I told you I was ill!

John 11:1-46 (CEB)

Lazarus is ill

A certain man, Lazarus, was ill. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This was the Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped his feet with her hair. Her brother Lazarus was ill.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, saying, “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.”
When he heard this, Jesus said, “This illness isn’t fatal. It’s for the glory of God so that God’s Son can be glorified through it.” Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus. When he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed where he was. After two days, he said to his disciples, “Let’s return to Judea again.”
The disciples replied, “Rabbi, the Jewish opposition wants to stone you, but you want to go back?”
Jesus answered, “Aren’t there twelve hours in the day? Whoever walks in the day doesn’t stumble because they see the light of the world. But whoever walks in the night does stumble because the light isn’t in them.”
He continued, “Our friend Lazarus is sleeping, but I am going in order to wake him up.”
The disciples said, “Lord, if he’s sleeping, he will get well.” They thought Jesus meant that Lazarus was in a deep sleep, but Jesus had spoken about Lazarus’ death.
Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died. For your sakes, I’m glad I wasn’t there so that you can believe. Let’s go to him.”
Then Thomas (the one called Didymus) said to the other disciples, “Let us go too so that we may die with Jesus.”

Jesus with Martha and Mary

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Bethany was a little less than two miles from Jerusalem. Many Jews had come to comfort Martha and Mary after their brother’s death. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him, while Mary remained in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.”
Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha replied, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
She replied, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world.”
After she said this, she went and spoke privately to her sister Mary, “The teacher is here and he’s calling for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to Jesus. He hadn’t entered the village but was still in the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who were comforting Mary in the house saw her get up quickly and leave, they followed her. They assumed she was going to mourn at the tomb.
When Mary arrived where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”
When Jesus saw her crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled. He asked, “Where have you laid him?”
They replied, “Lord, come and see.”
Jesus began to cry. The Jews said, “See how much he loved him!” But some of them said, “He healed the eyes of the man born blind. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?”

Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb

Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone covered the entrance. Jesus said, “Remove the stone.”
Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “Lord, the smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.”
Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?” So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.” Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”
Therefore, many of the Jews who came with Mary and saw what Jesus did believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.

I’m departing from my normal pattern this week because my thoughts have been dominated by Sunday’s lectionary text – the story of the raising of Lazarus – so I am going to blog about that and see if I can get it out of my system.

Here we have a story with potential to be a REAL help for people like me whose work brings them into regular contact with people who have just lost a loved one and are in the very early, raw stages of grief.  Where better to turn than the pages of the Gospel where Jesus is faced with this very situation.

And yet…

It is my experience that in general (with many notable exceptions I am sure) – men deal with pastoral situations in a way that leans very heavily on wanting to “fix” things so they can go back to normal – or if they can’t do that, to do something “useful” or “practical” to fix another problem.

How many men have you heard by hospital beds as follows…

man: “errr… I bought you some flowers, and these grapes.”
patient: “thanks – they’re lovely!”
man: errr…

(long awkward silence)

patient: “you’re allowed to fetch a chair from over there – why not come and sit down?”
man: “errr… no, I can’t stop…  errr…  can I get you anything?”
patient: “no thanks – I think I have everything I need.”
man: “can I got round to your place and feed the cat? would that help?”
patient: “I don’t have a cat – but that’s a kind offer!  Why not come and sit and talk for a bit?”
man: (looks at watch) “errr…  I really must dash…  I can drop round to your house and water the plants – would that help?”
patient: “no thanks – Edna from next door is seeing to that – she has a key.”
man: “ahhh…  shall I go the the library and get you some books?”
woman: “I have a big pile of these audio books and my ipod – but thanks for the offer!”
man: “errrr….  shall I pop by your house on the way home and build you an extension?”

etc…  (you get the idea!)

Men like to feel useful and to fix things.

When my kids were small I could fix just about anything – I had magic powers!  I can remember the first time I was confronted with Emrys and a thing I could not wave my magic wand over and “fix” – the goldfish died.  It wasn’t as if it died while Emrys was at school – I could have fixed that by buying a new fish and Emrys none the wiser!  It was there – floating, dead.  I had seen some people attempt mouth-to-mouth on goldfish – but I thought it was beyond that.  This fish was not just resting, it wasn’t just stunned – it was actually, properly dead.

It was a HUGE learning moment for me.  I now knew what parenting was about.  It wasn’t about magically fixing every problem that came along.  What Emrys needed was for me to be there while grief worked its way through – while loss was experienced.


I have long been disappointed with Jesus in this scene.  He encounters Martha in her grief – and tries to fix that with some theological gubbins – then he encounters Mary in her incosolable grief – and stands with her at the graveside – a good start – but then it’s almost as if the MAN in Jesus kicks back in and he decides to “fix” things by simply bringing Lazarus back to life.  Bish-bash-bosh – problem solved – job done – let’s crack open the beer!

Of course there ARE some things you could learn from Jesus about being with those who grieve.  He encounters two women – two very different women – and they are both grieving differently.  Martha (we imagine) is distracting herself with business – funeral arrangements don’t make themselves…  Mary (we imagine) is moping and fannying about sobbing and woe-is-me-ing…  (can you tell which I am from my unbiased account?!)

Here’s the thing, though – both say EXACTLY the same thing to Jesus when he greets them: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”

We might speculate about tone of voice or body language – but they both say the same thing – and – to his credit – Jesus responds to each of them in a very different way.  He offers Martha some theology – he knows she will respond to that – he offers Mary some time at the graveside and his own tears – he knows she will respond to that.  (only then does he ruin it all by raising Lazarus from the dead!)

Yes – Jesus is spot on.  There is no “right” way to be with someone who grieves, there is no formula, no magic words, no blueprint of steps to be taken.  That’s a great lesson to learn.

This year, though, I have thought some more about this whole episode.  I still find it unsatisfying and I have tried to understand why.

I think it is this…

There is more to being ALIVE than not being dead!

I used to visit a bloke who would always tell me the same thing.  When I asked him how he was he would always respond “well, I’m not dead!”

Being alive is more than not being dead – surely??  Not being dead is merely the prelude to life – there has to be more to come, doesn’t there?

Yet with this story we don’t get any of the interesting bit.  We only get..

How are you lazarus?
Well – I’m not dead.

We are not told ANY of the important bit – what does it MEAN for Lazarus to be ALIVE?  What does he do with that life?  What is the quality of that life?  How Christ-like is that life – is he actually ALIVE in any real sense beyond simply not being dead?  That’s why this frustrates me.

This is SO different to Jesus rising from the dead for which this is supposed to be a precursor…

Jesus is not just NOT DEAD – Jesus is ALIVE!   Alleluiah! 

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