A young woman was riding on the subway with a man whom I presumed was her priest; beneath his jacket, I could see a clerical collar. All I heard was the young woman say, “Why not get rid of the cross?” I heard it as a theological question, but they were probably just planning where the furniture should be for the Holy Week youth service. What an interesting question, I thought. It is interesting because a lot of people might find Christianity without a cross more appealing, for a variety of possible reasons. First, some might say, get rid of the cross because it is an antique symbol of violence, and children should be protected from it. Second, with no cross, that other stumbling block goes, the resurrection of Christ. If there is no dead Jesus there is no need for a risen one. And third, with no cross and no resurrected Christ we could do away with the Trinity. Christianity would suddenly become a lot simpler. Here is the drawback: there would be little it could offer those in need. There would be no place for a God who raises us from the dead.
Our beautiful text today is what some people might prefer, a resurrection story without the cross. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. It is such a powerful and wonderful story. It is the seventh and final miracle of Jesus in John. The number seven in John is important, seven is days of creation and symbolizes completion. And here the seventh miracle is the completion of the identity of Jesus, in Martha’s words, as “the Messiah, the Son of God.”
The story has its problems. Jesus is teaching in the countryside on the far side of the Jordan River, four day’s journey from Bethany, when a messenger comes running toward him from Mary and Martha, all out of breath, “The one whom you love is ill.” The reference is to Lazarus, Mary and Martha’s brother and Jesus’s friend. They have sent to him because the illness is serious and they know about Jesus’s six previous miracles. They expect him to do something quick. It will take him four days to get there. Still, something about this request is strange to Jesus, he says something that does not seem to make logical sense, “This illness does not lead to death, rather it is for the glory of God.” Did he have a prior vision of this moment? In any case, he recognizes God’s hand is involved and he delays going.
That is the problem. Mary and Martha have faith in him. They call him in time to help. He seems to betray their faith. Their friendship seems to make no difference. He ignores the urgency. He waits for two more days and then he pronounces that Lazarus is dead. He waits for Lazarus to die before he goes. His reason: the glory of God.
Our voices join with Mary and Martha: What glory is there for you, O God, in my loved one dying and you not coming? If you are not going to be there when we need you, how can we count on you? How can we trust in you O God if you seem to have so little regard for us?
No one expected Ellen to die before her husband, Richard. Richard had been in a wheelchair for over a decade since his stroke and Ellen cared for him through several major health scares since then. They expected him to die first. They even planned his funeral with their minister. Last fall, Ellen suddenly collapsed after breakfast and she died before the ambulance arrived. Richard blames God. They were devout Christians, and felt that if they did right, God would protect them. What glory is there for you, O God, when bad things happen? Can we trust a God who works miracles for some people like Lazarus and not for us?
When Jesus delayed he said, “It is for God’s glory.” He was not callous or unfeeling. Jesus is deeply, profoundly moved when he arrives in Bethany and sees how total is the grief of Mary and Martha and their friends and relatives. Jesus wept. That is the shortest verse in the King James Bible: John 11:35, Jesus wept. He wept for his friends. Even knowing that this situation was God’s will, he wept for his role in their pain, that his delay aggravated their pain, that he was not even there for the funeral. He wept for the sorrow not just of this group of people, but out of sorrow for all of those who live in darkness. He wept for the world.
Did he weep for himself also, in sudden recognition of his own approaching death, that in a week or so their tears would be for him? In the cry offered by both Mary and Martha, “Lord, if you had been here…,” did Jesus anticipate his own cry of dereliction on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Now he stands with Mary and Martha in front of the tomb where Lazarus’ body had been placed four days before, does he have some premonition of the tomb in which his own body would be laid? Jesus tells Lazarus’ friends to roll away the stone perhaps aware that soon God would command angels to roll back the stone in front of his own tomb.
What happens next defies not just logic, it defies death as well. Jesus stands outside the tomb of Lazarus. He does not go in to touch him. He simply speaks, in the same way that God spoke at creation, and the words brought new worlds into being. “Lazarus, come out!” he says. Inside the tomb, where there is silence, there is now sound. Where there is darkness there is now light. Where there was stillness there is now motion. Where there was stench, there is now a breeze laden with the smell of spring flowers. Where there was death there is now life. Lazarus emerges, from the tomb, still wrapped in burial cloths. And with the same ease that Jesus commanded Lazarus to be alive, he commands his followers to remove the shrouds of grief, “Unbind him and let him go.”
What a great story. It is a resurrection story without the cross. But without the cross it is largely an empty story—it is a miracle, but it is not a miracle that much affects us. It is an isolated story of one person being raised from the dead. The story of Lazarus was never meant to be read on its own, separate form Jesus’ resurrection. It occurs in the middle of John’s gospel, as a hinge text. It is the last of the seven signs or miracles. It begins the second half of John’s book that concentrates on Holy Week and the cross. Immediately after Lazarus’ story, the plot is hatched to kill Jesus. Next, at the home of Mary and Martha, Mary uses her hair to anoint Jesus, effectively for his death. The raising of Lazarus and the raising of Christ from the dead, are bookend stories, they comment on each other. The story of Lazarus was meant to be read in light of the cross, and the cross of Jesus was meant to be read in the light of Lazarus. Read this way, a great story becomes even greater because Lazarus is now about us.
Here is why I need the cross. It is my testimony, but you have your own thoughts and need to name what you think.
1. If the Lazarus story stood on its own, who good would Jesus be? He might still be the Messiah, but what kind of Messiah? Would he be the one we can trust to know our suffering and what it means to be human? Could we trust that when push comes to shove, he would die our death for us? Lazarus, in light of the cross, is all about who Jesus is. I noticed something this week. Count the days: the messenger comes to say Lazarus is ill, Jesus waits two days, he then pronounces that Lazarus is dead. Four more days then pass with Lazarus in the tomb before Jesus arrives. In other words, six days have already passed, so when Jesus raises him it is on the seventh day. Seven is the number of completion. Seven signifies his miracles as complete, like creation. Jesus is the new creation. He is “the resurrection and the life”.
2. I need the cross, violent, horrible, and repulsive though it is. I need the cross to know that Jesus enters the worst situations of human misery and empties them of their power. Prof. John Rottman of Calvin Seminary started a prison program in Michigan that offers degree programs in theology for prisoners. Some are headed for ordination. Violence is dropping. John was asked to attend a meeting with the governor and others to speak about the program and was asked to give a ride to a woman who had no car. At the event they were shown video testimonies of prisoners, and the tenth prisoner spoke about how he would probably not even be alive now, and he would not know Jesus if it had not been for the love of the mother of the man he killed. She came to his trial she offered him forgiveness and she kept in touch with him. John looked over at the woman sitting beside him who he had driven and she was weeping. She was the woman and Christ spoke through her. I need to know that in going to the cross, Jesus willingly took on himself all the sorrow and suffering of the world, that we might know God’s love is stronger. “Jesus Keep Me near the Cross, there a precious fountain, Free to all a healing stream, flows from Calvary’s mountain.”
3. And here is the main thing, when we read Lazarus in light of Good Friday and Easter, this story is about you and me. When we read Lazarus in light of the cross, we are the dead. Jae Brown was driving after smoking weed and drinking when he was pulled over. He confessed everything to the cop, who saw that Brown was in college and whispered, “Don’t let your friends get you in trouble you can’t get yourself out of,” and let him go. “My purpose in life,” Brown writes, “is to mentor, provide that whisper in someone’s ear that changes their life.” Was that not Christ whispering in his ear, “Lazarus, come out.” When we read Lazarus in light of the cross, we are the dead, come to life.
Jesus has come to each of us in the place of our death and shouted, “Lazarus come out.”
Where there is darkness there is now light. Where there was silence, there is now music. Where there was stasis there is now motion. Where there was stench, there is now a breeze laden with the perfume of spring flowers. Where there was death there is now life. Jesus said to you, “Lazarus come out.” It happened in your baptism, come out of your old life and into your new. It happened when you took communion, “Take, eat. I am the resurrection and the life.” It happened when you were forgiven. It happened when you prayed for others. It happened when you whispered in someone’s ear, “Lazarus come out.” It happens even now, “Lazarus come out.” Thanks be to God.