We’re all cooped up in our homes, loving our neighbors by keeping six feet away and not gathering with anybody we don’t live with. But whether our churches are streaming their services (in otherwise empty sanctuaries) or whether our congregations are simply not meeting for the next while, we need to draw near to God, and we need to connect with the community of faith. That’s what these meditations are for.
For many, the fact that their churches use the Revised Common Lectionary brings a sense of connection with Christians in other churches, other denominations, and other regions. And within some congregations, knowing that the sermon will be on a text from the lectionary gives members a chance to spend time in Scripture in the week before. I offer my Monday Meditations in the spirit of those kinds of unity. Even if you can’t go to worship, spend time in the text that would have been read and preached on this Sunday. I hope it helps in this dark time.
On Lent 5 the Revised Common Lectionary gives us the last of its four great encounters with Jesus from the Gospel of John. Each one has been longer than the last, making for a different kind of engagement with the text than most Sunday Gospels. This time it is John 11:1-45, the raising of Lazarus. (By the way, if you’d like to see my children’s sermon on this text, you’ll find it through this link.)
There is much more action in this than the previous encounter stories.
- Jesus and his disciples are out in the wilderness, 20 miles from Jerusalem across the Jordan.
- A messenger arrives saying Jesus’ friend Lazarus is ill — would he please come?
- Jesus stays where he is for two more days.
- Finally they make the long trek to Bethany, two miles outside Jerusalem. It had to be at least one full day’s hike.
- Martha meets him with the news: Lazarus is dead. If Jesus had only come in time! They talk about the resurrection.
- Mary meets him, and repeats the accusing message. Lazarus is dead. If Jesus had only come in time!
- Jesus shows deep feeling at their grief.
- But he has a surprise in store. Jesus has them open the tomb, calls for the dead man to come out.
- And out comes Lazarus! He’s risen from the dead at Jesus’ command.
- Many who saw came to believe in Jesus.
Along the way there are a few really remarkable moments. Some are commonly noted. Some less so. But I’m meditating on three of them this week, and wanted to share them with you.
1. The Time Line and the Implications
I’ve always heard this story through Martha and Mary’s grief. Each of them approaches Jesus with the same accusation:
Martha said to Jesus,
‘Lord, if you had been here,
my brother would not have died.‘” (John 11:21 NRSV)
When 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.’“ (John 11:32 NRSV
Of course I’ve assumed their accusation was correct. And it makes sense: Jesus basically healed everybody, so if he had been there he surely would have healed Lazarus. He wouldn’t have died. Right?
But this week I’ve been thinking about the timeline. Here it is with the most conservative estimates for travel:
Day 1: Mary and Martha send a messenger to say Lazarus was sick. He was at least 20 miles away, across the Jordan. At a minimum the messenger traveled a day to reach him.
Day 2: The message reaches Jesus.
Days 3 and 4: Jesus lollygags before leaving for Bethany.
Day 5: Jesus arrives — if he did a full 20 miles in one day.
But what does Martha say when Jesus wants to open the tomb?
Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him,
‘Lord, already there is a stench
because he has been dead for four days.’” (John 11:39 NRSV)
So what does that mean? By the timeline defined in the passage, Lazarus was already dead when Jesus got the message.
Even if Jesus had left the second he heard of Lazarus’ illness, Jesus could not have gotten there to save him. This had never occurred to me before.
The observation prompts two thoughts.
Jesus Allows Suffering
First, for Jesus to have kept Lazarus from dying, out of love for Mary and Martha he would have had to stay in Bethany at all times. Their desire to have their brother live is natural. But had they asked Jesus to stay in their home town, all the time, so that their dear brother would never fall ill and die, it would be a problem.
The amazing feature of Jesus’ healing ministry (especially, I find, in Mark) is that he heals everybody who comes to him.
And they come in droves. Every time word spreads that Jesus is around, a crowd comes to him with all kinds of problems that need healing. He serves the people, heals their many ills — and is constantly on the move, sometimes quite explicitly trying to get away from the people who so eagerly seek his healing.
But when I think about it, Jesus was always just in one place at a time. He made a point of moving from place to place, to help more and more people.
There were always lots of places where Jesus was not present.
- People got sick — even when Jesus was doing his earthly ministry..
- People died — even when Jesus was around in the flesh.
And so it is today. In our grief, or our deep and urgent anxiety, “Lord, if you’d only been here those thousands would not have died. If you’d only been here, we wouldn’t be in the hospital, or quarantine, or isolation, or sheltering in place.”
Jesus is here. He does still heal. But even more obviously than on the pages of the Gospel, Jesus also allows people to die — people he loves very much.
We don’t get to keep Jesus at home as our private healer of ills.
We do recover from a zillion ailments thanks to the miraculous way he made our immune systems, the miraculous advances of science and medicine, and also the miraculous touch of Christ in answer to prayer.
But we remain mortal. We do get sick, and have accidents, and suffer violence. We do die, eventually, no matter how many times Jesus heals us.
As all those people in the Gospels whom Jesus healed did eventually die — Lazarus included.
It is a strange comfort, but to me it is a comfort. My illness, eventually my death, does not indicate the lack of care or lack of power of my Lord. It’s the nature of the life he gave me.
Jesus Chooses Compassion
Second, Jesus chose compassion over being right. Jesus knew Lazarus had died before he started his journey (see 11:14). He knew it when Martha chastised him. He knew it when Mary chastised him. He knew it when Martha told him her brother had been in the tomb for four days already.
But Jesus didn’t point out this truth.
Instead, he chose compassion.
As it says in the shortest verse of the Bible,
Jesus wept.” (John 11:35 KJV)
Or in the more loquacious NRSV,
Jesus began to weep.”
A whole lot of arguments in a whole lot of families would end if we took Jesus’ approach.
No need to point out how wrong this other person is.
Just show compassion.
As Paul put it,
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15 NRSV)
Of course if we did it consistently the whole internet might rust and come to a grinding halt.
2. Resurrection and Life
Briefly I note the delightful “I am” saying at the heart of this passage:
I am the resurrection and the life.” (John 11:25 NRSV)
Thus Jesus spoke to grieving Martha, as if it would comfort her.
Thus Jesus proved by calling into a tomb and raising Martha’s dead brother Lazarus.
The whole story illustrates this truth well in advance of Jesus’ own resurrection. Jesus is the lord of life, the one who IS life, whose presence IS resurrection.
Whenever we draw near to him, what we experience is a hint of the resurrection life.
We won’t know it whole until after ordinary life is over. But walking with him day by day we know it more and more.
3. Alive, but Bound
I close with an observation made in a sermon long ago by my then pastor, the late Bruce Larson. Bruce pointed out that while Jesus word raised Lazarus from death to life, he came out still wrapped up in the trappings of death.
The dead man came out,
his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth,
and his face wrapped in a cloth.
Jesus said to them,
and let him go.’” (John 11:44 NRSV)
Notice what the community’s job was? They had to remove all that death from him.
Each of us in baptism and faith is raised to new life in Christ. The trouble is, we don’t really feel it all the time. Frankly it doesn’t really show all the time.
To each of us, about the others of us, Jesus says, “Unbind them and let them go!”
It is our good and holy work to help others out of their death shrouds, to bring to full flourishing what has secretly begun to breath and pulse with his own life.
We have to help each other live that resurrection life — to “practice resurrection” as Eugene Peterson put it. We need to love each other past our brokenness, hang in with each other past our addictions and obsessions, join with each other in the journey of the recreation of Christ’s image in us.
That’s the work of a friendship, a marriage, a church. We all need it. We’re all called to it.
So let’s go unbind somebody.
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