This morning, my second of three days away from work, I sat in a chair on the patio behind my house. There were about a million birds singing—all a different song, but all perfectly intelligible to someone or at least to another bird. The songs were wonderful even though they were not being sung to or for me. Maybe the birds would be offended if they thought I was listening in on their conversations and songs.
I just couldn’t help myself and I found myself wishing I knew their language so that I could sing with them.
While I sat on the patio, I read from Scripture. Specifically, I read from John 11 and the story of the raising of Lazarus. Theologians are quick to point out that what happened to Lazarus was a resuscitation and not a resurrection. This is a terribly important theological distinction.
I don’t think Lazarus cared what it was: all he knew is that he was alive. Nothing else mattered now that breath filled his lungs again and light flooded his eyes and the warmth of blood once again began flowing through his flesh. Jesus did more than raise Lazarus: he recreated blood, fired synapse’s, pushed breathe into his lungs, and gave Lazarus back his movement. Whatever he did, it brought Lazarus out of the tomb. Whatever it was, Lazarus was glad for it.
I suppose I have always thought, probably because I watched some Jesus movie one time, that Lazarus came out of the tomb slowly, stiffly, and without much animation. Maybe. He was, after all, wrapped in ‘grave clothes’ which probably prevented a great deal of motion. But maybe Lazarus came bounding out of the tomb sort of like that fella that Peter healed one day who went ‘walking and leaping and praising God’ in the temple courts. Maybe Lazarus came out with a leap and a shout something like, “He get this stuff off of me I can’t see, or talk, or run and leap and sing.”
Somewhere I read that the reason Jesus said, “Lazarus, come out,” is because if he had just said, “Come out,” the tombs would have emptied that day. He called Lazarus and Lazarus came out. Isn’t it odd that even the dead can hear the voice of Jesus—often are better than the living: the birds obey; the dead obey; the living….well, we practice. Can you imagine Lazarus shouting back, “No thanks! I’m fine where I’m at.” But who among us would refuse the call to life? Even the dead are smart enough to know that when someone calls you to life you hear, listen, and obey.
I wonder if any of those others, the other dead, laying bone dry in dusty tombs near Lazarus’ tomb lay there thinking, “Oh, please call me next! Please call my name! Please Jesus let me hear your voice!” There’s something strange about people not wanting Jesus to call out their name, something odd about those who so continually refuse to hear and heed the call to live and life.
As I read through this story I noticed that people kind of blamed Jesus for Lazarus’ death. Verses 21, 32, and 37 all seem to point in the same general direction: Jesus could have done something but since he wasn’t there he didn’t. I’ll bet they would be angry if they knew he purposely stayed behind for two extra days.
- Lord, if you had been here… (21)
- Lord, if you had been here… (32)
- Could not he who…. (37)
It feels like maybe they were thinking he could have done something but for some reason or other he did not. Let’s be honest and truthful: this is one of the most difficult aspects of faith and Jesus to deal with on a regular basis. And I am only too aware of the platitudes that mutter things like, “What God could have prevented in his power he allowed in his wisdom” or something like that. Frankly speaking, this is of little comfort to the grieving and wailing. Yet there it is. Jesus could have done something after all he did open the eyes of a blind man! If he had been there he could have done something.
Divine restraint is profoundly perplexing and discomfiting.
Sometimes Jesus just isn’t there in time to prevent something. Sometimes Jesus delays for an extra two days so he can shop or catch up on his favorite television programs. I don’t know the reason why he delays and I cannot say that I perfectly agree with it—you know, why not set the world right right now? Why is it wisdom to allow death instead of preventing it?
What would have been the greater joy? Receiving a resurrected Lazarus back from the grave or having him healed before he entered the grave? The only response we know of is that Jesus really made a lot of people angry with this stunt and some others put their faith in him. The raising of Lazarus caused a lot of problems and, to be sure, didn’t go all that well for Lazarus either (John 12:10).
Here’s the thing though. Jesus calculated all this and made the decision and we are privy to the wisdom of his decision with respect to Lazarus even though we are not always privy to the wisdom he employs in his decisions concerning our lives: Jesus was not content to merely ward off death for a little while. No. His goal was to crush death under the weight of its own hubris. Jesus could have prevented Lazarus’ death, but it was better to utterly demolish death instead. There is wisdom.
Here I am. I am thinking of that sort of wisdom—wisdom that is powerful enough to prevent anything, but doesn’t always do so. I don’t understand it, but I don’t suppose I have to. Anne Lamott writes beautifully that ‘the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns’ (plan b, 256-257).
Here I am, living in the mystery, living with the mysterious Jesus who evinces a sort of wisdom that allows pain and suffering and death because there’s something better he wants to do. The essence of faith is believing that Jesus’ wisdom, no matter how little sense it makes, is wise. The essence of faith is believing that things make sense to God even when they do not make sense to me. I’m not close to mastering this which is why I write about things like anger, envy, and pride.
So what are we to do with this Jesus? NT Wright has some helpful thoughts at this juncture:
What’s more, the suggestion that we treat Jesus as a moral example can be, and in some people’s thinking has been, a way of holding at arm’s length the message of God’s kingdom on the one hand and the meaning of his death and resurrection on the other. Making Jesus the supreme example of someone who lived a good life may be quite bracing to contemplate, but it is basically safe: it removes the far more dangerous challenge of supposing that God might actually be coming to transform this earth, and us within it, with the power and justice of heaven, and it neatly helps us avoid the fact, as all four gospels see it, that this could be achieved only through the shocking and horrible events of Jesus’s death. (After You Believe, 126)
I have to ‘do something’ with this Jesus who gave us a glimpse of what this transformed earth and life will be like in the raising of Lazarus. This Jesus who does things like raise people from the dead is not safe and cannot be domesticated. He is unruly and out of control: no one stands up to the biggest bully in town. People are typically content to let the bully have his way, and death was content to continue owning every street corner in town. Jesus came along and changed all that.
Jesus is not safe. What are we to do with him? What are we to do with one who purposely lets death have its way only so he can walk right up to its front door and not even knock before demanding that death give up its claim? If anything we can say that Jesus is not one who will deal nicely with death at all so who are we to think we have a chance of resisting him? The biggest bully in town does not stand a chance against Jesus and all Jesus did was say, “Lazarus, come out!”
What I am going to do with this Jesus? I can’t stop him or control him. I can’t resist him. I can’t not follow him.
It’s late now. The birds have put away their songs for the day. They are resting some place safe, waiting and watching for the veil to lift and the the dawn to break. They will awaken me with their songs blaring through my open window in the morning. I still will not know their song or the language they use so I won’t be able to sing with them. But I know a song of my own, it’s the same song Lazarus sang when he came waltzing or leaping or jumping or hobbling out of the tomb that fine September morning. I can sing it with Lazarus because I, too, have been raised to life.
Jesus let the biggest bully in town do its worst for four days. Then Jesus went to the bully’s turf and completely undid the best and worst the bully had to offer. Completely undid death. Completely.
So what do we do with someone who raises the dead, gives life back to corpses, beats up the biggest bully in town? What do we do with Jesus?