Though our society prides itself of being 'real', liking to discover things, pushing known boundaries to new frontiers, we still cannot deal with physical death. That is one place we hesitate to go to, even though we pretend we can cope. I'm reminded of this so often in my ministry, whether formal or informal, for death stalks us each day.
Amongst the communities I deal with a number of young men have died tragically over the past two years, the most recent two weeks ago. It is painful to see the numbing experience of the young grappling with the emptiness of a space no longer filled, of a friendship no longer there. I say little these days, except to smile, and listen, and say as I often do, 'go very gently with yourself', for they are fragile persons with a whole known world cut away. Multiply that many times in the lives of so many and you can see the need for some way to bring a message of hope.
So this Gospel about Lazarus is timely for us; here the Lord Jesus does not pretend or shy away from the reality of death. We know so little about Lazarus, except he was a friend and Jesus loved him. The two sisters seem passively aggressive in their way for they, as we do in grief, lay a blame on somebody blameless, 'If YOU had been here, he wouldn't have died'. Doesn't that form of words echo so many wretched cruelties we afflict on nearest and dearest in the rawness of our own grief? For our grief can be utterly selfish, utterly cruel, if we do not sometimes check it with loving compassion! Even the disciples fail to understand what this death is all about, the world of John's Gospel is a world of symbols and dreams of the utterances of God, who shouts at us through events and encounters rather than in reasoned arguments. Here in the Lazarus story we have not so much a tale as a pointer to our own death and its real meaning.
Lazarus is a short form of Eleazar, meaning God helps! The place Bethany means 'House of affliction', the two are very clearly put together and shine on what Jesus is doing. He helps those in affliction, those whom he loves, like Lazarus. We also are Lazarus - death cannot be hidden and here John almost throws its rawness, grief, loss, disturbance, decay, tomb all in our faces!
That's death, but it's not all. For Lazarus is us, all of us loved by God. Here death is defeated and it will be totally through the hastening death of Jesus, who with grave clothes dropping off him, rises from the tomb in new life. This is Jesus who is the Life of the world. But he is also the Word, for as to Lazarus, so he will call us from our physical death. "Come out', he will shout, and with the trappings of death falling away, we too will walk into Life.
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