When Jesus heard that his friend Lazarus was gravely ill, the first thing he did was nothing.
To be fair: I don’t know exactly what it is I expect Jesus to do. Aren’t we all powerless in the face of death approaching? But still … nothing? Surely, he could have done something.
Jesus does tell his disciples “this sickness will not end in death, it is for God’s glory so that the son of God will be glorified through it.” But what kind of comfort are words like that? Who wants to face the worst day of their lives and hear “this is for God’s glory.” No one! And neither, I believe, would Mary and Martha, sitting at the bedside of their sick brother, getting weaker with every hour. “Where is Jesus? He should be here by now.” “Where is Jesus? He is slipping away.” “Where is Jesus? What good could he possibly be now, it’s already too late.”
Time to Go
After two days of nothing. Jesus suddenly decides it’s time to go. “Let’s go back to Judea,” he tells his disciples. “Let’s go see Lazarus and his sisters.”
But going to Judea is no small deal. Going to Judea is dangerous. “Last time we were in Judea,” says the disciples, “they tried to stone you. Every time we go to Judea the people get angrier. If we keep going back to Judea, death is inevitable.”
“But our friend Lazarus,” says Jesus, “has fallen asleep, and I have to go there to wake him up.”
“Hang on a second,” reply the disciples, “Jesus, if you think we’re going to walk for three and a half days, just so you can go tickle Lazarus’ feet you need to get your head checked. If he is asleep, let him stay asleep. Lazarus needs sleep to get better.”
But the disciples don’t get it. “Guys,” says Jesus, “I’m speaking metaphorically. Lazarus is dead.”
“Well, if Lazarus is dead,” protests the disciples, “surely it’s better to stay here where you are safe? And if Lazarus is dead, what can you possibly do? Nothing good can come from you dying too!”
“Fine,” says Thomas, as he reluctantly ties up his sandals, “I guess we’re all going to go with you, so that we can all die with you.”
Dead for 4 Days
Jesus shows up at the town and Lazarus has been dead for four days. Four days is important, because “four days” means Lazarus was really dead. We have stories from the ancient world of people being put into tombs and then waking up a day later. Cases of heartbeats so faint their families got it wrong. Four days tells us this is not one of those times.
Lazarus is really dead. Lazarus is as dead as a doornail. Do you know where that phrase comes from? It comes from the old practice of securing doors by hammering in a nail and then bending the nail and hammering in the other end too. A nail used like that cannot be used again. Four days in the tomb means Lazarus is as dead as a door nail. He is bent. He is broken. He is all used up.
Martha the Doer
Martha is the first one to come to Jesus. In the event of death, I imagine Martha as the doer. Martha is the one who does everything, answers the door, answers the phone, takes the casseroles, washes the dishes, talks with the funeral home, makes sure the eulogy gets in the paper. At other times Martha is scolded for being the doer, but when someone dies, we all thank God for our Marthas. Because we wouldn’t make it through without the Marthas.
As the do-er Martha is the one who goes out to greet Jesus. As the do-er Martha is the one to confront Jesus. “If you had been here,” she says, “my brother would not have died.” And as the do-er Martha still seeks a solution.“But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” As the do-er Martha still wants something to be done.
“Yes,” says Jesus, “look at me. I will be the solution. There’s something I can do.”
But Jesus, Lazarus is dead. What can anyone possibly do now?
Mary the Feeler
If Martha is the doer in the face of death, then Mary is the feeler. When Martha says, “Jesus is nearby,” Mary waves her hand and says, “You go on, I don’t want him to see me like this.” Mary stays home, John tells us. Mary slumps in her chair. Mary can’t stop crying. Mary doesn’t feel like eating. Mary is in a fog. Mary hasn’t washed her face for days.
Mary reminds me of my friend who, when she was diagnosed with cancer and put her bathrobe on and—night and day—didn’t take it off again for two weeks. Mary reminds me of my friend Anna who, when she had a miscarriage, sat on the back step of her house and bled and cried.
Mary is powerless, helpless in the face of death, because let’s face it we are all powerless in the face of death, what else can she possibly do.
Martha comes back to Mary and says these beautiful words. “Mary honey, the teacher is here, and he’s asking for you.” There is something about these words, something about this idea, that Jesus is here for her, and is asking for her, that all of a sudden fills her with the strength to get up out of that chair she has been in for four days and race out the door.
Perhaps, right now you feel like Mary? You have been under a fog for days, months, maybe even years. Then I want you to understand these words are also for you: “Jesus is here, and he’s asking for you.” I know it doesn’t wipe the hard feelings away, but perhaps these words, like they did for Mary, will give you enough strength to get up and run to him.
Mary runs to Jesus with the same words as her sister Martha: “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But unlike Martha, for Mary there is no discussion, there is nothing to be done, she merely blurts out those words, and falls to the ground and weeps all over his feet.
Jesus Is Angry at Death
When Jesus sees Mary weeping, and then looks up and sees a multitude of mourners weeping, do you know how Jesus feels? The Bible tells us how Jesus feels, do you want to know how he feels? Jesus felt … angry. I know the English Bible says he was “deeply moved in spirit” but the German Bible doesn’t translate it like that, because the Greek word John wrote here, embrimaomai, means to be deeply moved with anger, to be outraged, to roar with rage. When Jesus saw Mary weeping and all the people weeping, first of all he was angry.
When I think about this, of course he was angry. Because it is completely normal to feel angry in moments of grief. Haven’t you, also, when you have grieved, felt angry? Angry at the doctors, angry at the hospital, angry at the man who didn’t stop his car in time, angry at cancer, angry at heart disease, angry at Alzheimers, angry at miscarriage, angry at the person who left you, angry at being left behind, angry at the world, angry at death.
Angry at death is what Jesus was. Jesus wasn’t just looking at Mary’s wet face, or the crowd of blotchy teared up faces. Jesus was looking in that moment into the face of death, and he was angry. Angry, because he hated what he saw.
“Where have you laid him?” Jesus asks, in a rage. And they lead him to the tomb. At the sight of the tomb his rage collapses, in the way that anger so often does. His rage collapses like a wall of a dam giving way. His anger gives way to a flood of tears, and Jesus bawls his eyes out.
Some people say: “Look at how much he loved Lazarus!” Other people say: “Well why didn’t he get here earlier when there was still something he could have done.”
‘Roll Back the Stone’
Jesus arrives at the tomb.
Standing at the grave he feels that anger rising up in him all over again. Embrimaomai. Outrage. Greek people say embrimaomai is the sound that horses make when they are getting ready for war.
“Roll back the stone,” says Jesus.
“Jesus, we can’t do that.”
“Roll back the stone.”
“Jesus, You’re asking us to desecrate his grave.”
“Roll back the stone.”
“Jesus, it’s going to stink.”
“Roll back the stone.”
“Did we not tell you he’s been dead four days? He’s not only maybe dead. He’s decomposing.”
“Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?”
The crowd falls silent. A few guys reluctantly step forward and push that stone aside.
Jesus looks up to heaven and says: “Father, I thank you that you have heard me.I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
And Jesus looks down into the dark black hole that is the grave.
And everyone else peers down there with him.
And Jesus takes a deep breath.
And Jesus says: “Lazarus, come out!”
In fifth grade my school had an all-school talent show. My best friend Susie Sanders, decided for the talent show she would bring in her dog, and have her dog follow commands she had learnt. But Susie’s dog, when presented on stage before 270 children and dozens of adults, was hit by a special kind of dog stage fright, and so it didn’t matter what Susie asked that dog to do, the dog did nothing. “Pebbles, sit.” Nothing. “Pebbles come.” Nothing. “Pebbles, jump.” Nothing. “Pebbles, roll over.” Nothing.
So in a last ditch attempt to save the entire show she resorted to what she told us was her dog’s most amazing ability. “And now,” said Susie Sanders, “my dog is going to eat this grass!” (Only in fifth grade do you truly believe the best thing your dog can do is eat grass.) And Susie she unrolled her hand, and presented before us a handful of grass. “Pebbles, eat the grass.” Nothing. “Pebbles, eat the grass.” Nothing. “Eat the grass, Pebbles.” “Pebbles, eat the grass.” And forever etched into my mind when I think of Susie Sanders is her desperate, ridiculous, fruitless, command: “Eat the grass, eat the grass, eat the grass, eat the grass!”
“LAZARUS COME OUT!”
Lazarus Is Alive
Jump. Jump. Jump.
Jump. Jump. Jump.
No, can it really be?
Jump. Jump. Jump.
And there is Lazarus.
Lazarus. Bound at his hands and feet. With a cloth around his face, but you can see the cloth around his mouth going in and out. You can see him breathing.
Standing tall. Like a nail, unused.
Fresh as a baby, fresh as the new bud leaves of Spring.
“Undo the cloths,” says Jesus, “and take the man home.”
Men and women in the crowd that day, the people who had come from all over to comfort Mary in her grief, went back to their homes and—as John describes it—chose to believe in Jesus.
I can picture them, lying awake in bed thinking to themselves, Whoa, if Jesus could raise Lazarus from the dead … I mean, maybe he could raise me from the dead. Maybe he could raise my mom from the dead. Maybe he could raise my dad from the dead. Maybe he could raise my brother from the dead. Maybe he could raise my friend from the dead. Maybe he could raise my baby from the dead. If Jesus could conquer death for this one man, maybe he could conquer death for us all.
And you know what?
If they were thinking like that, they were right.
Alison Gerber is the former pastor of Second Congregational Church in Peabody MA, now a PhD in Preaching student at Truett Seminary/Baylor University in Waco TX.