Generous Orthodoxy  

The Raising of Lazarus


A sermon by Fleming Rutledge




Note: There is another sermon on this same text in Fleming Rutledge’s book The Undoing of Death.


I’ll bet I’m not the only person here today who looks at the supermarket tabloids while standing in line. A few days ago there was a headline that struck me as being even more amusing and even more pathetic than usual. Elizabeth Taylor was having one of her typical crises and the headline screamed: “Liz Taylor Says, I Saw Life After Death!”


It seemed to me both funny and sad, because here are millions of gullible people paying money to find hope and consolation from a celebrity. Nor is this phenomenon peculiar to people who pay for tabloids. I know plenty of educated, sophisticated people who are convinced that they know something about the afterlife, or life after death, or whatever it’s called. They have heard about some emergency-room resuscitation, or the revival of someone on the brink who had had a vision of light. They are remarkably convinced by these witnesses, while remaining uninterested in anything they might read in the Bible. This is understandable. The stories of resurrection in the New Testament are unadorned. There are no celestial phenomena, no heavenly sound effects, no supernatural lighting. They are so confrontational and hard to take!


Let’s consider a scene from literature which partakes of these qualities. The book is Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The setting is the underside of the city of St. Petersburg.


Raskolnikov is an impoverished Russian student who has robbed and murdered an old pawnbroker with an axe, as well as her sister Lizaveta who surprised him by coming home early. He has rationalized and justified his premeditated deed (as all of us seek to justify ourselves) by telling himself that the old lady was repulsive, disgusting, wicked, and useless. The murder of Lizaveta was more difficult to rationalize. In the end he finds himself unable to spend the money that he has stolen.


Raskolnikov is befriended by an equally impoverished young woman named Sonia. She might have been pretty, might have been educated, but the poor creature has been manipulated into prostitution by her sick stepmother in order to feed the family’s little children.


One evening Raskolnikov goes to visit Sonia in her pitiable little attic. She has almost no possessions or furniture. The two of them sit there, the darkness and meanness of the room matched by the bleakness and hopelessness of their respective situations. Raskolnikov is feverish with guilt and purposelessness. Sonia has a copy of the New Testament in her room. Seeing it, Raskolnikov takes it up and, to his wonderment, Sonia says that she had been given it by the murdered Lizaveta, who was her friend. She had gone to Lizaveta’s requiem. “She was killed with an axe,” says Sonia—not knowing that the murderer was sitting before her. “We used to sit together and talk. She will see God.” All of this increases Raskolnikov’s rage and frenzy. He is unnerved by the thought of  Lizaveta seeing God. He grabs the book and starts looking for the story of the raising of Lazarus, but he can’t find it. He says irritably to Sonia, “Find it and read it to me!” She turns to the Fourth Gospel and begins to read by the light of her one little guttering candle. She reads the story from chapter 11. Hold this scene in your mind as we proceed.


 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha....So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness is not unto death; it is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it.”

Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go into Judea again…”Lazarus is dead; and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

….Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days….When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary sat in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.”

…Then Mary, when she came where Jesus was and saw him, fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled; and he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

…Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb; it was a cave, and a stone lay upon it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. I knew that thou hearest me always, but I have said this on account of the people standing by, that they may believe that thou didst send me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with bandages, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”


This passage is not so very often preached today, partly because it is so long, and partly because it is so uncompromising. There are no lights and music here, no lilies or butterflies, no breathless reports of loved ones seen or soft voices heard or warm vibrations felt, just bald, unadorned narrative and a corpse raised out of the grave without a word as to where he had been in the interim. Immortality—floating off into another world—life on the “other side”—the tabloids and the inspirational literature are happy to deal in those things. But the Resurrection of the dead? That is a more disturbing matter.


We will return to Sonia and Raskolnikov, but first let us take a further look at the biblical passage.


One of the interesting aspects of the narrative that strikes us right away is that, although we are specifically told that Jesus loved Lazarus, he does not seem to be in any hurry to rush to his side when he hears that he is seriously ill. Quite the opposite, in fact; the Lord deliberately delays, so that Lazarus will be already dead when he gets there. This is strange; what does he mean by this apparently cavalier disregard? It is very much like his stance toward the man born blind in chapter 9: “This blindness is for the purpose that the glory of God should be made known in him.”


When Jesus and the disciples arrive in Bethany, the home of the much-beloved Mary and Martha and Lazarus, the vigorous, active sister rushes out to meet him, and she is passionately reproachful. “Lord! If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” The great early biblical interpreter Origen wrote, “It is impossible for anyone to die in the presence of Jesus.” All the more reason why it should stupefy and amaze us that he would voluntarily give himself up to death on the cross.


Jesus says to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” This is not the language of the funeral parlor or the condolence card; we are not used to it. Martha, however, recognized his meaning immediately; like most pious first-century Jews, she had been taught that at the last and final “Day of the Lord,” there would be a general resurrection of all the dead. She is, I think, bitterly disappointed with Jesus for saying this. To her, it sounds like a platitude. Her response has this impatient tone: “Yes, yes, I know he will rise again at the resurrection at the Last Day. That’s not what I meant!”


The theological center of the story lies here. The purpose of John’s telling of the story is in the next verse. It is a call to ultimate commitment. This is no longer a simple narrative about Jesus and a man whom he loved who died. Something far greater is going on. The living Christ is speaking here, not only to Martha but to us, and this is what he says:


“I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”


The question is as direct and straightforward as possible. “Do you believe this?” We have been drawn into this story and the question it requires a response. The answer of Martha in the story is an archetype of faith. She says to him:


“Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.”


With these words, Martha confesses Jesus Christ as the incarnate presence of God and the Lord of all life, and the rest of the story will be a ratification of her trust. In the retelling of this exchange between the two of them, John the Evangelist is posing the question directly to us in the power of the Spirit. “Do you believe this?”


We come now to one of the most familiar, yet most misunderstood parts of the story. Many people know that the shortest verse in the Bible is “Jesus wept,” but they do not know why he wept. The people standing around say, “See how he loved Lazarus!” In John’s gospel, whatever the people standing around sat is sure to be full of irony, for they never understand what they are seeing. “Jesus wept” is only one of three verses in the story which emphasize Jesus’ deep emotion as he approaches the tomb. He was “deeply moved in spirit,” he was “troubled,” he “wept.” One of the Greek expressions, he “groaned in the spirit,” expresses not only sorrow but anger. Ever since the beginning of the Christian era, this has been noted. It’s so important for us today to know something about the history of interpretation and be aware that our contemporary angle on the text may not necessarily be the best one. It’s a notable fact that the bystanders in John’s story make the same mistake as we do today. It’s not exactly wrong to say, “See how he loved him!” but it doesn’t give us the whole picture. Interpreters ancient and modern have seen that the emphasis John places on the emotion of Jesus is meant to convey something more than sadness about his friend; he is experiencing a profound inner disturbance as he enters the domain of Death. These are no sentimental tears. Jesus groans in the Spirit and sheds angry tears as he draws near to the tomb of Lazarus and senses so closely the wreckage and destruction wrought by Death on the human creature. This is the reaction of the divine Creator against the Enemy that would crush and destroy all that God has made.


We have observed the theological center of the story. Now we have arrived at the dramatic center. Jesus says, “Take away the stone.” A great cry of protest goes up. He has been dead four days! There will be a terrible odor! As the King James Version bluntly puts it, “He stinketh.” No gentle passage into the afterlife here, no resuscitation of a body medically dead but still intact. In he old paintings of this subject, the bystanders are depicted holding handkerchiefs to their noses. We are talking about a decomposing corpse. The miracle lies precisely in the raising of one who is dead beyond the possibility of resuscitation.


I have seen and touched enough corpses in my day to feel confident in saying that no matter what the skill of the mortician, death is cold and ugly. It looks ugly, feels ugly, smells ugly. What can anyone do about it except attempt to dress it up, disguise it, try to prettify it? “He stinketh.”


And the Lord said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you would see the glory of God?”


And, overcome by the authority in his voice, they take away the stone, and Jesus prays aloud to the Father in a way that publicly demonstrates the unity of the Father with the Son. And then he cries with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!” And so instantly does new life follow upon the word of the Lord that Lazarus is still bound hand and foot in his graveclothes when he appears at the entrance of the tomb.


And also, the Evangelist tells us, the consequence of this climactic and final miracle of Jesus is that some who were standing by believed in him; and some did not; and some went straight to the high priest and plotted to put him to death. Such is his effect upon this world.


Now we return to the scene in Crime and Punishment. Sonia has finished reading the story to Raskolnikov. The prostitute reads to the murderer in her sordid little room by the light of her one hoarded candle. As she reads, something happens to her. She is transfigured by the reading itself. She is overtaken by the message. She is seized by something independent of herself. She becomes the bearer of the living gospel, the vessel into which the Word of life is poured—that is to say, she becomes a witness. Raskolnikov’s overpowering impression, and by extension the reader’s impression, lis of her faith, her submission to what she is reading, her trust that what she has seen and heard is true. She herself becomes like the disciple spoken of at the very end of John’s gospel (21:24): “This is the disciple who testifies to these things…We know that his testimony is true.” Sonia becomes the apostolic witness, Raskolnikov becomes the hearer.


Over the whole scene stands the question: can these two people, who in their wretchedness stand for the whole human race in its darkness, can they be raised? Can the old pawnbroker woman and her sister be raised? Is there any hope for the people of the novel who are the worst sorts of drunkards and wife-beaters and thieves and liars that can be imagined?


When Sonia finishes reading the story to Raskolnikov, it is significant that nothing happens to him right away. This scene is in the middle of the novel, not the ending. It ends anticlimactically. Similarly, some of you may go away today without any sense that anything has happened to you as a result of this reading. But we have to read the novel through to its end to see how The Story affects the human story.


Raskolnikov is captured, convicted, and sent to eight years of hard labor in Siberia. Siberia has become, has it not, a synonym for the worst place in the world, the end of hope, exile into a frozen land where nothing good can happen?


Sonia, who truly loves Raskolnikov, follows him to Siberia. She offers him her unconditional devotion in conditions of extreme hardship and suffering. There at the uttermost end of the earth, through the outworking of Sonia’s love, the story of the raising of Lazarus finds its counterpoint in their lives as they become transfigured by the new life that Christ gives even in the midst of the pain of this world—especially gives in the midst of the pain of this world. “I AM the Resurrection and the life.”


Once before, when I was a guest preacher and preached a sermon on this same text, a young woman came up to me at the church door and wrung my hand and told me how much it had meant to her to hear the story of the raising of Lazarus. She said this with such intensity that I knew something lay behind it, but she volunteered no details. A few moments later a parishioner told me that this young woman’s husband had terminal cancer.


Later, the rector of the church where this couple were members told me what had happened as a result of this wife’s encounter with the eleventh chapter of John’s Gospel. The wife had been enabled to face what she had to face, without denial. They had both looked death and its ugliness straight in the eye for the first time and they had seen through it into the risen life that Jesus gives. They had discovered strength to face their ordeal with transfiguring love.


This story can be ours today. In the midst of our Siberias, wherever and whatever they may be, we can all be redeemed from death. We can be witnesses, and we can be recipients of witness. The witness is the one who testifies in word and deed that Jesus Christ gives life to the dead. The recipient is the one who gratefully accepts the love that is offered as a guarantee in this life of the redemption yet to come. Each of us and all of us can make our confession, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the One who is coming into the world.”


And we will hear the answer, his answer, the answer of the Lord God incarnate:


“I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.


“Do you believe this?”