Like the Book of Genesis at the beginning of the Bible, the story of Lazarus in the Gospel of John begins with a diagnosis of the human condition, and of the disposition of God’s heart towards humanity even in this horrific illness we bear. John tells us that Lazarus is sick. And John tells us that Jesus loves Lazarus.
It’s important— especially during this pandemic— that we know BOTH of those things. We are sick with Death. And God loves us, even in our illness.
John tells us that Lazarus is ill.
Lazarus has contracted the same disease that infects every man, woman, and child. He is infected with death. And just as in Genesis, we who are dying, separated from the God who made us from nothing for love alone, are given a promise: “This sickness [of Lazarus’s] is not fatal. It will become an occasion to show God’s glory by glorifying God’s Son.”
That’s the promise preachers of the Gospel likely will need to proclaim in great numbers. That’s the promise to which we will commend those taken by COVID-19, earth to earth, and ashes to ashes. That’s the promise that will make such rites not just a remembrance of life, but a celebration of life to come. That’s the promise that will make the preacher’s words not a eulogy, but a proclamation.
The promise that this sickness called “Death” is not final.
John’s Gospel tells us that when God in Jesus Christ finally arrives, Lazarus has been dead four days, which means Lazarus’ family, Martha and Mary, have been waiting even longer for God to show up.
And in Martha’s voice we can hear our own grief and our own perplexity in the face of Death— and not just in the face Death death, but also in the face of fear and suffering. I’d wager those in Italy or Wuhan know what Martha’s voice sounded like. They could recognize the fatigue and frustration in Martha’s voice, waiting for God to show up and do something.
“Master, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
In other words: Where were you? What took you so long? Don’t you know we needed you? If you had only been here, God.
Martha sounds like so many of us on more occassions than we care to number. And yet, what a beautiful, astonishing reply Martha receives, an answer that is really a promise, an unexpected, undeserved promise.
A word of grace:
“You don’t have to wait for the End. I am, right now, Resurrection and Life. The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all. Do you believe this?”
This is the question that life poses to us. This is the question that Death poses to us. This is not just God’s question for Martha. This is the question our human existence poses to us.
As we watch the world grind to a halt, our sense of security shatter, and our institutions fail, do we TRUST that Jesus Christ is Life and Resurrection?
“Yes, Master,” Martha replies. “All along I have believed that you are the Messiah, the Son of God who comes into the world.”
The reason we can say “Yes” with Martha is that the God for whom we wait is a God who weeps with us.
“Jesus wept,” John reports.
This Jesus is the God and this is the human who loves us. This Jesus is the God and this is the human who loves every single one of us. And— notice— we are told by John not only that God is sad. We are told that he is “deeply troubled.” We are told that God is angry…but not at Lazarus, not at you or me, not even at the President.
His anger, John says, is directed at God’s Enemy, whom St. Paul calls the Last Enemy, Death. And that is a very good thing to remember at a time like this, a time that portends to lead to many future days when families will contact pastors and priests and, despite their grief, mistakenly think they’re supposed to organize a happy, joyful “celebration of life” for their dearly departed.
It’s good to remember that Jesus is weeping and is angry that any ever need to journey to the grave. It’s good to remember that God in Jesus Christ promises the coming of a day, a final day, when there will be no more crying, no more pain or grief, no more death.
At the tomb of Lazarus, God stands by the grave that is the lot of all humans and in the voice of a lamb slain before the foundation of the world, the same voice that in the beginning spoke the worlds into being from nothing for love alone, shouts: “Lazarus, come out!” Jesus says “Take off his grave clothes and set him free. The resurrection word to Lazarus is also our resurrection word. Jesus takes from us all the grave clothes that bind us to death. And it does not matter if our bones have become dust. The God who spoke all into being from nothing can call us all back to life from anything.
As God promises the prophet Ezekiel:
“You shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”
Your dry bones will live again, God promises to Ezekiel, to all of us.
No matter what, come what may, to you God’s going to shout: “Come out!”
And so, today with Martha we trust that Jesus Christ is the Messiah. That he is Resurrection. That he is Life. And the promise is that he will raise us because Resurrection is not just what Christ does. As he tells Martha, Resurrection is who Christ is.