Love Like Lazarus

John 11:1-45

The last four Gospel readings for Year A in Lent—this one and those from the previous three Sundays—all come from John; and they all introduce characters who do not appear in the other Gospels.

Going back to Lent 2, we heard the story of Nicodemus. He is a righteous teacher of the law, and he comes to Jesus at night. He has a very deliberate theological conversation with Jesus. But he leaves still scratching his head, not able to grasp Jesus’s words about being born anew.

On Lent 3 we heard about an unnamed woman at Jacob’s well. Like Nicodemus, she engages with Jesus theologically, in a profound discussion about living water. But she is otherwise very unlike Nicodemus. She is unnamed. She is a Samaritan. She is a woman with a questionable past. She comes to Jesus in the middle of the day, about noon (Nicodemus came by night). And she leaves getting it, believing that Jesus is indeed the Messiah.

Last Sunday we engaged a man who was born blind. He too, like Nicodemus and the woman at the well, is on a salvation journey. And again we learn a rich theological lesson. This time it revolves around sight and blindness. In the end, it is only the man born blind who truly sees. All the other characters in this story can see physically—the blind man’s neighbors, his parents, the religious leaders. Yet the story ends with none of them truly seeing.

And then there’s Lazarus today: a man who dies, spends some four days in a tomb, and yet rises again at Jesus’s command, coming forth from his tomb with the grave clothes still wrapped around his arms and head. And again we learn a rich theological lesson.

We who are on a salvation journey, just like each of these characters, are risen to new life now, already, just like Lazarus. And, just like Lazarus, we are somewhat encumbered by grave clothes: new life, yet still burdened by old clothes.

This is quite a contrast to Jesus’s own death and resurrection. He leaves the tomb in new raiment. And he has left his grave clothes behind, in the tomb, where Peter finds them folded and neatly set aside.

But to return to my first observation, all these characters—Nicodemus, the woman at the well, the man born blind, and Lazarus—do not show up in any of the other three Gospels.

Why do you suppose this is? What is John trying to teach us through these characters that isn’t in the other three narrative accounts of Jesus’s life, ministry, and Passion?

Well, I don’t know about you, but these are the types of questions that really bug me. They get under my skin and persist, like an itch that can’t be got rid of by simple scratching; they need more attention.

So this year during Lent I’ve been approaching these readings a little differently than I’ve ever done before—in an attempt to begin to answer these questions. There’s still lots of ground to cover—a lifetime of ground, surely—but it’s a beginning for me. I hope it is for you too.

Anyway, so what I’ve been doing is reading these accounts through the eyes of these characters unique to John’s Gospel.

Always in the past I’ve read through the eyes of Jesus. I believe in him. I’m trying to follow him, and to be like him. So, for instance, I’ve interpreted the account with the woman at the well something like this: Jesus showed love to an outcast; I need to show Christ’s love to outcasts.   And ideally I should engage them not in a cursory way but deeply, theologically, until they see the truth of Christ and go and tell others.

For the record, this isn’t a bad way to understand the reading. But who’s the one more like us in this story? Is it Jesus, the man come down from heaven, sinless and upright, the very Word of God? Or are we more like the woman?

She’s the one on a salvation journey, not Jesus. She’s the one Christ meets in the middle of her daily routine and calls her attention to her need for a Messiah. She’s the one who voices concerns about her faith, even confusion. And she’s the one who leaves her water jar on the ground at Jesus’s feet so that she can return to her city unburdened, to say, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.” She’s the one more like us in this story.

And the same could be said for Nicodemus, the man born blind, and Lazarus.

But now the challenge comes—here, with Lazarus. For if we try to see the story through his eyes, there really isn’t much to go by: he’s dead for most of the story! What do we do with this?

Nevertheless, there are some very solid pegs here upon which we can hang our discipleship hats.

To begin with, in verse 2 we read that Lazarus is ill. We can put ourselves there, can’t we? We’ve all been ill before; we know what it feels like to be really ill.

Add to this that Jesus says, “This illness does not lead to death,” and then stays where he is for two more days.

So imagine the confusion Lazarus must have felt as death drew nearer and nearer. Imagine the challenge that must have faced him regarding his faith. Can’t you hear his struggle? “But my Lord said, ‘This illness does not lead to death’; and yet I am about to die, I just know it. So where is he? Why doesn’t he come? Surely he’s the Lord. Why doesn’t he save me?”

Have you ever experienced similar confusion? Have you ever known similar challenges with respect to your faith in Christ?

Next, imagine what must have passed through Lazarus’s mind when he rose from the dead.

I wonder what it was like. Did it feel like waking up from sleep? Did he feel well rested? Was he fully healed from his illness, or did he maybe still feel a little feverish? Did he have some “drawn to the light” experience during the past four days? Was the stench Martha mentioned still noticeable?

In any event, we know that Lazarus heard Jesus shout his name, “Lazarus, come out!” For he did. He came out of the tomb.

All that doubt, all that confusion, all that questioning of his own faith in Christ—all of it gone in a shout. Have you ever sensed such clarity in your faith? It’s as if Jesus himself has shouted your name, rousing you from the stupor of life without him—which is really no life at all—into new life with him.

But, too, Lazarus came out of the grave still with his grave clothes on. And Jesus told others, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Both of these details are significant. For, like Lazarus, we have been raised to new life in Christ; but our old clothes, our grave clothes, still burden us. We can’t see as clearly as we should: the binding is still around our heads. We can’t work for Christ as effectively as we might otherwise: our hands are still encumbered with mummy cloth.

But Jesus commands others to unbind us. Don’t you see? We need others. We have been made to live in community. We will never be able to get our grave clothes off by ourselves. To see Christ truly, to serve him most effectively, like Lazarus, we need to depend on others.

Finally, imagine how this event affected Lazarus for the remainder of his earthly life.

Again, we don’t have a lot to go on. But he was there, after his resurrection, reclining with Jesus, at the dinner when Mary anointed Jesus’s feet. Imagine the admiration, affection, and awe with which, surely, he forever thereafter regarded his Lord.

Also, surely he learned a lot from hindsight. Why had Jesus said those words, “This illness does not lead to death”? Why had Jesus lingered those extra two days? Now these questions were answered for Lazarus—these questions that once had troubled him so much regarding his faith. And now, too, he was able to fill in other details, like the fact that Jesus loved him and his sisters deeply; like the fact that certain people hated Jesus and wanted to see him dead; and like the fact that Jesus, thoroughly human, wept for him.

Can’t we, like Lazarus, learn a lot from hindsight—from reflecting over our individual relationships with Jesus?

There are times, sure, when our faith is tenuous. But there are times, too, when it seems as if Jesus is shouting out our names as clear as a trumpet to make the dead rise.

Reflect on these events, how Jesus loves you personally, during Lent. Give serious consideration to filling in the gaps of your personal story. And strive to live the rest of your life in admiration, affection, and awe of your Lord Jesus.

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