Friends, we are almost there. We have been on this Lenten road since Ash Wednesday: about 28 of our 40 days. We are in the home stretch. As Tom Petty so wisely put it, “the waiting is the hardest part.”
Throughout this Lenten season we have been reading long stretches from the Gospel According to John. This gospel is usually set apart as being very distinct from the so-called synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. In many ways, the Gospel of John is not so much a biography of Jesus as it is a lyrical and theological meditation on Jesus Christ and his reconciling work.
There are several hallmarks of the Gospel of John. One is that the writer of John used a recurring motif in the way that Jesus spoke about who he was and what he was up to. The motif that is repeated is that Jesus and the Father are one, and whomever follows what Jesus says will also participate in this unity.
In this way, the Gospel of John reads much like how a Bach fugue sounds, it visits the same theme, over and over, upside and right-side, inside and out; always the same message: The Father and Jesus are one, and those who listen to Jesus are included in that close relationship. It’s a heady mix of pronouns and swirling associations, but the message is clear throughout John’s gospel: God has claimed us as his people through Jesus Christ. Period.
Another hallmark of John’s gospel is the fact that it contains no miracles. Miraculous things happen in the gospel, of course, but the writer does not call them miracles; instead, the word “signs” is used. In John’s gospel, Jesus’ signs are used to great narrative effect. Every time that Jesus gives a teaching, he then certifies the teaching with a sign. The signs take up the first half of the gospel of John, and today’s sign, the raising of Lazarus, is the seventh and final sign.
Seven is, of course, a tremendously important number in the Bible – the number of holiness, the number of completeness. Not so technically, the eighth sign in John’s gospel is the Resurrection of Jesus. Eight, of course becomes a sacred number for Christians; eight being the eighth day of creation, whereby we are made new creations in Christ at baptism. This is why many baptismal fonts are octagonal. But here, today, we have the final and most perfect sign that Jesus performs: the resurrection of Lazarus.
Finally, a hallmark of the Gospel According to John is that he does not really use the terms “Kingdom of God” or “Kingdom of Heaven.” Those terms are used frequently in the other gospels, but for John, he is saying something different: The Kingdom of God is not so much established by Jesus, the Kingdom of God is Jesus.
Such is the content and context of the Gospel of John. So what can it mean then that we have this story of Jesus being asked to come heal his sick friend, and yet he delays going? Jesus even says that the sickness that Lazarus has does not lead to death. But it does.
Can you imagine the anxiety of Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters? Here they have been traveling with, working with, and likely funding Jesus and his ministry. They have witnessed wonders beyond description. Now their brother Lazarus, who is a dear friend of Jesus, is ill. Let us pause for a moment and remember that in the first century, in Palestine, illness was quit serious, there were no antibiotics, and illness, more often than not, preceded death. This was serious, and they knew that Jesus had it within him to heal Lazarus. Can you imagine their supreme disappointment when Jesus says that he will wait to visit Lazarus? “Wait?!” the sisters may have shouted, “He will die!”
And Lazarus does die. It’s heartbreaking; he dies. We need to really get our hearts and minds around this fact. Mary and Martha are living in a pre-Resurrection world. Death is death, the absolute end of all things.
When Jesus does finally come to Lazarus, the sisters and the village are in full mourning. Martha greets Jesus when he comes, not with words of welcome but words of accusation: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” One wonders what was going through her mind. Was she ready to stop following Jesus? Was she in that empty space in her spirit where grief besets us? Grief is grief, even for those who walk with Jesus. Why did Jesus not act? Where was he?
At this point, we are met with what is, in the King James Version, the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept,” or as translated in the New Revised Standard Version, “Jesus began to weep.”
It’s an important point. Weeping comes from deep empathy and grief. Twice in this passage we are told that Jesus is deeply moved, or disturbed in his spirit. Jesus is not some all-seeing, distant, stoic God. Our God is a feeling, empathizing God. Jesus acts out of this empathy, out of this “co-feeling,” which is the literal translation of “empathy.”
But something else happened. It doesn’t appear to have caused Jesus to raise Lazarus, but it is certainly a part of the story, and we ought not to ignore it. You see, all this talk of miraculous raisings and Jesus’ empathy has overshadowed an important point of this story: Mary and Martha begged Jesus to heal their brother, and they are let down by him. When Lazarus does in fact die, they mourn and appear to be even angry with Jesus for not acting. And it is right there in that hard, desolate place of loss and grief that Jesus speaks life. “Lazarus, come out!” Even here, we see that death having the last word is not in God’s plan.
Certainly each of us has had those moments of wondering where God was in a time of trial or loss. “Why did God let her die?” “Where was God when I needed him?” All of us have wondered at God’s apparent departure. But sometimes, in that area of wondering, Jesus shows up, even after the death and loss. And his arrival is prompted by our raw grief.
The truth of the matter is that being as close as we are to our own experiences, we lack the proper perspective to see God in the midst of things, even in loss. To be sure, we may not recognize God’s empathic presence with us, but we can trust, somehow, that he is present.
But it is the waiting for Jesus that is the lesson from Mary and Martha today. Even though all hope is lost – Lazarus has died – they still wait; for what, they do not know. And it is in the midst of this waiting that God moves. It is in waiting past the point of hope that God sometimes moves.
Be patient with God. His understanding of the timing of things is different from yours. Even when all is lost, hold on for a while longer and allow God to act on your heart in his own good time.
Here, near the end of Lent, is as good a time as any to be reminded that God moves in God’s time. Maybe, since we all lack it, God will grant us the grace to be patient with him, and allow him to surprise us with life and resurrection.