Have you ever found yourself in a position where you feel there is nowhere to go. A no-win scenario. I am sure you have all been in situations where you need to do or say something, knowing that whatever you do or say the outcome will be challenging. The story of Lazarus’ resurrection from the dead by Jesus, I think, opens a window for us on just this type of situation. It also gives us three perspectives. Two from humanity; one accepting God, the other rejecting God. And further it gives us a glimpse of God’s perspective on life, and his take on how to cope with “no win” scenarios.
First of all it’s worth looking a little at who wrote about this story, and where they were based.
These lines of scripture from the Gospel of John were written and composed by the Johannine Community in Ephesus towards the latter part of the first Century. Most scholars agree that the final version of the Gospel was produced between 90-100 C.E. Whilst it is quite possible that the Gospel was written by John the son of Zebedee, it is also feasible that revisions prior to the final version were produced by someone other than the Apostle, however the style remained such that it was clear that the reader should identify the author with “the beloved disciple”. Much of John’s material highlights difficulties that Jesus had with the Jewish Leadership, and this particular vignette is no different.
Jesus had just withdrawn to the area surrounding the Jordan River after a visit to Jerusalem during the festival of Hanukkah (dedication). Whilst in Jerusalem, Jesus had again been accused of Blasphemy and threatened with stoning, he was forced to escape. Today, in 21st Century Britain, we probably don’t give too much thought to charges of Blasphemy, but we do have in insight into the seriousness of this when we consider the reaction of the Islamic communities comments about the prophet which are taken as blasphemous. Into this tense atmosphere, He receives a message from his good friends Mary and Martha informing him that their brother Lazarus was sick and requesting his help. Jesus proceeded to wait a while. Some interpret this delay as being designed to highlight his authority over heaven and earth, knowing that he will raise Lazarus from the dead and by this, show the disciples his divinity. Others suggest that Jesus may actually have been a bit nervous of returning to the outskirts of Jerusalem so soon after the events at Hanukkah. Certainly there is a mood of concern raised by the disciples in v8, “Rabbi”, they said, ”only a few days ago the people in Judea were trying to stone you. Are you going there again?” What is clear from the text is that Jesus is aware that Lazarus is dead when they set off for Bethany, and it is quite likely that he is also aware that raising Lazarus from the dead is (a) required to show his disciples exactly who he was (perhaps critical in view of what he knows will happen when he must return to Jerusalem, and (b) will be politically explosive as far as the temple authorities are concerned.
By the time Jesus arrives in Bethany, Lazarus has been dead for 4 days, and Martha greets Jesus in grief at the loss of her brother, anxious for the future and wondering if this man whom they trust so much can help.
Martha initially seems to misunderstand Jesus when he tells her “Your brother will rise again” v23 but Jesus then tells Martha in vv25-26 that he is the resurrection and the life. Martha experiences a moment of enlightenment and sees who Jesus really is. Following this, Jesus then meets with Mary and coping with strong emotions, the NLT translation states that “ a deep anger welled up in him”, calls Lazarus from the tomb, in the full knowledge that this will provoke a violent response from the spies of the temple authorities who are everywhere. I wonder why he was so angry, if of course the translation is correct. Perhaps it could have been that he had been active for almost 3 years now and people had seen miracles happening around Jesus, and yet still people found it hard to believe. I think, however it would also be associated with what happens next.
The after effect of this miracle is that the temple authorities led by Caiaphus, decide that Jesus must be killed, along with Lazarus, presumably because he was evidence of something too politically sensitive.
There are several levels of meaning in this story of which I think, vv 25-26, when Jesus says to Martha ‘ I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. Do you believe this Martha?” form the summation. In 1st Century Judea, women had few rights, widows even less, single women even less so. The death of Lazarus would have proved disastrous for Martha and Mary. At the very least they would have probably lost their home and certainly any means of independence they had. Jesus in returning Lazarus to life heals the fracture in his friends’ lives, making their family unit whole again. The action, however, was also highly politically charged. The Sadducees who held power within the temple elite did not believe in resurrection (see Matt 22:23) and would have found an actual demonstration of resurrection on Jerusalem’s doorstep to be highly threatening. The other side of this is that the authority of those in power was now being directly challenged. Slaves and the poor were controlled often by the fear of reprisal and ultimately death. If death were proved to be not the finality that everyone thinks it is, then the control that political leaders have over the people is taken away, or at least considerably weakened. Jesus is also undermining totally the theology of the Saduccees. He had not only declared that he was the Resurrection and the life, but had then proved it. Lazarus’ resurrection therefore directly leads to the decision by the temple authorities to kill Jesus. Lazarus, by the way, is also targeted because he is living proof.
Why has Jesus this power? Quite simply, because he is the word of God, everything was created through him. The word that gave life to everything that was created (see John 1:2-3). Whilst he was in Jerusalem just before at Hanukkah, Jesus had claimed “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30). Jesus is saying to Martha that he is LORD and so can speak the words of life even in the midst of death. In conclusion, the scene played out at Bethany is a further example of the Kingdom of God pushing up against the Kingdom of the world and bursting through.
So what does this 2000 year old story have to say to us in the busy digital age of the 21st Century
This is a timely reminder for those today who only see the material world as the only reality. For many people, life has to be made perfect, and an exclusion of spirituality leads to behaviour that focuses on material growth and development and the development of selfish gains. This is dangerous as in focusing on the purely human self, one rejects God, thus rejecting Jesus and harming the true self, whilst carrying the risk of committing the sin that cannot be forgiven (Matt 12:31) This of course is the story of the sin against the Holy Spirit
So, Jesus, here, gives us a plainly spoken reminder of exactly who he is. “I am the resurrection and the life”. Not only does he speak these words to Martha, he then proceeds to call from the tomb a man who has been dead for 4 days. The importance of the time period of 4 days is that there could have been no doubt that Lazarus was dead. Obviously this event challenges us today in the 21st Century. Jesus has turned our perception of life upside down. This offers challenges to our perceptions of ethics; how we treat the recently dead, how we live our lives – as here is demonstrable evidence of life beyond the grave and of Jesus’ absolute authority over life and death. Jesus calls us to live in intimate relationship with him. If we take him up on this offer, we enjoy eternal life. If, alternatively, we choose to reject Jesus, then we face an eternity separated from God. Be careful which pathway you choose, for separation from God is Hell.
In reflecting on this part of John’s Gospel, we should be honest about our lives and our motives. Do we stand with Mary and Martha, hearing the call of Jesus and responding to it with faith and action, or are we like the temple authorities who build up treasures for themselves, only to find their foundations are built on quicksand.
Which path will you choose this Easter?
In Jesus name.