Names: what we do and don’t know
This story, as John tells it, starts out about Lazarus:
1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.
What do we know about Lazarus? Precious little! At the outset, we learn that he lives with his sisters, Mary and Martha in Bethany and that he is ill. Readers of John’s gospel don’t know any of these characters yet (that story of Mary and Martha is in Luke, not John). Later we learn that Jesus loved Lazarus, and he died. That’s it.
We never hear Lazarus speak. We do not get to see any scenes in which Lazarus is with Jesus, with one exception; in the next chapter we see him, but all he does is sit a the table, in his own house, with Jesus, at supper (12:1-2). Who is this mystery man?
Lazarus’ name is a shortened form of Eleazar, which means “God helps.” He is from a town whose name, Bethany, which means “House of Affliction or Depression.” This story is about how “God helps” a person in “the house of affliction.” The only other way Lazarus is described is found in the note that his sisters send to Jesus, announcing his illness. It says,
3 “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
Lazarus is called, “he whom you (Jesus) love(s).” Is there anyone here who does not feel named by that description? Maybe none of this is coincidental. Let’s keep looking at this story.
Love, expectation, and delay: clues
Jesus and the disciples are not in Bethany with the family when Lazarus gets sick. So they send him that note. It’s short; almost cryptic. It’s as if every word cost them a fortune.
3 “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
No request is made; just the strongest implication that they and Jesus know what love would do. But the story is not that predictable:
5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Every time we pray we do this too, consciously or not. We come to God because we are in some kind of “house of affliction” or someone we love is there, and we believe that we know what a loving God would do; we presume that we know the kind of help God will give. Silent Lazarus probably had some expectations too.
Jesus loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, but did not come when called. Why not? There is something going on that is more important than illness.
Jesus responds to the note about Lazarus’ illness out loud, among his disciples. He is, admittedly, arcane. Nevertheless, they seem thick-headed at best. Jesus tells them that Lazarus is “asleep,” and they don’t seem to get it that he is dead, though sleep has been a metaphor for death for a long time.
11 he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.
But I don’t believe the disciples were stupid. Rather, this is a way the writer, John, alerts the reader, me and you, that there is something meant here beneath the surface. It’s like winking. Yes, John, we get it, you mean Lazarus is dead, not just asleep.
But maybe you mean even more than that. Maybe we are to see in the death of “the one Jesus loved” who lived in “the house of affliction” something about ourselves. After all, don’t we believe we are loved by Jesus? Don’t we, at times, reside in the “house of affliction?” Are we to see ourselves in Lazarus? If so, in what sense are we dead? Are we able to be raised to life?
Can these bones breathe?
There have been times when the whole nation, God’s chosen people, were dead. Ezekiel’s prophetic imagination gave him a vision of the nation as if they were all a bunch of dried bones spread out on a dusty valley floor. “Can they breath?” God asks the prophet? Ezekiel gives a cagey answer,
“O Lord GOD, you know.”
God does know that dead bones of that nation can come back to life – on one condition:
4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.
If the bones “hear the word of the Lord” when he calls, then they will live. God is able to send his Spirit into dead bones who “hear the word of the Lord” and that spirit, that breath of God will come into those dead bones, and they will live.
Hearing the voice
It turns out that hearing “the word of the Lord” is crucial in John’s telling of this story of the mystery-man, now dead-man, Lazarus. John turns our attention to Jesus’ voice repeatedly. Jesus finally reaches Bethany, and finds death, mourning, maybe some resentment about his timing, and faith that has some serious gaps. Lazarus is dead, people are crying, and both sisters identically express that combination of faith plus criticism:
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. (vv. 21 & 32)
The sisters both have a kind of faith: they believe in the resurrection at the end of time – all well and good. But do they believe that God can bring life where there is death now, right here, today? To help them fill in this faith-gap, Jesus lets them hear his voice as he prays:
41“And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 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.”
The solution to death, according to Ezekiel, is to “hear the word of the Lord.” This is the solution for Mary and Martha as well, and, it turns out, for Lazarus, who is about to find out what “God helps” is all about. He is going to hear himself called by name:
43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Now we see what God’s help is all about: it is about bringing life where there was death; faith, trust, belief where there was disappointed skepticism, God’s voice into a space that had been formerly filled with the tear-soaked sound of mourning.
Us in this story
I believe we are to see ourselves in this story. We are here in all of the characters Jesus touches. We are like the thick-headed disciples who do not understand the greater plan of God at work behind the scenes. We are like Mary and Martha who have gaps in our faith about what God can do, now, today. But most of all, we are the mystery-man Lazarus, who lives Bethany, the house of affliction, and who needs to experience “Eleazar” God’s help.
What specific help do we need? Just like the Gulf of Mexico, after the oil spill, which has places deep under water where there is no vegetation, no fish, no life, in other words, dead zones, so we all have personal dead zones.
Dead zones are gaps in our faith. Places where the Spirit of God is not breathing new life because we are just not sure we can trust him. Sometimes we have been sitting there in the house of our affliction and he has not come when we thought he would if he loved us. So when push comes to shove, and when trusting him involves risk, we hold back.
Some of us have dead-zones in our lifestyles. We have patterns of behavior that are destructive to us or to those around us, but we don’t believe we can change – or maybe we don’t even want to change yet. But it’s a dead zone; and if we opened the door and looked at it, it would stink like an open tomb.
Some of us have dead zones in our compassion. We were raised to look out for ourselves, we have worked hard to get where we are, and we cannot imagine why everybody else cannot do the same. We look at suffering and find reasons to blame the victims. We look at need and have the impulse to turn away. We find excuses for willful blindness, as we spoke of last week. And meanwhile, a dead zone grows in our hearts, as suffering around us increases.
But there is a solution to our dead zones. Dead zones, like dry bones, can live. The word of the Lord is calling.
The challenge to all of us today is to look at ourselves with life-and-death seriousness. Where are my dead zones? Where am I not responding to the voice of the Lord? Where, in my life, do I find it hard to trust him? With my money? With my tongue? With my pride? With my politics?
We are Lazarus, and yes, God helps by calling us to come out of our tombs. Listen to his voice; he is calling! Come out, into the light. Trust him to be able to be the resurrection and the life for you now, today.