Why is the Christian story so powerful? Just go read about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead! We’ve all had our fair share of run-ins with death. We lost both our fourteen-year-old dog and fifteen-year-old cat last year, and I remain grieved over their absences, tears still catch me off guard at times. My grandmother died sooner than I expected, and I think often of things I wish I had done or said before she was gone. Surely you have your own stories of surviving death—sisters, brothers, parents, children? With COVID-19 sweeping our nation, real death and fears of death are at the forefront of every move being made. Yet…our passage for today tells us a different story of death, one that leaves us stumbling out of the tomb of grief and fear right alongside Lazarus.
In short: Jesus is unconcerned with death. He can’t seem to be stirred to action very quickly concerning Lazarus’ dire case, even, admittedly, for the ones he dearly loves: Mary, Martha, and Lazarus himself. I remember when my grandmother was in the hospital in her final days, we dropped all regular, daily routines and sat by her bedside for hours and days waiting for death to come. I’m sure you can relate. Jesus, on the other hand, couldn’t be bothered to get on the road when he got word that Lazarus was ill. It’s not leading to death, he said, and kept right on with his business. The text clearly explains to us that Jesus was close to this family. Can you imagine responding that way? Messenger: “Hey, we just thought you should know that your best friend, whom you love very much, is quite ill and it doesn’t look like he’s going to make it through this one. We think you should come on down to see him.” You: “Meh. I’ll come later.” But over and over again as we examine this story, we see Jesus responding in kind. He stays where he is for two more days. The passage could’ve just said, “And Jesus shrugs.”
As Jesus finally makes his way into Bethany we, the readers, are told by Martha, Mary, and the Jews that Lazarus has indeed died and had Jesus been there soon, perhaps he wouldn’t have died. In their grief, they are heaping on Jesus’ head a communal guilt trip. Their belief admits far enough that he could have done something had he gotten a move on a few days sooner. Nonetheless, Lazarus is as dead as a doornail, so what could you possibly do now, Jesus?! And Jesus continues to remain unmoved.
To consider this passage in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak in our country is helpful. As news of death and disease has gripped our imaginations, we see in this story how unaffected by death Jesus was. I am convinced that Jesus was completely unmoved by Lazarus’ death because it has no bearing whatsoever on him…death, that is. His fellow disciples and Jews and friends in that moment do move him. This is where he was so moved, the text says, that he wept. But he still wasn’t crying because Lazarus was dead; he was crying because Mary was crying and the Jews who accompanied her. And then he proceeds to do the impossible and call Lazarus out of that tomb. And just like that, zombie Lazarus stumbles out into the crowd.
We know this claim—death is done—is what our faith rests on, but it is a hard one for us. We are just like Martha and Mary and the Jews in this story. Jesus, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have gotten sick. Jesus, if you had shown up earlier my mother wouldn’t have died. Jesus, if you had listened to our pleas, we wouldn’t have lost our dear friend. Life is painful with sickness and death and the fear of both.
But take heart. Instead of seeing Jesus’ seemingly apathetic response in John 11 as offensive, perhaps a better way of seeing it is a response of Truth. As we age and experience more pain, more loss, more disease and death, we would do well to remember what Jesus did after they sent word to him that Lazarus was ill. “Accordingly, though Jesus loved Marth and her sister, and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” I am not condoning our slow response for our ill loved ones, but I am advocating that we remember from what place Jesus was unhurried in his response. Death has no dominion and no bearing on the life of the Christian. “Those who believe in me,” Jesus says, “even though they die, will live.” Jesus brings eternal life and he knows it. Why hurry.
The raising of Lazarus is one of our big fish stories and is almost unbelievable. All the details are exaggerated. “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead FOUR days.” It’s almost as if Jesus is mocking death. But that’s the long and the short of it, so claim it. Even when its personal to Jesus, he’s still positive death is done. How refreshing. I know that’s how Lazarus must have felt as they were unbinding his hands and feet and face and he breathed in the sweet smell of his own stench.