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Encounters with Jesus:  Lazarus

John 11:1-53

March 26, 2023

What is it like to be dead? After the initial shock and celebration of Lazarus’ resuscitation had passed, several people surely must have posed that question to Lazarus. After all, every living thing must eventually die. And yet, no one knows exactly what happens at death. None of us can know what’s it’s like for certain until we’ve experienced death ourselves. 


Of course, modern literature has a number of accounts of what we now call “near death experiences.” For example, the Rev. Suzanne Guthrie is an Episcopal priest who served as a parish pastor and campus minister at Vassar and Cornell. She almost died during the birth of her son. Here’s how she described what happened:  


“I didn’t want to come back. My consciousness hovered somewhere above the body lying on the gurney. It was all over, I thought. The last sensation I remembered had been incomprehensible pain, then a tunnel, and a grinding noise as described in other ‘near death experiences.’ But unlike other people who tell of ‘NDEs,’ I saw no lights, no angels, no dead relatives, no friendly saints; rather, I found myself very much awake in a weightless, imageless, gray hyperreality. I experienced a blessed clarity, freedom and relief, and a stunning sense of the illusory nature of the life I’d left behind.


“Then the recovery room nurse enforced an alternative plan for my life. Someone was shaking my body and calling me by name. No! NO! Unprepared and inept, I slipped, as if falling on ice, into that lesser ‘reality' in a helpless panic of anguish and anger. Suddenly I was back in the confines of that little life of mine. Now I carried a memory of the futility of this ‘fake’ life. It was as if I hadn’t had time to drink the magic ‘forgetting potion’ that makes you immune to truth. I came to consciousness disappointed, frustrated, unspeakably sad — and in excruciating pain.”


Perhaps some of that description may apply to Lazarus’ experience. We don’t know since the Bible tells us nothing of what he may have shared with others about what he saw or did while his body lay in the tomb. Excluding Ezekiel’s metaphor of the revivification of valley of desiccated bones, Lazarus is one of only a handful of people in the Bible who were returned to life after their death. And none of those people described what they experienced after their death.

In fact, even though the Bible has numerous promises of a life after this one, it never offers any specific descriptions of what that life will be like other than to tell us it is lived in the direct presence of God. Presumably, the authors of those biblical books figured that nothing more needed to be said other than to promise that we will return to the arms of the God who loves us eternally. 


In the case of Lazarus, we’re clearly told that he was dead for four days before Jesus arrived on the scene. That’s significant because prior to the invention of modern brain wave monitoring techniques, people sometimes were declared to be dead only to spontaneously revive a day or two later. 


A a result, the people of Jesus’ time believed that the a person’s soul lingered near their body for up to three days after death. However, after that, the person was considered to be well and truly dead. Given that tradition, Lazarus was undeniably dead. His sister Martha is even concerned that his body is decomposing, adding further impossibility to Jesus’ miracle. And yet Jesus is all to restore life to Lazarus with a mere three words in English, “Lazarus, come out!”


And so we have an unarguable miracle, performed in the suburbs of Jerusalem, but rather than stirring the religious leaders to have faith in Jesus, it causes them to threaten the lives of both Jesus and Lazarus. That seems like a very unusual reaction unless you understand two things:  1st. Jesus was seen to be a threat to the religious establishment as well as being a potential rebel against Rome, and 2nd. You understand who Lazarus was. 


Lazarus is a Greek name, even though the people of Israel spoke Aramaic, not Greek, on a day-to-day basis. But sometimes Hebrew and Aramaic names were translated into Greek when the New Testament was being written to make things more understandable for people living outside of Israel. 


If you assume that was done with Lazarus and you translate that name back into its original Aramaic, it becomes Eleazar. Add to that the fact that the gospel of John refers to a mysterious, unnamed person he calls “the beloved disciple.” Scholars suggest that one of the leading candidates to be that beloved disciple was Lazarus. Why?  In today’s passage alone, we read three times that Jesus loved him. 

Could that be the author’s way of telling us who he’s referring to by the phrase “beloved disciple?” Add one more element that comes from a letter written in the late second century by Polycrates, who was then the bishop of Ephesus. Polycrates tells us that beloved disciple wore the petelon, which was a golden object worn on the turban of the Jewish high priest only during his official duties.


If you then search the list of high priests around the time of Jesus, you can discover a man named Eleazar, son of Boethus. That Eleazar was named high priest beginning in 4 B.C., continuing until he was removed from office by the Romans some time before 6 A.D. Further research shows that Eleazar, son of Boethus, lived in the town of Bethany and had two sisters named Miriam and Martha. All of that is highly suggestive, although it doesn’t absolutely prove anything. But just imagine what it might mean if Lazarus really had served as high priest. 


The position of high priest was supposed to be a lifetime job, yet the Romans regularly yanked the rug out from underneath one office holder after another. What would it mean to faithful Jews to have someone whom they might consider to still be the legitimate high priest turn into a follower of Jesus? Not only that, but to then have that person be brought back to life by Jesus? Wouldn’t that be seen as a powerful endorsement of Jesus’ ministry by both a well-known religious leader and by God himself? 


If all of this is true, it’s no wonder the religious establishment wanted to get rid of Jesus, as well as Lazarus, even though his only apparent “crime” was to respond to Jesus’ command to come out of his tomb. Together, Jesus and Lazarus represented a dangerous challenge to the control of the religious elite, who were willing to kill to retain that control. Opposed to them was Jesus who was willing to absorb all their anger and hatred in order to bring life to all. 


And that brings up another unusual aspect of the Lazarus story. When Jesus meets with Mary, we’re told that he becomes “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” That translation makes it sound as if he were grieving the loss of Lazarus, which is a little odd since he knows that Lazarus will return to life in a short time. 

Some people explain this issue by saying that Jesus is empathizing with the grief of those around him. 

But the truth is our English translation is misleading. What the original Greek is really saying is that Jesus is angry and frustrated. 


Here’s how Don Hoffman explains it:  “Jesus has been friends with Martha and Mary and Lazarus for a long time. He has been working with his disciples for a long time. According to John’s way of telling the story, Jesus has been preaching for about three years. In all this time he has never been talking about avoiding death. He has always been talking about embracing life. And Martha still doesn’t get it. Mary still doesn’t get it. Three years of ministry down the tubes. They just don’t get it. Jesus wept. Tears of frustration.


“Do you see how everyone in this story is preoccupied with death, hung up on death, centered on death? Everyone except one person. Jesus is preoccupied with life, hung up on life, centered on life. He tells us that at the beginning of the story:  this illness is not about death […]. It’s about the glory of God. It’s about resurrection and life. Jesus will follow any discipline, pay any price, go any distance, to embrace life.” 


Eugene O’Neill made a similar point when he wrote a play called Lazarus Laughed. That play picks up the story immediately after today’s gospel lesson ends. A crowd has gathered at Lazarus’ house to hear Lazarus tell his story. Someone asks him, “What was it like to die? What did you see? What did you experience?” 


Lazarus began to laugh with a laugh of pure joy. Then he says, “There is only life. There is only laughter, the laughter of God. It soars to the heights; it resounds to the depths. There is no death, really. It is not what it looks like from this side. Death is not an abyss or entrance into nothingness or chaos or punishment. Death is a portal, a passageway into deeper and brighter life, eternal change, everlasting growth. That is what lies out ahead of us in death. We were born of the laughter of God and we move toward the laughter of God. There is only life.” If O’Neill is right, what does that mean?


It suggests that eternal life isn’t something waiting for us beyond the grave. Instead, it’s something we can experience is this life, too. Isn’t that part of Jesus’ meaning when he says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” 


When we struggle with the specters of our own personal and public tragedies and our lonely hours of despair, we may sometimes feel like Lazarus, tightly bound by the restrictions of this world and trapped by the sense of being overwhelmed. And yet, Jesus can bring new life into any situation. Jesus can resurrect us from even the worst things that can possibly happen to us. 


As Norm Seli writes, “If you are feeling dead inside — If you are hopeless, if things seem to be crumbling around you — get outside. Take a deep breath. Take a nice walk and listen to the word of God. What happens to this world in spring time, what happens to Jesus Christ in Easter, will happen to us. To our relationships, to our families, to hopes. Yes we will suffer, but we will also rejoice.


“Find that Lazarus inside you. Roll back the stone and listen to the words of Jesus, “Lazarus, come out!” And listen to the instructions that Jesus gives, “unbind him and let him go!” Let yourself get out of the cave and hear the word of God, […] and feel the presence of God and know that you are not alone.”


Just as springtime brings new life out of the seeming deadness of winter, so Jesus can offer genuine hope to those feeling hopeless and the promise of real joy to those whose world seems to be crumbling around them. 


The witness of history is that Jesus has resurrected millions and millions of people in situations like that, and his touch has never lost its power. Through Christ, we can be unbound and we, in turn, can help to unbind others in his name. 


We are called to be resurrection people. So let’s walk confidently out of our tombs of despondency and embrace Christ’s healing joy. Amen. 

by Jim McCrea

Rev. Jim McCrea


Rev. Jim McCrea



    Sundays, 10 a.m.


    Adults: Sundays, 9-9:45 a.m.

First Presbyterian Church

106 N. Bench Street

Galena, Illinois 61036

(815) 777-0229


    Sundays, 10 a.m.


    Adults: Sundays, 9-9:45 a.m.

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