Lazarus, friend of Jesus, died in the prime of his life, torn away from family, friends, and future. The untimely death of a loved one, relative, or buddy is something most of us have experienced. It is always an experience that raises ‘if’s’ as we consider how or whether we might have prevented such a tragedy. Sometimes life hangs by a thread, and there is nothing to be done. That lesson is certainly not lost on us in the midst of the COVID-19 plague, as thousands die unexpectedly, and leaderships fumble for a grasp on it.
Martha’s ‘if’ was “Lord, if you had been here….” Her faith, you see, is out in an end-time fog: “I know my brother will rise on the Last Day.” Not even those closest to Jesus can imagine anything major coming of this tragedy. The best they can hope for is to hear a few words of comfort, to enjoy a nice eulogy about what a swell guy Lazarus was. But instead of preaching, Jesus wept! I have to believe he was weeping, not just in frustration and anger at the power of death, but also in sorrow for the spiritual blindness around him.
Please understand that Jewish tradition held that the spirit of the departed hovered in place for three days before making the journey back to God. The text intentionally tells us that Lazarus has been dead four days, Read, then; he is dead, dead, dead! Now Jesus, full of the Logos of the God who can do miracles, the God of unending surprises in our lives, summons Lazarus! He comes out of his tomb — smelly, nasty, restored to life. Who expected that?
I see three important lessons here. First, death is inevitable. It is built into the fabric of life and we run into it as though it were a brick wall. William Saroyan, learning that he was terminally ill, five days before he passed, called the Associated Press and left this message: “Everybody has got to die, but I always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?” As Christians, it is important to understand that we don’t get resurrection instead of death, but through it. The only road to Easter is via Good Friday.
Second, resurrection begins now. Many don’t believe that God can impact their lives now; like Martha, they think God can only act in the spiritual realm of an afterlife. The story of Lazarus is intended to awaken us to the reality that abundant life –resurrection life — begins now and extends into eternity.
Finally, we are a Resurrection People. In the prophet Ezekiel’s vision, sinew, then flesh, then skin grows over bone, then the Breath of God restores life. In this, we are meant to see the Nation of Israel in exile coming back to life. Today, we too are God’s people in exile, in a land of phony values and fake religion. We are under the curse of coronavirus, and challenged to live in trust and hope. By God’s breath, we shall recover, we will be revived, and we will survive to resume our task of making a difference for God in this world.