Today’s Gospel lesson–the raising of Lazarus–is an odd text for All Saints Sunday. Here we are, remembering people who have died this year, including our beloved UCT members, AJ, Sue, and Laura. Others of us have lost children, siblings, fathers, mothers, nieces, uncles, teachers, friends, mentors. We have lost so many. And, so far as we have seen, Jesus hasn’t come traipsing around to raise our dead loved ones. What bright person thought hearing about someone else’s loved one being raised from the dead would be helpful for us as we grieve our loved ones who, no matter how much we wish for it, remain gone. Every. Single. Day?
I don’t know. Maybe the bright person knew something we don’t. Let’s spend some time with the story to see what good news it might hold for us, we who are grieving losses.
The story begins with Lazarus deathly ill. One imagines the sick man’s sisters, late at night, devastated, worried, but too bone-weary to cry. “It’s time, don’t you think?” “Time for what?” “Time to let Jesus know. He would want to know.” “But,” the other pauses to let the meaning of the words sink in. She continues, her voice taut with grief, “Does that mean we’re giving up?” “He’s very sick, Sister. Very sick.” The other brightens. “Jesus has healed so many sick people. Maybe he will heal Brother!” “I don’t know, Sister.” And for the first time, her voice cracks. “Lazarus is so ill. I don’t know if he can be healed. But he would want Jesus here. I want Jesus here. Don’t you?” They decide to send someone for Jesus first thing next morning.
When at last they arrive in town, Jesus and his disciples learn that Lazarus has been dead four days. When she hears that he is approaching, Martha runs to meet Jesus and greets him with: “Rabbi, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” Jesus says, “Your brother will rise again.” After their exchange, Martha runs to get Mary. Mary has been mourning back at the house with friends. Mary goes out to meet Jesus where Martha had left him, a few of the friends trailing along behind. “Rabbi, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Mary and her companions are weeping.
When Jesus sees their tears, he becomes “greatly disturbed” and begins to weep himself. He asks to see the tomb. “Come and see,” they say. Come and see for yourself that your beloved friend is dead.
When they show him the tomb, again he is “greatly disturbed.” He tells them to move the stone. Martha–every the practical one–comes running up: “Rabbi, already there is a tench because he has been dead four days.” Regardless of the hope she may have begun to feel at her friend’s presence, Martha knows what all of us who have lost someone know: no matter how peaceful or welcome the passing…no matter how much healing might come after a death…no matter how much a death might spur us to celebrate life…Always, always, always, the death of a loved one hurts…always, grief comes crashing down on us, as if to kill us, too. Martha knows what we all know: Loss stinks.
And so Martha tries to warn Jesus, “Rabbi, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days. Jesus responds: “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” Jesus knows about the stench, he knows loss stinks. But he also believes–even in the darkest, most painful moments of life–Jesus believes that God is still moving, still working with us to bring life out of death. And so, he prays to God, then cries: “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus does, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.
Can you imagine? Standing there, four days into your grief. Jesus comes…says to move the stone…tells Lazarus to come out. Maybe you’re thinking Jesus is crazy with grief. Maybe you’ve seen Jesus do so many other crazy things that you’d believe anything. But–even expecting anything–can you imagine a dead man walking out of a grave? Can you imagine being a dead man, all bound up, walking out of a tomb? Can you imagine?
The miraculous in this story is so miraculous, so super-natural, it’s easy to overlook the more mundane details in the story–Jesus’ tears, the grave clothes…the stench.
The book of John is full of what the author calls “signs.” Signs are real-life down-to- earth events that have spiritual meanings. Like a woman drawing H2O from a well and being told by Jesus about living water. Or like Nicodemus talking about physical birth and Jesus calling him to spiritual re-birth. Or like a man born blind regaining physical sight while Jesus calls the religious authorities to deeper spiritual insight. The whole book is like that–every thing, every event is a sign, a sign that points to a spiritual reality.
So, to what spiritual reality do the details of this story–Jesus’ tears, all those wrappings and the odor–point us? These three particular details are signs of just how devastating death is. “Come and see.” Come and see death for what it is. Jesus cries, perhaps not so much out of personal sadness, but out of a keen awareness of the gut-wrenching finality of death. And those wrappings…I mean, if Jesus can raise somebody from the dead, why can’t he dispense with the grave clothes at the same time? If the story were just about resurrection, surely those minor details could have been eliminated.
But this isn’t just a story about resurrection; those seemingly minor details are there to catch our attention. Jesus cries, the clothes are there, the stench is mentioned to point to the reality of death. Death is real. Death is sad. And, yes. I think we all can agree. Death stinks.
So, maybe this is an appropriate text for today. Maybe we who are so closely acquainted with the devastating realities of death can find in this story some connections to our own grief. But is that all this story offers us? Acquaintance with the reality of death and a resurrection event that none of us here has experienced?
There’s one more detail mentioned in this scene that just might hold some hope, some good news for us today. It’s Jesus’ last sentence. “Unbind him and let him go.” Okay. So, would you really have to tell people to get the wrappings off Lazarus? You see this man appear, he’s having trouble walking..maybe his face is still covered by one of the cloths. Don’t you want to help the man? Or at least make sure it really is Lazarus? Of course, maybe people were so stunned, they froze. Maybe Jesus’ instructions to unbind Lazarus is meant to snap the stunned folks back to the real world. Or maybe that statement of Jesus’ is also a sign. Maybe he’s saying that, as sad and devastating and stinky as death is, death is not the final word. Even in the midst of death, there can be hope, there can be freedom, there can be–odd though it sounds–new life.
That message–that death is not the final word–takes on even deeper meaning when you look at the raising of Lazarus in the larger context of John’s Gospel. Jesus raises Lazarus just before he enters Jerusalem, just before he himself dies. Lazarus’ death and resurrection are literary precursors to Jesus’ death and resurrection. But even within the story, Jesus seems very aware of the close connection between Lazarus and himself. So that, when Jesus points to death and resurrection as the site for God’s glory, he’s not only speaking about Lazarus; he’s also talking about himself.
So, what good news does this text hold for us on All Saints Sunday? The first thing it does, is it honors the reality of death; it doesn’t gloss over the hard parts of dying. The fact that this text takes death so seriously makes the good news of resurrection a bit more believable. What is resurrection, but a reminder that death is not the final word? What is resurrection, but a reminder that God is so much bigger than the finitude of human living? What is resurrection, but a reminder that we are not–ever–alone?
Resurrection. That scene where the dead man–not alive–comes shuffling out of the cave, all bound up in bandages, smelling like, well, death warmed-over–that’s a great image of resurrection. But there’s another picture of resurrection offered in John’s gospel that is perhaps even more powerful. A few verses after today’s story, John’s author tells us that a few days later they held a dinner party for Jesus at the home of Lazarus, “whom he had raised from the dead… Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.” Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. What better confirmation of resurrection than being present at the table for a meal and some fellowship?
In a minute, we’ll gather around the table with all these others whose memories we have resurrected today. Just as Lazarus was present with his loved ones at the table, so will our loved ones be present with us when we come to this table today. As you come to receive communion today, I invite you to bring your loved ones with you. Resurrect them by remembering details about them, by remembering your love for them–and theirs for you. Find nourishment today, not only from bread and juice, not only from Christ’s presence and God’s love, but also find nourishment from all the saints who’ve gone before–all your saints–those who taught you communion and with whom you shared communion…those in whom and through whom God became real to you. Come to this table…for yourself, for this community, for all the saints.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2003 (2022)