The raising of Lazarus

John 11:1-45 (Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11)

There’s a thin line between laughing and crying, isn’t there?  We know that to be true now, perhaps more than ever!  There’s also a thin line between grief and anger: as anyone who has ever shouted out curses toward God can tell you.  

When Jesus saw her [Mary, sister of Lazarus] weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.  He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”  Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” (John 11:33-36).

We know that Jesus isn’t weeping out of a regret that he hadn’t come to Bethany soon enough.  Bethany was a day’s walk away from where Jesus was when word first reach him that Lazarus was ill, and Jesus remained there two days, then spent another day walking to Bethany.  Lazarus was dead four days when Jesus raised him, so he was dead by the time Jesus first received news of his illness. 

Witnesses comment on Jesus’ deep love for Lazarus.  Then, out comes the grief of knowing that his friend suffered; and that those who loved him suffered also.  Yet the Greek word embrimasthai, which is often translated as “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (vs. 33) can also describe anger.  And, that makes sense, for as one scholar puts it, “Jesus is angry to be face-to-face with the realm of Satan, represented by death.”

The raising of Lazarus is a sign; and remember what I said about signs in last week’s devotional: signs point to something larger than themselves.  This account points backwards to the prologue to John’s Gospel: glory (vs. 4), light of the world (vs 9), believe (vs. 15, 26, 27, 40, 42, 45), the one coming into thee world (vs. 27).  And, this text is littered with additional favorite Johannine words: love (vs. 3, 5), last day (vs. 24) come, see (vs. 45) and even an “I am” (vs. 25).

Yet, the account of the raising of Lazarus also points forward.  The glory that is repeatedly mentioned here is not a glory that comes to Jesus because of the spectacular nature of the miracle (and spectacular it is!).  Rather, this sign accelerates the conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities, which will result in his death.  The death of Lazarus points to Jesus’ own death: there is the “glory.”

In fact, a dangerous storm is very much on the horizon in this part of John’s Gospel 

… some of them [the Jews] went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done.  So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs.   If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”  So from that day on they planned to put him to death (John 11:45-48, 53).  When the great crowd of the Jews learned that [Jesus] was [in Bethany], they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.  So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus (12:9-11).   As one scholar ironically points out, “Apparently, being brought to life by the one who is the resurrection and the life can get a person killed!”

So, this passage is a distillation of the major themes John’s Gospel: looking backwards to the promises of the prologue and of Jesus’ public ministry, and forwards to glory of Jesus’ death and resurrection; to the righteous anger of Jesus in the face of the destruction wrought by death (the result of sin, which he will overcome); and as a revelation of Jesus’ love – here focused on Lazarus – yet representative of the love Jesus has for all of us who are in a relationship with him (disciples who “believe”).

Rather profoundly, this text is the bridge between Jesus’ public ministry and the Passover and Passion.  In this respect, the story of Lazarus is the first section of our bridge from Lent to Holy Week.