By Dr. Keith Wagner
I am sure you have heard the expression, “That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.” As far as the Pharisees were concerned, the fact that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead was the straw that broke the camel’s back. From that time on they did everything they could to arrest him and put him to trial. Bringing a dead man back to life was just too much for them to accept. They were threatened by the fact that Jesus had performed such a miraculous fete. It challenged their authority and power.
This story challenges us too. It challenges our faith. Are we able to accept the raising of Lazarus as a historical event or was it just fiction? The story of Lazarus being raised from the dead is the anti-climax in the gospel of John. The climax is when Jesus himself was resurrected. If you truly believe in the resurrection of Jesus that we will celebrate on Easter then you have no problem believing in this story also.
No scientific data can support the metaphysical possibility that Jesus brought the dead man, Lazarus, back to life. Neither does the gospel story explain how it happened. We know only this: Lazarus was dead and when Jesus called out to him, he came out from the cave. To make that event happen there were several things that occurred.
First, Jesus cried out and said, “Lazarus, come out.” Second, Jesus had help. He asked others to remove the stone and he also asked some in the crowd to remove his grave clothing. And third, Jesus grieved along with the family and friends of Lazarus.
Lazarus was dead with no possible chance of new life. Even if he was lying in a coma, he had no way of escaping the tomb. Death had made him a prisoner. He would never know freedom again. However the voice of God changed all that. Jesus’ voice stirred new life in Lazarus’ body. Jesus voice set him free. It reminds me of the time that Paul and Silas were in prison (Acts 19) and God caused an earthquake which resulted in their freedom. Both stories illustrate that power of God is greater than the power of humankind.
What does this mean for us? It means that the voice of God is calling us away from whatever imprisons us. But, we don’t always hear that call. We don’t hear because God’s call is not logical or it comes from an unfamiliar source.
Lazarus came out of the tomb because he heard Jesus’ voice. What the story illustrates is that the dead hear better than the living do. What did Lazarus hear? He heard a familiar voice, like the sheep who know the voice of their shepherd. He heard the voice of reassurance.
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Consider a time in your life when you were stuck, trapped or confined. Life appeared dark and you felt lonely and helpless. What you needed in those situations was a reassuring voice. When I was a sophomore in college I got hurt during wrestling practice. The campus nurse thought I might have a ruptured appendix. I was rushed to a hospital in Columbus. There I was diagnosed with a hematoma in the stomach. I returned to campus but I was still in pain and I was also afraid. I called my father and he came immediately from Dayton and took me home. The next morning I went to our family doctor. He was the only doctor I ever knew. He had been treating our family for over 20 years. He assured me that I did have a hematoma and in a few weeks I would be back to normal. Our family doctor calmed my anxiety and his voice gave me the reassurance that I needed.
The voice of God is a voice that reassures. The voice of God doesn’t frighten us or cause us additional anxiety. God’s voice is a calming presence, a “still, small, voice” that comforts and gives us hope. Such was the voice of Jesus that comforted Mary and Martha, the voice that enabled Lazarus to be free.
The voice of God is easy to recognize but difficult to hear. It is a voice that calls us from the past and calls us to the present. It calls us from our old habits and invites us to try new ones. It calls us from apathy and indifference to caring. It calls us from despair to hope. It calls us from darkness to light. It calls us from loneliness to community. It calls us from captivity to freedom.
Although Jesus called out to Lazarus, he did not act alone. Jesus relied on the community of faith to assist him. If someone asked you to remove the entrance to a grave you would most likely reply, ‘No way.” It took people of faith to remove the stone and likewise it took people of faith to unwrap the now living body of Lazarus. Who of you would come forward and respond to such a task?
Just as Jesus had the disciples distribute the loaves and fishes to the crowds he had folks in the community of faith assist in the resurrection of Lazarus. Jesus had followers, believers, who responded to the call. It is that same response to the call of God which keeps the community of faith alive today. The voice of Jesus was one the people trusted and were willing to listen too.
Jesus was very close to Mary, Martha and Lazarus. They were like family to him. We know from the story that Jesus loved Lazarus. In other words, he was greatly devoted to him, most likely because of his support and friendship. He also “wept” or grieved at the thought that Lazarus had died. John said, “He was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” The faith community was important to Jesus and they trusted him.
I trusted the voice of our family doctor. His voice was the one I needed to calm my fears. Nevertheless, the voice of others, like my coach who told me to report to the nurse, or the nurse who sent me to the hospital and finally the emergency room physician who treated me, all responded to the call to a young college student who was in pain. It was a community that helped me through my crisis just as a community helped Lazarus through his.
Unfortunately that injury ended my wrestling career. If I continued to compete I could have acquired serious damage which could have been fatal. My experience with wrestling had made me more disciplined. I had also created some meaningful friendships with my teammates. But when you participate in a varsity sport it consumes your time and energy. Now that my wrestling days were over I could devote more of my time to my studies and other activities.
Awhile later I became involved in student government, an experience that taught me leadership and community involvement. Following college I entered the Navy and during my first year I applied for officer candidate school. The board who interviewed me didn’t give any credence to my participation in a varsity sport. They did however want to hear about my leadership experience. That was just one time in my life when I experienced death and resurrection. It is not until something in our life “dies” that something new can emerge.
William Willimon describes a true situation where a bishop sent a seminary graduate to her first assignment, an inner city church in decline for the last 20 years. “Just keep it going as best you can,” he suggested. She told the board that she thought she had a gift for working with children. “Then the bishop sent you to the wrong church,” responded one of the women on the board bluntly. “We are long past those years here.”
Then, the creative wind started to blow. The pastor found an old lady in the parish, Gladys, who used to play with Count Basie and the Dorsey brothers. The pastor found two ladies to make peanut butter sandwiches. Then, on Wednesday the four of them rolled the old piano out of the double doors of the Fellowship Hall. Gladys sat down and began to play hits from the 30’s, then some ragtime. By 3:30 a crowd of children had gathered. The pastor passed out the sandwiches. Gladys moved from “In the Mood” to “Jesus Loves Me.” The pastor told them a story about a man named Jesus. They clamored for more. A year passed. Today nearly a hundred children crowd into that church every Wednesday afternoon. On Sunday, classes are full, taught by a group of older women who thought that they were now too old to have anything to do with children. Those children brought parents. A church which had died, had now come back to life. (from Lectionary Homiletics, March, 2002)
When Jesus told Martha he was “the resurrection and the life” he wasn’t speaking only about the end of his earthly life as she alluded to. Jesus also wanted her to understand that death and resurrection is a life-long occurrence. When part of us dies, a new part of us is born. When Lazarus walked away from the grave the faith community had a new understanding of their relationship with Jesus. It wasn’t just eternal life that Jesus had promised, he promised resurrection of life each and every day.
Lazarus wasn’t the only one who received new life in this story. Both Mary and Martha received new life as well. They thought Jesus had abandoned them by delaying his trip to Bethany. Nevertheless they still believed and later realized what the resurrection of Lazarus meant to the faith community. In other words their self interest had to die which was replaced by the good for the greater community.
The potential to experience something new occurs whenever we hear the reassuring voice of God. God is also with us in our moments of grief and sorrow. Jesus weeps with us, totally connected to our pain and suffering. Resurrection is possible all through life. “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.”