We don’t learn much from Jesus about how to conduct a funeral. Every time Jesus shows up at a funeral, he has the peculiar habit of bringing the deceased back to life. What began as a funeral ends as a wedding feast.
That, in fact, would appear to be the point John is trying to make. He structures the first half of his Gospel around the signs and wonders of Jesus’ ministry. He begins with a wedding in Cana and then comes full circle with a funeral in Bethany (John 11:1-44, this week’s Gospel text). Jesus has been setting the stage for the raising of Lazarus ever since he turned water to wine.
To fully understand the story, however, we have to go back further, much further, to the day when the Israelites languished in exile in Babylon. During that dark period of Israel’s history, the prophet Ezekiel had a vision: a vision that looked at first like a gloomy vision of death, but was transformed by the Word and the Spirit of God into a glorious vision of new life. This week’s Old Testament text describes what Ezekiel envisioned.
Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD.
The images seen and described by Ezekiel so many years before literally reverberate in the words of Jesus throughout the first half of John’s Gospel.
“Truly, truly I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”
“Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out.”
“For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
“Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
The language of Ezekiel and the language of Jesus are one and the same. For the Israelites in Babylon, Ezekiel’s vision was symbolic of their return from exile. They were at the time “dead” in Babylon, but God promised that the day was coming when they would be “alive” again; restored to their homeland. Ezekiel had spoken, in previous chapters, about the renewal of the covenant, of cleansing from sin, of God gathering his sheep as when a shepherd seeks them out when they are scattered, and, finally, of giving Israel a new heart and a new spirit. Not for Israel’s sake, but for the sake of his holy name, God was going to act to rescue and vindicate his people, and thus vindicate his holiness for all to see.
I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.
The language here is that of restoration, of gaining back that which was lost. God himself, who breathed the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils in the beginning, was going to do so again. The renewal of the covenant would mean the new creation. The word that came to be used to describe this great reworking was resurrection!
After their return from exile, the Israelites whose hearts were truly seeking after God knew that Ezekiel’s vision was more than a metaphor. There was a deeper meaning behind all the symbolic language. No exile would be permanent. Even death itself would be swallowed up by life in the great and glorious day when God would act to restore all things.
As John writes his Gospel, he brings together this long history of hope and expectation. From the wedding at Cana to the funeral at Bethany, everything Jesus has said and every sign he has performed has been leading up to this moment.
“You must be born again.”
“I am the light of the world.”
“I will raise them up on the last day.”
“[He] who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. . . The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.”
“I am the good shepherd.”
“Before Abraham was, I AM.”
But every time Jesus opens his mouth or performs some sign, somebody somewhere wants to kill him. The people are so bound up in their sins, so enslaved by their human traditions, that they cannot receive the Word of God, but instead reject the Word made flesh as a blasphemer.
By the time he gets to Bethany, Jesus is in no mood for sentimentality. The Greek term politely translated, “deeply moved,” means, literally, “indignant.” Even his disciples appear clueless. When he tells them they are going back to Judea, they try to stop him.
“Lord, last time you were there, they tried to kill you.”
When it is obvious they cannot prevail, they seem resigned to a tragic end. As Thomas says, “Let us go also, that we may die with him.”
What are they expecting?
What was Mary expecting?
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
What were the people expecting?
“Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Among the cast of characters in this story, Martha stands out as the one who seems to hold on to a glimmer of hope. She confesses her belief in “the resurrection at the last day.” She even confesses her belief in Jesus as the Savior of the world. But all of this only compounds her grief, because even her expectations are clouded by the shadow of death. Like her sister Mary, she complains . . .
“Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
The disciples, Mary and Martha, the crowd: their focus is uniformly on DEATH. It is the valley of dry bones all over again.
Martha is right about one thing.
“Lord, by now there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.”
Death does have a way of stinking up the place, of casting a long shadow over the hopes and expectations of a people. Death has a way of closing their eyes in blindness, of shutting them off in a cold, dark, smelly tomb.
But against this dark backdrop, the light of the world is about to shine. When Jesus says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life,” he means it literally. “You believe in the resurrection on the last day? Woman, you are looking at the resurrection. Open your eyes and behold the living end!”
In Jesus, the end has come, but life goes on.
“Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”
“Did I not tell you a time was coming when the dead would hear my voice and come out of their tombs?”
“Did I not tell you that everyone who believes in me has eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day?”
“Did I not tell you I am the good shepherd, that I call my own by name and lead them out?”
“Lazarus, come out!”
This is a pivotal moment in John’s Gospel. Here begins the unfolding of the mystery of God’s redemptive plan, seen thus far in tiny glimpses through the signs Jesus has performed, but only revealed fully and completely in Jesus himself. Here is the turning point, the radical re-orientation, whereby we begin to understand that Christ draws us to himself not by what he does, but by who he is: the Bread of Life, the light of the world, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life.