Today is the Fifth Sunday in Lent and I’ve put all the readings and today’s collect at the bottom of this email, so please do make sure you scroll to the end. On your way to the end of the email, you’ll also find some notices after the reflection.
The Gospel is another long reading, so perhaps it might be best if we read it together and I’ll add in comments as we go.
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
Here is a touching scene. Lazarus is ill, seriously ill. His sisters - Mary and Martha - know Jesus well and are convinced that he can help. After all, he has healed people in the past and so the message is sent out: “Lord, he whom you love is ill”. Note how the sisters make sure Jesus knows who it is that is ill - it is the one ‘whom you love’. A message sent with anxiety and hope.
The message is received, and Jesus’ reaction is a hopeful one. This won’t lead to death, but to the glory of God and the Son of God. The disciples, who we must assume also know Lazarus, would have been heartened. Jesus will look after his own, his friends. Poor Lazarus will recover.
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Look how John the Gospel writer lays it on thick. Not only have we heard the sisters reminding Jesus that he loves their brother, but John reminds us that he loves the three siblings. And it is that very fact, the very fact of Jesus’ love for that troubled family, which makes the next verse perplexing. “So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”
Since we have heard of Jesus’ love for the family, and his comment that this illness does not lead to death, it is therefore something of a surprise that he then does precisely nothing: “he stayed two days longer in the place where he was”. Let there be no misunderstanding; it is because Jesus loved them that he remained for two days. This is the puzzle which leads us into the rest of the passage. Jesus has stated that this “illness does not lead to death” and, confident, has not rushed to the aid of friends that he loves, preferring to remain where he is.
When he finally announces that he will go south to Judea, brushing off the protests of the disciples that this might not be safe, he goes on to tell them that: “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe”.
I have laboured the point here because it is important to realise not only the skill of the gospel writer in building the story, but also the eye-catching behaviour of Jesus. He is very much a figure in control, acting on his own accord in order to make a point. And was glad that he was not with Lazarus when he died. And he did not get to Lazarus before he died, because he loved him.
Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
When Jesus does eventually make the journey to Bethany, he finds Lazarus four days dead and Martha coming out to meet him. She then speaks with a wonderful expression of her faith: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” It is never too late with the Lord, even if you wish he had acted rather sooner.
Jesus assures her that her brother will rise again, but she assumes Jesus is speaking about the resurrection which will happen at the last day. Yet a foretaste of that last day is already here since the one standing in front of her is God and so can bring about resurrection. “I am the resurrection and the life”, he says, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in shall never die”.
Jesus is the ‘life principle’, he is life and so can bring life even out of death.
Asked whether she believed his words, Martha replies: “yes Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”
Having been fetched by her sister, Mary goes out to meet Jesus, followed by those who were consoling her in her house. She falls at Jesus feet: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”. Was this whispered? Was this shouted? We don’t know, but she weeps along with those with her, and the full rawness of grief and death is laid bare.
When Jesus sees her anguish, and the weeping crowd around her, he is deeply moved. In fact, the Greek is even stronger. When we turn to the Greek dictionary, we find that Jesus makes a noise of “anger and displeasure” and is “stirred up, disturbed, unsettled, thrown into confusion”. Here is “the resurrection and the life” confronted by death and the tomb. “Where is he?” he asks. “Come and see” they respond. Then he weeps. The Messiah in tears. The Son of God with cheeks glistening in the Middle Eastern sun.
The crowds see Jesus’ love for Lazarus, but some can’t resist a dig. He can heal others, why didn’t he bother with Lazarus.
Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odour, for he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Once more Jesus is deeply moved, and he comes to the cave tomb in which his lifeless friend is lying. And then the shocking request: “take away the stone”. Martha is flabbergasted. Surely Jesus knows that the body will have begun to decay. There will be a stench. This is a man four days dead, sealed up in a stone cave.
Death may have taken hold, and decay might have commenced, but “the resurrection and the life” is standing in front of the tomb, seeking entrance. The stone is rolled away and the Son prays to the Father. “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” There is no need for these words, but Jesus wants the crowd to understand.
Right back at the beginning of this Gospel, the author has spoken of the ‘Word’ who was ‘in the beginning’. He told us that this ‘Word’ was God, and that everything was made though him. We were told “in him was life”.
This ‘Word’ now speaks life once more: “Lazarus, come out”. And he did. Still bound in his grave clothes, so that Jesus has to order him untied. And then John adds, almost as an understatement: “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him.”
And now you have also seen. You have seen the ‘Word’ who is God speak life into the corpse of a man four days dead. A man he loved. A man he called into life by name: “Lazarus, come out”.
And you are also one whom Jesus loves. Back towards the beginning of this Gospel we have those well worn words: “God so loved the world…”. Are you not part of the world? Then you too are one who is loved by God.
And you too are named. Hear the words of God as reported by the great prophet Isaiah: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” (Isaiah 43:1). And again:
“Can a woman forget her nursing child,
that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands… (Isaiah 49:15-16)
You are loved. By your name, Jesus calls you.
How will you respond?