The miracle we hear in our gospel this morning is perhaps the most famous performed by Jesus. Certainly, Lazarus, is the most famous recipient of a miracle – he is given not only a name, but also a loving family, a friendship with Jesus, who risks his own safety to come and help.
One aspect of the story that always strikes me is how calm Jesus is when confronted with the news of Lazarus. Jesus never loses hope. All around him, people are panicking. They have already given up. They are angry Jesus came too late. They have decided nothing will work. But Jesus, in the face of that whirlwind, is calm. And from that state of calm and resolute hope, he raises Lazarus to life again.
When these kinds of miracles happen in the gospel, our scientific age is prone to skepticism. But science, in fact, has its own Lazarus syndrome – people whose hearts stop, who appear dead, for long, impossible minutes, and yet come back to life. Many years ago, there were controversial cases of resignation syndrome – or what in Sweden, they called “uppgivenhetssyndrom.” A small group of refugee children had taken to their beds, fallen asleep and would not wake up. The children had lived most of their lives in Sweden, but their families were facing deportation. In one case, the child was checked by doctors and given a feeding tube, but did not move. The doctors diagnosed that this was a case of hopelessness. For, who indeed, can live without hope?
Whatever condition ails Lazarus is equally perplexing. At first, it’s suggested that the illness that Lazarus suffers from does not typically cause death. Then we understand that Lazarus has died, and Jesus announces his intention to wake him. He travels to the tomb where Lazarus has been lying for four days now. The stone is rolled back. “Lazarus, come out,” Jesus calls. And Lazarus comes out, bound as one prepared for burial. It is surely a foreshadowing of another tomb to come, where there will be a rising from the dead. Perhaps it is also meant to inform our perception of the resurrection for us as individuals. (When Jesus says, Come out, come on, come see, come be at peace – do we listen?)
But as I always like to say, the details make for a good story, but they are not the substance of the tale. When we accept that Lazarus was sleeping, given up for dead and raised back to life by Jesus – however that happened – what else do we see? When we step back, and watch the story unfold, what do we learn?
We see all the places where hope is lost. The disciples don’t want Jesus to go to help his friend – it is too dangerous – they have no hope for his safety. Mary and Martha have lost hope that the brother can be saved. Mary, in fact, doesn’t even come out to meet Jesus. And Martha, when she does, is angry that he is so late.
(Just to pause here: another aspect of this story that is so remarkable is the clear friendship these people have with one another. Mary and Martha address Jesus almost as equals. They don’t question that Jesus will come to help their brother. Jesus answers their questions and comforts them. It is a particularly personal scene in the gospel.
And what does it reveal? That Jesus was also someone who would risk, on a personal level, for those he cared about. He wasn’t just preaching to a big, wide flock. He was also a friend himself who worried about people special to him. I mention this because we can always imagine Jesus at the right hand of God, or Jesus the rabbi, Jesus the teacher, even Jesus the maker of miracles. It’s often just a sidebar that Jesus was also a son, a brother to others, a dear and trusted friend. But of course, in between all these gospel scenes was the life he lived, and the people he cared about along the way. (If we think also of Jesus this way, does he not become fuller and clearer to us?)
It may be Jesus, the son of God, who calls Lazarus back to life. But what does Jesus, the friend and brother, accomplish? Where there is no hope, he brings it. To the disciples, he eases them: there is room in a day for good deeds to happen, even more than bad.
“Are there not twelve hours of daylight?” he says, as if to remind them - 12 hours! What can’t we do in 12 hours! “Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble because the light is not in them.” Walk with hope in the day, and you will not stumble.
To grieving Martha, he offers comfort. I am here now, he tells her. It is not too late. In other words, he tells her: I have not given up on Lazarus. Lean on my hope until yours is restored.
What are we without hope? Without knowing that, whatever comes next, we will manage, we will be loved, we will be cared for? What happens to us if we stop believing that God walks with us? Or if we start believing that there is nothing to hold on to? Hope is the breath of life. And Jesus offers it to Mary and Martha with his first words of comfort. And then in two very specific ways – in the immediate, he resurrects Lazarus from the tomb, and in the long-term, he promises the resurrection at the end of our days. We need both of those to live on: the hope that we can carry forth in this day, and this moment, whatever pain we might be feeling, whatever trial we are facing. This lies behind so many of the life lessons from Jesus - to set aside our own troubles and serve others – for in doing so our own trouble is diminished. The lessons that tell us to forgive, so that we might have resilience in relationships. The lessons that tell us to love, so that we might have the healing medicine of joy. But Jesus also offers us hope now, and in the distant future – the hope of the resurrection – the hope that in the end, we matter, our lives matter, and that the journey along the way is worth the weight we carry. That is what Jesus tells Martha and Mary – he raises Lazarus from the tomb on that fourth day, but he promises Lazarus life at the end of days.
What healed those strange cases of sleeping children? – hope. What feeling would have kept the families praying over their seemingly lost loved ones going – hope. What did Jesus give to Martha and Mary – and Lazarus himself? Hope.
There are times when we all feel bereft of hope. What Jesus offers is not a perfect hope, or a golden hope, or a hope that is easy. Jesus offers real hope, that when we arrive at the end of our days, we will know God, who deems our lives worthy. To watch where we step, and to look ahead where our steps lead, this is the action of hope. Knowing that Jesus is there – our teacher, yes, but also our friend - not just to resurrect us at the end of days, but to lift us up each and every day. Amen