When the Jehovah’s Witnesses come to town, they stop by my house. I generally invite them in for conversation. I like to take a copy of their magazines. My great grandparents were Jehovah’s Witnesses and having a copy of The Watchtower around reminds me of them.
When the witnesses came by this week, we listened to news coverage of the Superstorm Sandy. I admitted that events like this cause me to question why God allows these things to happen. I know there are some who would say that it is God’s judgment on the East Coast for their sin. The Jehovah’s Witnesses responded in quite a different way. They claim that the reason devastating events happen, and even the smaller bad things, is because Satan is in power on Earth at the present time.
Through our various visits, I have learned that the witnesses believe Satan has a lot of power. That realization causes me to question how people who spend so much time focused on Satan have anytime to hope in God’s power. It seems to me that life would be a whole lot different if they focused more on Jesus and less on Satan.
Superstorm Sandy has me questioning God a lot. In much the same way, death causes me to question God. Whether it is the death of an elder person who has lived a long life or the senseless death of a child, I wonder why we have to experience death.
Today’s text raises a lot of questions for me as well. Some of my questions are resolved by understanding the entire story of Lazarus’ death, not just the limited view we have from the verses we already read. Let me tell you the beginning of the story.
Jesus’ friend Lazarus was ill. Lazarus is the brother of Mary and Martha from Bethany. Mary is the one who anointed Jesus’ feet with oil and wiped his feet with her hair. Jesus loved this family very much. When they found Lazarus was gravely ill, the sisters went to where Jesus was to tell him.
When Jesus heard the news, He told the sisters that Lazarus’ illness was not fatal and it would all be for the glory of God so that the Son could be glorified. Jesus waited a few days where he was before going to Bethany to Lazarus. When Jesus told the Disciples that He wanted to go to Bethany which was in Judea, the Disciples reminded Him that a group of the Jews had wanted to stone Him to death.
Jesus said he wanted to go “wake up” Lazarus. The Disciples thought if Lazarus was sleeping that he would eventually wake up and get better. They didn’t realize that Jesus referred to Lazarus’ death as sleep. Jesus is going. The Disciple Thomas says, “let’s go with him so we can die with Jesus.” The Disciples thought that they were walking into a death trap and would die by those wanting to stone Jesus. They didn’t realize what they were actually going to experience.
When Jesus and the Disciples arrive in Bethany, Lazarus had already been dead for 4 days. Many of Mary and Martha’s Jewish friends from Jerusalem had come to comfort them. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she ran out to Him and said, “If you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” I think she said this with anger blaming Jesus for Lazarus’ death.
Jesus said, “Don’t worry. Your brother will rise again.” She replied, “Yes, I know, at the day of the resurrection on the last day.” He said, “Don’t you know Martha? I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She replied, “Yes, I believe that you are the Christ.”
After her conversation with Jesus, Martha told Mary to go out to see Jesus. The Jews who had come to the house to mourn with the sisters followed Mary out to meet Jesus. That’s where our Scripture reading picks up. Mary went and fell at Jesus’ feet crying. She tells Jesus that she believes that if He had been there Lazarus would not have died. I think she says it differently than Martha had. Martha said it with anger and blame. Mary says it from her grief and bargaining.
Something in this scene made Jesus angry. The English translation says He was disturbed, but the Greek says He was angry. It can’t be that he was angry with their unbelief. They believed He would have saved their brother and knew of His power. And the crowd believed He had power. They said, “If He can make a blind man see, surely He could have healed Lazarus.” Mary, Martha, and the Jews believe Jesus has the power to heal, so He couldn’t be angry about unbelieving.
I think Jesus is angry at death. It causes him to cry, to weep with His friends. God had not experienced death before now. In Jesus, God experienced the grief of death. Death had caused a separation between Lazarus and his loved ones. That separation had caused Jesus’ friends such grief that it pained Him and He cried with them. Jesus is going to do something about death.
Jesus leads the crowd out to Lazarus’ tomb. The Gospel writer states all the things that Jesus is faced with, the stone rolled over the tomb’s opening, the stench of death, the body bound by burial linens. But, these obstacles don’t deter Jesus. His power is far greater than the power of death.
With great faith in God Almighty, Jesus thanks the Lord for already having heard His request and doing what He asks. Then, Jesus yells in to Lazarus, “Get out here. Awake. Come greet your family and friends.” The Scriptures tell us that Lazarus’ body came out. This wasn’t an apparition or spiritual resurrection. This was the flesh and blood and breath resurrection of Lazarus.
Here’s where my questions begin. Did Lazarus die again? How much longer did he live? Did people think that Lazarus was going to rise again after he died the next time? Was this the first time Jesus raised someone from the grave? Did Jesus raise others from the dead? Did the Disciples believe Jesus was going to rise again after His own death? Was Lazarus raised up to Heaven like Jesus was?
This questioning leads to questions about our own death. Will we have a bodily or spiritual resurrection? What will our new bodies look like? Are we going to be resurrected on this Earth or some other reality beyond our imagination of up there? Are we asleep until the resurrection or are we automatically raised to Heaven at the moment of our death?
When we think about death, we generally have as many questions as we do answers. We wonder why bad things happen to good people. We wonder why one person’s prayers for healing are granted while others are not. We wonder why good people get sick.
We ask questions because we believe in Jesus and His teachings. Out of our faith, we believe Lazarus was raised from the dead. With hope, we believe that it will happen again for us and our loved ones. The only consolation we have when we are grieving is the sure and certain hope that, as Jesus promised, there will be resurrection to new life.
The scene of Lazarus walking out of the tomb bound by burial clothes was not a scene of death, but a sign of promises fulfilled. The story is a story that comforts. We know that Jesus weeps with us when we grieve. We know that death angers Jesus. We know that Jesus has power over death. We know that death and disease does not have the final word because of the power of the resurrection.
As we remember our loved ones, especially today, we face the power of death to separate us from our loved ones. In hope, we look to the day when Revelation 7:17 tells us God “will wipe every tear from [our] eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning , crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” By faith we trust Paul’s conviction in Romans 8: 38 – 39, “nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death nor life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.”
Death is not the end of life. AKM Adam says death is an interruption of life. We have life…and life to come. Amen.