Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. That’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.
Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.
What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for the next five to six weeks. This year we are looking at the Gospel of John. Specifically we are looking at seven supernatural occurrences around which John organizes his account of the life of Jesus. These occurrences are called signs because they are not random occurrences but because they point to something, namely Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah.
This week we will look at the sixth sign.
One of the key underlying themes in this story is a question with which any person of faith (Christian or otherwise) has wrestled at least once; many who have given up on faith did so because they could not resolve the tension in this question. The question: How can a good God allow evil in the world?
John’s answer, as shown in this story, would likely be thus: God and evil can coexist. I’ve seen it happen. But it doesn’t look like what you would think.
Over the course of John’s account, Jesus and his disciples have been bouncing back and forth between Judea and Galilee. Galilee is up north. It is safe space; it is where Jesus’ family, friends, and supporters live. Judea, especially Jerusalem, is dangerous territory. Why? Because anytime Jesus appears in Jerusalem he stirs up the people. And the Jewish religious leaders don’t want that, because if the people get stirred up then Rome gets stirred up. And when Rome gets stirred up, bad things happen. This week Jesus is in the Jerusalem area again and, for the reasons given above, his disciples are on edge.
Repeatedly the temple leaders have asked: Jesus, are you the Messiah? Don’t keep us in suspense. Tell us straight out, once and for all. I did tell you, Jesus said. I’ve shown you. You just don’t want to see.
So now Jesus goes all out. His intent is to manufacture a sign so undeniable that it will force the religious leaders’ hands. He heads to a small town just outside Jerusalem, and that is where our story picks up.
Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”
When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”
“But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?”
Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”
After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”
His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.
So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.
When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
Then 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?”
Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.
“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”
Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.
“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”
Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”
He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. So from that day on they plotted to take his life.
Therefore Jesus no longer moved about publicly among the people of Judea. Instead he withdrew to a region near the wilderness, to a village called Ephraim, where he stayed with his disciples.
When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, many went up from the country to Jerusalem for their ceremonial cleansing before the Passover. They kept looking for Jesus, and as they stood in the temple courts they asked one another, “What do you think? Isn’t he coming to the festival at all?” But the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who found out where Jesus was should report it so that they might arrest him.
Right off the bat we learn that Jesus had a purpose in all this. This delves into nature: it was left unattended–on purpose. Jesus’ purposes. Sickness for the glory of God was a completely and totally new category in that religious culture. Realizing that Jesus’ words would likely sound crass, John jumps in with an editorial comment to reassure the reader that Jesus did in fact love Mary and Martha and Lazarus.
Jesus then proceeds to stay on with his disciples for two more days. He is staging a sign here, a sign with a purpose. He had healed sick people all day long, but for him to do what he is about to do, that will kick it up several notches.
Finally Jesus returns. His disciples try desperately to talk him out of it. As noted above, anytime they are in or near Jerusalem the disciples are on edge, for Jesus’ life and their own as well. Jesus’ response: “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.” Translation: 12 hours of daylight = 12 hours of opportunity. Follow the light of the world (that would be me) while you still can. You can stay here if you want but if you do, you will miss the opportunity of a lifetime. Finally the disciples give in. Thomas speaks up and says what they are all thinking: Let us go so that we may die with him.
They get to Bethany and by that point Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. They were just wrapping up the funeral service. Martha goes out to meet Jesus and comes at him with the full force of her raw humanity: Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died. But I am sure that even now God will give you whatever you ask – trying desperately to cling to some last sliver of faith in that moment.
Your brother will rise again, says Jesus. I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day, says Martha. Translation: Don’t try to comfort me with your theology. I’ve already read all the books and I know all the verses, and it is no comfort to me. If you had been here a couple of days ago we wouldn’t be waiting for the last day.
I am the resurrection, says Jesus. You don’t have to wait for the last day. The last day is right here with you, right now.
Now Mary comes out to meet Jesus and what we see here is divine empathy. Jesus knows fully how all of this is going to play out, yet he does not rush through to the happy ending. Instead he enters into the moment and is fully present with his friends in their grief, even to the point of weeping himself.
At no point did Jesus offer any of the pious cliches and platitudes that we have come to expect in moments like this. Nothing like “God will never give more than you can handle”, “If God brought you to it, he will bring you through it”, “With God, everything happens for a reason” (though in this case we know from earlier in the story that this did happen for a reason), or my all-time favorite (and likely yours too), “God is in control”.
We know how the story ends. Per John’s account, many who saw this go down believed in Jesus. That’s John’s MO: Seeing leads to believing which in turn leads to trusting in Jesus.
Now the soundtrack shifts. This was so indisputable a sign that those who were willfully blind had to act immediately. The sign had had its desired effect; it had forced the hands of the Jewish religious leaders. “If we let him go on like this…” Note the supreme arrogance in that statement. Elsewhere in John’s account Jesus states “I lay down my life and take it up again” so no one is letting Jesus do anything or stopping him from doing anything. “…everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation”, said the religious leaders. They had that part right. They had no idea.
This ties back to the beginning of John’s account: Light has come into the world, but some people loved the darkness.