Lazarus, Life, and Love
Text: John 11:36: “So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him.’”
Not long ago I met a young man in the town of Hardwick, where I’m based for much of the week these days. He is a senior at the local high school, and in every way a leader among his peers; he’s a member of the Navy’s Junior ROTC program, and in fact on the day I met him he was about to receive an award for being the most community-minded high-school senior in the town, an award that still happens in Hardwick every year.
About three weeks after I met this young man at a the banquet that honored him, he and another friend in the Junior ROTC program went to a Ball for all the young people who are in that program. When the Ball was over, my young friend and his friend went off to an after-party at a private home; and then they got in a car to travel back home. My young friend was driving. As they were driving at night along a two-lane highway through the town of Oakham on their way back home, the car left the pavement when my young friend tried to negotiate a curve traveling too fast—a mistake anyone could make.
There was an accident, and my young friend was badly injured. He was flown in a helicopter from the scene of the accident to the medical center of the University of Massachusetts in Worcester. He had a hard time of it, but he pulled through, and he will recover.
But the friend who was with him—his friend—died on the roadside.
It goes without saying that in the worlds of these two young men, everything changed in that one horrifying instant. It is a tragedy beyond words that a young man would lose his life under any circumstances. And it is a tragedy beyond words that a young man would have to bear for the rest of his life the burden of responsibility for the mistake of a moment that cost the life of a friend.
All of us who have been through high school look at all of you are in high school, or who will be someday, and we realize how very thin, how perilously thin, is the line that separates you, and really all of us, from a story like this one. In a very real way, two lives ended in that moment; the life of the boy who died, and the life of the young man who had a brilliant, spotless, rise, a cloudless horizon ahead of him. He is still alive, and he has a life ahead of him, but it is no longer the life he thought he had. I have not spoken to him since the events of that night, but I cannot imagine that he does not feel that the life he expected to have is gone, too.
• • •
Jesus appears in Bethany, in the midst of a loss that has shattered a whole little world. It has changed his world, too, because a man he loves has died. For generations and generations the scholars have pointed out that in this moment, this tiny verse of the Gospel of John, we see the one unambiguous example of Jesus experiencing a profound human emotion. If ever you have gone in search of evidence that Jesus was fully human, that he lived this life of ours to the fullest in every dimension, you need look no further than this.
The way the story goes, Jesus raises Lazarus and the point of the story is to prove who Jesus is. This story happens only in John’s gospel, a gospel we have a particular closeness to here in this place; it is the most poetic of Gospels, in some ways it is the most problematic and least linear of Gospels, and it is the Gospel in which, from start to finish, Jesus is the Messiah in every way and in all respects—a fact that is progressively revealed throughout the story.
Jesus conquers human divisions between Jews and Samaritans. He conquers illness by healing people. He conquers nature by stilling a storm. And finally here, as the capstone to John’s revelation of who and what Jesus is, he conquers the power and claim of physical death.
I am sure the parents of that young boy are wishing more than any of us can imagine that Jesus would appear in their village asking where they have laid that boy. Their hearts must be hurt in the same way that Mary’s and Martha’s hearts were hurting. If only you had been here. If only you had somehow been present in that moment with my brother, with my son. If only, Lord.
That is a deeply human and absolutely understandable way of understanding the story of Lazarus and of bringing it into the frame of our lives, lives that are always lived in the shadowing presence of the tragic possible. To see it that way makes real our longing for God’s presence our lives in moments that bring us more than we can bear, moments that remind us of the fragility of life, or that confront us with the fact that to experience love is to give our hearts to things that die.
But it also limits, in very real ways, the power of the story. Not just the story; it limits our understanding of who Jesus is, and how Jesus interacts with us, not just in Bethany, but now.
Imagine instead that the point of the story isn’t about Jesus raising Lazarus, and it isn’t even about—or not just about—Jesus showing his power over the fact of our mortality. Instead, think about this story as a sign of how Jesus enters into wherever it is we feel grief, and loss, and death. Imagine that this is about Jesus’s willingness to go wherever we feel overcome by a paralyzing loss, about Jesus being willing to enter even into the wreckage of our most painfully disappointed hopes.
If Jesus walks into Bethany out of love for Mary and Martha—and he does—then out of the same love God walks into the places where we are grieving.
If Jesus walks into a storm that seems about to overwhelm the boat out of love for the disciples—and he does—then out of the same love God walks into our own confusions and disasters.
If Jesus enters into lives that seem shattered and broken beyond repair, if Jesus engages with the humanity of people who the rest of society regard as untouchable or shameful out of love for them—and he does all those things—then out of the same love God, our God, walks into our own moments of deep shame and great confusion without fear and without judgment.
And if Jesus walks right into the grave of Lazarus out of love—and he does—then out of the same love he will come to us in our own death as well.
• • •
None of this changes anything about the way the world works. The shadows of tragedy still darken the horizons, usually just out of view. Children still die. People still make life-changing mistakes, and the way in which they carry the burden of those mistakes either makes them stronger or warps their character and wounds their souls. None of this changes that.
But it changes everything about the way God works with us. Jesus changes everything about what we know to be true about how God comes searching after us, comes right into the places we have been damaged, the places we carry a burden of shame, the places in which it feels like we are already dying. Jesus comes into those places, out of the same love. And when he does, we will be called back to hope, back to peace, back to dignity, back to life—in him. Amen.