If you look at a full moon when it’s rising, sometimes it looks much closer and larger than usual. The curvature of the earth at the horizon seems to magnify it, and it may look yellowish or have a tinge of orange as its light is filtered through layers of moisture or dust or pollution in the atmosphere. If you see it rise during the day, it may look illusory and distant, a faded disc projected against a fathomless blue sky. If you see the full moon through a telescope, you suddenly see it as a world in its own right and not merely as Earth’s bright companion. You see its long story spelled out in craters and mountain ridges. Sharp outcroppings of rock hint at moments of violent upheaval and plains of dust speak of eons of silence and solitude. But if you are holding the hand of someone you love as you watch the full moon rise, it looks like a different thing altogether. It becomes a benevolent entity from heaven full or romance, mystery, and poetry riding across the field of stars just for you and your love.
Sometime reading the scriptures is like looking at the moon. So much of what you see depends on where you stand, who your reading companions are, what clouds you’re looking through and what lenses are clarifying or distorting your understanding, and what you’re looking for to begin with.
I read two very well written and well-reasoned articles by noted scholars earlier this week that helped me see this familiar story of the raising of Lazarus in a new way. These articles made a strong case that Lazarus was the actual author of the Gospel we know as John. That idea has had me reading this week’s gospel in a different light, reading it as if it might be a memoir.
One of the things you notice when reading John is that for much of the gospel Jesus seems to be slightly aloof or distant. As one scholar puts it, he seems to be walking two feet above the ground. But when you get to chapter 11, suddenly everything is very down to earth and the emotions come spilling out. This chapter has all the feels. It’s not hard to imagine that this is Lazarus telling his own story.
The story starts out with a certain distance, but it quickly becomes more immediate, more personal, more emotional. The disciples were fearful about returning the Judea because they knew that there was a certain contingency among the Jewish elders who wanted to find a way to eliminate Jesus. When Thomas says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” it feels a bit like nervous bravado.
We’re told that Lazarus has already been in the tomb for four days when Jesus finally arrives. The Jews believed that the spirit stayed near the body for three days after death. This is a way of telling us that Lazarus was well and truly dead. This will be reinforced toward the end of the story when Jesus asks them to remove the stone that sealed the tomb. Martha says, “Lord, there is already a stench because he’s been in there for four days!” I love the way the King James version puts this: “Lord, he stinketh!”
When Martha runs out to meet Jesus, the first thing she says to him sounds almost like an accusation: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Mary will say the same thing to him just a few verses later.
How many times have we felt that way?
Where were you, Jesus? Why weren’t you here when life was falling apart, when worse came to worst and everything went to hell in a handbasket? What was so important that you couldn’t be here when we needed you most? What kind of friend are you?
When we are grieving, the littlest thing can trigger us to spill our pain all over everyone around us, especially on those closest to us.
“Jesus,” said Martha, “if you had been here my brother would not have died.” But then she catches herself. She takes a breath and says, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Martha is hinting very broadly that she expects him to do something. God will give you whatever you ask… so ask already! That’s what’s hanging in the air.
But Jesus is reluctant. “Your brother will rise again,” he says. And it feels like he would maybe have preferred for things to stop right there. It feels like he’s reluctant to say or promise anything more, as if he’s hesitant to promise any immediate relief for their grief.
Martha hears his reluctance but prods him further: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” I know he’ll rise again. Eventually. Everybody knows that. But her unspoken question is still hanging in the air: I know he will rise again on the last day, but what are you going to do right now?” And haven’t we all felt like that, too, when we’ve lost someone we love?
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
It’s important to say a word here about what it means to believe. In our world, in our time, we often use the word believe as a synonym for think. It tends to be a cerebral word for us. But in their world and their time, it was a much more visceral word. You believed things in your guts, not in your head. The essential meaning was trust. Jesus is saying, “Those who trust me to the depths of their guts, even if they die, they will still live, and those who live with that kind of trust in me will never die.” And then he asks Martha, “Do you have that kind of visceral faith and trust in me?”
When Martha says, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one coming into the world,” what she is saying is not, “Yes, I intellectually accept the idea that you have a unique relationship with God.” What she is saying is, “Yes, I trust to the depth of my very being that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one we’ve waited for throughout all of history. That understanding of who you are, Jesus, is part of who I am. It flows in my veins.”
When Mary came out to meet Jesus, she fell at his feet. The NRSV says she knelt at his feet, but the Greek text is more emotional and expressive than that. It says she fell at his feet. Her grief is so acute that she collapses at his feet. And she echoes Martha’s words. If you had been here, my brother would not have died.
Jesus sees her weeping. Jesus sees the people who came with her weeping. And he gets caught up in their pain. The Greek text says that he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly distressed. He was agitated. He was a wreck. He asked them where they had laid his friend to rest. And then he began to weep.
Jesus wept. Jesus wept because he loved his friend and felt the pain of his death. Jesus wept for Mary and Martha’s pain and the grief of everyone around him. Jesus wept for all the pain and loss we experience in the world. Jesus wept out of frustration. Jesus wept because he knew that restoring Lazarus to life would be the thing that would set his own painful death in motion.
When Jesus came to the tomb he was greatly agitated and disturbed. The Greek word that’s used here, embriómenos, indicates an emotional mix of deep frustration and anger. It’s another one of those deeply visceral words.
Jesus was angry at death. Jesus was angry at loss and pain.
He told them to take away the stone that sealed the tomb and then he prayed in a way that allowed those around him to listen in on his conversation with the Father. “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I know 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.”
When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” Lazarus 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.”
“I am the resurrection and the life,” said Jesus. We tend to put the emphasis on resurrection, but the real promise is life. Life in all its fullness. Life eternal.
“In him was life, and that life was the light of all humanity.” (1:4) Jesus, the light of the world, called Lazarus out of the darkness of death and into the light of life. In chapter 10, the chapter that leads into this story, Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” Lazarus heard the voice of the Good Shepherd and followed him out of death into life.
When we weep, Jesus weeps with us. But weeping is not the end of the story. Ever. The Good shepherd calls us out of death and into life in all its fullness.