Summary: Here’s a story that might seem hard to know what to do with. That’s OK. Even the disciples didn’t know how to handle this one! ...
“Unbind him and let him go!”
These are the words of Jesus, recorded in John 11 - dramatic words that come at the climax of a dramatic story - the death and resuscitation of Jesus’ friend Lazarus.
It is an extraordinary story. It’s filled with mysterious dialogues, doubting disciples, tears and passion, and it culminates in the authoritative shout of Jesus, “Lazarus come out”. At which point a mummy-like figure staggers out from inside the tomb, much to the amazement of the gathered crowd.
I don’t know if they’ve made a movie of this. If they have, I haven’t seen it. They made two ‘Mummy’ movies of course, but I don’t think that either of them drew their inspiration from this story. The story cries out for a movie really, doesn’t it. It’s got everything - drama, colour, a hint of romance, and a touch of horror - and perhaps that’s why I find this story a little difficult to swallow at first. It all just looks too well scripted.
Maybe that’s not it. Maybe it’s just because I find it hard to believe that Lazarus, three days dead, could suddenly jump to his feet and resume his life where he had left off! I have certainly never seen anything like this happen in Dulwich Hill. And if it doesn’t happen in Dulwich Hill, why would I expect that it would happen in Bethany?
Now the funny thing is, when I read through the story of the return of Lazarus, I find that I’m not the only one who has trouble coming to terms with what happened. On the contrary, the scene is filled with people who don’t know how to deal with this extraordinary event.
When Jesus arrives in Bethany, Martha, Jesus’ friend and sister of the dead man, comes to greet him. Martha says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus says to her “Your brother will rise again”, and she says “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day."
A good answer. A safe answer. A very theologically correct answer, but in this case, the wrong answer. Jesus is talking about something much more immediate, much more relevant to their moment of grief, much more spectacular. Jesus says to her, “I am the resurrection and the life” , but Martha does not dare to believe it.
Martha calls Mary. When Mary arrives on the scene she says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” And we realise that we’re dealing with exactly the same limited mentality - faithful, caring, compassionate, but limited.
“He will be raised up on the last day”. Surely it is the correct response. It’s what Mary and Martha said. It’s what we would have said. It’s what we do say when we gather together to mourn the death of someone we love. What else can we say?
‘While there is life there is hope’ we say, but we recognise that when there is no life there is no hope - not for the immediate future at any rate.
‘He will be raised up at the last day/she will be raised up at the last day’. This is not a bad thing to say. It is a great thing to say. It expresses the great Biblical hope that the day will come when all things will be brought together in Christ. And on that day death itself, the last great enemy will be destroyed, and we will be reunited with those we love in Christ.
This is the Biblical hope - the hope of Heaven and the ultimate hope for the future of our world. But Jesus here challenges us to open our minds to the possibility of something more immediate and more extraordinary. “I am the resurrection and the life” He says, and so saying, He decides to give us a glimpse of that future resurrection of the dead, by raising one man now, Lazarus - a friend of His!
It is an extraordinary event, and the disciples struggle with it. Mary and Martha don’t quite know how to deal with it, though there is one group of people who are even more thrown by the event than Jesus’ own disciples - namely, the religious authorities who oppose Jesus. Indeed, the event causes them to call an emergency meeting, the end result of which is that they determine that very day that Jesus must be put to death!
That didn’t make a lot of sense to me the first time I read it. Why would Jesus’ performing this extraordinary miracle result in people wanting to have Him put to death?
The other gospel stories don’t depict it quite this way. Elsewhere it seems to be Jesus’ attack upon the authority of the religious leaders, his anti-establishment attitude, and his advocacy for the poor that got Him into trouble. John though says that it was really this miracle that was the ‘nail in the coffin’ (so to speak).