. We know what it’s like to beg God to keep our addicted child safe; or to release us from the depression which has taken us down or to restore to us the relationship that is slipping from our grasp. We are all too familiar with the experience of praying and praying and praying for peace with no sign of an end to war in sight; or working and working and working for justice while people continue to stay stuck in places that oppress and entomb them. We know about all kinds of confinements that bind us up like Lazarus and hold us in death dealing places with no sign of release. And when we are in those desperate places, we know what it is like to want to shout at somebody or yell at God can’t you do something about this? Why aren’t you doing something about this? Where are you?
Most translations of the line in our story today, in which Jesus says that although he knows Lazarus is ill, he’s going to stay where he is for a couple days, use the words stayed or remained to convey the meaning of the original Greek word “meno” which actually means abide. Some people think the word “tarried” better describes what the writer of John’s gospel was trying to convey about Jesus inaction at this moment. Jesus wasn’t just held up, he was intentionally dragging his feet. That meant Lazarus would have been in the tomb a total of four days before Jesus finally arrived. According to Jewish tradition in those days, the spirit stays close to the body for three days after death. A delay of four days would most certainly mean the person was gone.
Whatever the writer of John’s Gospel is trying to convey to us through the raising of Lazarus, he wants to make sure we know that what happens is of God. So, he purposefully evokes our recognition of those moments in our lives when we have felt that God was tarrying, those moments when we have felt the absence of Divine presence; those moments when our trust in the goodness of life or the possibility of redemption, freedom, healing and love have faltered.
In the story of Mary, Martha and their brother Lazarus, when Jesus fails to arrive on time and it appears that God has abandoned the scene, it’s the community that steps up and fills in the gap. Mary and Martha may have been without their friend Jesus when their brother took ill and died, but they were definitely not alone. When people heard that Lazarus was ill and then had died they rushed to the aid of the sisters. The story tells us that when Mary rushed out to find Jesus they rushed right after her presuming she was going to the grave to weep, not wanting her to be left alone.
It’s what we do when friends and family suffer a terrible loss isn’t it? We bring casseroles and bake cookies, we send cards and emails, flowers and make financial donations. Half the time we don’t have a clue what to say to the people who are grieving and most of the time it doesn’t matter because just being there says we care. That’s what we do when we can’t do anything else to make it better isn’t it? We show up. When God delays, we show up with our prayers and with our selves and with our shared grief.
There’s something very powerful about the way even Jesus breaks down and weeps when he finally does show up at the graveside of his friend Lazarus. It signals to us that the way God so often does show up in our lives, is not with miraculous acts of power, but in moments of vulnerability and times of weakness. When we weep, God weeps. Those times our lives when the suffering and the loss is raw are sacred times. That’s what Jesus tears convey to us in this story.
And then after Jesus has wiped the tears from his eyes he goes to the cave where they have placed the body of Lazarus. Because ultimately, God’s desire for Lazarus and for all of us is for our freedom that we might be released from all that binds us.
And when Jesus arrives at the place where Lazarus bound up body has been laid he doesn’t go inside the cave and haul Lazarus out to set him free. In fact, he doesn’t touch him before, during or after the miracle of his rising. He simply says these words in a loud voice “Lazarus come out” and Lazarus does. And then Jesus turns to the community that has gathered outside the tomb and he commands them to unbind him.
Lazarus’s return to life, his freedom is dependent on two things: his response to the voice that calls him and the community that participates in his unbinding. One of the messages of this story is that we have to participate in our own redemption. That’s not to say that people who die from their illnesses and don’t return to us from the grave stay dead because they’ve never responded to the voice of Jesus. Because this story isn’t about the resurrection of people who really and truly are dead, it’s about those of us who live as if we are already dead in one way or another on this side of the grave. It’s about the ways we either do or don’t respond to love’s call to be set free and it’s about the power of love to release us.