Above. Jesus Raises Lazarus to Life, 1973. From the Jesus Mafa project, a response to New Testament readings by a Christian community in Cameroon.
Thanks to Dr. Frederick Niedner, Senior Research Professor at Valparaiso University, for sharing with us this Lenten sermon about Lazarus and Jesus. We share it now, during the Three Days leading from Good Friday to Easter, because it proclaims the radical forgiveness and new life Jesus promises us and the community of love that promise creates for us anew every day.
You can listen and sing with us using the YouTube links you find throughout the blog post, which loosely follow the trajectory of Holy Week and the Triduum—from Maundy Thursday to Good Friday to Easter Sunday.
Of all the stories John could have included in his Gospel, he was sure to include this one because John’s first readers could see themselves so clearly in this story.
They found themselves in the cemetery burying those they loved. But they had clung to words of Jesus like, “Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death” (John 8:51). And the promise we heard in the Gospel lesson itself: “Whoever believes in me will never die.”
They struggled to understand how death could invade the community of eternal life, the family of the risen Christ. Death, after all, had been conquered, right? But we’re still dying! How can this be?
Those early believers lived with the promise that Jesus would return very soon to take them to himself. There they would live forever. But one by one they were dying off. And the way John tells the story of Lazarus and his family, the members of the community of eternal life can see themselves in the story, and it helps them make sense of what they’re experiencing.
I think I can see many of us in the story, too, or at least I can see myself, at several places in this Gospel lesson. I hear myself in Martha’s words as she went out to meet Jesus, when he finally came, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v. 21). And I hear myself in the words of the bystanders who asked, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (v. 37).
How many of our prayers, if we really think about them, aren’t really pleas that God would keep us from dying. “Keep us safe,” we pray. “Heal us of our diseases. Give us food. Make peace in our world.” Every one of them really means, “Keep us, or at least our children, from dying.” And when one of us dies, especially a younger one struck down suddenly or tragically, we hear ourselves asking, “Lord, where were you? Where are you? Lord, if you had been here, our brother, our sister, would not have died.”
And think how much of what we do has the same theme. I think of my health plan and the other money I spend on medical care. I think of my constant dieting, my exercise plan. I think of how I teach and watch over the safety of my children. I think of the causes I support that have to do with drunk drivers and cystic fibrosis and cancer.
I’m working on one thing—to keep from dying. That’s what we’re up to in this world, isn’t it? Survival. We spend our lives trying to keep from dying.
Which makes for a couple sad things. For one, we are so busy keeping from dying that many of us never get around to living. And there’s a difference between the two.
Living, real living, is full of risks and vulnerability and giving things away just for the joy of it. Keeping from dying has room for very little of those things. Those are often rather sure ways to die, you know.
Second, if all we need God for is to keep us from dying, we’ve got a pretty small relationship with God. God is merely the administrator of our health care plan, not our partner in the dream of what the world could be, not our friend in the dance of life’s uncertainties and surprises. And that’s what God wants to be for us.
And so, by coming late, and raising Lazarus from the dead instead of keeping him from dying, Jesus did something much more to further God’s glory than merely playing along with the survival game.
Now we come to the great and surprising irony of what Jesus was up to in John’s Gospel. Jesus promises Mary and Martha that now they will see the glory of God. So what does Jesus do? He calls into the tomb and Lazarus comes out. Lazarus comes out. He lives! The dead are raised!
Is that the glory of God? I don’t see any celebrating in the story, not even a party like folks have after a funeral, much less a resurrection.
Instead, here is where the plot begins against Jesus’ own life. And the same ones who plot against Jesus decide they must do away with Lazarus, too, because people are beginning to take Jesus seriously on account of Lazarus.
In other words, Jesus calls Lazarus from death and the tomb, but he doesn’t say, “Come with me to a care-free, death-proof life.” No, as John’s Gospel plays out, Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb to follow him to Jerusalem and ultimately to Golgatha. That’s where Jesus was headed—to his death. And that’s the moment of his great glory as John’s Gospel tells the story. It’s as though Jesus shouted into that tomb, “Heads up in there! I’m coming in!” or at least something like, “Come out of that tomb, Lazarus. We’ve got things to do. We’ll never settle for an ordinary death. No, let’s go together and die a death that really counts for something! Let’s go where we can give our lives away!”
That is central to the Christian gospel, that we are free to bear life’s crosses, take the kinds of risks that go with the Christ-life within us, open ourselves to the same sorts of vulnerability Christ took on, because God is playing a bigger game than a survival game.
We are not merely today’s angry, heartbroken Mary or Martha in this story. We’re also Lazarus, called from our ordinary, mundane kinds of dying to something new and different—to a death that reveals the glory of God. John’s ancient readers, as well as we his modern readers, have gone through Lazarus’ experience in baptism. In our baptisms we, too, have been wrapped in grave clothes and then called to new life. We’ve been summoned from ordinary graves and called to the road of cross-bearing that leads to Jerusalem and Golgatha as those places exist right here in our community.
We are also like Lazarus, who had a hard time walking what with all those 30 or more feet of linen cloths tightly wrapped around him. It was hard to follow Jesus very well in that condition, hard to go die a glorious death of giving his life away. We, too, still have those grave clothes on, all of our old death-related habits and beliefs, so our movements are restricted. We walk haltingly, not freely, still trapped and hampered by the death-worries that cling to us.
But the good news is, Jesus still has agents to whom he can say, “Unbind him, and let her go!” It’s this community. Those verbs, by the way are the verbs of forgiveness in John 20:23 and Matt. 18—that gives a clue as to how we do this work.
And we don’t ever have to do any of this alone. We have each other to share in the work of stripping off our grave clothes and putting behind us the sins and the symbols of the graves that haunt us throughout our lives.
This is part of the great death-march practice in Lent. We strip off the grave clothes, partly through the discipline of looking death in the eye. “Dust you are,” we hear again at the beginning of our journey, as we get our passport stamped with the sign of the cross of our foreheads.
If you feel yourself walking a bit stiffly in the days ahead, because your fears and your weaknesses tell you that the grave and its terrors still grip you like strips of heavy linen around your heart, say to one of us, “Unbind me, let me loose.” And we will listen, and we will give ourselves to you, and you can leave those grave clothes behind, and live.
As I said, there was no party after Lazarus’ resurrection, oddly enough. That celebration awaits. But we shall have a taste of it even today, as shortly we will come to the table to share in the body and blood of our Lord and in so doing take his life into us. And if we have his life in us, no grave could ever hold us, no grave clothes bind us. And life for us will be much more than just a matter of seeing how long we can keep from dying.
Immanuel, Michigan City, Indiana
9 March 2008
Fred Niedner taught Biblical Studies and Hebrew language in Valparaiso University’s Department of Theology from 1973 to 2014. At various times during his active teaching years he also served terms as coordinator of the Chapel’s Morning Prayer worship, Director of Freshman Seminars, Teaching Resources Center Director, Department Chair, and Associate Director of the Institute of Liturgical Studies. His doctoral work focused on the Hebrew Bible, and he was a founding member of the Society of Biblical Literature’s Tradition History of the Pentateuch Seminar. Much of his teaching and research also centered on the New Testament, and particularly on the Gospels.