Lent 5


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Romans 8.6-11 / John 11.1-45


If I’m brutally honest I have to admit that I find the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead a nightmare!  It raises so many questions that I am unable to answer. Perhaps the question that sticks with me the most is why is this story only reported in one of the Gospels. 

As some of you will know, John is the latest of all the Gospels to be written and the most theological and metaphorical of them all. Why did the other earlier Gospel writers whose Gospels, though not biographical of the life of Jesus do seek to record and reflect on key events in his ministry, leave the story out? Surely such a staggering event as the raising of a man from the dead would have entered the oral tradition immediately as substantial evidence that Jesus was who he said he was. Why would the earlier apostles and evangelists leave such vital information and conclusive evidence out of their preaching and mission? 

Are we to take the story as factually accurate or are we in the realms of exceedingly complex metaphor – a story which tells important truths about Jesus, which is incredibility symbolically rich but may have grown and been developed from an easier to explain original historical event? But what could that event have been if it were not the raising of someone from the dead? 

I hesitate to answer that question, because I can’t with any authority [interestingly enough, neither can many of the mainstream biblical commentaries], but before we go on to look at the incredible richness of this story we do have to raise such fundamental issues. The important thing to hold onto I guess is the realisation that applies to all the miracles, that for the Gospel writers it was not what happened that was important but rather what it said about the nature of Jesus. We therefore must read this passage focussing, not on Lazarus, nor indeed Mary and Martha, but on Jesus.

From the beginning there are so many resonances in this passage with other events in Jesus life. We are told the Lazarus had been in the tomb four days lest he should be confused with the Messiah who would be raised in three days. John reminds us that Bethany, where the miracle took place, is but two miles away from Jerusalem where Jesus himself was to die and be raised from the dead. The ever-impulsive Martha runs to greet Jesus when she hears that he is on his way, yet Mary stays at home. She immediately points to Jesus power: 

Martha said to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him."

Jesus assures her that Lazarus will rise at the resurrection on the Last Day. This doesn’t seem to pacify Martha, she knows this with her head but her heart still yearns for Lazarus. Jesus then makes one of the very powerful statements found in John’s Gospel beginning with the words ‘I am…’

Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live,and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die…"

Without wanting to get too technical, the Greek grammar of these statements give them great authority and emphasis. These statements are to be seen as authorative. All Martha’s hopes for the resurrection of Lazarus and indeed all our hopes of the resurrection of the dead are met in the person of Jesus.

Jesus asks Martha whether she believes this and she replies with another great statement of faith.

She said to him, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world."

What depth of faith this statement reveals… could we in the same situation speak with similar conviction?

Martha runs home and tells Mary that the Lord is looking for her. This time she runs to meet him and, unlike Martha, falls on her knees before him making the same assertion that had he been here Lazarus would not have died. This subtle mention of Mary kneeling before the Lord continues the emphasis in the Gospels on the difference between the two sisters, between the active and contemplative life. They make the same assertions of faith, indeed in this passage perhaps Martha makes the greater, yet they do it in different ways. Jesus is profoundly moved by Mary’s grief and the grief of all around her and in a moment of spectacular human insight the gospel writer records the shortest verse in scripture “Jesus wept” or in our translation “Jesus began to weep” Here the humanity of Jesus is made plain – here the divine Word who created the universe weeps with human grief.

He asks to be shown where Lazarus has been laid – it is a tomb just like the one in which he himself will be laid in, sealed with a stone. Then much to the concern of all Jesus asks for the stone to be moved away. Martha protests saying that the body has been in there for four days. Jesus challenges her:

Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?"

And here we get to the real point – this whole story is about the revelation of the power of God. It is by entering the stench and squalor of their grief that Jesus can reveal the glory of God and bring Lazarus back from the dead. This is such an important point – we want our faith to be neat and clean, we want a faith that assures us of ‘wholeness health and happiness’ as the publicity of one retreat house once put it. But it can’t be like that. We only encounter the glory of God when we enter the depths of our own existence, when we face up to the fears and hurts of the past that we’ve carefully sealed up. It’s only when we roll away the stone and let the transforming power of God into those areas that we truly see his glory revealed. Martha, like so many of us, seeks to keep Jesus out of such horrible and unattractive areas, but Jesus prays that Gods will reveal his power to the crowd standing by and asserts his oneness with the Father. Jesus calls out with a loud voice “…Lazarus, come out…” He calls Lazarus by name because he is the good shepherd who knows his sheep by name. 

Lazarus comes out of the tomb, still bound covered in the clothes of death. Jesus commands the by-standers to unbind him and to let him go. Perhaps this is the great message of the resurrection. Through Jesus overcoming death we are set free. This is the gift of freedom we receive at our baptism when we metaphorically die and are raised again. This is the great gift of Christian living, we no longer live under the tyranny of death, sin and guilt because if we let God’s power into those shadowy areas of our lives he transforms them to his glory. 

Most merciful God,
who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ
delivered and saved mankind:
grant that by faith in him who suffered on the cross,
we may triumph in the power of his victory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.



  • Why do you think this story is only reported in John’s Gospel? 
  • Can you make the same affirmation of faith as Martha "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world." If not, what is stopping you?
  • What are the hurts and fears in your life that you have sealed up that you need to open to Jesus’ redeeming power? 

Page last updated: 4th May 2020 1:46 PM
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