Lesson 4: John 11:1-44
It is a story about death, lament, reproach and signs that point to God’s power. It is a deeply personal story and, as the Gospel of John tells us, the story reveals the enormous power of God at work in Jesus.
Jesus loves Lazarus and his two sisters, Martha and Mary. They are good friends. While some miles away, Jesus hears of the life-threatening illness of Lazarus. Jesus inexplicably waits two days before going to his friend. Jesus seems unconcerned and uncaring about his friend’s need — but Jesus understands something cosmic is at stake. When Jesus tells his disciples clearly that Lazarus has died, he explains that the delay was so his disciples (including us) will have their trust in him deepened.
Martha comes out to greet Jesus and the first words on her lips are reproachful. “Jesus, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. Even still, I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” Martha laments. Like the psalms of lament, she begins with a complaint about Jesus’ lack of action, even as she expresses trust in him. Like the psalms of lament, Martha is forthright in her anger. She does not edit out her feelings.
In our relationship with Jesus, we do not have to cover up our feelings. We can lament, being transparent in our frustration, disappointment, anger or sorrow in our conversations with Jesus. We can share our frustration with God using words from the psalms. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (Psalm 13:1). “Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever!” (Psalm 44:23).
In reading psalms of lament, I find that the words can reverberate in my spirit and become my prayers. The complaints name what is submerged inside me, barely recognized but contributing to my unease. The Irish poet Pádraig Ó Tuama says: “Prayer can be a rhythm that helps us make sense in times of senselessness, not offering solutions, but speaking to and from the mystery of humanity. … To pray is to trace the edge of chaos and find a way to contain it, not control it” (in “Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community”). To name our complaints, our anger, our deep sadness to God at this time in our nation’s history helps contain the chaos and keep it from swamping us, even as we plead with God to do something.
In response to Martha’s complaint and trust in him, Jesus says, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha believes that her brother will be raised on the final day of resurrection when there is a new heaven and new earth. But Jesus reframes resurrection in John’s Gospel. When Jesus speaks of eternal life in the Gospel of John, it is not only about life after death. In the words of Frances Taylor Gench, eternal life is a “quality of life that begins now and continues forever, life that partakes of the goodness and joy of God and is full, rich and enduring. That quality of life emerges from the transforming nd fulfilling experience of intimate relationship with God” (in “Encounters with Jesus”). This quality of life and relationship is available now through Jesus and in the life to come.
Intimacy with God is foundational both to lament and to abundant life. Pursing intimacy with God is an everyday matter and, like any relationship, it only gets better if we work at it. Intimacy with God comes through daily prayer and Scripture reading, listening to and singing hymns or spontaneously giving thanks to God for the luminescent beauty of the moon on a clear night. Pursing intimacy with God is a hymn playing in our minds throughout the day, or drinking in the lights, shadows and colors on a walk. Even when our lament continues over months and years, God can sustain us in such moments.
When Jesus stands before Lazarus’ grave, he is “deeply disturbed.” The words used in the Greek text actually mean anger, indignation and agitation. Why is Jesus angry? Scholars have wrestled with this question. The interpretation that gets my attention is that Jesus is angry at the devastating power of death. It is an anger I feel at so much senseless, preventable suffering and death, which have been wielded by rampant greed and systemic racism.
Jesus calls Lazarus to come out. With grave clothes wrapped tightly around his entire body, Lazarus awkwardly hobbles to the entrance of the tomb. Jesus says, “Unbind him.” In a world where many cry out against injustice and oppressive poverty, we are called to remove that which constricts life. Relying on Jesus’ power to bring new life, we are empowered to help those who lament
Rosalind Banbury lives in Richmond, Virginia, and is a pastor in the Presbytery of the James.
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