As I studied our Gospel lesson this week, I noticed an interesting parallel with last week’s passage from John about Jesus putting healing mud on the eyes of the blind man near the Pool of Siloam. When his disciples asked him whose sin had led to the man being born blind, Jesus responded, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (v. 9:3). OK, so the blind man was “taking one for the team,” if you will. It all worked out for him in the end… there are a lot of worse outcomes than getting to meet and be healed by the Savior and Redeemer of the world, I suppose. But to born blind… and live one’s entire life without being able to see, or to work outside of begging, or to marry and raise a family… all so that “God’s works might be revealed in him.” Dang! Sounds kind of harsh. Or is it just me? And then we come to today’s passage, when Jesus learned that his good friend Lazarus was “low-sick” (for those of y’all that may not be from around here, low-sick means really, really sick), Jesus seems to almost brush off the bad news: “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” (v. 11:4). Dang! And Jesus’ lack of urgency seemed to be reflected in the fact that it took him two whole days to stir himself to go to Lazarus’ bedside. By which time it was too late. Or was it?
Can you imagine how annoyed Lazarus must have been when Jesus called him back from the afterlife? He seems to have been a good man who cared about friends and family, especially his sisters Martha and Mary with whom he lived, but having to pass through the agony of mortal illness and death only to be summarily ripped from the paradise of God to return to the travails of earthly life… really? And then there was the why. Lazarus’ resurrection was necessary to counter peoples’ persistent uncertainty about whether or not Jesus was the Messiah. It had only been a few weeks since Jesus had had to leave Jerusalem for his own safety after a confrontation with the Scribes and Pharisees over the healing of the blind man from last week’s Gospel lesson (on the Sabbath, God forbid!), finally telling them in parting, and in no uncertain terms, that he was doing the work of his Father and that, in fact, the Father and he were one! About the time the local posse broke out the handcuffs to arrest him, Jesus “went away” across the Jordan River, back to the place where John had been baptizing, near the Sea of Galilee, about 50 miles away, where people seemed more receptive to his teaching. It was not yet his time.
But it was soon to be Lazarus’ time. Lazarus and his sisters lived in Bethany, a village just outside of Jerusalem and Jesus hadn’t seen them for a while. So, a couple of days after “tut-tutting” Lazarus’ predicament, Jesus did an about face and told his disciples to saddle up. They were headed back into the hornets’ nest that was Jerusalem. Lazarus was “asleep,” and Jesus was going to “wake him up.” Riiiiiight…. And then Jesus clarified that Lazarus was indeed temporally dead, but that they needed to go to him anyway. It must have been so confusing for the disciples! As usual, they didn’t really get it, but they were game to follow wherever Jesus might lead, even if it meant putting themselves in harm’s way. By the time Jesus and his disciples arrived on the scene, Lazarus was not only dead, but he had been in the tomb for four days. What is the significance of four days, you may ask? I will tell you. In Jewish tradition, the soul of a departed person was thought to linger in the vicinity of the body of the deceased for up to three days after death, on the off-chance it might somehow be reunified with its earthly host. Jesus knew that, in order to achieve God’s purposes, people would have to know that Lazarus’ return to the land of the living wasn’t simply “resuscitation,” it had to be resurrection.
But what of the human toll? Mary and Martha, both distraught from having lost their beloved sibling… their protector… likely their breadwinner… met Jesus on the road and reproached him saying, “If you had been here, he would not have died.” Their suffering was palpable, and tears are contagious. Even though Jesus trusted God’s overarching purpose and was committed to doing his Father’s will, it grieved him beyond measure that the unbelief of God’s people would require such a sacrifice from his friends. And Jesus wept. Not tears of sadness, I think—tears of anger… and resolve. There’s nothing wrong with being sad when people we care about are sad, but it’s quite another thing to actually share empathically in their suffering. That only happens when we have skin in the game and Jesus had skin in this game. He knew these people. He loved this family, and he shared the full measure of their pain. But he also knew that the only real way to banish the sadness and pain of this temporal world — once and for all — was to do whatever was necessary to hasten the coming of God’s Kingdom. Jesus was on a mission: a mission to change people’s understanding about their relationship with God. Other friends of Mary and Martha had come to console them in their loss. Jesus came not to console them, but to strengthen their belief. “I am the resurrection,” Jesus said. If you live in me… if you believe in me, you’ll understand that the life you live here on earth isn’t really life… and death you die here on earth isn’t really death… it’s kind of like falling asleep. And then Jesus showed them exactly what that looked like when he raised Lazarus. And he would show them again in due course through his own resurrection.
So, everything worked out for Lazarus in the end, just as it did for the blind man in last week’s Gospel… but what a shame it is that all of this suffering had to take place. All because of our unbelief. Jesus wept… which means that God wept. God wept for Lazarus. And God weeps for us. Because God knows us! God’s got skin in this game. If you’re like me, from time to time you wonder why bad things happen to good people… or at least to people who don’t seem to have done anything to merit the level and intensity of suffering that has overtaken them. And I wish I could pull a rabbit out of a hat and answer these questions for you… but I can’t. It’s way over my head. But here’s what I do know: God loves us and wants us to be happy in this life. But simply “being happy” is not the purpose for which we were created. There’s more to it than that… a lot more. We were created to “proclaim, by word and example, the Good News of God in Christ… to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves… and to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being.” If these words sound familiar to you, it’s because they’re the words of our Baptismal Covenant in which we promise, essentially, to do the best we can to be the hands and feet of Christ on earth (BCP 305). We should brush up on those promises from time to time… because they remind us why we’re here. And when we experience suffering in this life, whether self-inflicted or perhaps as part of a larger mystery that is beyond our wildest imaginings, we can take comfort in knowing that God is with us. God became Immanuel… in the person of Jesus Christ… fully divine, and yet fully human… because, In the words of St. Gregory of Nazianzus, “that which he has not assumed… he cannot heal.” God became us… in order to heal us. God created us… and will redeem and sanctify us, if we’ll listen… and believe… and take up the hard, yet oh so rewarding, work of living into our Baptismal Covenant. Only by giving into God’s movement and purpose in our lives will we find perfect healing… and eternal life. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ shows us that God has gone “all in” to save us from the predations of the Evil One and from our selves. God has left everything on the field. So, now it’s all on us to listen… believe… and act!
 Gregory of Nazianzus, “Epistle 101”