At the heart of the ‘raising of Lazarus’ is what we tend to call a miracle, an impossible miracle of such importance that we might have a hard time believing that it really happened in any way. How can anyone bring a person back to life after they’re most obviously dead: ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.’ says Martha.
And, at that time, there was the belief in Judaism that the soul of the deceased did stay with the body for three days; but then on the fourth day it vanished. The person in question was most certainly dead. Poor Lazarus, we might think – we’re not told about what he died of, but it was probably messy, untidy and very possibly painful. And here’s Jesus dragging him back from the dead to go through it all again at some point!
But…we only find the Lazarus story in John’s Gospel, which might well have us on the lookout for the ever-present symbolism which John packs into every bit of his Gospel. And it isn’t called a miracle – it’s called a ‘sign’. Signs point to things, give us directions, or information. All the way through this gospel Jesus is offering us signs. The water into wine, feeding masses of people with almost no food, walking on water, the blind made to see, and now the ultimate – raising the dead.
John talks about signs rather than miracles, because the signs John gives us point to what he and his community believed Jesus was: the Word which became flesh announced right at the beginning of the Gospel, is indeed God. This has to be the truth, says John, look at all of these signs, look at Lazarus. Only God can have the power over death.
Martha, the practical one, the one who ‘does’ things, points out the earthly human problems of opening up the tomb (it’s been 4 days and the body stinks) while Mary, who sits at Jesus’ feet and doesn’t ‘do’ anything, just simply goes and kneels before him, waiting. Both say the same thing to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ But Martha adds the hope that Jesus is going to help fix the situation: ‘even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Martha already believes that Jesus is the Messiah, but Jesus leads her to a deeper faith. Mary is already there, she just waits and doesn’t ask for anything. Perhaps we, like Martha, do believe, but aren’t willing to let God give us a response at some unknown point in the future; and expect God to do something about our needs right now. Do we need to see a result before we can believe? I wonder.
The raising of Lazarus, like Jesus’ resurrection, isn’t about just the resuscitation of a corpse. Here, John is comparing the raising of Lazarus on a human level with the resurrection of Jesus which is on a cosmic level…. most definitely NOT simply the resuscitation of a dead person. With Lazarus, John shows the imperfection of being raised back into an earthly life – where one needs to go through the whole human process of dying again – compared to the resurrection perfection to come: being raised to new life, life with God for all eternity.
John’s Gospel never includes story details just for extra embroidery – there’s a reason for including them: here, to make the connection between both returns from the dead and, at the same time, to show their differences. Both men are buried in a cave. There’s a stone across Lazarus’ tomb which needs to be rolled away, just as there is in the garden where Jesus is buried. Both Lazarus and Jesus are wrapped up in grave clothing with cloths around their heads. The differences are that Lazarus comes out of his tomb still in his restricting grave clothing, but only Jesus’ linen wrappings are found. There’s no body to see in Jesus’ resurrection – the tomb is empty. The Lazarus story offers us the temporary example and the Jesus story the heavenly, eternal one. Lazarus would die again, but Jesus would triumph over death through his own resurrection.
I think that John’s Gospel is showing us that Lazarus has been raised to a new existence in a new life; coming to know Jesus as the resurrection and the life, just as Jesus was trying to explain to Martha. Jesus was asking Martha and everyone there to trust him, to go with him in faith into the unknown, feared territory of death. And, like the rest of Jesus’ followers after the crucifixion and resurrection, signs and wonders done by a physical Jesus had to be abandoned, replaced by faith in his being with them forever even though they couldn’t see or touch him.
There’s so much in this Gospel reading that it’s impossible to think of doing just one sermon about all of the massive amount of stuff it gives us. But perhaps just one of the keys to unlock the meaning of this story is in the final sentence: ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’ Because all of us, whatever our depth of faith – or not – or level of understanding and biblical knowledge – or not – need to be unbound.
Released from our limited human attempts to understand how God might work or where we might find God. To give up our compulsion and desire to know everything on an intellectual level and to let some things stay unexplained or unexplainable. To unwrap and then get rid of the fear of seeming vulnerable or weak if we need to ask others to help us and guide us, and take off the binding cloths which keep us in darkness. Where then is our belief, our faith. Do we cling to our need to know, or are we able to just wait in the unknowing – like Mary?
While Mark, Matthew and Luke’s Gospels lead people to acknowledge Jesus as the human Messiah, John’s language points to him as being divine – the Word was with God, the Word was God. And the Word was made flesh – John’s gospel assures us that Jesus is with God, Jesus is God. He calls each one of us individually and personally to come out from death to life. We have to choose for ourselves to hear him, and like Lazarus we have to come out of our own tombs and learn to live. To be released from whatever binds us, prevents us, from following him, the resurrection and the life.
Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.