Commentary on John 11:32-44
On the one hand, even without the accompaniment of the other appointed lectionary readings or the liturgical themes of All Saints’ Day (not to mention the other forty-three verses of John 11), this pericope has some great possibilities.
For starters, the raising of Lazarus and its immediate aftermath provide a turning point in John’s gospel. Beginning in John 2 (with the changing of water into wine), the narrative arc of John’s account has been constructed around a series of signs performed by Jesus. These signs inspire many who witness them to believe in Jesus (as they do in verse 45 of this chapter) and in some cases to worship him (cf. John 9:38).
At the same time, these signs have caused anger and fear to build up among the religious leadership. The raising of Lazarus is the climactic sign that launches–we learn in verses 47-53–the plot to kill Jesus “for the sake of the whole nation.” Granted, it is hard to preach a book’s narrative structure because to do so either means wading through more back story than a sermon can hold or assumes that hearers have just heard read aloud a larger portion than just thirteen verses. But such background information can still serve the sermon if it keeps the preacher, at least, attuned to the pivotal importance of this story.
Even at that, one element of this pericope (still somewhat apart from the All Saints’ Day context) reveals an aspect of this story’s Christological importance and the corresponding shift in faith required of believers. It’s clear from the early verses of John 11 that Jesus knows what the power of God can and will do for Lazarus. The befuddlement of the disciples in that early exchange makes it equally clear that his followers do not. When Mary greets Jesus in verse 32, she echoes Martha’s earlier almost-but-not-quite faithful greeting in verse 21, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Similarly, the Judean bystanders muse in verse 37, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” These remarks acknowledge Jesus’ power, but only as the power to keep Lazarus from dying. With the possible exception of Martha’s hint of a farther-ranging trust (see verse 23), there is no suggestion that anyone has grasped Jesus as “the resurrection and the life” has power beyond death.
This failure to be fully grasped (and therefore fully loved and trusted) is the likely cause of Jesus’ tears (contrary to the popular notion that his tears provide proof of Jesus’ human grief). We know that Jesus is not weeping for grief because the observers think that he is weeping for grief and in the John’s gospel such observations are almost always wrong, becoming then an occasion for Jesus to open people to the deeper truths of his being (e.g., Nicodemus and being “born again” or the woman at the well and “living water”). Jesus weeps because when they say to him, “come and see,” they lead him to the grave (compare with how “come and see” is used earlier in John to lead people to Jesus!).
The performance of this text should capture this frustration as it builds through verses 37-38 (where Jesus is greatly disturbed) and then again in verse 39 where we see Martha (the housekeeper!) unable to imagine beyond the stench.
The lector/preacher has an amazing opportunity to embody Jesus’ humanity and divinity as he or she considers how to voice the command in verse 43, “Lazarus, come out!” Power and love, authority and grief (or perhaps even disgust) over their unbelief mingled together; variations on that command could become a powerful sermon refrain!
On the other hand, it is the feast of All Saints and this portion of John 11 will be heard in the context of the other readings and possibly alongside liturgical rites that commemorate those who have died (and in some congregations those who have died in baptism) since last November 1. In this context, the reading from John provides a case where the eschatology meets the road. The other lectionary readings present lofty theological and eschatological visions; John gives us a concrete, real-life exhibition of what resurrection and life can accomplish.
When I’m sitting in the congregation on All Saints’ Day, here is what I’d like to hear: I want you, preacher, to bring me face to face with death and remind me (convince me?) that death is the enemy. Certainly feel free to welcome all of death’s extended family (sin, despair, brokenness, division) in order to make your case, but keep the focus on death, on mortality and the threat it is to our sense of purpose, imagination, and value. Remind me that even under the best of circumstances (when it takes place at the perfect moment between “why did she have to die so soon” and “why did he linger so long”). death is still the enemy. Yes, the war has been won but the fight is not over and death is still a fearsome frontier. Help us to identify with Martha and Mary and the Judean onlookers whose trust in Jesus lacks imagination and into-the-future distance. And then proclaim to us the risen one who stands with God to wipe away those tears and secure us so that we are never put to shame.
I would also like to hear testimonies and stories that tell about Jesus, the resurrection and the life, standing outside dark, stench-y, places in our world calling forth hitherto unimagined life: “_____, come out!” Show us where God is freeing people from death–not so that they can go to heaven, but so that they can serve (Lazarus hosts a meal in chapter 12!) and be living witnesses to the life-giving power of God (even nettlesome witnesses that make others want to kill them again!).
And if you’re feeling blessed this week with some theological nimbleness (so as not to misrepresent the Bible story or our baptismal theology), remind us that our own baptisms were both Jesus moments (buried and resurrected with him) and Lazarus moments (unbound in order to serve and witness).