32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
When I was 10 years old, I got off the school bus one day right across the street from my house. I walked around behind the bus, and as I stepped out into the street, I heard the sound of screeching tires. That’s the last thing I remember for awhile. I don’t actually remember the feeling of being hit by the car, flying up over the hood and down the side of the vehicle. I don’t remember landing on my back, breaking both of my clavicles on impact. I don’t remember my head bouncing off the pavement, or the large pool of blood that created, although the dark stain lingered on the light gray street for months afterward. I don’t know how long I was there, lying unconscious on the side of the road.
I do remember coming around slowly, through blurred vision seeing concerned faces hovering over me–the bus driver, my friend Nicolas, some strangers, and our family’s nanny, who had seen the whole thing, horrified, from the window of our house. I remember, in a foggy haze, the ambulance ride, several weeks in a hospital room, followed by several months in a brace with stitches in my head.
I do remember people (my parents, my doctors) telling me that I almost died. I do remember my friends asking me in hushed tones what that was like? And in the three decades that followed, my thoughts have often returned to that day, with a morbid sort of curiosity, wondering how the world, and many of the people I love, would be different if I hadn’t “come back” or “pulled through” for another shot at this life. Who would Amy have wound up marrying? Who would be pastoring First Presbyterian Church right now?
I suppose that this mental exercise makes me more grateful to be alive, grateful to have experienced all that I have experienced in the past 33 years since that day. And when I read today’s scripture passage, I wonder if Lazarus felt that way too? He had Jesus to bring him back to life. I had an ambulance and a team of medical professionals to bring me back.
Of course, sometimes all the modern medical technology in the world isn’t enough to bring someone back. I survived being hit by a car. My brother-in-law, Mark Jennings, did not. And on the same day that Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead…hundreds of other people close enough to have been visited (and saved) by Jesus still died. Only one person got a miracle.
That’s the funny thing about miracles. They are, by definition, rare and unexplainable. Why Lazarus? Was it because Jesus loved him so much? I don’t think so. In the gospel of Mark, Jesus also restores life to the daughter of a Pharisee, whom he didn’t even know. And Jesus did not resurrect his cousin, John the Baptist, who also died, and whom Jesus also grieved, and loved dearly.
John (the author of the gospel) tells us later on, near the end of the book, that “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these (the ones in the book) are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
John never calls them miracles, incidentally. He calls them “signs.” There are seven signs in his book, beginning with Jesus transforming the water into wine. Each sign in is progressively more dramatic than the one preceding it, and this one, the raising of Lazarus from the dead, is the grand finale, the seventh sign, and the last one before Jesus’ own death and resurrection.
So what is a sign, anyhow?
A Presbyterian Pastor and Jewish Rabbi were standing outside their respective houses of worship one day, across the street from each other. The Pastor held up a sign that said “The end is near!” and the Rabbi had a similar sign that read “Turn before it’s too late!” A car approached them and the driver yelled out the window, “get out the way you religious fanatics” before speeding off down the road. A few seconds later, they heard the screech of tires and a loud crash. The Rabbi yelled across the street to the pastor, “Do you think maybe your sign should read “The Bridge is Out” instead?
Signs are entirely dependent upon our ability to correctly interpret them. If you see a sign on the side of the road with a symbol of a leaping deer, you know what that means right? But if you see the same symbol on the front of a green tractor, it means something entirely different. And neither one is actually a deer. Signs are never themselves the thing they represent, but rather they point us to some reality beyond the symbol, which may or may not have anything to do with the actual symbol itself.
Back to Lazarus. Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead–as amazing a feat as it may have been–is not what the author of this gospel wants us to focus on. It’s just a sign. Yes, it’s a big, flashing, blinking, catch-your-attention kind of sign, but we should (by now) all be asking the question, “What does it represent? What is it pointing us to?”
The obvious answer is Jesus’ own death and resurrection just a little later in the story. That makes sense, and so a lot of readers keep on driving, content that they understood the sign. It was just foreshadowing, good literary technique.
But I think John is trying to point us to something more. Let me read that passage from chapter 20 one more time: “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But THESE are written–not just so you will know what’s coming up in the next chapter, but–so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
So that YOU may have LIFE in his name. This story is a sign, and it points to you, and to me.
Jesus says, “take away the stone.” Take away whatever giant, immoveable thing it is that keeps you imprisoned in your tomb. By the way, notice that Jesus does not poof away the stone with his magical powers, nor does Lazarus move his own stone, freeing himself. It takes the whole community to do that kind of work. Do you have that kind of community in your life? The kind of community that will move any obstacle to bring you back into their midst? And if you’re on the other side of the stone with the crowd, are you the one standing back and saying, “I don’t know guys; this might smell bad…who knows what’s in there?” or are you the one jumping up and running forward to move the stone?
Then Jesus says to Lazarus, (and to every one of us) “Come out!” This is the part where you actually have to do something, where you have to respond to the call. You have to come out of the tomb. For Lazarus, the tomb is a place of death, but for you maybe it’s a place of despair, desperation, anxiety, guilt or shame. We all have tombs that paralyze and imprison us.
And Jesus speaks into the darkness, saying, “Come out!” Come out into the light and into new life and the community of those who, like Jesus, love you.
And so we come out, but like Lazarus in verse 44, we are often still clothed in remnants of the grave, the scars and wounds of our past in darkness. Once again, it is the community that Jesus calls into action, saying, “Unbind him and let him go.” In Greek, the phrase ἄφετε αὐτὸν ὑπάγειν (aphete auton hypagein) doesn’t quite mean “let him go” as in “let him leave you.” It means something more like, “lead him away,” or in other words, “help him to go, and go with him.” Do you have that kind of community in your life? Are we, as a church, committed to being that kind of community for each other?
Thirty three years ago, I was hit by a car and almost died. I don’t remember much about those critical moments when apparently I was hovering between life and death. I don’t really remember what exactly the EMTs and doctors and nurses did that made the difference.
But here’s what I remember vividly, and these are some of my most precious, happy memories from that time in my life:
I remember Mari Connor, one of my best friends in the world, who came to the hospital almost every single day that I was there. She brought me peanut butter fluff sandwiches (which, in my mind, are still probably the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted). She brought my homework every day, and she made sure I really did it for once in my life.
I remember Frederic Wolf. He was actually my frenemy (remember those?) but we declared a truce for those weeks I was in the hospital, and he brought board games for us to play in a slightly less aggressive manner than we usually would have.
I remember my four-year-old sister, Emily, who didn’t quite understand what was going on, but tried to crawl into the hospital bed with her big brother, and made lots of cards out of construction paper, markers and glue.
I remember Dominic Duchene and Rasmus Dorrington, who would come and draw up elaborate schemes to sneak me out of the hospital and into the bowling alley across the street. We never actually did it, which was probably a good thing, since those plans involved zip lines, human catapults, flamethrowers…and a horse.
There are probably lots of medical professionals who did phenomenal things, and to whom I owe my life. I’m grateful to them, but they’re not the ones I remember. I remember Mari, and Frederick, and Emily, and Dominic and Rasmus, because they were my community. They were my miracle.
So having experienced all that, the truest thing I can say about miracles is this:
It’s not whether we live or die, whether our lives are long or short; It’s not about whatever crazy, random, or monumental things happen or don’t happen to us in this life. That’s not what really matters. Those are just signs.
It’s the people and the places those signs point us to, the experiences those signs lead us to; it’s what we recognize and learn from them that really counts.
Life is indeed a precious gift, and sometimes our tendency with precious things is to guard and protect them, to lock them up safely and seal them away, as if in a tomb. But that’s not life. That’s actually death.
Resurrection happens when we value life so much that instead of keeping it to ourselves, we feel compelled to share it with others, and to give it away, despite all the risks of loss and failure that entails.
Live your life generously. Share it with others. Give it away.
There is no greater miracle…no greater love…no greater life.