Two of today’s scripture readings are stunning, mysterious stories about how God works. The Old Testament reading for this Sunday (Ezekiel 37:1-14) is the story of the dry bones.
The Lord…set me down in a valley...full of bones…He said, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ Then he said ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord …I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live...So I prophesied … and as I prophesied… the bones came together, bone to its bone… flesh came upon them, and skin covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said, ‘Prophesy …and say to the breath:… Come from the four winds … and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ I prophesied as commanded, and breath came into them. They lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
Then he said to me… you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live… then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.’
The mysterious God of life restored life, even to those so long dead that they are only bones.
We see this story as prophetic of the work of Jesus in this morning’s gospel (John 11:1-45).
Now Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha, was ill. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair… So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness … is for God’s glory, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha, her sister and Lazarus, after hearing that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer …where he was.
Then…he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, are you going there again?’ … he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death…Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. Let us go.’…Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’
Jesus’ statement, ‘This illness … is for God’s glory, that the Son of God may be glorified through it’ echoes his words to his disciples in last week’s gospel about the man blind from birth: he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him (John 9:3) In both cases, the misfortune was part of a larger purpose.
That said, Jesus seemed somewhat indifferent to Mary and Martha…and Lazarus. Lazarus's death seemed more instrumental than personal. His disciples may have spoken to part of the reason for Jesus' hesitancy when they said, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, are you going there again?’ Thomas may have spoken the thoughts of others when he said, perhaps with a hint of sarcasm, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ Jesus may have hesitated because of the potential conflicts with the authorities. He reacted, not necessarily out of fear, but out of a desire to pick his own time, which was the Passover. Regardless of his thinking, in the final analysis, his affection for the sisters and their brother won out.
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days…
When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him…Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’
Jesus said, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said, ‘I know that he will rise again…on the last day.’ Jesus said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe?’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’
Martha’s faith in Jesus shone: ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him… I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’ Her ‘belief’ was not in a series of statements about abstract principles on the nature of Jesus, but in his person.
When she had said this, she…called her sister Mary,…she quickly…went to him…When Mary saw Jesus, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ (The identical phrase that Martha had used) When Jesus saw her weeping, … he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved…Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
Note that both Martha and Mary said the same thing: Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. Yet Jesus responded differently to each. (Their different personalities were featured in Luke 10:38-42. Mary sat at Jesus’ feet while Martha bustled around.) In this morning’s gospel, his response to Martha was more cerebral: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. His response to Mary was more emotional, he began to weep.
Jesus had worked his miracle of giving sight to the man who had been born blind. That event, (last week’s gospel) happened near Jerusalem, so word of the miracle… ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’… did not have to travel far to reach Bethany.
All of this was a precursor to the explosive miracle that came next. In the moment, people probably wanted to know: what would Jesus…what could Jesus…do. A first-time reader of this episode would feel the tension building in the account.
Then Jesus, greatly disturbed, came to the tomb…a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha…said, ‘Lord, there is already a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus …said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me…but I have said this for the… crowd… here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’
When he said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound … and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
Many Jews, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
After four days in the tomb, Lazarus was truly dead, not just sleeping. Martha, ever the pragmatic one, said, already there is a stench. She wasn’t speaking in the subjunctive. She said there IS a stench. The idea of rolling away the stone from the cave was shockingly morbid, not least for the smell. Curing a living person of his blindness was one thing, but death represented a different state of the person.
It was a stunning event. Witnesses must have wondered: How did he do this! Who is he!
This miracle was not only the climax of Jesus’ signs, it was a prefiguration of Jesus’ own resurrection. And like the resurrection of Lazarus, Jesus’ would be so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.