John 11:38 -54 Raising Lazarus
Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast June 7, 2007
Craig D. Atwood
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week for you and that you enjoyed Memorial Day weekend. Madeleine and I spent the day at the zoo. I think it was the most crowded I’ve ever seen it, but everyone was pleasant despite the heat. Everyone except one particular goose that bit me at lunch, that is. The big event coming up here at Home Church is that several of our youth are heading to Mississippi in three weeks to join in the massive rebuilding campaign. Please include them in your prayers.
Today we finally reach the conclusion of the story of Lazarus. This is the last miracle Jesus performs in the Gospel of John – other than his own resurrection. By the time Jesus and the disciples arrive in Bethany, the mourners have gathered and the tomb has been sealed. Last week we discussed Jesus’ teaching on the resurrection. This week we pick the story up at verse 38.
Lazarus in the Tomb Lazarus has been dead for four days. According to Jewish folklore, the soul hung around for three days after death in hopes of re-entering the body. After three days, the person is truly dead and must await the resurrection. The soul rests in Sheol until the final judgment. So, everyone knows that Lazarus is completely dead. When Jesus calls for the tomb to be opened, Martha rightly protests. She and the others probably thought that Jesus wanted to go in and see his friend and mourn by the body. As we saw last week, Jesus was visibly upset by the death of Lazarus, and a natural reaction would be to run in to see the body. Martha is concerned about propriety and embarrassment before the assembled mourners. Opening the tomb would be a great breach of etiquette because of the smell. I grew up on the KJV of the Bible, which says “Lord, by this time he stinketh, for he hath been dead four days.” We always wondered if anyone would get John 11:39 as a confirmation text. This is a reminder that the original text of the Bible is generally more earthy than modern translations.
Martha was bluntly stating an unpleasant fact. If you open the tomb, it is going to smell very bad because Lazarus’ body was already decaying. Her comment presses home the physical realities of death and the reason we distance ourselves from it. Like lepers, the dead were unclean. Priests were not allowed to come into contact with a dead body. Those who touched the dead were not allowed to enter the sacred grounds of the Temple. This was not just a Jewish thing. The Romans built cemeteries outside the city. They were called Necropolises, the cities of the dead. In India, the lowest caste cares for the dead. Even in modern America, we tend to treat mortuary workers different from other workers.
This story of Lazarus touches on some of our deepest fears and anxieties. Buried in our consciousness are stories of ghosts and ghouls and undead things that haunt the tombs. I once took my Moravian Experience class to visit the God’s Acre. One of the students from China was very frightened about going among the dead. I reassured her that those buried in God’s Acre are in heaven and are too happy to bother the living. Martha, Mary, and the others did have that assurance. We can feel their anxiety as Jesus approaches the tomb and orders the rock to be moved away. “But, Lord, don’t,” we cry out with them. We don’t want to see Lazarus after so long in the tomb. We expect it to be like a bad horror movie.
The Glory of God Jesus does not give in to Martha. He tells her that she will see the glory of God if she just believes. Does this mean that the raising of Lazarus depended on Martha’s belief? Is Jesus saying that she is in control of this miracle? Many have thought so and have even attempted to raise dead loved ones through the power of their own belief, but I don’t think that is what this verse says. The focus is on Martha’s ability to see what is happening. If she believes, she will stand beside Jesus rather than running away from the bad things she is expecting. If she believes she will be a witness to a great miracle. She will see it as the sign it is. Martha will see with eyes of faith and know that this is a foretaste of the great rising day when justice will be restored on earth and mercy will flow like streams of water. If she believes, Martha will witness the glory of God in a way that will transform her life. Why fear death if death is not the final answer? Martha here learns the lesson Paul learned: “O Death, where is thy sting?”
They removed the stone. This is one of those minor verses in the Bible that shows us the authority Jesus had in his earthly life. Why would anyone obey the command to remove the stone? Jesus was not the head of the family, nor was he a village elder, nor the local rabbi. What he was calling for was shocking and offensive. But Jesus commanded enough respect from the people that they did as he told them. We don’t know what the men expected when they removed the stone, but we can visualize the crowds gathering like vultures. Some were curious, some were hopeful, and others were eager for a chance to ridicule this controversial prophet.
Prayer Then there is a pause in the action. Jesus looked up and prayed. This is the traditional way to pray, by the way. Standing and looking to heaven with hands lifted up. The practice of kneeling in prayer with head bowed developed in the Middle Ages because that was the way peasants had to address their rulers. They were to be humble and subservient, cap in hand, not looking up. But Jesus looks up to heaven and prays aloud to the Father. This is the first time in the gospel that Jesus addresses God directly as Father. This is a little surprising. In the other gospels, all of Jesus’ prayers were addressed to “Father.” One of the things that even the most skeptical historians can agree on is that Jesus prayed to God as Father, most likely using the Aramaic term “Abba,” or Papa. Here, the prayer is in Greek, so it is simply “Father.” We have seen in John’s Gospel, though, that the use of the word Father meant that Jesus was the Son.
What is unusual about this prayer here in John is that there is so little of it. It is a prayer of thanksgiving that the Father has heard Jesus, but the evangelist did not record Jesus’ request of the Father. There is no prayer of intercession or petition. Now, it is quite likely that Jesus was in prayer frequently during the period of time that it took for him to arrive in Bethany. It is just as likely that Jesus prayed silently as many of us do. Perhaps the most likely thing in the context of the gospel is that the evangelist believed that Jesus was always in communion with God. The Son and the Father were so united that normal, verbal prayer was unnecessary. Jesus knew before the stone was removed that his prayer for Lazarus was answered. The miracle was already occurring before the stone was rolled away. It was time for thanksgiving.
So, why did Jesus pray at all? The text says that it was for the sake of the people. By lifting his eyes to heaven, Jesus was lifting everyone’s eyes away from the tomb and toward God. The prayer was a reminder to all that Jesus was the agent of God’s will. People think that faith is some kind of power that people possess, like muscular power or mental power. If I believe hard enough I can make things happen, but the biblical view of faith is that it is trust in God and God’s will. The faithful are those who do what God has asked them do to the best of their ability. Jesus’ prayer was a lesson in faith for the crowds and for the reader. Lazarus would emerge from the tomb at the command of Jesus only because that was the will of the Father. The power and authority that Jesus has comes from the Father; he does not raise Lazarus on his own.
Lazarus Rising We do not get to see what happens in the tomb. The process of Lazarus’ rebirth was as mysterious as the process of his birth. What the evangelist tells us is that Jesus calls to him and he answers. This scene is almost breathtaking in its brevity. “Lazarus, come out!” We can see why this story was placed right after the long discourse on the Good Shepherd: “My sheep hear my voice, and they answer.” Lazarus has heard the voice of his shepherd calling him by name as he slept in the tomb. Lazarus hears and responds. Lazarus obeys the summons to leave the darkness, to leave the city of the dead, and join the living. Come out!
There are so many possibilities for sermons here precisely because the scene is so tantalizingly brief. We can shift the perspective and focus our imagination on Lazarus himself. He is bound and in the darkness. Think of the fear he would have felt, the confusion as he awakened. How easy it would be to stay where he was, to slip back into sleep, to turn toward the wall and remain among the dead. “Lazaraus, Come Out!” There is a beautiful scene in Lord of the Rings when the king heals a heroine who has been overcome by the Black Breath. It was Tolkien’s description of deep depression. As the heroine wondered in fevered dreams of despair and doubt, she heard the voice of the king calling to her, drawing her back to the land of the living, restoring her to the light. We can imagine the struggle Lazarus faced as he heard the voice of the King calling his name.
This is consistent with the rest of the Gospel. Those whom Jesus heals in the Gospel of John must choose to follow the shepherd. They must respond. Jesus insists that they enter the world of the living and take responsibility for their own lives. Being a sheep of Jesus is an active role in John’s Gospel. Jesus does not enter the tomb to drag Lazarus out. He calls to him and Lazarus must respond. This is what faith is all about.
Yet, it is not enough that Lazarus steps out of the tomb. He is still bound by his shroud. His face is still covered. He emerges from the tomb, but he is not yet free. Death still clings to him until others come to his aid, to release him completely. This is one of those details that is so vivid, it seems unlikely that John would have made it up. We would expect that Martha would indeed see “the glory of God;” that Lazarus would emerge in a blinding light, fully restored, shouting praises to God. That is the way Hollywood portrays miraculous resurrections: Lights, music, maybe an earthquake. But no. Lazarus stumbles out of the darkness, still bound by his grave clothes until others reach out to him. The lost sheep has to be helped back into the fold. John’s Gospel gives no support for the idea that salvation is just an individual thing. Lazarus needs others to complete his transformation into life, just as we need others to unbind us and remove our masks. Jesus calls to us, and says “Come out!”
Opposition If this was a Hollywood script, the story would end here, but John’s gospel is more true to life than Hollywood. On the surface we might expect that everyone would rejoice at the sight of the dead man walking, but many people responded with fear. This was more shocking than when Tom Sawyer showed up at his own funeral, having heard all the nice things people said about him. That was just embarrassing for everyone. Here people saw Lazarus return from the grave. Just think of the legal issues alone. Do you have to give back the cup that he left you in the will?
The sad truth is that we generally prefer the dead to stay dead; the deaf to stay deaf; the blind to stay blind; the poor to stay poor. We don’t know how to react when the accustomed order is challenged – when radical life appears in the midst of our gray existence. The Pharisees may have had a particular reason to be angry about the raising of Lazarus, by the way. The dead were unclean and made others unclean. There was no provision in the law for a dead man to leave his tomb and rejoin his family. Lazarus was alive, but was he clean? The Pharisees called for a meeting of the Sanhedrin to deal with this threat.
Sanhedrin The Sanhedrin was the main governing body for Judea, and was led by the high priest. The Roman Empire, like all successful empires, preferred to use local government to handle the day to day affairs of the regions they controlled. The Empires’ main concern was to keep peace and preserve the property rights of those in power. It is not at all surprising that the Sanhedrin would worry that a prophet like Jesus might cause an insurrection. He might tell people not to pay taxes to Caesar. He might insist on following the laws of God rather than the rules of Rome. His presence could inspire the poor and neglected to rise up and demand better treatment. If this wandering prophet and miracle worker could raise the dead, he could inspire thousands to risk death in an insurrection. If word of this miracle spread to those who lived in fear; they might throw off their chains.
The synoptic gospels often refer to the Priests and Scribes, but John calls them the priests and Pharisees. That probably reflects the later bitter conflict between Christians and Pharisees, but John was not wrong. Though the Pharisees were not the most powerful party, most of the scribes on the Sanhedrin were members of the Pharisee party. The Pharisees supported the great Jewish rebellion in 66 AD, but they were not ready to rebel against the Empire in 30 AD. The council knew all too well what happened to those who opposed Rome. The Romans razed the great city of Carthage to the ground and sowed the land with salt so that no crops would grow. As one ancient writer put it, Rome created a desert and called it peace.
Caiaphas The text states that Caiaphas was the high priest that year. Many scholars think that this also displays John’s ignorance since it implies that the office of high priest was only for a year. In fact, the high priest served for life. But we should not dismiss John’s statement too easily. Caiaphas did not serve his whole life. He was later removed from office by Pontius Pilate. John may have been reminding the reader that the high priest ruled only as long as the Romans allowed him to. It is even more likely that John was not saying that Caiaphas was the high priest for only that year; he was saying he was the high priest in the fateful year that Jesus was executed. John is focusing attention on the particular year because it is so important.
John says that it was Caiaphas who suggested that it is better for one person to die than for the nation to be wiped out by the Romans. “For the sake of the nation, this Jesus must die.” This is the kind of calculation rulers often make. Would you kill a single person if it would guarantee the survival of others? Most of us would say “yes,” but the answer is rarely that simple. Was Caiaphas trying to save the nation or simply saving his own status, property, and authority? Would Caiaphas have been willing to sacrifice his own life for the sake of the nation? The calculus of life and death is much easier when it is someone else who will die. It is easy for Americans to sacrifice African lives so we may eat well and drive large cars.
Sacrifice The evangelist highlights the ironic truth in what Caiaphas said. Indeed, Jesus would die for the nation, but not like Caiaphas thought. Jesus would lay himself down as the bridge for redemption and eternal life. But the salvation Jesus offers is not the security that Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin were looking for. Jerusalem, the Temple, and the priesthood would still be destroyed in the end. In the story of the raising of Lazarus, the priests and the scribes saw life, but they turned away to embrace death. They saw the power of God to do a new thing, but they wanted merely to preserve what they had. Rather than rejoicing, their thoughts turned to murder. In the end, by refusing a new birth and a new life, they lost all they had.