Where Death Goes to Die
I have been pastoring people for over ten years, and one of the painful privileges of pastoring is presiding over funerals. I’ve presided over many, and most of them run pretty much the same way: prayer, scripture reading, a song or two, usually some family and friends share memories. I always share from Scripture and present the gospel. People expect these things. People expect flowers and quiet affirmations of the person who passed. People expect receptions with sandwiches or cookies and punch.
Often someone will come up after a funeral and give a little encouraging word: “Nice service.” Or, “Good job. Nice sermon.” Occasionally, someone will whisper a critical word, but no one has ever complained to me after a funeral, “It’s your fault Hilda’s dead.” And no one has ever said, “It would have been nice if you had raised John from the casket.”
Because I’m just a man, I generally can’t heal people or resurrect them, and dead people stay dead. It has always been that way. It has been that way at every funeral I’ve ever performed and at every funeral anyone has performed.
Except for funerals where Jesus showed up. Jesus loved to crash funerals.
Jesus interrupted the planning for his own funeral. After he had been crucified him on Friday, they wrapped his corpse in burial cloth and put him a cave, rolling a stone to cover the entrance. On Saturday he was dead, but on Sunday he defeated death. He rose from the dead.
And it wasn’t the first time he had crashed a funeral. He had foreshadowed his own resurrection and demonstrated his power of resurrection and raising the dead before. In four ways, through four witnesses (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), the Bible tells us the story of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Each one witnesses to a story of Jesus resurrecting the dead. Matthew and Mark share how Jesus raised the daughter of a religious leader named Jairus (Matthew 5:18-26; Mark 5:21-43). Luke tells the time Jesus interrupted a funeral procession and resurrected the son of a widow-woman in the village of Nain (Luke 7:11-17).
In John's gospel, as the story transitions to the “book of glory” (chapters 12-21), John tells the most profound story of them all in John 11:1-44, culminating the “book of signs” (chapters 1-11) with this great, “climactic sign of Jesus’ ministry.”
This is one of the most beautiful stories in the Bible. We could squeeze from it countless sermons and studies and chapters and books. Here I want to step into the big picture so that we can see the purpose of Jesus, the person of Jesus, and the promise of Jesus.
The story starts with Jesus hearing about a dear friend being sick: Now a man was sick, Lazarus from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair, and it was her brother Lazarus who was sick. So the sisters sent a message to him: “Lord, the one you love is sick.” (11:1-3).
At the very outset of the narrative Jesus explains the purpose of the story: “This sickness will not end in death but is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” (11:4). That phrase “so that” is a single Greek word indicating purpose. Jesus has a purpose in this sickness: glory. The sickness will not end in death. Death is the not the destination, but there will be a layover in death. As the story unfolds, so unfolds the worst case scenario for Jesus’ friends: Lazarus dies. The end result will be the demonstration of who God is and who Jesus his Son is. This is an astounding correlation: the glory that is due to God alone is also due to the Son of God, Jesus.
When John tells the story of Jesus in this gospel, he is obsessed with the glory of Christ. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We observed his glory, the glory as the one and only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (1:14). “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you” (17:1). God shows his glory in many ways, but maybe most surprisingly he shows it in the crucifixion.
Jesus surprises us, because he waits before traveling to meet his dying friend. Now Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was sick, he stayed two more days in the place where he was. Then after that, he said to the disciples, “Let’s go to Judea again.” “Rabbi,” the disciples told him, “just now the Jews tried to stone you, and you’re going there again?” “Aren’t there twelve hours in a day?” Jesus answered. “If anyone walks during the day, he doesn’t stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks during the night, he does stumble, because the light is not in him” (11:5-10). He waits because of love. When the time is right, he moves toward the purpose he intends to fulfill. We must live—walk—while we have light. God gifts us the day—our lives—and we should walk it out with purpose.
He said this, and then he told them, “Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I’m on my way to wake him up” (11:11). Here, he indicates a second aspect of his purpose. When Jesus says “to wake him up” it is actually the same word of purpose from 11:4. His purpose was never to prevent the death of Lazarus, but to raise Lazarus from the dead. He saw the situation differently than everyone else: “Lazarus was dead to men who were unable to raise him up; for the Lord roused him from the tomb with such ease as you would not rouse a sleeping person from his bed” (Augustine). His disciples misunderstand thinking he means literal sleep—Then the disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will get well” (11:12). But John the storyteller, one of these disciples, tells us: Jesus, however, was speaking about his death, but they thought he was speaking about natural sleep. So Jesus then told them plainly, “Lazarus has died. I’m glad for you that I wasn’t there so that you may believe. But let’s go to him” (11:13–15). Here Jesus explains the third aspect of his purpose: to create faith in the hearts of his followers.
Jesus intends to raise Lazarus from the dead so that his followers may believe and see and experience the glory of the triune God. Our good and God’s glory are not different goals for Jesus. In fact, the best thing for us is the exact same thing that will demonstrate who God is and who Jesus is.
The disciples rouse themselves to join him, led by the bravado of Thomas, before he earning his famous nickname, “Doubting”: Then Thomas (called “Twin”) said to his fellow disciples, “Let’s go too so that we may die with him” (11:16). (This hints at the limits of human heroics, as Thomas refuses to believe until he sees Jesus after his resurrection in chapter 20).
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days (11:17). The family lived in Bethany, which was near Jerusalem (less than two miles away) (11:18) and Many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother (11:19). It has been said that there was a folklore belief that the soul hovered above the body for three days until decomposition set in. This would mean that Jesus purposely waited until there was no doubt that it was too late. Why would he do this? Martha beelines outside the village: As soon as Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him, but Mary remained seated in the house (11:20). Martha confront Jesus with the force of an accusation: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” (11:21). She accuses him: “Lord, you should have been here!” (Klink, John, 503). Here we begin to see what exactly Jesus is doing when he is creating faith in the hearts of those he loves. So often our faith is like Martha’s: it’s too late. We wallow in the past and let shame about our screw-ups, regret about how things could have been, bitterness about what someone did that they should not have done, or didn’t do that they should have done, even bitterness with God. Like that song by The Fray, "You Found Me":
I found God on the corner of First and Amistad
Where the west was all but won
Smoking his last cigarette
I said where you been?
He said, ask anything
Where were you
When everything was falling apart?
All my days
Spent by the telephone
That never rang
And all I needed was a call
That never came
From the corner of First and Amistad
Lost and insecure
You found me, you found me
Lying on the floor
Why'd you have to wait?
Where were you, where were you?
Just a little late
You found me, you found me
Just a little late
Now, we might not get that raw. We put on a spiritual face. It’s not that we’re faking; we really think that we believe like Martha: “Yet even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” (11:22). Most of us live our Christian life at just this place. We say and we think that we believe in the present power of Jesus, but we get exposed, like Martha does. We accuse Jesus of failing us. Jesus again here staggers us with his powerful mercy and merciful power. “Your brother will rise again,” Jesus told her. (11:23).
Here the curtain draws back on Martha’s heart, and ours, because she is us and we are her: Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (11:24). Throughout the fourth gospel, John compares and contrasts the verbs “know” (Greek: οἶδα) and “believe” (Greek: πιστεύω). Here he exposes the way we can “know” the truth but in such a way that we don’t fully, heartfully believe it.
Martha knows the past—“You should have been here, Jesus!” She knows that Jesus could have done something for her brother, but that it’s too late now. Martha knows the theoried future—“He will rise on the last day.” She knows that God will do something for her brother in the future, but it’s too soon now. Martha had good theology, and she knew her Bible. She believed in what Daniel 12:2 says:
“Many who sleep in the dust
of the earth will awake,
some to eternal life,
and some to disgrace and eternal contempt.”
The faith of Israel was that God would raise all humanity, those who trusted the LORD to eternal life and those who didn’t to eternal judgment. Martha understands this, but she needs just what we need, because she is us and we are her: present faith in the person of Christ. We are Martha. We live in the past and the future. We think, “If only…” If only this had been different. If only…. And we think, Someday, when… We walk in the world of the “if only” of the too late and the “someday, maybe” of the too soon. She misunderstood the true nature of Jesus “for she thought that Christ had less power when he was absent than when he was present. Thus she said, Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. Of course, this can be said of a limited and created power, but it should not be said of the infinite and uncreated power which is God, because God is equally related to things both present and absent; indeed, all things are present to him” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on John).
At just this place, Jesus purposes for Martha what he now purposes for us. He calls Martha to encounter him and his word, to believe him in his person and his promise in that present moment. The Spirit invites us into this same place. He calls us to encounter the person of Jesus and the promise of Jesus in the present moment.
“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, even if he dies, will live. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (11:25-26)
Here Jesus confronts Martha with the fifth of seven “I am” statements seeded into the storyline of the gospel of John. In this word, he says that resurrection is not an abstract belief about the future, but a living person in the present. Jesus himself embodies the resurrection of all humanity and all creation. The “last day” arrived in the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When Jesus was crucified, buried, and raised from the dead, he initiated the beginning of the renewal of all creation. He was the promise or down payment that God would indeed make all things new (as we see in Rev 21:4).
Notice he doesn’t say, “I will be the resurrection and the life.” He says, “I am.” He offers her himself, right there and right then. And he offers us himself right here and right now. He offers us resurrection right here and right now. It isn’t too late or too soon.
Jesus encounters Martha with the question: “Do you believe this?” You can’t go back into the past and change things. You can’t speed up the future. All you can do is trust Jesus, right here and right now.
Martha confesses that she does indeed believe: “Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who comes into the world” (11:27).
Having said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” As soon as Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. Jesus had not yet come into the village but was still in the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house consoling her saw that Mary got up quickly and went out. They followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to cry there. As soon as Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and told him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” (11:28-32)
In way that startles those familiar with ancient literature by centralizing these female characters (and they say the Bible marginalizes women!), Martha and Mary confront the Lord with their anger, their sorrow and disappointment with him. Yet they make one critical, life-saving move: they move toward Jesus in their darkest moment. They both go to Jesus. Martha meets Jesus, and invites her sister Mary to meet him. Mary moves toward Jesus in the darkness of her heartbreak, and the mourning Jewish friends follow her.
God is building the platform to display the miracle that will crown the first sequence of the Savior’s story.
When Jesus saw her crying, and the Jews who had come with her crying, he was deeply moved in his spirit and troubled (11:33). Maybe the best way to translate the word for “deeply moved” here and again in 11:38 is “enraged.” Jesus enters into the suffering with them. Some argue that Jesus rages agains the broken world of death, others that he rages against the unbelief of those who were there. If you flip a coin, it could land on either side, because sin and death have ravaged the world and the people who indwell it, both in body and in soul. Death has stolen the soul from the body of Lazarus and sin has stolen faith from the souls of his friends.
But Jesus will not let sin and death have glory here. “Where have you put him?” he asked. “Lord,” they told him, “come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Couldn’t he who opened the blind man’s eyes also have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. “Remove the stone,” Jesus said. Martha, the dead man’s sister, told him, “Lord, there is already a stench because he has been dead four days” (11:34-39).
The murmuring discussion of the Jewish hearers has echoed through the Jewish hearers, some leaning toward Jesus and others away from him. In grief and his rage, Jesus displays his true humanity. He felt the feelings of human sorrow. But he experienced emotion as one fully in control of his mind and heart. Literally, “he (was) troubled in himself.” He was provoked, but he willed to be so. His humanity did not master him, but like God intended for Adam before Adam failed, he mastered his humanity. He controlled his emotion, his emotion did not control him. He felt—oh how deeply he felt!—but he felt only what he should feel, when he should feel it, how he should feel it, to the extent he should feel it.
He foreshadows his own resurrection, demanding that they remove the stone (11:39), and Martha still doesn’t understand: “Lord, there is already a stench because he has been dead four days.” (11:39). There goes Martha again (we are her and she is us), deploying her knowing. Again, the Lord pushes her toward believing in order to know his purpose, his person, and his promise: Jesus said to her, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” (11:40). As Augustine taught us so long ago, believing precedes knowing, faith seeks understanding, seeing follows believing.
And what a sight it will be.
So they removed the stone. Then Jesus raised his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you heard me. I know that you always hear me, but because of the crowd standing here I said this, so that they may believe you sent me.” After he said this, he shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out bound hand and foot with linen strips and with his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unwrap him and let him go” (11:41-44).
The productivity expert Stephen Covey has famously encouraged an exercise to cultivate a meaningful life: the funeral exercise. The gist is this: imagine your funeral. What would people say about you? What would you want on your headstone in the graveyard? What would you regret? What would you be grateful for?
Jesus invites us here into a different funeral exercise: he invites us to the funeral of his friend, but he turns that funeral into a festival. And here he invites us recognize that he is crashing our funeral. We walk through a world of soaked with the stench of the fourth-day of death that has settled onto our lives in physical death, rooted in spiritual death, leading to eternal death. We inhabit broken dreams and the metaphorical death of despair and hopeless living, in marriages, careers, and dreams that have died and been buried in the dirt. Jesus invites us to recognize the broken, sinful patterns in our lives that are patterns of death and destruction. He invites us recognize the patterns of knowing without believing, of too-late and too-soon living that misses his offer in the present.
In a world of stinking death, Jesus invites us into the world of his person, and his promise, a new world wafting with the aroma of life.