Lazarus is Dead

The Gospel reading for the  Wednesday evening church service this week is the story of Lazarus dying and being raised from the dead.  In light of this I thought I’d post something I wrote for the Clayfire project last year, but as far as I know hasn’t been released by them, and I’ve never posted before. It’s a bit of my return to writing a fictionalized account of the Gospel stories.

Now that we are away from Jerusalem, everything is different.  People continue to arrive, to hear the teacher, to watch what is going on, to see if there are to be more miracles.  The disciples assist Jesus as they could, but there was only so much they could possibly do.  They don’t heal, and while some try to help answer questions, it is clear they simply do not have the authority or wisdom that the teacher does.  They learn not to feel bad when those who arrived listen for a moment and  then, again and again, ask where the teacher is.  For all the people have traveled across the Jordan river for one reason.  They wish to see, to hear, to maybe even touch, this man they have heard is the salvation of Israel.

We need rest. It is here we can find it.  We also need the storms to die down. The religious leaders are angry, and they are not just privately offended.  There are rumors of plots, of money changing hands, of bribes.  We are told not to trust anyone. We are told to stay far away from Jerusalem, and not to go back across the river into Judea.  Here we are safe, surely none of the disciples or the closest disciples would be persuaded to betray Jesus, but there is no safety in Judea now.  We don’t need to go back to Judea.  Not yet. Maybe not until we can go back in triumph.

There is still work, but the tension that characterized so much of the last year is gone.  It is busy here, but happy.  Here the religious leaders do not have the same kind of power. Some of them are even here among the others, but these are a different sort.  They are curious rather than combative.  There is a lot of activity, but even in the midst of all this activity, there is a feeling of calm in the air, relaxation.  Space to think about what Jesus is teaching.  God himself worked for six days in creating the world.  A new world—this new teaching of Jesus—was not going to be built in any other way.

Not long after the sun rose above the hill to our east, I notice a servant, dressed well, standing on the edge of the crowd.  I notice him because he seems nervous. He stands patiently while Jesus teaches with his usual stories.  But he does not seem to be listening. He is looking around, looking for someone.  He notices Peter, and walks quickly to him, whispers something in his ear.  Peter takes the man by the arm and presses through the crowd, to where Jesus is sitting on an old stump.  I walk down the small hill to find out what was going on. Another plot?  Did we need to leave?

I get there right after the customary greetings.

“And now, rabbi, my master wishes to send you a message, a message not from him, but from his friends and neighbors, Mary and Martha of Bethany.  They wish for you to know that the one you love is sick.”

“Lazarus is ill?” Philip asks.

“Very ill,” the servant replies. “He was near death when I left.”

“This sickness will not end in death,” Jesus says.  He stands and looks around at the crowd.  “No,” he continues, more loudly, “It is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.”

We are all relieved. The teacher is, no doubt, speaking the truth.  The servant leaves, returning to Bethany with this message of hope.  The rest of us begin to prepare for our journey up to Galilee.  But Jesus does  not want to leave right away.  Ever since he talked to the servant he seems more pensive, concerned.  Not at all the expression of ease or relief we expected after our time by the river or after his seemingly confident announcement.  He no longer teaches the crowds.  He responds to questions, but then drifts back into his thoughts, and his prayers.

Two days pass. We are ready to go home.

Jesus walks over to where we are eating some bread and fish for lunch.

“Let us go back to Judea,” he says.

Judea?  There is only death in Judea now.  Lazarus is fine. Didn’t Jesus say he would be fine?  We argued.   He did not relent, and finally added, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; I am going there to wake him up.”

Wake him up?  He needs his sleep.  A good sleep is a healing sleep.  Why go there to interrupt this?  We continued to argue, trying to remind Jesus that sleep was good, and our being arrested was not.

Jesus looks exasperated.  Finally he says, “Lazarus is dead.  Let us go to him.”

Was Jesus wrong before?  We do not get a chance to ask, as he turns and begins to gather his own things.  Thomas stands and says to us, “Let us go. We will die with him.”  We go and gather our things as well, no one says a word.

It is a quiet journey back.  We make our way across the river again, then to the main road.  Jesus does not seem concerned at all.  He is, apparently, lost in thought, but he does not seem nervous. The rest of us are.  I jump a little bit whenever a bird rustles in a tree or the brush shakes from a sharp breeze, changing the shadows.  Lazarus is dead, anyhow.  What is the point of our risk? So that we can be late?  We are outsiders. They won’t allow us in the house to join in the mourning. Jesus maybe, but not the rest of us.  And if Lazarus really is dead?  Why didn’t we leave right away?  Why did Jesus not heal Lazarus like he healed so many others.  Did he not heal that servant of the Centurion who was paralyzed and suffering?  Jesus did not even need to touch the man. He did not even need to go to the house.  He spoke, and we heard back that the servant was healed that very same hour.  It was a miracle.  Why was there not a miracle of healing for Lazarus?  Why do we have to risk so much?  A word could have been spoken. Lazarus and his sisters could then come to us.

After he told us Lazarus was dead, he had added, “For your sake I am glad I was not there.” I wanted to ask the teacher what he meant by this.  He was glad?  For our sake?  “So that you may believe.”  What does this mean?  Believe in death?  Are we supposed to learn faith through yet more suffering, yet more evil?  Are we going to prove our devotion by honoring Jesus no matter what happens?  I still follow, but I am confused what I am supposed to believe.  Jesus could have acted. But he didn’t.  Why?  I want to ask him, but my thoughts are too jumbled, mixed with anger and sadness.  I shared many meals with Lazarus.  We were not close, but he was a friend. And he was a follower of the teacher as well.  Now he is dead.  People die. That is nothing new.  But, for him to die, when Jesus could have healed him?  It seems all wrong. Everything seems wrong.

What is the lesson? What is the teaching?  I mention my thoughts to some of the others as we continue our journey. No one knows what to think.  No one even wants to ask Jesus.  We don’t know how to ask the unsettling questions. And I don’t think we would like the answers even if we knew how. All was well. Now all is not.

It seems fruitless to talk about Lazarus or what is happening, or what will happen. Some talk to each other, but about mundane topics of Rome’s latest outrage or whether it will rain soon, or the name of that tree we walked past an hour ago, or the kind of bird that is whistling from the midst of the tall grass.  Others walk in silence.

Thoughts about Jesus distract me from my fear.  But they are not welcomed.  I cannot even imagine what Mary and Martha are feeling by this… betrayal.  That’s it. That is what it feels like.  Their brother becomes another illustration, a story to be told for the sake of others, a lesson that we might learn from. But they experience the loss, the hurt, the pain of both his death and the teacher’s callousness.  Are we but stories to help illustrate his wisdom and glory?  He heals, but he withholds healing. He says peace, then leads us into a place of violence.  Can I continue to walk with him?

My anger overpowers my fear and my sadness. By the time we reach the outskirts of Bethany I don’t know what to do or think.

It was a long journey but because we had started early we arrive before it is dark.  There are a lot of people around. I see the house of Lazarus in the distance and many are gathered there.  The family is important.  No doubt many have made the trip from Jerusalem. No doubt many made the trip when Lazarus was still sick, to do what they could to help. My thoughts are broken by someone walking towards us from the house.  Her hair is blowing free in the wind and she’s wearing rags.   She is clearly in mourning.

It’s Martha.  Lazarus must really be dead.  I didn’t want to believe it. That was the last bit of hope I had, the only way any of this would make sense again.  We really are too late.

“Lord,” she says, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”  Words filled with faith.  Even still.  What will Jesus ask?

He reaches out and holds her outstretched hands.  “Your brother will rise again,” he says to her.

“I know,” she replies, “he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” She is finding hope in the big picture. I wish I could hold onto that as easily.  She apparently gets the point of all of this, because Jesus steps back from her, turns and talks to all the crowd who had now gathered around us as soon as they saw who he is.

“I am the resurrection and the life,” he says.  “Anyone who believes in me will live, even though they die.  Whoever lives by believing in me will never die.”  He pauses and looks at the faces around him. He looks at me, then the man behind me, and the woman standing next to me.  He turns and then looks again at Martha.  “Do you believe this?”

I don’t know how I would answer.  Do I believe this?

“Yes, Lord,” Martha says. She stands a bit taller, smoothes her disheveled hair.  Jesus reaches out and wipes the remnants of tears off her cheeks.  She continues, “I believe that you are the Son of God, who was to come into this world.”  They look at each other for a moment, no words, each with a very slight smile. Jesus nods ever so slightly, affirming her words of faith.

Martha turns, walks through the crowd and back into the house.  We greet the people we know, many of whom are followers, to a varying extent, of Jesus.  The mood is somber, of course, but Jesus smiles as he greets each person, using their name, giving them each a special honor.  I see Martha walking back out of the house in the distance, Mary follows her, looking much worse than her sister. As she nears, I notice her eyes are dull, her shoulders droop, she seems twenty years older.  Gone too, I see, is her look of adoration as she walks to Jesus.  She seems a slave, a prisoner too long in the dungeon.

Martha stands at the edge of the crowd as Mary continues to walk through it, men and women giving her space as her walk turns to a slow shuffle.  Jesus is talking with a man, who I think is one of the Pharisees. The crowd quiets. Jesus notices and turns.  Mary is standing there, staring at him.  She looks away, at the ground. She raises her head.  Their eyes meet.  They stand in silence for a long moment, then she falls to the ground, her arms stretched out before her. Tears are streaming down her face.

“Lord,” she cries, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Jesus puts one of his hands softly on the top of her head, looking down at her.  He begins to say something, then stops.  He looks up and looks around at the others who are now weeping with Mary.  Others gather close to her, some kneel down and hug her.  I see Martha crying too, and she is surrounded by friends and neighbors.

“Where have you laid him?” Jesus asks those nearby.  He must want to pay his respects.

“Come and see.”  A few began to walk away, pointing in the direction of the tomb

Jesus does not immediately follow them.  He looks down again at Mary, who is now prostrate and shaking with her grief.  He looks over to where Martha stands, she is now hidden by so many others, but we can hear her loud wailing.

Jesus looks back down at Mary and I can see in his eyes that there are many thoughts, none of which I could possibly guess.  He squints a little bit, his chin quivers. I see a tear forming on his eyelid.  Then something just breaks.  The tears come forth like a winter storm.  He stands, his hands outstretched and he weeps.  Jesus weeps.  He does not hold back.  Sometimes he has seemed so impassive, so unconcerned I wondered if he really was human. But this?  This is grief—real, honest, and totally expected grief.  This death is not just a lesson for theological insight. He is mourning Lazarus, his friend, and he is with us in his sadness.  I am still angry.  I do not understand why he did not act sooner. He could have done something.  At the same time I feel closer to Jesus than ever before.  What can any of us do with death?  Some may be healed, but all will experience death. We all feel its sting.  Even Jesus.

“See how he loved him,” the man next to me says.

Still crying, Jesus walks towards the tomb.  I follow and see his shoulders rising and falling in his continued grief.  He wipes his eyes with his sleeve.  As he walks, others followed.  I turn and notice Martha among them.

Jesus arrives at the tomb. He is no longer crying at this point, but his eyes are red and puffy.  He stands there, his head bowed. His shoulders rise and fall again and again. His whole body shakes with the grief. He puts out his hand against a nearby tree, steadying himself, composing himself.  Then he stands up straight, turns, and asks some men standing near, “Take away the stone.”

Martha moves closer to him, holds onto his sleeve and says quietly, but loud enough that those of us who were near can hear, “But Lord, it has been four days.  By this time there is a bad odor.”

“Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”

She steps back, not sure what to say.  Jesus turns and looks at the men he had spoken to.  He does not say anything, the look in his eyes, that look of absolute confidence and authority which had variously enraged and inspired everyone who met him, was enough for the men to not dare provoke another request from Jesus.  They, and a few others, heave against the heavy stone.  It does not budge at first, but then starts to roll; and then rolls back a little bit. The men give another strong push. It moves out of its rut and rolls out of the way.  Many in the crowd lift their sleeves to their face, or tighten their cloak to cover their nose.  A breeze picks up from the heights, and comes down over the tomb bringing with it the unmistakable odor of death.  Everyone steps back. Jesus does not.

He walks closer to the entrance, not covering his nose, not giving any sense that he is aware of the increasingly strong foul smell.

He looks up.

“Father,” he says loud enough that all of us could hear clearly. “I thank you that you have heard me.  I knew that you would always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of those standing here, that they may believe that you have sent me.”  He turns and looks back at the crowd for a brief moment, scanning the faces of all of us.  He turns again, and looks into the tomb.

“Lazarus,” he yells.  “Come out!”

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