Finish the work Jesus began
It may come as a bit of a shock but there is nothing innovative or uniquely Christian about belief in resurrection. It was well established in Jewish society in the centuries before the time of Jesus. In our story Martha responds to Jesus’ assurance that Lazarus will rise again saying “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
The main reason John tells the story of the Raising of Lazarus is Martha’s proclamation that Jesus is the long awaited Jewish Messiah. Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
I guess Jesus could afford to be cavalier about death – undoubtedly he does not qualify as a first responder. According to John the evangelist Jesus had fled Jerusalem to where John the baptizer had been doing his thing on the east side of the Jordan River, a good days leisurely walk from where Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived just outside of Jerusalem. That’s where he was when word came to him that Lazarus was ill. We read: “…though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”
…after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews (that is those in Jerusalem) were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” So he dismisses them, cavalier about the threats on his own life saying: “Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.”
Jesus then plainly states, “Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
Thomas wraps it up by saying to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” I guess that means that following Jesus requires a bit of the cavalier in all of us.
John tells us that by the time Jesus arrived Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days. To understand what he is telling us we have to visit the ancient creedal statement that says of Jesus that on “the third day he rose from the dead.”
When most Christians recite the Apostles’ Creed and say, “the third day he rose from the dead,” most think that “the third day” refers to Easter Sunday following Jesus’ crucifixion. The problem with that is even children recognize that the forty hours between Jesus’ death and resurrection does not comprise three days. In first century Jewish culture a person was not considered to be truly dead until “after three days.” That is not really what the creedal formula is all about. The reality is that “the third day” is not a chronological measure, it’s symbolic.
None of the four Gospels use the formula “the third day” in their reports of the resurrection of Jesus. They say “the first day of the week” to describe when the risen Jesus appears. But older than the Gospels is the creedal formula found in Acts 10:40 and I Corinthians 15:4. Paul reports the tradition that “he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scripture” That is the language picked up and repeated in the Apostles’ and the Nicene Creed.
When we read the Old Testament we find few if any texts which seem to point to the resurrection of Jesus. Well, you can push the Hosea text but not so as to make any sense. So what’s this “in accordance with the scriptures” comment? The apostles were not scanning the Old Testament looking to proof text their message about Jesus. They were reading the Old Testament to discern how the God of Israel behaves. There are 30 places in the Old Testament where you find “after three days” or “the third day,” always the decisive day, the day when God acts and momentous events occur. The phrase is a way of expressing the anticipation of a turning point when a time of unfavorable things would finally pass and a new time of favorable outcomes would arrive.
This Scriptural tradition of the notion of “the third day” as God’s day of victory helps us to understand how Jesus viewed his coming suffering and made predictions of his passion reported in Matthew 16:21. As it became evident that forces were being arrayed against him, Jesus predicted the calamity that would befall him. Yet he had faith that he could rely on God’s “third day.” No matter what failure or suffering lay ahead, he trusted that God would have the last word on “the third day.”
Following the resurrection of Jesus, the apostles remembered Jesus’ own trust in God’s action on “the third day” and they searched the Scriptures and found promises of God’s ultimate victory “after three days” or on “the third day.” This motif provided the means for them to perceive how the new event of Jesus’ resurrection is anticipated in the Old Testament. They learned that God does not abandon the righteous ones but can be trusted to act on their behalf in the end, and that this confidence in God’s ultimate deliverance and victory acquired a rhetorical form as a promise of God acting on “the third day.” It is in this way that the formula appeared in the apostolic tradition that “he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.”
Before they ever left Bethany beyond Jordan told his disciples the brutal truth that Lazarus is dead. Martha knew that after four days entombed she didn’t want Lazarus’ body exhumed. Not just three days dead but four. This is a step beyond hope. At this point all human hope is superfluous. It is too late. Too late to fix, too late to call out, too late even to hope. It’s too late.
Have you ever felt how Martha felt? They had called for Jesus who was a days walk away, close enough to get to Bethany. Really close if your dear friend is dying! But Jesus, doesn’t seem too concerned. He sees a far bigger picture than those who are in a panic that he hasn’t yet arrived. Then suddenly, all too suddenly, it is too late.
He arrives on the fourth day. The day that is beyond all hope. Jesus arrives on the hopeless day, the fourth day.
He listens to Mary and then to Martha, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died!” Am I the only one who reads a silent sub-text from Martha, “Where were you?” Jesus himself weeps at his dead friends tomb… John tells us “So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I 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.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out…
He called forth life and liberation from the hopeless hole, on the hopeless day, amidst a hopeless crowd. He called forth life in the midst of certain confirmed, putrefied and stinking death.
In the dark of failed relationships, failed programs for happiness, failed dreams of beauty and happy endings. In the entombed hopeless reality of life’s darkness we can hear a voice that calls my name and yours. Just like Lazarus, for me life and liberation comes through the tears of Jesus and the torment of my hopelessness.
It is then we can understand Lazarus’s name. It means “God has helped.” That standing against all the odds, “God has helped. ” No one else could have helped, but God has helped. On the fourth hopeless day, God has helped.
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.”
To those who observed this event which challenged everything they ever considered absolute – death itself Jesus tells them that the work he began was theirs’ to finish. Lazarus was now alive but he was still bound, hands and feet, in the shrouds of death in which those who loved him most had wrapped him. “Unbind him, and let him go!” Jesus commands. Free him from the trappings of death, take off what holds him back. Set him free.
Does that continue to be our challenge, to finish the work of releasing from the constraints of the trappings of death those who Christ as brought back to life?