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The death of a friend (January 31, 2016)

Scripture passage and lesson focus: John 11:38-44

The death of a relative or a friend usually makes us pause to reflect on our relationship with the person who has died. Perhaps we regret that we had not said or done something we had intended to do or say. Often our sense of sadness and loss mingles with our desire to console the bereaved and to remember the life of our departed friend.

John’s Gospel tells us that when Lazarus died, Jesus was visibly upset. John 11:33 records Jesus’ emotional reaction to the death of his friend Lazarus with words that express a range of strong emotions. Variously translated as “deeply moved” or “greatly disturbed in spirit” or “his heart was touched,” the Greek words describing Jesus could also be translated as “snorting with anger” and “agitated” or “troubled.” It is clear that Jesus was deeply moved and even angered by the death of Lazarus. His reaction led the assembled mourners to exclaim, “See how he loved him!”

Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, and their friends wept when Lazarus died. Jesus wept too. Martha even rebuked Jesus because he had not come immediately. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died,” she chided Jesus, probably with a tone of anger in her voice. Jesus responded with the assuring words that have been proclaimed at Christian funerals ever since, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.”

John 11:38-40 — Lazarus’ tomb
The hills and valleys around Bethany where Martha and Mary lived had many caves used as burial places for the dead. A large stone would have closed the entrance to Lazarus’ tomb. Jesus asked that the stone be removed, but Martha was worried that the smell of the body, having been buried for four days, would be overwhelming.

Jewish burial customs called for burial on the day of a person’s death, but some believed that the deceased person’s spirit lingered for up to three more days. Four days after death was certainly enough time to guarantee that Lazarus was indeed dead and gone. So Jesus persisted, reminding Martha that he had told her that God’s glory would be revealed if she believed.

John 11:41-45 — Lazarus raised
The unique and complete unity of Jesus and God the Father is evident when Jesus thanks God for what he knows is about to happen. Jesus prays out loud to demonstrate that unity for the benefit of those standing nearby as witnesses.

Then, in a very loud voice, Jesus cries, “Lazarus, come out!” Jesus will also use that very loud voice again in the face of death when he will cry out from the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). The voice of Jesus brings the restored Lazarus, still wrapped in grave clothes, out of the tomb.

Jesus is the giver of life for Lazarus. By raising Lazarus, Jesus demonstrated God’s glory and God’s power over death. To be sure, Lazarus would succumb to physical death again as will all human beings. But John’s Gospel proclaims the reality of eternal life. Jesus told Martha that “everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” It is the message of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” The followers of Jesus will never experience spiritual death.

Jesus tells the amazed onlookers to remove the strips of cloth from Lazarus’ legs and arms and even his head. This miraculous sign of God’s glory caused many of the friends of Lazarus who witnessed his release from the tomb to believe in Jesus. Others, however, reported this to Jewish leaders, who were worried that Jesus would bring the wrath of the Romans down on the Jewish people. The raising of Lazarus marks a turning point in the Gospel of John that ultimately leads to the arrest, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

For discussion
This passage counters the all too common misconception of a “meek and mild” Jesus who does not seem to be fully human. Can you think of other times in Jesus’ life when he manifested powerful emotions? Why do you think Jesus responded to the death of Lazarus with anger? Have you ever been angry at God when a friend or relative died?

JAMES A. BRASHLER is professor emeritus of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.