There is a story I often seen connected to Lent that I love very much. It hits at the heart of my own Lenten reflection this year. It is the story of Lazarus (John 11). In the story, Lazarus becomes sick and his sisters, in a panic and worried for him, send for their friend Jesus. Jesus was well known by this part of the story and traveling across the Judean countryside healing and teaching. Lazarus’s family knew that Jesus was a holy man with the power to heal their brother.
Though Jesus gets the call to come and help Lazarus, he delays. Jesus seems unconcerned. This lack of concern worries others, doesn’t Jesus know that Lazarus may die?
And that is exactly what happens. Jesus waits to respond to the call for help, and word comes that Lazarus has died. Here is where we learn that for this particular story, Jesus is up to more than simply healing. Jesus says, “Lazarus has died. For your sakes, I’m glad I wasn’t there so that you can believe. Let’s go to him.”
That Lazarus has died seems to be just fine—even the desired outcome—to Jesus. For everybody else, this outcome seems awful. Lazarus was a friend, surely an honorable helper comes when someone is in danger and does not delay. Why, then, did Jesus delay? If he knew this would happen, why didn’t that make Jesus hurry all the more to help?
Jesus seems to saunter back to where Lazarus lives so that by the time he arrives, Lazarus is not only dead, but he’s been dead for a few days. The timing could not be worse. There is no chance now that Lazarus might simply be in a coma or on the edge of death and ready to be resuscitated. He is dead, dead, dead.
Jesus finds himself surrounded by grief and even the accusatory words and actions of Lazarus’s friends and family. Lazarus’s sisters both lay it out, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” Their neighbors likewise mumble, “Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?” It is as if the family doctor has dawdled to play golf and in the delay allowed a dear, longtime patient to ail and pass away. The betrayal and confusion adds to the family’s grief.
Jesus grieves, too, but not for the same reasons. The story tells us “Jesus began to cry,” and that he was “deeply disturbed.” We wonder as we read the story, is he angry with himself for delaying? Does he regret letting the family down? Did he not take Lazarus’s illness seriously enough so that now he mourns Lazarus, like everyone else?
Clues in the text, however, help us see that Jesus does not grieve Lazarus’s death. Jesus instead seems to weep because of the pain of the others—they believe Jesus has allowed Lazarus to die for nothing—or worse, out of lack of care or laziness. They do not understand either Jesus’s power or the work Jesus must demonstrate that must be done. We learn, however, from the words and actions of Jesus that Jesus’s sorrow and frustration are not because he is grieving Lazarus or regretting his delay. He grieves because Lazarus’s family does not believe.
Jesus says, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?” And to the mourners gathered around the tomb, Jesus give more orders, he says, “Remove the stone!”
Over the objections and disbelief of the family, the crowd moves the stone to open the tomb. ‘The stench!” Lazarus’s sister cries in fear. But Jesus proceeds. Once the tomb is open, he calls out again, this time to Lazarus, “Lazarus, come out!” In response to what would seem both ludicrous and impossible to those nearby, something amazing happens next. The dead man comes out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth.
This story takes every opportunity to remind us that Lazarus is dead. Dead. He died days ago. His body was anointed and wrapped for burial and he was laid in the tomb to decompose. He was starting to stink. The story does not mince words, Lazarus was a “dead man.”
The story would simply be another healing story if Lazarus hadn’t died. Because he did, the story takes on the aspect of the amazing. And because Jesus orchestrated the whole thing as a demonstration of the power of faith in God, it is more amazing still.
To read this story in the context of Lent is to seek the center of its power. Jesus will soon be arrested, flogged, and crucified. He will die and be wrapped and anointed and buried in a tomb. The impossible will soon happen to Christ himself, revealing to all what God is doing. By restoring Lazarus to life Jesus gives a foretaste of what will happen on that first Easter. We see the first inferences that the power of God is so unimaginable and that so much more than healing is possible. Much more.
Lazarus arises and stumbles into the daylight wrapped in the bindings of burial. Jesus gives one last instruction, “untie him and let him go.”
Two important things have happened. First, we have been given an event that previews Jesus’s resurrection that will come at Easter. Jesus has demonstrated that in the power of God death does not get the last word about anything. Second, we have been given a lesson that basically throws the saying ‘you can’t take it with you’ into reverse. Apparently, there are some things you actually do take with you. All those bindings are yours to keep.
Lazarus arises in a foreshadowing not only of Jesus’s defeat of death at Easter, but of the resurrection of the body in the final days to come. We humans will someday die and be ‘born’ into heaven, resurrected in some new bodily way to live in a world where things are ‘on earth as they are in heaven.’
Lazarus’s state on rising gives us a warning with that preview. Lazarus rises, but his bindings remain intact. They do not fall away when he rolls over, crawls out of the niche, stretches, stands, and walks out of the tomb. His bindings are all still with him, even the cloth over his face.
In looking at Lazarus’s state of resurrection, then, perhaps we can imagine a foretaste of our own.
In reflecting on those bindings, I hear the words of Matthew, “What you bind to on Earth you will be bound to in heaven; What you unbind on Earth you will be freed from in heaven.”
This Lent I invite you to think about what binds you. What will rise with you on that last day? What hurts and wounds, resentments, stubbornnesses, anger have you bound to yourself? What have others used to bind you?
This Lent I invite you to ‘Untie it and let go.’ Put down the stones of sullen resentment, jealousy, and hard-heartedness. Untie judgement, rage, and gossip. Unbind that chip from your shoulder. Remove the blindfold from your face so you can see clearly what is ahead of you. And, I guarantee that if you do, you will see the same things Lazarus saw on his own resurrection day: the daylight, his loved ones, Jesus, and life renewed.
Blessings each and all of you,