Musings on Scripture

– and what isn’t always said

Lent 5 A

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

John 11:1-45

1A certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

7Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ 8The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, but you are going there again?’ 9Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world, 10but those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ 11After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ 12The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ 16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’

17When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died; 22but even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ 23Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ 24Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ 25Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ 27She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’

28When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ 29When she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ 37But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’

38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ 40Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’ 45Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

Ah, Lazarus! We named one of my cars ‘Lazarus’ because it kept coming back from the dead, first after a certain learner driver ploughed into a stone gate post and later when I had the distinction of hitting two kangaroos at once on the Nullarbor Plain. The mechanics and repair people did a wonderful job in both cases.

Here, of course, we have a story about a man who was restored to physical life by the words of Christ and the actions of God. Jesus would have known, before he received the deputation from Martha and Mary, that Lazarus was about to die, but the timing of His return to Bethany was not right for raising someone who would have been acknowledged as really dead, rather than in what we could call a coma. The chance to raise someone from the dead for the glory of God was not to be missed, but to achieve that He had to wait a little longer. God’s timing and ours don’t always match.

Even at this stage Jesus is not afraid of going into hostile territory. John’s favourite phrase “The Jews”, meaning the Jewish authorities who were keen to protect their own skins and get this upstart out of the way, had been finding issues which irked them and their collective temper was getting a bit too hot. Even so, Jesus tells His disciples that they should go into this enemy compound, to visit Mary and Martha. I have pity for the disciples as they are frequently portrayed in the fourth gospel. If we’re in the same house and say that someone has fallen asleep, it’s very likely that we’re talking about restorative rest as we (hopefully) get each night, but if we make the same statement when we’re a long way from home it’s likely to be interpreted as referring to permanent sleep, i.e. death. Our poor disciples needed that explaining, as they seem to need everything explaining on their journey with Christ. Thomas has to have the worst rating of all, suggesting that they too should die just because Lazarus has died.

So the group arrived at Bethany, and Jesus finds that Lazarus has been dead for four days. It’s important to realise that the Jewish people believed that the soul left the body after three days, so there was no hope of being brought back to life. Stop the press! Has anyone done some arithmetic here? Jesus waiting two days before heading to Bethany, but by the time He got there Lazarus had been dead four days, so even if He had left immediately Lazarus would have been dead before He arrived.

We could allow Martha the right to say “if you had been here Lazarus wouldn’t have died” in the sense that had He been in Bethany when Lazarus became sick He would have cured the sickness, but many people think that she was critical of the delayed travel. That might not be fair to her. There are eight “I AM” statements in John’s gospel, of which His claim to be “the resurrection” is the sixth, but Martha thinks only of the resurrection as what scripture told her would happen “at the last day” when we all face God. Did she get the message properly when Christ explained things to her, or later? Her affirmation of Christ as the Messiah, however, comes a long time before Peter made a similar statement. Then Mary came to Jesus, with the same response as her sister, not understanding what was about to happen.

Stop the presses again! John 11:35 is famous for being the shortest verse in the Bible, based on the translation in the King James Version, which says “Jesus wept.” That’s a somewhat reasonable translation of the Greek word εδακρυσεν (edakrusen). The NRSV translation “Jesus began to weep” is, to me, as weak as dishwater because the Greek verb really means “to ball one’s eyes out.” No wonder those around commented that He must have loved Lazarus a great deal. If anyone tells you that men don’t cry we can refer to this verse and say that Jesus was a blubbering mess, so yes, men do cry, and should.

Even as the group approached the tomb, the focus of the bystanders was still on what they fully expected regarding someone who had been dead for so long. Decaying flesh has an awful smell to it, but Jesus was not bothered because He knew what has about to happen. Lazarus walks out of the tomb, still wrapped in burial cloths, and those gathered round believed in Christ because of what they had seen, and hopefully heard. Are we dependent on seeing God’s work to believe in Him? Do we fail to see God’s helping hand at work in our lives because we are looking for the wrong thing? I think we’re all guilty of that.

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