This post is something different than I’ve done before. What follows are the notes I took as I dialogued with the John 11 text about the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Although I am not preaching on this text right now, it’s an example of how I would begin to study a text for preaching. It is the prequel to the post I wrote earlier this week entitled “Lazarus was unbound, are we?
John 11:32 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.”
11:33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.
11:34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”
11:35 Jesus began to weep
11:36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
11:37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
11:38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.
11:39 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.”
11:40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
11:41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me.
11:42 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.”
11:43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus come out!”
11:44 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.”
John 11 includes the familiar story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. There is no suspense or surprise about the outcome of this story. Most of us know how the story ends, but the various theological assumptions revealed by how people respond to Lazarus’ death are worth careful examination. (NRSV)
The passage opens with Mary scolding Jesus for not being there sooner to keep her brother from dying, just as her sister Martha had done in verse 21. We are not ever told Lazarus’ cause of death, but Martha and Mary apparently believes in a God who won’t let bad things happen to good people. Earlier in the chapter John makes a point of telling us what a faithful disciple she was by reminding us that Mary has been in charge of the church kitchen for as long as anyone can remember. (Actually it says “Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair.” 11:2). Mary’s complaint is more confusing because we know from the early part of this chapter that Jesus has said Lazarus will not die, but his illness is “for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” (Vs. 4).
Does that sound a bit self-centered for Jesus? It does to me. John tells us repeatedly how much Jesus loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus, and yet he uses their suffering for his own glorification? In fact John tells us in verse 6 that “after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” And it gets worse. It isn’t that Jesus doesn’t understand the severity of Lazarus’ condition. After using the euphemism of sleep to describe Lazarus’ conditions, he learns that, as usual, the disciples don’t get it, “then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead.’” (Vs. 14).
All of that is back story and laden with John’s own theological perspective on the divinity of Jesus. Ironically this passage also is most famous for the shortest verse in the Bible, in some translations, that shows Jesus in one of the most human moments in the Gospels. Jesus weeps over the death of his dear friend and John tells us twice to be sure we get it that Jesus was “greatly disturbed.” Even that quite natural emotion in the presence of death gets interpreted differently through two theological lenses. Some of the spectators see Jesus’ tears as a sign of how much he loved Lazarus while the critics murmur that Jesus who has a great track record of miracles really could have saved Lazarus if he chose to.
Speaking of theological lenses, John makes sure to let us insider readers of his Gospel know what the real subtext of this whole scene is. There is a large stone in front of the tomb where Lazarus has been for four days. Wouldn’t 3 days have been a better analogy to Jesus time in the tomb? And yes, Martha reminds that the body is going to stink because he is really dead. And then after John inserts an aside between Jesus and God to be sure we all understand this is all done for the glory of God, Jesus shifts to the imperative tone. He says in a voice so loud the dead can hear it, “Lazarus, come out!”
And then he does the second imperative: “Unbind him and let him go!”
What do we need to be unbound from to really come alive? That question can take those who hear it in many different directions— materialism, nationalism, self-centered ness….
Emptiness – letting go, being unbound from striving for meaning –unbound from fear, doubt, anger, things that don’t satisfy the soul. For those of us forced to let go of so many things in old age it can be anger, frustration, hopelessness, resentment, or mistrust.
Lazarus’ resurrection led some to believe and some to go to Caiaphas and start plotting the crucifixion of Jesus as a sacrificial lamb to save the nation. What rationalization do I use to justify my own selfish desires?