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Sunday 7 April 2019: Lent 5

A model of hope

Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-45


By Nigel J Robb

Minister of the Church of Scotland, and Presbytery Clerk of St Andrews. Former University Lecturer in the Divinity Faculty of St Andrews University


Context: a congregation of about 130 in a small coastal town, made up of retired people from a wide variety of backgrounds, and some younger members, keen to tackle challenging biblical passages

Aim: to show that with God, what may seem humanly impossible, is possible


Dr Samuel Johnson wrote, ‘The prospect of death wonderfully concentrates the mind.’ There is little doubt of the truth of that statement. Ernest Becker, in his book, The Denial of Death, says,’...that of all the things that move humanity, one of the principal ones is the terror of death … the fear of it haunts the human animal like nothing else, it is the mainspring of human activity’ (Page 11).

Perhaps that is why we are so fascinated and disturbed, and challenged by the story of the raising of Lazarus. It is the seventh sign of John’s Gospel revealing the nature and power of Jesus of Nazareth. It is the climax of the prelude of the Gospel’s testimony to the true identity of Jesus, as it approaches the revelation of the Sign of Signs, the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

The story is told with gritty reality. The smell and decay of the body is not glossed over. Nor is the natural grief and anger of the family because Jesus was not with them. They believed Jesus could probably have saved Lazarus from dying. ‘Lazarus’, meaning literally ‘he whom God has helped’ apparently was let down in their view, by Jesus, their friend and source of divine power, not being around to help.

Jesus appears to have delayed going to see the family, perhaps with good reason, as his enemies were lying in wait in the territory of Judea around the home of Lazarus in Bethany. All those whom Jesus had alienated, the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Temple police, Pilate, Herod and the fickle crowd were in the vicinity, ready to pounce, persecute and prosecute.

There is nothing of the merely philosophical here, but a very real and challenging incident, which engages our fears and anxieties.


What is the message for the listener?

That God can and does work miracles and can transform the most desperate of situations. In the Christian tradition, the raising of Lazarus from death is the most profound miracle that Jesus performed while on earth. The Light of the World shines where darkness dwells.

We all know that death is all too real. Illness, car accidents, war, natural disasters, and incidents of vicious terrorism are everyday occurrences. Grief is a powerful emotion which threatens to overwhelm us.


What might the point of the story be?

Lazarus’ testimony was enough to threaten the enemies of Jesus, because he was living proof of the claims of Jesus to be the Light of the World. This final miracle performed by Jesus brought about the events of Holy Week, according to John’s Gospel, culminating in the death of Jesus.

Yet surely there is more, that we can draw from this story? It is a story that has fascinated and intrigued people over the generations. Indeed, it has absorbed the attention of some of the great minds of literature, theology and philosophy. One of these was Fyodor Dostoevsky, who believed that ‘to live without hope is to cease to live.’

Dostoevsky’s inclusion in Crime and Punishment of the Lazarus story provides both the prostitute and the murderer with a model of hope for their lives. The woman, Sonia, forced into prostitution by her father and his poverty and drinking may adapt the story to her life as a promise that a similar miracle will rectify her situation, a kind of death induced by her poverty and self-sacrifice. The story also carries deep significance for the sceptical murderer, Raskolnikov, who commands Sonya to read him the story of Lazarus. Although he claims not to believe in the story, he is moved by it, since it no doubt resonates with his sense of total alienation from society. His death has been a death of the soul. Separated from those who love him by his own pride and his terrible secret, the murderer longs for chance to start anew, to be, like Lazarus, resurrected.

Jesus makes himself known in the raising of one man, giving us hope that death is not the end. By the raising of Lazarus, Jesus demonstrates that nothing in this life, not even death itself can have final power over us. There is clearly an echo of the story of the bones in the desert. Ezekiel the prophet testified that the dry bones could be, and were, raised to life by the power of God.

There is nothing in this life or the life to come to fear, because Jesus is there and will be there, calling us forth. No matter what befalls us, nothing can rob us of the one who is the resurrection and the life, whom the powers must obey. Jesus stands even now outside our tombs in which we are buried, literally and metaphorically. We need to hear his voice calling us forth to newness of life.

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