In v. 38 Jesus finally arrives at the tomb. The church traditionally refers to John 11:1-44 as “the raising of Lazarus.” Yet the actual raising of Lazarus occupies very little time in the telling of the story. Only 7 out of 44 verses of our text take place at the tomb, & the raising of Lazarus is accomplished in 2 short verses. John has devoted 37 verses to introducing the miracle, in order to establish the proper interpretive clues for his reader & for us today. In chapter 9, last week’s text, most of John’s interpretive work followed the miracle; here it precedes it. When Jesus arrives at the tomb, greatly disturbed by the power of death, we know that the one who stands at the mouth of the tomb is not any common miracle worker. The one who stands at the mouth of the tomb is the resurrection & the life.
Jesus orders the stone to be removed from the cave in which Lazarus is entombed. In John 20, when Mary Magdalene arrives at Jesus’ tomb, the stone is already removed from the opening. When Mary arrives, the power of death has already been vanquished. At Lazarus’ tomb, the power of death is still in force. The tomb is sealed, & Jesus must intercede in order to open the tomb to life.
Martha, who last appeared in v. 28, reappears & tries to stop Jesus. Martha is identified as the sister of the dead man. Martha is not identified in relation to her living sister, Mary, nor even to Lazarus by name, but is identified only through her relation to a dead man. This detail underscored the centrality of death in the scene that is about to be played out. The power of death can dominate life, even to the point of defining Martha’s identity.
Death has certainly been front & center in our news reports this week, & in particular the deaths of children & youth: the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, a 4-year old killed by abuse & neglect, a 3-year old & a 2-year old killed by abusive parents, even a 17-day old infant killed by abuse. These are all tragic, untimely - & seemingly preventable – instances of death. Yes, the power of death can dominate life.
In an earlier conversation between Jesus & Martha, Jesus asked her if she believed that he was the resurrection & the life, & she answered him with traditional Messianic affirmations. We were left with lingering questions – Was Marth’s confession adequate? Was her understanding adequate? Martha’s protest at the tomb now answers these questions & confirms the distance between what Jesus offered & what she embraced. She attempts to prevent Jesus from opening the tomb, presenting Jesus with the logical & biological reasons against opening the tomb, much as Nicodemus raised all kinds of arguments to speak against being born anothen. Jewish burial rites did not include embalming – the body was anointed with perfume & wrapped in burial clothes – so Martha’s words about the stench are accurate. No one would be foolish enough to open the tomb of a man dead for 4 days.
But Jesus will not be deterred by Martha’s protests. His words to her recall his earlier words: Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God? From the opening verses of our reading, Jesus has linked Lazarus’ death with the glory of God, & Martha’s protests at the tomb are a reminder of the difference between what Jesus has seen all along in Lazarus’ illness & what the other characters in our passage have seen. They have seen only illness & death, but Jesus has recognized an occasion for the revelation of the glory of God. As in Jesus’ earlier question to Martha, this question includes us in its scope. Both the characters & you & I are directed by Jesus to look with the eyes of faith for the glory of God.
In any event, Jesus’ words, not Martha’s protests, carry the day – the stone is taken away. The anticipated moment for action has finally arrived - & once more John works against our expectations. At this most critical & dramatic moment, with the tomb gaping before us, John again slows down the movement of the narrative. Instead of directing his attention to Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus lifts his eyes to God & prays. The content of Jesus’ prayer is an echo of his earlier words. He has told the gathered crowd that if they believe, they will see the glory of God, & now Jesus thanks God for God’s presence with him that enables Jesus to be the revealer of God’s glory. His words of thanksgiving function like so many of the words in the Lazarus story - to interpret in advance what the characters & we are about to see. His words express the interconnectedness of his relationship with God that is central to John’s Gospel. God has given Jesus power over life & death & the power to raise the dead. This gift from God is central to all Jesus says & does, & this prayer ensures that God’s gift is central for the characters & for us as well.
After 42 verses of anticipation, the narration of the miracle is short & sweet. After he has prayed, Jesus cries: Lazarus, come out! The miracle is accomplished simply by Jesus’ voice; the power of Jesus’ word awakens Lazarus from the dead. Jesus calls Lazarus by name, just like the good shepherd of John 10 calls his flock by name. The visual image that John creates is inescapably graphic: The dead man came out, his hands & feet bound with strips of cloth, & his face wrapped in a cloth. Even though Lazarus is now alive & walking, he is still identified as the dead man. This description keeps before us exactly what Jesus has done, so that there is no escaping the magnitude of Jesus’ miracle – he has made a dead man live! It also distinguishes the raising of Lazarus from Jesus’ own resurrection. In calling Lazarus the dead man, we are reminded that Lazarus has been resuscitated from death, but he is still identified by his mortality. The risen Jesus will never be identified as the dead man.
The dead man comes out of the tomb still bound in the cloths in which his body had been prepared for burial, & Jesus must give additional commands to free Lazarus from his bindings. These details, too, reinforce the magnitude & nature of Jesus’ miracle. Lazarus is still held by the external markings of death, & yet he lives. The detailed description of the condition of Lazarus’ body also points ahead to the story of Jesus’ death. At Jesus’ resurrection, the placement of the burial cloths is quite different from what happens in the Lazarus story. John devotes 2 verses in chapter 20 to describe the precise location of the linen cloths in the tomb, & the Lazarus story is helpful in understanding why such a detailed description is provided. Unlike Lazarus, Jesus emerges from the tomb unfettered by the bonds of his burial. Lazarus is a dead man who lives again by virtue of the saving words & presence of Jesus. The burial cloths are another reminder of his dependence & mortality. In contrast, Jesus leaves behind all the old signs of death. Not even the clothes of death have any claim on him!
In the Lazarus story, we have a stupendous, world-shattering gift of life. A man, dead, is called out of the tomb & walks out alive! Yet this act in & of itself is not the “point” of the story. This story is not intended to inspire awe in a miracle worker, but to lead to faith in the one who gives life & in the God who makes this & all gifts possible. The story has offered many explicit pointers about how to properly interpret this miracle so that we will not be misled by surface impressions: it is for the glory of God (v. 4); that the Son of Man may be glorified through it (v. 4); if you believe, though you die, you will live (v. 25); & if you believe, you will see the glory of God (v. 40). All of Jesus’ words in anticipation of this miracle move us to look beyond the stupendous act of reviving the dead to what we can learn & experience of God through that act. As odd as it sounds, the actual raising of Lazarus is narrated as quickly as it is so that the miracle does not get in the way of the truth of the story. The truth of the story is that Jesus is the resurrection & the life. The Lazarus miracle is one vivid, dramatic embodiment of that truth, but that truth does not depend on the miracle. The truth of Jesus as the resurrection & the life rests on the glory of God that the Lazarus miracle reveals.