Jesus is hard for me to understand, sometimes, hard for me to connect with. At least, as the stories are told in the gospel of John, and as Jesus behaves in the gospel of John, Jesus is hard to understand. In the gospel of John, the words of Jesus are so lofty that they seem to soar tens of thousands feet in the air, I can no more grasp them than I pluck a jet plane from the sky by its cloud tail. In the gospel of John the actions of Jesus are so grand and mysterious that they float beyond my comprehension, escape my understanding’s grasp. And I’m not sure that I like it very much.
Today’s passage is a perfect example: the story of the raising of Lazarus. Lazarus was a sort of family friend to Jesus, and he had two sisters, Martha and Mary. The scriptures say that Jesus stayed at the home of Lazarus regularly, especially around the important religious holidays. Do you have any dear friends who live far away? People you love, who whenever you’re in town you go stay with them, eat dinner with them, catch up with them, just be with them, because you love them? Do you have friends like that? For Jesus, those beloved friends are Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary. And so it is hard to understand how Jesus responds when he learns that Lazarus has fallen deathly ill. Martha and Mary send for him, they are looking for his help, they’re afraid for their brother’s life and they need Jesus to come help. But Jesus does not leap up and go to his friend’s side. Instead, he waits for days. He doesn’t even have anything that he is doing in those days, rather he waits doing nothing, and the only reason he gives is that this will all be to God’s glory. And after waiting, Jesus finally leaves and travels apparently in not very much haste, because by the time that Jesus arrives, his dear friend Lazarus had died. Lazarus’s sisters, Mary and Martha, had sent word to Jesus hoping he would save their brother’s life, that their friend would arrive just in time and all would be well again. Instead, Jesus showed up four days after the funeral.
It is hard to understand, it defies any easy explanation, and it strains the human heart to respond with anything but anger. It makes me angry to read this story, and I’m not alone. Martha, as soon as she hears that Jesus is approaching, leaves her home and goes and confronts Jesus on the road. And her words are as easy to interpret as a slap across the face, she says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”.
And how does Jesus respond? He starts talking about himself! He starts talking about who He is, and how important it is to believe in Him.
I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.
Well hadn’t Lazarus believed? And yet he was dead, his funeral had been four days ago. Martha, not satisfied with Jesus talking about how important He is, Martha went to get her sister Mary, and made her go talk to Jesus. Mary went to find Jesus and He was exactly where Martha had left him, He had apparently decided to wait around for a while again as if He weren’t already late enough. Mary confronted Jesus with the same words, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”. But this time, there is a crowd watching, beside Mary is a crowd of their other family and friends. The family and friends who had listened to Mary and Martha reassure each other that surely Jesus would arrive in time, the family and friends and neighbors who had seen the sisters disappointment and disbelief when Jesus never arrived. This family and friends and neighbors who had made it to the funeral are all standing there as Jesus starts to pray, they hear His every word as He says: “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.”
Who does He think he is? Who does He think He is, talking this way, acting this way?
Well … he’s God.
This is at the heart of the gospel of John, that Jesus is God.
In ways that quits the realm of reason, and strays into poetry and image, the gospel of John declares that Jesus is God. That he existed from the beginning of all things. It doesn’t even really make sense to say that Jesus existed because that even the idea of existence was a contingent one, that to say that life exists or the world exists, or existence exists, is to say that they are inside of Jesus. Jesus is God, it doesn’t make sense, it bursts beyond the mind, what Jesus is, He is light, He is Word, He is eternity, He is that by which any of that has any meaning.
Perhaps the reason that Jesus’ words are so confusing is really a simple one. Because what could an infinite mind say to me that was understandable. Perhaps it is simple why the God of all the universe is not that concerned that Lazarus has died. For what is the death of one man to the God who has seen galaxies be born and die?
A single human life, it can seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things. This is hardly a revelation. I don’t need to read the bible to know that, I just need to look through a telescope and wonder at the age of the light touching my eye from far flung starts, or walk through an old graveyard with its headstones, where the names of the dead are just soft valleys in the stone.
But the gospel of John does reveal something that I cannot learn from the stars, something I would never guess from the grave. The Gospel of John reveals something of the heart of God. It is just a short sentence. It describes something that only lasts a moment, that happened as Jesus stood with Mary who was heart broken, and Martha who was stone faced, and a crowd of family and friends deep in mourning. It says that Jesus began to weep. He was greatly disturbed and began to weep.
Here is the mystery of the Christian faith, captured in but a moment. As Jesus weeps beside the tomb of a man named Lazarus, we see the God of all the universe, heart-broken over a single life lost. The infinite God whom mind cannot comprehend and whose majesty words adequately praise, this is the same God who stands on a dusty road outside a tomb, weeping for grief over His friend’s death. Here is a living, breathing, weeping, vulnerable man only weeks from his own death. Jesus is nothing more than a man, and Jesus is nothing less than God.
Take this from the story of Lazarus, take this from Jesus’ strange and lofty words and dusty humble life—God almighty cares about you, God’s heart breaks for you, God weeps with you, rejoices with you, God in human flesh sits beside you just out of the catch of eye and just beyond the reach of hand. This is the very same God whose reach extends around the vastness of the universe and whose eye surveys eternity from beginning to end. God almighty, this is who we can come to with our hearts wide open, God almighty is the one who hears us when we say “nothing short of new life will do, nothing short of resurrection will be enough, God is the one who replies: You need new life? You need resurrection? I am the resurrection, and the life, Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Can you believe it?