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I wonder if John thought no one would ask this question. Did he think his readers, whether in the late 1st century when he composed his gospel or in the early 21st century as we reread it on the 5th Sunday of Lent, would be so amazed by the miracle of Lazarus’ resuscitation that we wouldn’t notice that it’s tragic for a man to die once; it’s downright troubling to make him die twice.

Lazarus was dead; that much was true. He had been in the tomb for four days when Jesus and the disciples arrived in Bethany. The dead man’s sisters, Mary and Martha, were also close friends of Jesus. In Lazarus’ last hours, they sent word to Jesus, begging him to come and heal their brother. Jesus hesitated. For reasons they could not grasp, Jesus waited until Lazarus died before he came to Lazarus’ side. By this time, the man was dead, and the sister’s grief was raw. Rightly or wrongly, they blamed Jesus. His presence could have made a difference.  Jesus could have saved Lazarus’ life. In these moments, John allows us a glimpse of Jesus’ raw, unfiltered humanity. We read the shortest and most poignant verse in the New Testament, “Jesus wept.” Jesus, we know, is conflicted. Here is an opportunity to show God’s power. Yet, his close friend had to die for the world to witness that power. Mary and Martha were overcome with grief. Jesus blamed himself for Lazarus’ death despite understanding the “plan.” Amidst his hurting friends and disciples, not to mention his pain, the grand plan seemed like the least of his worries.

We know what happened next. The stone was removed, and he called Lazarus out of the tomb. Lazarus didn’t have a near-death experience. Lazarus had a death experience. He was dead for four days. That’s almost a full workweek. He’s checked in, got his white robe, been through orientation, and enjoying the all-you-can-eat brunch when suddenly he’s summoned to the manager’s office and told he’s returning to Earth. Remember 1st century Palestine, a place with no indoor plumbing, a life expectancy of 37, massive poverty, slavery, and Roman oppression. God, you must be kidding. Lazarus asks, “If I go back, that means I’ll have to die again one day and do this all over again?” “Yes,” says God.  “That stinks,” says Lazarus. “No,” God says. “You’ll stink to high heaven when you leave the tomb in a moment. God has a wicked sense of humor.

Lazarus died twice. Dying isn’t fun, especially if you’ve watched a loved one in a hospice journey from life to death. Lazarus got to do it twice. I’m not sure that’s the miracle we think it is. Long after Jesus was crucified, resurrected, and ascended, Lazarus hung around Bethany with his sisters living to die again. We all know we’re going to die. It could be today or tomorrow. It could be decades from now. Lazarus had been there, done it, and got the t-shirt. Imagine having been to heaven and tolerating daily life. It would be intolerable. I can picture people coming to Lazarus, peppering him with questions: “What was it like?” “Were the streets paved with gold?” “Did you see my grandmother?” I see him at some point, growing tired of talking about heaven, waiting for his return trip, and wishing Jesus had left him on the other side of the Pearly Gates.

We do a disservice to the gospel when we overlook Lazarus. He’s the original guy who was Left Behind. This is as much his story as it is Jesus’. He’s not just a foil for making a miraculous point. He’s a human being, like all of us. So as Jesus weeps, don’t forget to tell Lazarus’ story.

–Richard Bryant

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