You can see all the lectionary readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss only the Gospel reading.
This week’s Gospel lesson is a pretty famous one. Before Jesus rose from the dead, he brought another man back from the dead, his dear friend named Lazarus.
The first part of the story is a little puzzling. Jesus receives a message from Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary, telling him his beloved friend is ill. Jesus hears it and said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
You may ask (I know I have)—why did Jesus choose to wait when he heard his friend was sick? He stayed a couple more days where he was before going to see Lazarus. Some say it was to show his power to resurrect Lazarus or that he was showing he would do things in his own time and not to someone else’s schedule. I’m not sure; I’m not sure if it was a literal resurrection from the dead. But the gospel doesn’t tell us Jesus’ reasoning more than what I quoted above.
When Jesus finally gets around to going to see Lazarus, he tells his disciples they are going back to Judea. They object because he has been threatened there before (his message is not always popular, especially with leaders). Then Jesus again gets cryptic: “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” What even is this? I admit what he says here is a little baffling. It’s either a way of saying, “Let’s not waste the daylight—might as well get going”—I don’t think it’s that, though. Or he just means he walks with God (i.e., in the light) so he doesn’t fear what may happen. Or it’s something else and it’s been way too long since I took New Testament Theology, so I’m not sure. My best guess is that he just doesn’t fear death.
Then he tells his disciples that his friend Lazarus has fallen asleep and he is going to awaken him. As usual, they are slow on the uptake or don’t get his word play, so he tells them flat out that Lazarus is dead. Then, get this, he says, “For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Obviously, it’s sad that Lazarus had to die, and Jesus is sad himself, but he is hoping his disciples will learn something (they aren’t fast learners and need all the help they can get—like most of us). And Thomas says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” In my head that’s in a sort of Eeyore voice.
When Jesus finally gets to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, he finds out his dear friend has already been dead for four days. Martha comes out to meet him as he approaches and it seems like she almost reproaches him for not being there before the death, but she also has faith, saying, “[E]ven now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus assures her that Lazarus will rise again, but she thinks he means some future final rising. But here Jesus gets super Messiah on 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. Do you believe this?” She declares she does believe it.
Then Mary is also called out to where Jesus is (he still hasn’t reached their house) and Jesus is moved by her tears. The Bible says, “he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” I find this a very moving thought myself. Sometimes in this particular story, Jesus can seem cold—waiting a few days before visiting his dying friend, for instance, but he’s not cold. His heart is moved by the grief he sees. He asks where they’ve laid Lazarus, and he weeps himself. This is the famous shortest verse in the Bible—John 11:35— “Jesus wept”—so short and simple, but meaningful to see Christ himself cry over a friend. Some of the people there were moved also, “See how he loved him!” Others were saying that a man who could heal blindness should have kept Lazarus from dying.
In this disturbed mood, Jesus comes to the tomb, which was simply a cave covered by a stone. Jesus asked them to take away the stone and the Bible gets real here because Martha tells him that the dead body has got to be stinking the place up. He’s like, Girl, didn’t I already tell you I got this? OK, major paraphrase there but he reminds her that if she believes, she’ll see the glory of God. They take away the stone and Jesus looks up and says, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” Then he cries out, “Lazarus, come out!” (Personally, I like the versions that say, “Lazarus, come forth!”)
And out comes the dead man! Not quite so dead now. Not even mostly dead. He’s still wrapped up in his dead man wrappings so Jesus commands them to unwrap him and let him go.
This gospel story ends by telling us that many of the Jews there that day believed in Jesus after that.
So what is this story about? There’s so much here. There’s the fact that Jesus loved his friend and his family so much, but waited to come to see his dying friend until he was already passed, perhaps as a demonstration that he was the Messiah. What does this tell us about Jesus, or at least about what John wanted us to know about Jesus? There’s the sometimes bold and sometimes faltering faith of Mary—how does that compare to our own faith? There are days I stride forth boldly holding up the light of Christ and other days I’m hiding it under a bushel (or at least under the covers with me while I take a timid nap). There’s Lazarus, freed from death and the bondage of his death-wrappings. Finally, there’s the result that many believed in Jesus because of seeing that miraculous resurrection. Oh to see a miracle like that! I think the miracle I see day-to-day is the love of Christ made real in the love people give to others. And I feel called to go out and see how I can get down to the real business of passing that love and light on.