Lazarus

Published on 26 Mar 2020

The sisters sent this message to Jesus, ‘Lord, the man you love is ill.’ On receiving the message, Jesus said, ‘This sickness will not end in death but in God’s glory, and through it the Son of God will be glorified.’ [1] 

The world is sick.  As we pray during this trouble, we remember the creator’s love for us and for all that he has made. With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption [2]. Jesus reassures us that this sickness will not end in death.  Whatever happens, death will not be the end.  I mean to raise you from your graves, my people [3].   The resurrection will rescue from the tomb those who have kept faithful. If Christ is in you then your spirit is life itself  [4].   God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit will be glorified in these events.  Nevertheless we pray that for those who are ill the glory of God will come not, first, in their rising from the dead but, if he wills it, in their being healed.

Lent could seem to make light of death. The great good which has come from the going down into the grave of Jesus is solemnly remembered.  For the followers of the risen Christ, the end of this life is a transition into a better one.  However, moving from one room into another is not always smooth.   The death of the Lord was full of great suffering and remains a grievous spectacle.  After three days he rose again. He teaches us to follow his path and assures us that, if we do so, we too will live with God forever.  We endure the troubles that come our way in the hope of the fulfilment of his promises of resurrection and eternal happiness.  Have I not told you that if you believe you will see the glory of God? [5]  Death is the beginning of new life.  Confronted by mortality, we reassure ourselves with our certainty that beyond death God awaits us. He will raise us up to a transformed life and to share in his glory.  Yet our response to suffering, sickness and death is not only to remember this well-founded hope.  Death will be a liberation , yet we do not rush towards it. We accept it when it cannot be avoided.  If you had been here my brother would not have died [6].  It is for the Lord to decide the when and where of death.  I am glad I was not here for now you will believe [7].  Meanwhile we strive to stay alive and to help others to do so because there is so much to do.  We react decisively to sin, from which the Lord is also rescuing us, with humility, repentance and amendment of life. We respond to a pandemic with a similar purposefulness. Research is undertaken without stumbling [8], to discover all that can be known.  All the insight, skill, and self-sacrifice which can be mustered are patiently deployed to avert death or to accompany it with dignity. The conviction that death is not the end does not slacken our efforts at healing and prevention.  We are not less in solidarity with the afflicted because of our faith.

God is glorified in death and in sickness as well as in life and new life.  His providence embraces all that happens.  There is a means of drawing closer to him and pleasing him in everything that befalls us.   The worst losses have their layer of gain.  Lent summons us each year to accompany Jesus in his passion and death by prayer, penance and loving service of others.   The Lord walked for a long time in the shadow of death and, at last, reached the Cross.  When he had been taken down from that gibbet, he was entombed and then rose again.  This was the best of outcomes.  During this present Lent there have been numerous deaths and many are walking in the shadow of death.   Jesus and his followers respond to this suffering and loss with both grief and hope.  There is a sigh that came straight from the heart [9] but also serene confidence that all will be well.  ‘Why doesn’t God do something?’  ‘Has he forgotten us?’  The Lord’s timetable is not ours.  He stayed where he was for two more days [10].  Yet he is watching over us both in our well-directed efforts to avert danger and in our serene acceptance of God’s will.  Such serenity encompasses energetic service of those who are afflicted and the vigorous doing of all that is necessary to prevent or reduce further suffering.

Our friend Lazarus is resting, I am going to wake him [11].  Jesus reminds us of the repose that is in death.  Those who have crossed the threshold of death enter into eternal rest, if that is what they have truly sought.  When our suffering is over, God will welcome into his presence those who have been prepared to be happy there.  Despite all that we have to do, there is already a certain stillness in our present contemplation of God.  Our prayer and worship are a foretaste of being with him eternally. We are saddened at being deprived of some of our usual ways of being in communion with God and with all the others who love him. Can we find some respite from our present troubles in a being alone with our creator?  Might we allow ourselves simply to look for him and to allow him to look at us? Can we allow the Holy Spirit to pray in us at this preoccupied moment?  Contemplating God forever will be restful.  Our prayer in time of trial, at its most stripped-down, already has some peace. When we are drawing energy for vigorous service from our closeness to the Lord there is nevertheless stillness in our words and silence.  The saints and angels who are in the eternal presence of God pray for us.  Their intercession is tranquil even about emergencies.  Like us, our intercessors know that God is in command of everything. They can, however, see more of his power and purposes than we can. Like Jesus going to wake Lazarus, they lighten our burden of anxiety.  All will be well.

Lazarus dead was not yet ready for eternity.  His first death turned out not to be perpetual rest.  Jesus called him back from the grave. There was more for him to do in this world.  The one whom the Lord loved was summoned back from eternity to perform some definite service.  Jesus wept [12].  The raising of Lazarus was no moving of a chess-piece on the board of salvation.   The sign that was this coming out of the tomb did its work of provoking faith in the resurrection. However, it also comforted those who were grieving, including Jesus.   Lazarus’s return helps others understand the coming death and rising of Christ.  Where have you put him?[13] Jesus asks, anticipating the question which Mary will ask about him[14] after his own death.  One who could recently be put somewhere is now once more in command of himself.  Unbind him, let him go free [15].  Jesus addresses to us an urgent appeal to free ourselves of what prevents us being fully prepared for new life with God.  Of the additional time, which was unexpectedly offered, Lazarus surely made good use.  He, Jesus, cried in a loud voice. Here, Lazarus. Come out [16].  Who would have thought that someone could come back across the gulf that separates the living from the dead?  Lazarus’s extra work was to alert us to the meaning of our faith in Christ. 

Do you believe this?[17]  Jesus put this question to Martha who already knew that Lazarus would rise at the resurrection on the last day.  Martha and her sister deepened their faith.  Their risen brother was a sign to help them.  To believe in Christ, and to live and die in that faith, is not only to look forward to being judged by God as fit for his company eternally but also to share immediately in new life.  Lazarus, like us, was rescued by the passion and resurrection of Jesus from sin and death.  However his place among the dead was not being kept cold for him.  When, later, he came to die in Christ,  the resurrection of his master and friend brought Lazarus not to another end but to a new beginning.  To live in the risen Lord is to be enabled to die and rise in him.  Jesus is saying to all of us:  I am the resurrection and the life. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die [18].

[1]      John 11.3-4

[2]      Psalm (130) 129.7

[3]      Ezekiel 37.12

[4]      Romans 8.10

[5]      John 11.40

[6]      John 11.32

[7]      John 11.15

[8]      John 11.9

[9]      John 11.33

[10]     John 11.6

[11]      John 11.11

[12]      John 11.35

[13]      John 11.34

[14]      John 20.15

[15]      John 11.44

[16]      John11.43

[17]      John 11.26

[18]      John 11.25