Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 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.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 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, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. John 11:1-45 (NRSV)
That day was the worst of days. That day was the best of days.
My sister, Mary, and I--we lived in Bethany, along with our brother, Lazarus, who lived nearby. Bethany was a village, close to Jerusalem - only a mile and a half away. It was small and secluded, just a few hundred people living across the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem.
It was so peaceful. Full of palm trees rustling in the breeze coming out of the valley. Hidden away from the bustling noises of the nearly 50,000 people who lived in Jerusalem. Bethany was a beautiful place. And it was only an hour’s walk from Bethany into the city.
So, it was a perfect place for Jesus to come and rest and be refreshed. He did it often. We became good friends. We became his followers.
On one of his visits, my sister, Mary, did something a little impulsive. (She’s the emotional one, Mary. I’m more level-headed, much more practical.) On that visit, Mary took our entire stash of nard--a very expensive anointing oil--a full pound that we had saved over a long period of time. She took the entire pound of nard and poured it all over his feet. His feet! Instead of selling it to give money to the poor. That’s what we had intended. Oh, she was criticized for it. Judas, especially, criticized her.
But, back to the story of that day.
Lazarus had been sick. We’d been caring for him. He wasn’t getting better. So, we decided to send for Jesus. Jesus had left Judea. The things he’d been doing, the signs he’d been performing, the way he had been challenging our Jewish leaders--well, much opposition had risen against him. So, Jesus had gone back across the Jordan, where it was safer.
So, when Lazarus didn’t get better, we sent for Jesus to come. We had seen him heal others who were sick or crippled or even blind. We were hoping--maybe selfishly so--that Jesus would come and heal Lazarus. He was a three days’ walk away.
Lazarus got worse. And worse. And, then, he died. My brother. Dead. My dear sweet, kind, loving brother Lazarus. Dead. And no Jesus. Jesus never came. He never came to heal his friend. My brother. Lazarus.
My heart felt broken. I was grieved at his death. I was angry with Jesus. He had the power--I had seen it with others, with complete strangers. Why not with one of his dearest friends and disciples? Many others came to grieve with us and to try to comfort us. But not Jesus. I felt as though Jesus had abandoned Lazarus. And us.
And, then, four days after Lazarus had died. After, according to our beliefs, his soul had already left his body, then. Then! Jesus came. I heard that he had entered the village. I went to him. I was angry. I said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” And then I challenged him. I said, “Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.” I wanted him to do something. What? I wasn’t sure. But, he had to do something. Something to make up for not saving Lazarus before he died.
Jesus told me that Lazarus would rise again. I knew that. It was central to my belief, something that my Jewish ancestors had believed, that our souls were immortal. I told Jesus this. That I believed I would see him on the last day. But, I did not believe I would see Lazarus again in my own lifetime.
Then Jesus said words to me that I didn’t fully understand at the time. He said that he was the resurrection and the life. That if we lived in him and we believed in him, we would never die. He asked me if I believed this.
My response? Well, even I didn’t quite expect it. But, somehow, after all I had witnessed. After all the signs I had seen Jesus do--the healings, the feeding of the thousands, restoring sight--well, after all of that, I could do nothing else but to say, “Yes. Yes. I believe. I believe, Lord, that you are the Christ. The Son of God. The one to come. The Messiah.”
But, Lazarus was still dead.
I went, then, to get my sister, Mary. Funny, how when she finally came out to greet Jesus she said the very same words I had just spoken to him. “If only you’d been here…” And she started to cry.
He looked at her. I saw how upset he was. He asked where we had put Lazarus’ body. We showed him. It was a short distance away.
It was then I knew how deeply Jesus loved Lazarus. And Mary. And me. Because, when we arrived at the tomb where we had buried Lazarus, Jesus began to weep.
I had never seen him cry before. Jesus? The man who wasn’t afraid of anyone, who wasn’t afraid to challenge the hypocrisy of our Jewish leaders. The man who seemed to have all of the power of the world. Here. Standing in front of me, in front of the tomb, crying?
The tomb was a cave, really. This was our custom. To bury our dead in holes cut into rocks. This was where we had buried our brother. And, then, to protect his body from grave-robbers, which were such a problem in our time--To protect Lazarus’ body, we had rolled a very large stone to block the entrance to his tomb. It took several men to put it in place.
As Jesus was standing there, weeping, disturbed, he told the men to roll the stone away. I looked at him. I thought he was crazy. By this time, Lazarus’ body would have begun to stink. I said, “Lord, the smell will be awful. He’s been dead now for four days.” It wasn’t bad enough that he had died. Did we need to smell his corpse, too?
In reply, Jesus said to me, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?”
I was confused. As I was trying to understand, they rolled the stone away. And then, Jesus looked up into the heavens. He gave thanks to God for hearing him. And, then, in a very loud voice--so loud that it seemed he wanted everyone around to hear--Jesus shouted, “Lazarus! Come out!”
It was then, for a moment, as though time had ceased. Because, there, right in front of me, my dead brother was now alive. Still wrapped in his grave clothes. With his feet and hands still bound with cloth. With the linen still covering his face, Lazarus walked--he WALKED--out of the tomb. My brother. Alive. My dear sweet, kind, loving brother Lazarus. Alive. Not dead. But, alive.
And, then, Jesus told them to “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Alive. Free. Who frees people? Who raises people from the dead, but God?
Then. Then. I believed the words I had said earlier, “You are the Christ. The Son of God. The one to come. The Messiah. You. I believe.”
From death to life. This is what Jesus did for Lazarus that day. That worst of days. That best of days. I saw it. And I believed it.
Isn’t this what you believe, too? That this Jesus, this Son of God, brings you from death to life? Is this what you believe in your baptism? That ancient ritual that comes out of my own tradition?
Isn’t it in your baptism that you are put into the water and that old, unbelieving person you are is drowned? That out of the water comes a new, living, believing creature. Just like Ezekiel’s vision--where God told him to breathe the Spirit into the dry, dead bones. And they came alive again. Isn’t that what your baptism is all about? From death to life? Just like my brother, Lazarus? Just like Jesus? That you and I and Lazarus and all believers die and rise with Jesus?
And that the Holy Spirit breathes in you--lives and breathes in you--and creates new life. That out of your dying in baptism, you are made alive and free. We are all made alive and free. And God continues to make us all alive, and to free us, and to create life wherever there is sin and bondage, and brokenness and death.
Because that is who God is. God is life. God continuously looks for ways to breathe new, creative life into us. Here, in this place. Out there, in our world.
I believe that. I believe that we have been freed. That there is life now to be lived. That the Spirit of God is present now and is our hope now.
And that God takes us from brokenness to wholeness. From dying to rising. From death to life. Here. Now. And forever.
I believe it. I pray you do, too. Amen.