On the Road to Lazarus’ Tomb


“Baruch atta Adonai Eloheynu melech ha-olam, dyan ha-emet.”  Holy One of Blessing, Your Presence fills creation. You are indeed the Judge.  Those are the words said by any good Jew at the moment that they hear of a death.  Perhaps Jesus himself recited them as he heard the news that his friend Lazarus was dying. We do not know, the Gospel writers do not record it.  But maybe we can imagine it.

The chronology of these events in John’s Gospel is complicated, as we heard in another long and dramatic reading, which we have become accustomed to in this Holy Season of Lent.

The Gospel writers tell us that Jesus is somewhere near where John had been baptising at the river Jordan when he hears news that his friend is ill. Jesus is himself in a place of relative safety, away from those in Jerusalem who wish to see him killed.  On hearing about his friend he does not immediately travel to Bethany. He waits at least two more days before starting out on the risky journey.  When he finally decides to go, his disciples travel with him, and it seems that their journey lasts at least two more days, because Lazarus has already been in the tomb for four days by the time that Jesus and his companions arrive there.  There is clearly a hesitancy for Jesus to go.

Perhaps there is a sense in which Jesus is coming to terms with the finality (in its current form) not of Lazarus’ life but of his own life. He knows that things are coming to a crucial conclusion. Going to Bethany, is to go near to the place where others want to see him killed. Maybe he is not quite ready to face what is to come for him.

There is a lot going on in this beautiful encounter that we gather around our Gospel reading.  The raising of Lazarus from the dead comes as the last of the seven signs in the first half of the Gospel of John – the seven miracles that the Gospel writers use to show us the importance (for all time) of this man Jesus. It is the greatest of the signs that are presented to us, because it reveals Jesus to us as the one who holds life and death in his hands. The same hands that will be pierced by the nails of human rejection.  After these seven signs, the rest of their account of the life of Jesus will be focused entirely on the events that lead to Jesus’ own death.  That’s why one biblical scholar names the first half of the Gospel, which ends with this momentous encounter, “The Book of Signs,” and all that is to come in the chapters that follow “The Book of Glory.”

So in Lazarus’ death, and in his being raised from the tomb by Jesus, we begin to experience and anticipate all that is to come as we journey together towards Holy Week and Our Lord’s Passion.  Hearing this story again, at this Eucharist, helps us to begin to anticipate the path that we will be treading from next weekend as we enter Holy Week together for another year, and mark out the final events of Jesus’ life together.

But if we paint Jesus out of the story that we have just heard from John’s Gospel for just a moment, and place ourselves into it instead, we may be able to recognise some of our own hesitation in confronting the death that is certainly ahead for all of us.  One of the great privileges of being a priest is to have the opportunity to wait with the dying at their bedsides, but sadly one part of that experience can be witnessing, all too often, a member of the family who just cannot bring themselves to visit the dying person and to be drawn into the painful experience, the confronting reality of what is taking place.  It is like the feeling that we have deep within us, that comes from ‘who knows where’ that makes us freeze when we see someone in mourning, wondering if we can cross over the road, or leave the room undetected without having to speak to them, because we simply do not know what to say.

I am not suggesting that this is what Jesus was feeling, or doing, when he takes so long to get to Bethany, but his journey there can serve as a metaphor for our own reticence to face the reality of death for ourselves and our loved ones.  And perhaps there is a glimmer of truth, as we reflect on the humanity of Jesus, which finds him unable at first to go near to the place where he knows that he will die. His pleading to his father in the Garden of Gethsemene, that another way might be found for him, on the night before his crucifixion, surely suggests that this could be possible.

I realise that in wondering about these things out loud, in your company, I am stepping into holy ground, sacred space full of memories and hopes, and perhaps regrets.  But we cannot face the joyful hope of the resurrection without first confronting the death that will pave the way towards it.

Jesus arrives, finally in Bethany four days after Lazarus has been placed in the tomb. Mourners have travelled there to be part of all that is going on, and Martha meets Jesus to confront him about his delay.  What Jesus says to her, he says to each one of us: “I am the resurrection and I am the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”  How can we let those words into our souls today, how can we open ourselves up to the joyful hope, knowing the vulnerability that comes along with it?

The name Lazarus is a form of the Hebrew name Eleazar which means “God’s help.” In this encounter, Lazarus (the friend who Jesus loves) is the representative of all his friends, each one of us, with the whole of humanity.  Lazarus, “God’s help” stands for us all. He represents each one of us who long for God’s help in our lives, the very meaning of his name.  His experience of life through death speaks to each one of us, whose lives are finite and precarious.  Just as the stone will be rolled away on Jesus’ own tomb, so it is rolled away for Lazarus. Not that Jesus will be there in his own tomb waiting for someone to set him free.

I think that it is true to say that we cannot begin to be changed by this great good news, of the hope of the resurrection in Jesus, which we are even now preparing to celebrate, without first confronting within ourselves the power of death.  For some years now, on Ash Wednesday, I have tried to set aside time to look again at the arrangements that I have made for my own funeral.  We spend enormous time planning for a birth. As followers of Jesus we are also called to face the reality that we will each die.  I am helped in all of this, by remembering that Jesus too hesitated before his own death. As I contemplate my own mortality, in the hope of resurrection in him, I imagine myself on this journey towards Lazarus’ tomb, and onwards to the Cross.  We can only hold on to the hope that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, when we have first taken time to sit with the reality of our own dying,  and to hold together both the mixed emotions of uncertainty about all that will change for us and for our families and friends, and the hope that we will live with God with all those who have gone before us, in a way that we cannot possibly begin to understand now.

Those of you who have chosen to engage in reflecting on the funeral customaries that we have distributed this Lent are participating in that work.  There are Christians who move directly from the joy of Jesus being triumphantly welcomed on Palm Sunday, directly to the joy of the resurrection on Easter Day, from one happy day to another happy day, without any of the pain of Good Friday: but Anglicans do not.  We believe in both the pain of the Cross and the joy of the empty tomb – not just one of them.

And Holy Week, beginning next weekend, is the way that we express all of this liturgically.  As we are reminded of the Palms waved to welcome Jesus next weekend, and as we reflect on the Way of the Cross next Sunday evening; as some of us journey to the Cathedral on Monday to pray with brothers and sisters from around the Diocese; as we gather at one of the Eucharists on Maundy Thursday to remember Jesus’ last supper with his disciples; and as we kneel at the foot of the Cross on Good Friday; we come to terms both with Jesus’ own death, and our own.  And on Holy Saturday and Easter Day, as we celebrate again with great joy the resurrection of Jesus, we proclaim that death has been conquered.

The story of the raising of Lazarus today is a precursor, a looking forward to what is ahead for us in Holy Week, to get our minds thinking, and our hearts racing in anticipation of all that is to come.

What will death be like? We cannot begin to comprehend.

But Jesus says he has questioned it and feared it in the Garden, he has experienced it and endured it on the Cross, and been victorious over it through the empty tomb, and he says to us that he will be in it, with us, through it.  And so we can have confidence to face Holy Week head on – not just the joy of it, but the pain as well.  “I am the resurrection and I am the life,” says Jesus. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

All that we are does not just have a momentary significance, but an eternal one, through him, within the embrace of God’s everlasting love.