John 11: 1-45
Life in the Face of Illness and Death
The gospel lesson designated for this Lord’s Day features the theme of life–to be more exact, life in the face of illness and death. Let’s set this in broader context. Recall that we concluded our meditation last time with John 3:16: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Life is how John chooses to portray the content of God’s gift. The Son is the bearer of eternal life, which is God’s life. “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (5:26). Indeed, as the Father gives life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he chooses (5:21). These are profound theological claims. But they’re almost always commentary on what Jesus is actually doing in and around real people. Included among these people are Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus, to whom our lesson on this fifth Sunday in Lent, introduces us.
When we consider what we’re facing in our world today, the message contained in this lesson could not be more relevant. I am referring here to the coronavirus. What is it that we fear about the coronavirus? Of course, the answer is its potential lethality. That is to say, it can kill us. Granted, the number of deaths as a percentage of the total number of cases remains at this time very small. But those statistics are meaningless to the one actually stricken by the virus, to the one who has to rely on a respirator to breathe. Nor do they mean very much to his loved ones who fear for his life.
John tells us that a certain man named Lazarus was ill. Illness of course is at the forefront of our minds these days. But in our world there’s really nothing unusual about illness. It’s an everyday, ordinary occurrence. There’s no one listening to me now who hasn’t been ill. The great American essayist Susan Sontag reminds us that “illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”
Lazarus happens to be a citizen of that other place. And news comes to Jesus from Mary and Martha about his illness. Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha, are close friends of Jesus. In fact, Jesus loves them. We are not told what Lazarus has come down with. But it’s serious enough for his loved ones to call on Jesus. We have no reason to doubt that Jesus is concerned, but his reaction does not show it. He decides to wait two days before going up to Judea to visit him.
When we or are loved ones are ill, especially gravely ill, we feel we need urgent care. Consider the number of people in lines outside Elmhurst Hospital in New York City, waiting to be tested and treated for COVID-19. When they developed severe symptoms, they sought out medical help immediately. And if they didn’t, we can be sure their loved ones did for them.
But Jesus is not driven by this urgency. Illness and death do not intimidate him. He deals with them on his terms, not on their terms. He could have gone immediately to Bethany to heal his friend Lazarus. He’s already proved he has power to heal. But he delays. There is a plan. He expects his disciples and Lazarus’ sisters to trust him, even though they cannot understand him.
The course of Lazarus’ illness took a turn for the worse. Jesus knows this already. Now we know why Jesus delays. Now we know his plan.
He announces that Lazarus has fallen asleep, and he intends to go and wake him up. Sleep is a euphemism for death. It’s how the early Christians referred to death. For example, Luke tells us in Acts that after the martyr Stephen forgave his killers, he fell asleep. But Jesus’ disciples did not understand his use of the word. He then has to tell them plainly that Lazarus has died.
The loss of our loved one to death does not constitute evidence that God is against us. But that’s what we feel when we lose a loved one. It’s natural to blame God. It seems that both Martha and Mary indirectly blame Jesus for the death of her brother: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” How often have we thought or said the same thing! God, if you had heard and answered my prayer, my loved one would not have died. God, if had heard and answered my prayer, my dream would not have died.
But Jesus is not against men and women in their sadness and disappointment. He fights for them. And at this stage in the drama Jesus prepares to wage war against death. He intrudes upon its domain and attacks it. Death is the most formidable power. We can combat it, we can force it into retreat, but we cannot ultimately defeat it. It returns, with reinforcements, and overpowers all of us. The Bible calls it our last and greatest enemy.
But make no mistake. When Jesus came to the tomb and to the stone laying upon it, he came to do battle. John Calvin says here that “Christ does not approach the sepulcher as an idle spectator, but as a champion who prepares for a contest; and therefore, we need not wonder why he groans; for the violent tyranny of death, which he had to conquer, is placed before his eyes.”
The drama resolves itself with three commands that demonstrate Jesus’ charge over the situation: Take away the stone! Lazarus come out! Unbind him and let him go! In these three commands we see Jesus wage his successful battle against our last and greatest enemy, namely, death.
The raising of Lazarus from the dead is the most powerful, the most awe-inspiring miracles recounted in the Gospel of John so far. That Jesus has absolute power over death the gospel of John wants to make absolutely clear. Evidence for our claim here can be found in Martha’s objection to Jesus’ command to remove the stone. “But Lord, by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.” Bible students tell us that John includes this detail in recognition of the Jewish belief that a dead person is really dead only after three days. To this can be added another Jewish belief. The third day is the decisive day, the critical day on which something is definitively concluded. So also with death: after three days it is finally certain whether all hope is to be abandoned.
The emergence of Lazarus from a cave after four days is a sign. And the function of a sign in the gospel of John is always to confront the reader with the question: Will we believe that this Jesus is the one he claims to be? To be more specific in this context, will we believe that there is a power greater than that of death, that this power is in Jesus Christ, or that this power is Jesus Christ, God’s one and only Son?
In this regard it is instructive to consider the response of Martha to Jesus when he arrives on the scene. The crisis that the women were undergoing in waiting for a delayed Jesus while their brother’s condition was becoming more and more critical actually yields to another crisis. It is a now a crisis of faith. “Your brother will rise again,” Jesus tells Martha in verse 23. “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” That response in fact represents a helpless resignation to the turn of events over which she now has no control. Behind these words we can hear her say to herself: “my brother is dead. I have no choice but to be a good and faithful and devout Jew and confess what we all confess. But what is that to her? It does not necessarily touch her where she is at the moment. Rather it represents something safe for her to retreat behind. But Jesus does not let her retreat behind it. He does not allow her to languish in a state of helpless resignation. Instead he challenges her. “I am the resurrection and the life.” I am here before you. Will you believe that I am who I claim to be? If you believe, you will see the glory of God.”
Let us be clear: the crisis in which she now finds herself in confrontation with Jesus is not the crisis precipitated by a terminally ill brother and a healer who did not get there on time to do anything about it. It’s a crisis of faith.
In the last analysis is this not what is at issue for us too? The crisis is not whether or not we have a high enough view of scripture to affirm that Jesus really called a dead man out of a tomb after four days. The crisis is not whether or not we can affirm the articles of the creed that we will recite after our meditation: “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” Certainly! But there are moments for us too, moments when it as just as easy to have an attitude of passive resignation to the illness and death that everywhere surrounds us. Then these words are nothing more than the prevailing orthodoxy behind which it is just as easy for us to retreat as it was for Martha. Note that the tense in which Jesus declares himself to be resurrection and the life is present. Jesus throws down a challenges to us today, just as he did to Martha then. “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” Do you believe this? Martha believed. But do we believe? If we do, we will have the strength and courage and hope to live in present, despite the illness and death that surrounds us in our world. Amen.