Commentary on John 11:32-44
Death is real and harsh. No resuscitation of Lazarus from the dead should sentimentalize or simplify that truth.
It is the end of June and the state of South Carolina and the nation are reeling from the trauma of a twenty-one-year old white man named Dylann Roof who entered the historic Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston and sat for an hour through Bible study and prayer before allegedly killing nine innocent victims.
Two of those killed, Rev. Clementa Pinckney and Rev. Daniel Simmons, Sr. are graduates of Lutheran Southern Theological Seminary where I teach. I knew Clementa personally. The nation grieves a tragedy. Many of us feel the intense personal pain of the death of these nine.
As I write this article, my family and I are dealing with end of life decisions with my mom. After four years of passionately fighting, first the ravages of cancer and then the horrendous treatment effects of eradicating that evil, my mom is looking the harshness of death in the face. There comes a time when in physical weakness, one can fight this evil no longer.
Death is not easy. We should not sentimentalize any facet of the claim that death has over all of us on this day where in our liturgies, we will read the names of all those who have been snatched from us since All Saints Day 2014. Death stings personally.
As we prepare to preach this well-known text on Lazarus, Martha, Mary, and Jesus, we need to hold out the reality of the personal pain and grief that is in the biblical text and that is wounding so many.
The names we read,
the bells we ring,
represent serious and real voids for those who have lost a loved one during the year. We must hold that sacred as we hold this text sacred.
The text for today is but a portion of the entire chain of events that narrate the death of Lazarus in John 11. It is helpful to hold the entire chapter in mind as we prepare, but two verses and their verbs seem especially helpful for a sermon about death’s real sting.
John 11:33-35 capture Jesus’ response to Mary’s indictment: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not be dead!” What a charge! How many of us have also cried out to God with similar words: “If you loved us, you would not have let _____ die!”? Jesus can also observe the weeping of Mary, and the tears of those who were coming out from the house with her. Mourning and grief are palpable in these verses.
The NRSV translates the end of verse 33 with “he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” For the integrity of the Greek verbs and the reality of the wounds of death, this translation is too weak. The first verb has a connection to anger. It is not simply a strong feeling, but it is more of a passion and pain that comes from anger at the situation (also used in v. 38).
The root of the second verb is tied to a stirring up of oneself on the insides. It can be used in a physical sense for stirring up water, disturbing the calmness of the still water. In a more personal sense, it signifies both mental and internal disturbance that is akin to almost being physically sickened and disturbed.
Then in the shortest verse of the Bible, verse 35. Jesus weeps. Jesus has the same reaction that the mourners do — he weeps real tears.
Jesus was angry and groaning deeply in his spirit and he was stirred up in his mind, heart, and body by Lazarus’ death. He cried aloud.
Even the incarnate God is broken in his heart and soul by the death of his friend Lazarus. Death grieves God. So also, does death break our hearts and stir up our souls
It is within this context that we tell the story of Jesus’ offering life anew to Lazarus. Death stings. It stinks (v. 39). No perfume or pat answers can remove this.
And the miracle is that smelly, dead man comes walking from the tomb at the simple command of Jesus: “Come out.” This death for Lazarus is defeated. He will need to clean up and take off the grave clothes, but Lazarus gets another chance at life. However, death is not forever defeated for Lazarus. This is not the resurrection of Jesus; it is the temporary recovery from death for Lazarus.
What are we to say in the midst of the suffering and reality and death? Is it enough to toll the bells and read the names? No. We are to proclaim the truth of the sting and stench of death. We are to acknowledge the grief and anger that may never totally depart those who are left in this life. We are to state the reality of the disturbing fact of the brutality of death.
Anger, deep disturbing pain, agitation of spirit and body are palpable across South Carolina and the nation as we wait for the last of the long line of nine funerals.
But the gospel truth does reign. We have our hope not on things on this earth but in the power of the cross of Christ and the resurrection of those who are his children. Jesus’ words of John 11:25 are the resounding gospel note that we proclaim this day: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.”