I love this story, but I’ve always been struck at the odd way it flows. It seems odd to me that, on the one hand, Jesus seems to be above it all and know exactly what’s going to happen. On the other hand he is overwhelmed by the reality of death. Somehow they don’t seem to fit.
The story operates on two levels, and we get confused when we try to put them together. On one level it’s a story about God’s glory and God’s timing, and God’s victory over death. Jesus waits around because, he says, this illness is for God’s glory. When Lazarus dies, he’s only “sleeping” and Jesus is going to awaken him.
When Martha meets Jesus and points out his obvious failure to get there in time, Jesus launches into a great theological statement on how he is the resurrection and the life.
And when he get’s to the grave, Jesus prays this prayer like he and the Father had this thing planned all along, and now he’s going to show everyone that he has the power to unlock the gates of death. That’s one level, you might call it the divine level.
But then, all through the account, we find ourselves in another level altogether. For all his words of confidence before death and his declaration of eternal life, Jesus, just like everyone else is overcome with grief and pain. His tears flow.
We treasure those tears, but somehow they don’t seem to make sense in the light his previous words and actions. Jesus loved Martha and Mary and Lazarus, but he remains for two more days where he was. And when he finally arrives on the scene, he confronts the grief and pain his delay has caused.
Just when we’re ready to see the whole thing through the lens of God’s timing and God’s glory, we get jerked into the agonizing maelstrom of human feelings. Just when we are soothed by Jesus lofty affirmation that “whoever lives and believes in Jesus will never die”, we are confronted with death’s awful reality, the sobs and the stench of it all.
What’s going on here? It’s important to notice that in John’s gospel there are always two levels of meaning. John structures the first half of his gospel around seven miraculous “signs” Jesus performs. It’s important that John calls them signs; not miracles, but signs. Like all signs, they point to something.
And in each sign there are two levels. On one level Jesus provides for some concrete physical need. But each time it’s also a sign that points to a deeper spiritual gift Jesus gives. He makes water into wine to continue the wedding celebration, but it’s a sign that Jesus is the wine of the Kingdom of God. He feeds hungry crowds with bread but it’s a sign that Jesus is the bread of life. He gives sight to the blind, but it’s a sign that Jesus is the light of the world that heals our spiritual blindness.
The raising of Lazarus is the final and culminating sign. There is a physical resurrection. On that level we learn about the outrage of death. On that physical level Lazarus’ dead body is raised from the grave and restored to his loving family. But there is another whole layer of meaning. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. He brings eternal life to those who love him and believe in him.
This is John’s bi-level world. And Jesus, fully human and fully divine, lives fully in both of these two worlds.
And, when you think about it, this is also exactly the world we live in. We live in this ordinary world of life and death, of laughter and tears; a world where things can happen too late, and people die.
But as Christians, as people of faith, we also live in another world, God’s world. We live on a visited planet, where God has landed in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. We live in a universe where death is defeated, where eternal life has been declared, where God’s timing always works, and where dead people stumble out of graves.
Now these are not two different worlds, the one earthly and the other heavenly. There is one world, a bi-level world, a world where God is at work in the ordinary world of time and tears. In this remarkable story of the raising of Lazarus, Jesus is living on both levels, and he teaches us how to do the same.
Let’s see how this works. First Jesus delays going to Lazarus until he knows he is dead. And when Jesus finally arrives at Bethany, he confronts death’s searing reality in the grief of Mary and Martha and their neighbors and friends. “If you had been there, my brother would not have died.”
We know bout that. Why does God so often show up late? Where is God when we needed him? Why does God allow this to happen?
Or listen to the crowds, they know what Jesus can do: “Could not he who opened up the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” It’s a real question, a tough question, and I’m glad that it’s not just some shameful question that remains buried in our hearts. The gospel itself raises the question. And that validates our own questions and struggles with Jesus’ seeming absence.
Martha too suggests that if he had been there, her brother would not have died. Jesus replies, “Your brother will rise again.” To Martha this is a conventional religious truth held by many of her fellow Jews. Of course,” she says.” We know that.” That comfort only goes so far.
In his poignant and searing memoir of loss and deaths “Lament for a Son,” Nick Wolterstorff wrote about that very experience.
“Elements of the gospel which I had always thought would console me did not. They did something else, something important, but not that. It did not console me to be reminded of the hope of the resurrection. If I had forgotten that hope, then it would indeed have brought light into my life to be reminded of it. But I did not think of death as a bottomless pit. I did not grieve as one who had no hope. Yet Eric is gone, here and now he is gone. Now I cannot talk with him, now I cannot see him, now I cannot hug him…. That is my sorrow.”
That was Martha’s sorrow too. Yes she had learned her Catechism, Lazarus would rise at the last day. Somehow that was cold comfort when what she wanted was to hug him today.
Then, suddenly, we find ourselves on that different level. Jesus utters a sentence that shouts across the millennia with its abiding truth and power: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
Here again we meet that other level of meaning on which we are called to live our lives in this world. The level of divine reality. It doesn’t erase the grief of discount the pain. But it declares a reality beyond our world of loss that makes it part of a much bigger story, the story of God’s Kingdom.
In John’s gospel “eternal life” is not just about, what we call life after death. Eternal life is a quality of life that we live here and now. Whenever we believe in Jesus, we move into a new dimension of life, abundant life, eternal life. Jesus is life itself, the life of the Triune God who created life in all its manifold splendor.
Jesus point is that eternal life is not some far off prize we will get some day when we die. Eternal life is right here and now. It begins now in our baptism into Jesus death and resurrection, and it goes on forever. The closer you are to Jesus, the more real life you have.
Then, immediately after this glimpse of that other, heavenly level of this story, we lurch back into that purely human level. As Jesus approaches the grave, his composure crumbles. It’s quite striking that not just once, or twice, but three times, John let’s us see Jesus in deep emotional pain as death’s stark reality rips open his heart.
Not only does Jesus weep, He also erupts with rage, that helpless, powerless feeling many of us have felt in the face of death. On his way to the grave where he intends to raise Lazarus from the dead, Jesus deeply grieves and hot tears line his face.
In those tears, in that emotional turmoil, Jesus teaches us about death, and how we should respond to it in this bi-level world. He validates our own gut-level response to death. When they finally get to the tomb, Jesus orders that the stone be rolled away. Always the realist who likes a clean house, Martha exclaims, “Lord, already there is a stench, because he has been dead four days.”
I remember how I heard this text as a child, from the old King James Version, “Lord, he stinketh.” It’s shockingly real. It stinks. Cancer stinks. The crumbling body of old age stinks. Death stinks. Graves stink. The whole thing stinks.
That’s reality. And we don’t evade it, or try to deny it, or spray it with spiritual air freshener. It stinks. And right there in the middle of our stinking mess stands Jesus. He’s not afraid of the stink. He doesn’t turn away from it. I picture Jesus striding to the face of that tomb, the foul odor wafting over him, and shouting, “Lazarus, come out!”
Like Mary and Martha, we feel the stabbing pain of grief and loss. And that’s why Jesus sobs and groaning, his salty tears, have been so precious to Christian down through the centuries. Our Savior is also our fellow sufferer. The one who promises life and resurrection shows us the tracks of his tears. It is right, it is true, it is good, it is godly, therefore, when we ask hard questions, and weep in anger, frustration, and heart-broken loss.
Let no one dry their tears before they stop. Let no one ever imply that their sobs somehow don’t fit the contours of their faith. Let no one stifle their heart-broken questions. That’s one level of the bi-level world in which we Christians live, and the amazing thing is that Jesus lives there right with us.
But this is not just a story about Jesus’ tearful empathy with those trapped in grief and pain. Nor is it just a story about a man who dies, and everyone has a good cry, and then, bingo, there’s a happy ending when he’s raised again from the dead. John’s point is not that there is one spot called Camelot where cripples are healed, the blind are made to see, and the dead raised. It’s a story about a whole new quality of life.
It’s striking how anti-climactic the raising of Lazarus seems in this story. There’s no final scene of rejoicing, no back-slapping celebration. Everyone just seems stunned. Which leads to the funniest line in the whole story. When Lazarus stumbles from the tomb all wrapped up in grave clothes, Jesus has to tell the gawking crowd, “Will someone help him out, for Pete’s sake?”
Did you ever wonder what Lazarus’ life was like after Jesus called him out of the grave? It was a post-mortem life. He had died once, and he knew he would die again, for this was not yet the final and full resurrection of the dead. What was it like?
This gospel story wants us to understand that we, like Lazarus, live a post-mortem life. We have already been raised from death to life. For Christians, in a very real sense, all life is post-mortem, life after death.
Paul had a very vivid sense that through faith and baptism, we have already died. “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal.2:21-22) We live a post-mortem life. When we believed in Christ we died in him. We were drowned in baptism. We passed from death to life.
What is post-mortem life like? A post-mortem life is a life that is set free from death and the fear of death, the running away from death that characterizes so much of our lives.
Post-mortem people don’t have to make a name for themselves. They don’t have to build their proud towers of achievement, or any of the other myriad activities by which we try to outrun death. (Woody Allen was once asked whether he sought to achieve immortality through his many films. “I don’t want to gain immortality through my work. I want to gain immortality by not dying”)
The assurance of eternal life in Jesus Christ sets us free. We don’t have to grab life and hold it tightly. Assured of eternal life, we can afford to let go, to give it away. When we live the post-mortem life, we are free from the compulsion to hurry, to do everything we possibly can, filling our lives with things and activities.
We are set free to live here and now so that ordinary life can become more deeply precious, more piercingly beautiful, and more spontaneous joyful. Our lives are now part of a much bigger story.
We live in two worlds; we live a bi-level life. We live in a world dominated by death. We still feel it’s icy grip, and weep with grief and rage when it stalks our lives. But we live in another world too, a world dominated by the great gravitational power of the one who is the resurrection and the life, who is life itself!
United to him by faith and baptism, death is not the end at all, but a new beginning. It’s long dark passageway becomes a birth canal. Through it, we who have lived so long in the constricted womb of this world, are thrust into the light of true and eternal life, and into the arms of our loving Creator.
I am the resurrection and the life,” says Jesus. And we know it’s true not because Lazarus was raised from the dead. We know it’s true because the Son of God took on himself .the stinking reality of our lives on the cross. And he rose again! “Whoever lives and believes in me will never die, but have everlasting life.”
John 11: 1-44
April 2, 2017
©Leonard J. Vander Zee
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