The account of the death and resurrection of Lazarus is, I believe, one of the darkest moments in the Gospel of John. We’re told several things in the first few sentences. Lazarus and his two sisters were personal friends of Jesus. Their home in Bethany was his home away from home. Jesus loved them. Word was sent to Jesus that Lazarus was ill. We can presume that the sisters wanted Jesus to come back to Bethany because they feared for Lazarus’ life.
For two days Jesus made the decision to stay put.
When he finally announced to the disciples that he would return to Bethany they protested because the last time he was there a hostile group tried to stone him. Jesus then announced that “our friend Lazarus is asleep, but I am going to awaken him.”
Here we begin to enter the darkness with Jesus. Lazarus was dead and has already been laid in the tomb.
The religious leaders were plotting to kill him, and when he finally got to Bethany it was clear that Martha and Mary felt that he had abandoned them in their hour of need. When Martha greeted him at the gate of the town she told him quite bluntly, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would never have died.” When Mary came out to see him she threw herself on the ground weeping, repeating what her sister had said. When Mary left the house to meet Jesus the townsfolk who were sitting shivah with her followed. They, too, were weeping loudly.
In Lazarus’ death Jesus was most certainly foreseeing his own death that would take place during the nearing feast of Passover. The sadness and hopelessness of Mary, Martha and the people gathering around him seemed to have overwhelmed him. “He became perturbed and deeply troubled.” When he came to the tomb he broke into tears. Many of the mourners criticized him. “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?” John’s Gospel doesn’t include Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. Instead, he places it here, in Bethany. With a command Jesus reached into the darkness engulfing the world around him. “Take the stone away!” Martha immediately protested. “Lord, by now he will smell: this is the fourth day since he died.”
“The one he loved” has been in the tomb four days. This detail was meant to emphasize the finality of Lazarus’ death. Jewish tradition held that the soul hovered around the body for three days. His soul had most certainly entered the world of shadows.
Jesus prayed aloud to his Father – he prayed that everyone around him would believe that he was sent by God. Then he cried out – a cry so intense that it pierced the walls of death. “Lazarus! Come out!”
Try to picture what happened next. “The dead man came out, his feet and hands bound with strips of material, and a cloth over his face.” Picture it! How would he come out with hands and feet tied and blinded by a veil over his face? I can only picture him squirming out of the entrance of the tomb
– head first. At Jesus command, Lazarus was born again!
I can’t stop my reflection here. I’m compelled to move ahead to John’s account of the burial of Jesus. “They took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, following the Jewish burial custom. At the place where he had been crucified there was a garden, and in this garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been buried.” This description is so similar to Lazarus’ burial and yet so radically different.
Jesus’ body was carried to the garden of Adam’s sin – the sin that brought death into the world. But….Jesus was put into “a new tomb.” No one had ever been buried in this tomb. Adam and all his descendants had been buried in tombs just like Lazarus’. The tomb sealed Adam in the kingdom of shadows. But now….Jesus, the new Adam, was buried in a new tomb, one in which no one had ever been buried before. This new tomb was the doorway to the Kingdom of God.
Recall what Jesus taught. “I am the door. Anyone who enters through me will be safe; and will go in and out and find pasture.” Remember what Jesus told Lazarus’ sister, Martha. “I am the resurrection. Anyone who believes in me, even though that person dies, will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Every account of the resurrection of Jesus dwells on the image of the empty tomb. We’re invited to stand before it and to listen to the words of Jesus. “In all truth I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born through water and the Spirit.”
Today, I invite you to clothe yourself in faith. Stand before the empty tomb, the garden tomb in which Jesus was buried. In prayer, listen for him to cry out your name. Listen! “Be unbound! Be set free!”