It was my turn to preach in chapel. I was given John 11:1-44 at the beginning of the semester, and since, in God’s providence, it was just two days after my father finally died after a long year of tremendous suffering, we held a memorial service in conjunction with chapel that day. I had long been impressed with Jesus’ raising of Lazarus and commended it to our seminary community, as well as family and friends, gathered for different reasons but each with his or her own challenges in life.
America likes winners, not losers; triumph, not tragedy. Friedrich Nietzsche and Ted Turner have argued that Christianity is for losers, but pop Christianity in America has been trying desperately to convince everybody that this just isn’t the case. Become a Christian and you’ll be unfailingly happy, upbeat, in charge, with health, wealth and happiness; self-esteem, victory over debt and bad marriages and families. Meanwhile, we put our elderly, the terminally ill, those caught in the cycle of poverty, and others who remind us of our mortality where we can’t see them or at least where our lives do not ordinarily intersect when we do not intend them to.
Unlike the old churchyards through which one passed on the way to Sunday services, our churches today are likely to avoid contact with the tragic side of life. We call death “passing away,” we change the name “graveyard” to “cemetery,” with euphemistic names (Forest Home) that also sound, eerily enough, like the names of the convalescent hospitals they were in before they “passed.” They are not the dead among us, awaiting the Resurrection, but those who have “crossed over” and have thereby been good enough not to have done something more disturbing and unpleasant, such as dying. Or at least if they die, they do not hang around.
Often, before we can really feel the force and pain of sin and death, we are told to be happy and look on the bright side. One church-growth guru cheerfully announces that we have gone from having funerals to memorial services to “celebrations,” not realizing that this is a fatal index of our inability to face the music, whether we’re talking about the tragedy of sin itself or the suffering, death, and ultimate condemnation that it brings in its wake.
Why is it that in our churches-in the preaching that avoids sin, suffering, the cross, and death, in the music that is always upbeat and seems so alien to the “blue note” that one finds in the Psalms, in the church growth that always targets the upwardly mobile suburbs, and in the “celebrations” that cannot seem to come to grips with the tragedy of death and the common curse that has invoked it-we seem to follow the world in refusing to face the music?
We aren’t morbid when we take sin, suffering, and death seriously as Christians. Rather, we can face these tough realities head-on because we know that they have been decisively confronted by our captain. They have not lost their power to harm, but they have lost their power to destroy us. This biblical piety is not morbid because it doesn’t end at the cross, but it also doesn’t avoid it. It goes through the cross to the Resurrection. This is why the Christian gospel alone is capable of refuting both denial and despair. The hope of the gospel gives us the freedom to expose the wound of our human condition because it provides the cure. We see this in John’s remarkable retelling of the story of Lazarus’s resurrection.
Lazarus, along with his sisters, was a close friend of Jesus, we learn especially from verses 1-16. I’ve walked that short distance between Bethany and Jerusalem in roughly an hour. We might say that it was the ancient equivalent of a suburb, and Mary, Martha, and Lazarus had made their home a base for Jesus’ Jerusalem-area mission. “It was that Mary who anointed the Lord”- that is, the prostitute who met the only person whose love was greater than her sin. Jesus was entreated to come to his ill friend’s side when Mary identified him to Jesus as “he whom you love” (v. 2). The assumption here is that Jesus and Lazarus are so close that all Jesus needed was an announcement of his condition. Surely Jesus would come running.
Their plea for Jesus was not wrong, but short-sighted in its motivation. They were appealing to him for the healing of Lazarus, while Jesus anticipates using his friend’s death as an opportunity to signify his person and work. It is not about Lazarus, but about Jesus: “I am the resurrection and the life.” Again we think of the difference between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross. It is not wrong to anticipate glory-both God’s and our own participation in it, but the problem comes when we think that our own immediate concerns are ultimate. God must provide for us or our loved ones in such and such a manner if he is really our friend. Mary and Martha knew that Jesus could heal their failing brother, and simply assumed that, given his love for Lazarus, Jesus would want to. Here we return to that conundrum: Is God both sovereign (able to heal) and good (willing to heal)? If the healing doesn’t occur, one of those affirmations comes into question, we reason. If Jesus really loves Lazarus, he’ll come quickly. “God, if you really care about me __________ “-fill in your own blank. In the thick of trouble, this is not so bad a response. In fact, it is a sign of faith on their part: God can and will heal. Rather, the problem is in the timing and the terms. “It is for the glory of God,” says Jesus, “so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (v. 4).
In terms of the unfolding plot, Lazarus is a character in Jesus’ story, not vice versa. The glorification of the Son as the Messiah is the real “show” here, as was the case with all of the miracles. They are signs, not ends in themselves.
Jesus deliberately delays his return to Bethany two more days. What could have been happening in the sisters’ minds during these two agonizing days? They had no idea that Jesus was going to do something far greater than they had asked him to do. With the wisdom and data at their disposal, they could only have been utterly depressed at the apparent lack of response on Jesus’ part. Jesus, of course, had acted promptly before: in the healing of Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8) or in the raising of the widow’s son in the middle of the funeral procession (Luke 7). How callous could he be if he healed perfect strangers but would not rush to the aid of one of his closest friends?
Out of love for Lazarus and his sisters, Jesus finally decided to go to Bethany. “The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” He tells them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him,” to which the disciples (no doubt concerned about their own safety-see verses 7-16) reply, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” “Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.'” Nobody-the disciples, Lazarus, Mary, or Martha, nobody but Jesus, knew why Jesus had allowed Lazarus to die in the first place, especially if all along he was going to visit him eventually. It was all palpably confusing to their experience. It simply did not make sense.
Jesus’ cryptic remark, “for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe,” could not be discerned this side of the events in Bethany. It could only be clear to them after the completion of the episode, not within it. This is a crucial point for our own application in such circumstances. From their perspective, in terms of their own experience, the sisters (and Lazarus in his final hours) and the disciples would have logically concluded that Jesus, whom they had seen as perfectly capable of healing, was simply callous. He was uninterested, unconcerned. Their experience was not irrational or illogical, but rather incomplete and so inadequate to sit in judgment upon God’s ways. Just as the disciples could not recognize what God was going to do through the cross, nobody could understand why Jesus had allowed his friend to die.
Lazarus had to die in order for the greater miracle to occur. There is something more important than the healing of his friend. Jesus knew the great work that he would accomplish in the power of the Spirit when he came finally to Bethany. It is like Elijah pouring water on the fire-pit, just to make sure that God’s glorious power will be manifest. As the greater Elijah, Jesus was engaged in a cosmic contest between Yahweh and the serpent. That was the larger story behind all of these other stories.
After a four-day interval between Lazarus’ death and Jesus’ arrival in Bethany, Martha displays the sort of frustration that one would not have expected a woman of her day to show toward a man in public, much less a rabbi. Yet after scolding Jesus for his tardiness-“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” she immediately adds, “But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you” (vv. 21-22). Martha’s faith in Jesus is unfailing. He can still turn things around-even after her brother’s entombment: “Even now . . .” (v. 22). It is important to see how Martha here reflects that combination of heart-wrenching disappointment and faith that we find in the Psalms. She does not believe that even death has the last say in the presence of Jesus, which is thus far more faith than we have seen in the disciples. Martha’s theology is right: as a Pharisee, she believes in the resurrection of the dead. But it’s like Philip saying to Jesus, “Now show us the Father,” with Jesus’ reply, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:8-14). In fact, the scene there is similar. There, Jesus announces that he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Not simply someone who can lead to truth and life, but the Truth and Life in person. Philip asks for something more, but Jesus replies, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (v. 9).
Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life. He is the source of life beyond the grave. Jesus replies, “Your brother will rise again” (v. 23). “Do you believe this?” Jesus presses her to commit herself not just to the theological question of resurrection of the dead, but to him as the Resurrection and the Life! To claim to be “the Resurrection and the Life,” as “the Way, the Truth and the Life,” is to claim nothing less than equality with the Father. So now the stakes of Martha’s confession are raised considerably. In the presence of witnesses, she is called not only to confess that Jesus can raise the dead-as Elijah had done. Jesus calls upon her to acknowledge that he is himself the God upon whom Elijah called. He not only can give life; he is Life. That is a very large step. One of the marvelous clauses here is, “though he may die” (v. 25). It is one thing to halt the processes of decay and death, quite another to bring someone back to life. Jesus declares of himself, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (v. 26).
Now Jesus is not simply asking Martha to confess that Lazarus will live, but that those who trust in Jesus Christ-even though they die, will be raised to never die again. It’s no longer about Lazarus per se. Jesus is calling Martha into the circle of that cosmic trial between Yahweh and the serpent, calling her to be a witness (the Greek word for witness being the same for “martyr”). Lazarus’ resurrection will be a sign-proof, in fact-of that reality to be inaugurated with Christ’s own Resurrection from the dead. Even though people will still die despite the arrival of Messiah, they will not remain dead forever but will be raised in the likeness not of Lazarus’ mortal body, still tending toward death, but in the likeness of Christ’s glorified body.
We recall that many centuries earlier, in the midst of his agony, Job cried out, “I know that my Redeemer lives and that in this flesh I shall behold God” (Job 19:25). And on the witness stand Martha, racked with myriad thoughts and feelings of desperation and hope, brought Job’s exclamation up-to-date: “She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world'” (v. 27). That is the big event in Bethany this day. Without discounting the resurrection of Lazarus still to come in the story, we cannot forget that, as with all of Jesus’ miracles, the most amazing thing is the reality that the sign merely announces and the confession that it draws from our lips. This is the faith that perseveres through the countervening evidence of his experience. And it is Martha’s as well. They do not know why God has allowed this or that temptation, trial, disaster, or pain, but the confession is the main thing: “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
Mary, who had been sitting in the house, joins Martha at this point (vv. 28-32). Perhaps even more despondent than Martha both at her brother’s death and her beloved Master’s apparent failure either to care enough or to be powerful enough, Mary, the one who had lavished Jesus’ feet with her expensive perfume, has to be called out to the scene by her sister (“The Teacher has come and is calling for you”). Furthermore, upon meeting Jesus she reiterates the charge, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v. 32). Martha is not to be blamed here, but to be respected for having brought her doubts as well as her faith to the Savior. Living in denial of tragedy, too many Christians live schizophrenic spiritual lives: outwardly smiling and brimming with trust and joy, but inwardly filled with doubts and anger. They often do not know where to turn, but Martha, like Job and the psalmist, says, “To God, of course.” Bring him your doubts, frustration, and even anger. He can handle it. Remember the cross and God-forsakenness of the Beloved: God, too, knows how to sing the blues.
Jesus’ own soul now begins to be drawn into turmoil as he sees the mourners and recognizes the wake that death leaves. Suddenly, he finds himself one of the mourners. Here he is not simply a miracle worker who walks on the sea and calms the storms, but a man who is suddenly overtaken by troubled emotions. His own love for Lazarus and his hatred for death overwhelmed him even though he knew what he was about to do.
It is in verses 33-35 that we capture a glimpse of what the writer to the Hebrews meant when he said that Jesus was made like us in every respect:
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Heb. 4:14-16)
And here at his friend’s tomb-even moments before he knew he would raise Lazarus, we see his anguish of soul in the presence of sin’s most gruesome banner: death. He did not come with a cheerful homily on how better off Lazarus was now that he had “slipped the bonds of earth” or “sloughed off his mortal coil,” for these are pagan views that would never have been countenanced by the Hebrew mind. There was no “celebration,” where mourning was considered out of place. Already emotionally unhinged by Mary’s weeping at his feet, Jesus came to the tomb, and we read those two words that deserve their own verse: “Jesus wept” (v. 35). The bystanders were not sure what to make of it. “See how he loved him!” said some. “But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?'” (v. 37).
But let’s pause for a moment at the remarkable report, “Jesus wept.” Jesus here overthrows the various pagan conceptions of life and death that are as prevalent in our day: stoicism and sentimentalism. Some influences are more Stoic in orientation. Famous for the stiff upper lip, the ancient Stoics believed that the best souls were those who were completely free of emotion. Stirred neither by friendship nor treachery, the Stoic aimed at perfect rest. If one depended on others, he or she would soon be disappointed. In order to avoid disappointment, one should resolve never to develop attachments, except to oneself. Utter freedom from desire would make the soul a fortress against distress. For them, as for Greek thought generally, death was a liberation from the body, which was after all the seat of emotion-that weak part of human nature that would drag the soul down into the messiness of the world. By contrast, Westerners such as myself are often astonished to the point of embarrassment to witness Jews and Palestinians mourning their dead with wails and desperate gestures, but this is the culture from which Jesus came and he was not embarrassed by it.
Sentimentalism, as I’m using the term here, refers especially to the romantic philosophers, poets, artists, and theologians who emphasized the heart rather than the intellect as the proper seat of human dignity. Far from resisting emotional expression, sentimentalism celebrates it. Yet, unlike the romantic movement itself, sentimentalism in its contemporary degenerate but pervasive form seems capable of wearing only a happy heart on its sleeve. Ironically, although sentimentalism seems like the opposite of stoicism, they share some intriguing parallels. They both seem intent on avoiding the messiness of life-particularly, the tragic aspect. They want to ignore the bad news, although their solution is different. While the Stoic realizes that to abandon negative emotions one must banish all emotions, the sentimentalist believes in admitting only the good emotions, always looking on the bright side of life.
One sympathy card I saw has a line from Thoreau: “Every blade in the field, every leaf in the forest, lays down its life in its season as beautifully as it was taken up.” Even more troubling was the maxim of my father’s convalescent hospital that was unfortunately enshrined in giant tapestries hanging in various parts of the complex. With scenes from childhood to old age, walking toward a sunset, it read, “The setting of the sun is as beautiful as its rising.” However well-intentioned the maxim may have been, I wondered at how offensive this must have been to many who were suffering there, as their lot was trivialized.
Compare for just a moment any experience you might have had with the joy of childbirth, family and friends standing around to celebrate this new life, with the declining years, months, and days of a person’s life. One stage is full of hope in a way that the other simply cannot be made to be. The former is attended with high expectations for one’s future, the other with talk of prolonging life in the face of eventual death. One attracts visitors, family, and friends who cannot keep themselves from holding and doting on the little ones, while the other draws visits more often than not out of a sense of duty.
We do not enjoy spending a lot of time with those who are suffering, especially with those who are dying. At least for those closest to us, we do not mind being there for the farewell, but too often it is just too long. For many, both the aged sufferer and his or her family, there are just too many verses to sing. I know this firsthand from living my teen years, when our family cared for fifteen elderly residents. Each Christmas my mother would write letters to area churches asking for groups to bring some holiday cheer and the same two churches made the annual appearance, neither of them evangelical despite the fact that most residents or their children were members of various large evangelical churches in the area. Even more difficult, especially in retrospection, is the fact that each year my parents would buy presents for the residents and write the name of their children on it, since some would not be receiving even a phone call from them. I recall in a couple of instances even elders of a big church in town who had simply dropped their parent off, all the while holding themselves and their church up as “pro-life.” The setting of the sun is not as beautiful as its rising, as anyone close to the end can tell you.
As yet another sign of our culture’s inability to handle death, we often hear, “Death is a natural part of life.” This assumes the “cycle of life” approach to reality. According to this picture, life and death are just two sides of the same coin. However, the biblical picture could not be more opposite: life everlasting was the goal of creation in the beginning; death is the curse for human sin. It is part of the Fall imposed on humanity as a result of disobedience, not an inevitable circumstance to be taken in stride. Death stands against God, against the world, against life, against hope, against possibilities.
So now we return to Jesus as he crumples at his friend’s grave: “Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb” (v. 38). Look at Jesus’ face, hear his scream here. “Deeply moved” hardly captures the emotion of the original language: enebrimesato, meaning to snort like a horse in anger; “troubled,” etaraxen, meaning agitated, confused, disorganized, fearful, surprised, as when Herod was “troubled” by the wise men (Matt. 2:3); or when the disciples were “troubled” and “cried out in fear” when Jesus walked on the sea (Matt. 14:27). Now it is Jesus who is thrown off his horse, as it were. The Lord of Life, he by whom and for whom “all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities” (Col. 1:16), now found himself overtaken by grief. More than grief, in fact: anger. And why not? There he stood face to face with “the last enemy” he would defeat in his crusade against Satan. And he “wept.”
The marvel in this scene is that Jesus responds thus even though he knows that he will shortly raise Lazarus from the dead. One would expect his countenance to reveal a knowing grin that invites the crowd to anticipate his miracle, but all it shows is anguish. How much more are we allowed to weep when such an interval exists between the death of loved ones and the final Resurrection! Theologically, it is the appropriate response to death-not simply because of our own sense of loss or our mourning for the survivors who are dear to us, but because of the loss to the beloved who has died. We do not grieve “as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13), but we do grieve. Death is not a benign passageway to happiness, but a horrible enemy attempting to keep us in the grave. Death’s sting has been removed, but its bite remains. It does not have the last word for believers, but it remains the believer’s antagonist until the Resurrection of the body. The good news is never that one has died, but that death has been ultimately conquered by the Lord of Life. At the graveside, neither optimism nor pessimism; sentimentalism nor stoicism, tell us what is happening here. Only Jesus’ cross and Resurrection define the event for us.
Martha trusted Jesus when she moved the stone at his command. Perhaps she had even heard and recalled Jesus’ promise, “For the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear his voice and come forth” (John 5:28). Jesus’ own Resurrection will be the “firstfruits of those who sleep” (1 Cor. 15:20), but this resurrection of Lazarus is in a sense the prelude to that great inauguration of the last day. This is the climactic sign because “the last enemy is death” (1 Cor. 15:26).
The good news in all of this is that “the last enemy is death.” This means that Jesus accomplished everything in his mission on earth for our complete redemption and glorification. “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.” That is the bad news. “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:56). Triumph at last outruns, outspends, outstrips tragedy. But it does so at a painful cost.
Death is not a portal to life. Death is not a benign friend, but a dreaded foe. It is not a natural part of life, but the most unnatural part of life you could imagine. But in his death and Resurrection, Jesus crushed the serpent’s head, vanquishing the “last enemy” of every believer. This last enemy will one day be overcome for believers in the final resurrection of the dead, but that is because it has already objectively been vanquished in the Resurrection of our Living Head. Look at him and see what the whole harvest will be like in the end! In Christ, the end has already begun. The Head will not live without his body. The shape of the future is already present.
Lazarus was raised, but he died. His body thus raised for a time continued where it left off in its surrender to decay and death. One day, mourners would gather again at Lazarus’ tomb, but this time with no expectation of resurrection until the last day. And yet, precisely because of that confidence, precisely because Lazarus’ next funeral occurred this side of Easter, they would not mourn that day as those with no hope. After all, word would have reached them by then-perhaps some of them had even been witnesses-of the greater Resurrection of Jesus himself, which would take a stand against death on its own territory, so that those united to him by faith will not remain dead. Their bodies will be raised to worship in God’s renewed sanctuary.
Death is still an enemy, not a friend, but it is “the last enemy,” and it is already defeated so that now death is not God’s judgment upon us for our sin but the temporal effects of our participation in Adam’s guilt. And because the guilt and judgment are removed, we can both cry out with our Lord in troubled anger at death and yet also sing with the Apostle, “Where O death is your sting? Where O hell is your victory?” (1 Cor. 15:54-55). What we need again is a church that can sing the blue note in a way that faces the real world honestly and truthfully, recognizing the tragic aspect of life as even more tragic than any nihilist could imagine, while knowing that the one who raised Lazarus is now raised to the right hand of his Father, until all enemies-including death, lie in the rubble beneath his feet.