If given the option, human beings like to prepare for death. “Bucket list” is a popular term. If you know you’re going to die, create a “bucket list” of things you must do before you kick the bucket. One person might want to travel, another might want to see great museums, or sample fine cuisine. Or you may want to spend us much time with your family and friends as possible. The point is you get it in before you die. It’s everything you never made time for while you were alive. Whether through carelessness, bad timing, or the wrong priorities, the reality of death brings your priorities into focus. Sadly, you’re now able to do what’s important to you once the clock is ticking its loudest. And that’s only one aspect of preparing for death.
We prepare legally and financially. What will happen to our families? How will they be cared for in our absence? The issues of care, survivorship, and wills are first and foremost in our minds. How will estates be divided? People spend years preparing for the dissolution of their property prior to their death. Those who do not prepare bequeath to their children costly legal battles and often acrimonious disputes over grandmothers china.
Believe or not, people put in a degree of religious preparation. I read in the Guardian, just two weeks ago, the extensive preparations for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. You want to talk about a big deal? That’s going to be a big deal. To a smaller extent, we do the same things. We pick the hymns to be sung, scriptures to be read, pallbearers to be asked, speakers to be called, and flowers to be picked. We prepare for the funeral. In short, getting ready for a funeral, a celebration of a life well-lived is full time job. But here’s the thing, no one, no matter how prepared you are, how ready you believe yourself to be, how checked off and completed your bucket list appears, is ready for death. For the living, death is a pop quiz you didn’t see coming. The dying simply die. Their journey is over.
We, on the other hand, have prepared for death like the methodical, well-ordered, rational people that we are and have no idea what to do next. There is no preparation for what comes after death if you’re still alive. There are no more bucket lists, no more wills to execute, candles to light, or hymns to sing. You cannot prepare for absence. The story of Lazarus is a test. What will you do next, how will you respond, the day after, when Lazarus is in the tomb?
As Mary and Martha, the dead man’s sisters, cared for him in his final hours, Jesus was nowhere to be found. They knew their brother was dying. Their preparations were well under way. The family tomb was opened and cleared. Anointing oils were readied. Lazarus, in his final hours of agony, was made as comfortable as possible. And they waited. They waited for their friend Jesus to arrive. Jesus arrived three days later. He wasn’t in Bethany when Lazarus died.
Two days earlier the women sent for Jesus. Beyond the disciples who traveled with him, Lazarus was the closest thing Jesus has to both a disciple and best friend. The message was unmistakable in its urgency and clarity, “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.” Lazarus was dying. Whether Jesus knew he’d been ill or this was unexpected, John doesn’t tell us. That doesn’t matter. The reality of the situation counted for everything. He was sick and there wasn’t much time. How Lazarus got to this point wasn’t important. They wanted and needed Jesus. He had a responsibility to go.
But he didn’t. Here’s where we begin to see glimpses of Jesus’ humanity we’ve never witnessed before. Jesus waits those two days. It seems, like some of us, Jesus is not prepared for Lazarus’ death. Call it denial or unpreparedness, Jesus is unwilling to go to his friends. This seems strange at best and hurtful at worst. His only explanation was to says, “This illness isn’t fatal. It’s for the glory of God so that God’s son can be glorified through it.” I don’t know about you but those aren’t comforting words. I’m not sure he would have told Martha and Mary that their brother’s illness wasn’t fatal. As Lazarus lay dying, that’s an extremely presumptuous claim to make. Have you ever known someone who always manages to bring any conversation back around to themselves? Jesus does this here. Lazarus is dying and he says, this is really for me and my glory. I’m going to be real honest now. That makes me uncomfortable. Who is this really about? Who is the star of this show; the man who is dying or Jesus? Is Lazarus a human prop?
The disciples are afraid and unprepared. There is a price on Jesus’ head. Jesus is marked for death. In fact, once he goes to Bethany it will start an irreversible chain of events that will end at the cross. If the disciples return to Bethany, a place so close to Jerusalem, there is a good chance Jesus will be arrested and stoned by the Jewish authorities. Do they go back to save Lazarus’ life and risk their own? By this time it’s too late. Lazarus is already dead. John, ever the poet, has Jesus use the world sleeping; as if he can be awoken. We are left this impression: whatever has happened to Lazarus is not permanent. Mary, Martha, and their community in Bethany have been fooled by this great day after April Fools’ joke. It’s all hoax. Again, the cruelty of going through the reality of death to only be told it wasn’t real seems unbearably cruel. I am made to feel uncomfortable.
You can imagine their anger, fear, and frustration. Their beloved brother is dead and Jesus arrives after three excruciatingly painful days. There is a struggle between Mary and Martha to see which one will yell at him first. This is the first real indication of what comes next: anger. They were mad at Jesus. “Lord,” they said, “if you had been here my brother wouldn’t have died. Even now I know whatever you ask God, God will give you.” As Mary and Martha saw it, rightly or wrongly, Jesus had the ability to stop Lazarus from dying. They do not understand why Jesus didn’t intervene. He still has the power to do something, doesn’t he? This is what she’s asking. Isn’t that the big suffering question? Why does God not intervene to stop illnesses in the ones we love or stop tragedies like head on collisions between church busses and trucks in Texas earlier this week? Mary and Martha are asking a question for which there is no preparation.
The second indication of what comes next happens when Jesus sees the scene. It’s hard not to start crying when you see someone else crying. Jesus saw their tears. He took in the size of the crowd. When they brought him to the tomb, the whole thing got real. Theoretical death and tomb death are two different things. You can riff about sleep as a metaphor for death with your disciples until the cows come home. When you’re standing at your best friend’s grave, it’s another matter altogether. How do I know this? Because the Bible says this: Jesus began to cry. It’s the shortest verse in most translations of the Bible: Jesus wept. But that’s what it means, “Jesus began to cry”. You cannot prepare for how grief will impact your life. Even the son of God grieves loss and was unprepared for the pain he would experience. I’m not sure Jesus weeps from the cross. We never get a clear indication. He is pain, agony, and torment. But tears like this are different. This is a one of a kind experience.
The people who were watching Jesus’ interaction with the women said “See how much he loved him!” Imagine that, showing so much emotion for someone who has died that the people who are still gathered (three days after the actual death) can tell tangible grief and love versus a put on show of fake grief and made up emotion. As someone who has led countless funerals, I know what “see how much he/she loved him” looks like and “see how much they want you to think they loved him” appears. That’s the third thing. Jesus’ tears alone showed how much he loved Lazarus. He’d didn’t need to make a big show, sit with the family, and make himself front and center. The people could tell how he felt without Jesus uttering a single word. That response, to me, gives a clue to Jesus’ regret at causing Lazarus pain over those last three days of his life. Jesus was saying; I am sorry. Jesus says two things: I’m sorry and come forth. Will we accept Jesus’ apology?
So we come back to the first question. What are we to do now? The time for preparation is over.
You and I; we are Lazarus. We are entombed in darkness, living without hope, and in need of being freed from the graves in which we’ve been placed. Will we go forth and be unbound? The miracle, the response in this story, is in our feet. Jesus didn’t drag Lazarus out of the tomb. Lazarus walked. He might have stunk to high heaven but John says he walked out under his own power. We walk out and God unties us. God lets us go.