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“This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God,” Jesus said.
Jesus Christ is God and man. He is the Word of God, the order of the universe, who entered time at one point, for all. That means that the words he spoke in the Gospel for this Sunday, the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A, were not just about Lazarus, suffering and dying in the first century; they were for us, suffering and dying in 21st century.
That means today’s Gospel tells us what we should do: Tell Jesus, “Master, the one you love is ill.”
The Gospel begins with Jesus’ close friends Mary and Martha sending word to Jesus about their brother’s illness. Jesus responds exactly the way he responds to us.
He doesn’t rush to our side. He doesn’t prevent our grief. He stays away and says: “I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe.”
We all know what it is like to be on the receiving end of this treatment from God. We beg him, with plenty of faith and in plenty of time, for something that is clearly his will, and we get … crickets. His reaction can look callous. He is glad not to save my loved ones? How dare he?
But as we will soon learn, Jesus is anything but “glad” about the devastating loss to his close friends. What is he glad about? The benefits his friends receive.
The first benefit his friends get from Lazarus’s death is learning that our lives are not all about us.
Because of the raising of Lazarus from the dead, we get to hear Martha’s remarkable act of faith. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you,” she says. Martha knows that even if, from our perspective, God seems uninvolved and uncaring, God is love.
It’s the same for us. If we think God exists to sustain the way of life we knew and loved, he very much wants to disabuse us of that misunderstanding. We exist to serve God and to be happy with him the way he is, not the other way around.
The second benefit we get is to hear the most comforting words in the Gospel.
Martha tells us who Jesus is — “the Christ, the Son of God” — and what he intends for his friends: “the resurrection on the last day.”
But then Jesus says, “I am the Resurrection and the Life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
These are the words that gave St. Paul such comfort that he said, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”
They mean that Jesus has total power over his creation. He can not only dismiss a storm with the wave of his hand, he can dismiss death — even from a man who has been in the tomb so long onlookers expect “a stench” from the corpse.
Next, we learn from the raising of Lazarus that God does not define us by our sin.
Martha, Mary and Lazarus would have prayed Sunday’s Psalm many times. “If you mark iniquities, O Lord, who can stand? But with you is forgiveness.”
Lazarus suffered the ultimate consequence of sin, death. But the Lord heard and answered their prayer and fulfilled the prophecy of Ezekiel: “O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them.”
Not only does he not define us by our sin, but he incorporates us into the life of the Trinity and defines us by his own life. As St. Paul put it in the second reading, “If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you.”
But we also learn that we can define ourselves by our sin by rejecting him.
The Lazarus account is not only famous because he raises a man from the dead, but because of the emotion he shows.
“When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping, he became perturbed and deeply troubled, and said, ‘Where have you laid him?’” That phrase “perturbed and deeply troubled” translates a verb that is used elsewhere in the New Testament to show Jesus being stern, anger and reproving.
Why would Jesus be angry? We see why later, when Jesus arrives at the tomb.
“And Jesus wept,” says the Gospel.
This beautiful show of emotion gets two reactions. Some of the Jews say “See how he loved him.” Others, though, doubted Jesus. “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?” they ask, and the Gospel says Jesus was “perturbed again.”
Clearly, Jesus wept and was troubled because he was sad for his friends’ loss. But he was also upset for the same reason he wept over Jerusalem.
He knew that, despite all he did, raising the dead and suffering for his people, some would still refuse the gift of faith and reject the gift of love.
The last thing we learn is that Jesus wants us to be his close friend.
After he raises Lazarus from the dead, “Many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him.”
What they saw was not just Jesus’s power, but the close personal relationship he had with Martha, Mary and Lazarus. They wanted the same for themselves. So do we.