Last fall, when we did our series on death and dying, someone remarked that I seemed a little too cavalier when it came to talking about death—not that I was courageous or confident but careless and insensitive. That was something I hadn’t even noticed. I might have been too flippant because I was hoping that all of us would finish the series more comfortable talking about death. Or maybe it was because I spend a pretty good bit of time talking with people who are dying and have become overly familiar with end-of-life issues. But it might just be because I don’t take death all that seriously.
Keep in mind that I have never buried a parent or a spouse or a child. I have buried people whom I love deeply, and I have wept bitterly as someone important to me took his last breath. But, still, I don’t get overly sentimental when someone dies. I think that’s a little bit defense mechanism but also a whole lot theology.
Today’s gospel lesson from John (11:1-16) is puzzling on several fronts. For starters, Jesus learns that his friend Lazarus is gravely ill, but he still stayed two more days in the place where he was before setting off. Also, Jesus keeps talking about Lazarus’ illness and death in ways that confuse his disciples and us. “This illness does not lead to death,” he says. “Rather, it is for God’s glory.” Later on, he remarks that “Lazarus has fallen asleep,” but John then explains to us that he didn’t mean sleep but death. There’s also a bit in the middle about walking while it is day and not stumbling. And, finally, Thomas, bold but somewhat confused, remarks that they might as well head off with him to die.
As my six-year-old daughter has been saying around the house lately, “Waitwhaaat?”
I’m drawn to two different ways to resolve all of that confusion. First, I could take Jesus’ cryptic comments and cavalier attitude as evidence that he knew that he would raise Lazarus from the dead. If that’s the case, the statement, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory,” becomes a foretelling of the miracle that follows. And it all makes sense that way. Jesus isn’t worried because he knew he had the power and plan to bring Lazarus back from the dead. But I think there may be more power in approaching these enigmatic statements from another angle.
What if we take Jesus’ confidence not as evidence of a miracle that will happen in a few days but as the perspective of someone who knows through and through that God’s love has the power to carry us through this life, through our death, and into what awaits us? Instead of Jesus merely predicting his own miracle—kind of showy, anyway—what happens if this is Jesus’ display of faith that even if Lazarus dies that death isn’t the end of the story? What if Jesus’ point here isn’t to show off his dead-raising talents but to encourage us to have that same sort of peace even in the face of death? Maybe that’s how Lazarus’ illness leads to God’s glory.
Usually, I stick to the simplest-is-best approach to biblical interpretation. And, still, that’s probably the case here. But, today, when I find myself wondering what encouragement John 11 gives to the 21st-century Christian, I’m looking not in the shallow hope that Jesus might show up four days after a loved one dies to bring him back to life. Instead, my hope lies in the bigger miracle that the story of Lazarus points to. And that’s surely the purpose here: if Jesus can raise his friend from the dead, God can raise all of us to new life through his son.