I received one of ‘those emails’ from a friend saying that he was in trouble. He said he had forgotten to tell me of his trip to Kiev where, according to the email, he had been held up at gunpoint, taking his money and credit cards and plane tickets, but not his passport. Now he was trapped over there, and the police were telling him that they would sort things out in about three week’s time, but if I had the kindness to send him $2,850, he could would be sure to refund me my money as soon as he was back home. Obviously, I did not rush to the bank to wire him the money. But I like to think that if my friend was really in trouble, I would do whatever I could do to help out. Most of us would, wouldn’t we? A friend calls with a diagnosis of cancer – we’re at their house “*snap” like that. Our daughter calls with the news of a miscarriage, “*” – we’re over before they can hang up the phone. A confidant gets a pink slip in the mail –“*” – we’re there. Linguists say it is the most powerful word in the human vocabulary, and people love to respond to it. “HELP!” “Help! I need you!” and “*” – we are there.
So I have long puzzled over this line in today’s gospel: “So when he (Jesus) heard that he (Lazarus) was ill, he stayed two days in the place where he was…” On the level of human kindness, that makes no sense. This was a plea for HELP from two of his closest friends, and ones who John tells us Jesus loves. Why not drop everything? On the level of the character of Jesus – who was always so present to everyone who was in need – it makes no sense. It is completely out of character. But, as the last of the seven signs in John’s gospel, and perhaps only there, it makes perfect sense.
Think of the two stories the past two weeks – the woman at the well and the man born blind. In both cases, there was a gradual change, a gradual coming to see, to believe, to understand who Jesus truly was. A man. Greater than Jacob. A prophet. One from God. The one who told me everything I ever did. The messiah. The Lord. Each of those titles marked the movement of faith in the woman and the man. Each showed an increasing awareness of who Jesus was and what he wanted to do in their lives. And so, this final sign, this final story in John’s gospel is meant to reveal to us the fullness of who Jesus is.
Martha sets up the teaching when she catches Jesus far from the crowd of mourners. “If you had been here…. but even now, I am sure that God will give you whatever you ask.” “DO YOU BELIEVE that I am the resurrection and the life?”comes the question from Jesus. Because that is what I need you to know, to trust, and to embrace. Again, the question gets posed, this time from Mary – “Why this death, why this sadness. If you had been here…”
And here is the key. We are told that Jesus becomes ‘perturbed’ twice in the presence of death – first when he faces it in the tears of Mary. And secondly when he faces the tomb itself. The Greek word literally means a ‘snorting kind of indignation’. In the presence of death, the son of God becomes indignant. Think about that. The reaction of Jesus in the face of death is anger. It is to be disturbed. It is to snort in indignation. This is not right. This grief, this sorrow, this lack of life, this tomb – it is not how it should be. And the Lord of LIFE reacts with the passion of God himself toward death – anger, struggle, indignation. Death is not meant to have the last word. Sorrow, though as real as the tears that he himself sheds over Lazarus’ death, is not the goal of creation. And from the depth of his spirit comes a series of commands – “Take away the stone.” “Lazarus, come out.” “Untie him and let him go.”
And now we know why Jesus delayed his coming. Jesus delayed his coming to the aid of Lazarus so that he might do something more than just raise him from his sickbed. He did not respond to the initial cry for help so that he could respond to that universal cry for help in each of us in the face of death. Death will not be the final end for those who put their faith in him. “Whoever lives and believes in me will never die”. THAT is what Jesus wanted us to know in this encounter – that every experience of death is swallowed up in victory.
This week, let the Lord of life stand before whatever is ‘death-like’ in you, whatever is still, lifeless, entombed, awaiting a word of command. Feel him snorting, indignantly at all that is dead in you. Hear him call you by name, and bid YOU – come out. Then leave the dark of sin and death behind. This is what Jesus still waits to do, why he still delays his coming. This is what He does best. “I am the resurrection and the Life.” Do YOU believe this? Then, with Lazarus – come out of the tomb.