4 min. to read.
Today is the 23rd day of Lent. As a part of my practice this year, I’m reading Brian Zahnd’s Lent devotional, The Unvarnished Jesus. I journal on the scripture he’s selected and his reflection, then I post daily (or near-daily) meditations that emerge.
Today’s reading is John 11:1-44, the resurrection of Lazarus.
Just at the turning of John’s gospel, where the plot shifts from Jesus’ ministry to his passion, we have his final miracle, the raising of Lazarus. In John’s gospel, Jesus’ miracles are not only fantastic events; they are expressly recounted as signs. That’s John’s word for them. Signs. Miracles are a supernatural event, incredible on their own, an indication of Divine power.
Signs, on the other hand, aren’t about the spectacle. They exist to point toward something beyond themselves. They tell us where to go or where to look. They draw our attention to something we might otherwise not have seen. For John, the significance of the miracle wasn’t the miracle, but what it said about who Jesus was and what he means for us.
Word came that a dear friend, Lazarus, was sick. Jesus told the disciples that it was time to head back into Juwere. The disciples didn’t want to go because they were afraid. The leaders in Jerusalem weren’t fans. The disciples also didn’t understand the urgency. If Lazarus were sick, he’d probably get better. If he were asleep, he’d wake up. Why should Jesus put himself at risk? Jesus’ followers still imagined a future where Jesus kept growing his influence until he could lead the people to overthrow the Roman occupation. Jesus’ death did not figure into that plan!
Arriving in Bethany, they discovered Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. That means he’d been dead longer than that. There was no mistaking the situation. Lazarus was gone. Some of the people grieving Lazarus were especially upset because they knew Jesus had healed very sick people, even a blind man! If Jesus had only arrived earlier, he could have saved Lazarus. Jesus was too late.
Death won. Four days in the tomb is unequivocal. There are just some things beyond God’s reach. We all know people who’ve gone too far. Some situations are hopeless. Some things you just can’t come back from. We all know this, right? Yet, Jesus headed to the tomb. He had the people there roll away the stone blocking the grave.
He called out.
Lazarus, recently deceased, walked out of the tomb.
Look at the sign! Zahnd comments: “The raising of Lazarus is given to us as a sign conveying that no one is beyond the saving reach of Jesus Christ. No matter how dead we are in our sins, Jesus is the one who has the powers to recall us back to life.” Then he quotes an Orthodox Easter hymn: “Christ has risen from the dead / trampling down death by death / and upon those in the tombs / bestowing life.” (100)
From here, Jesus headed on toward Jerusalem. Lazarus’ resurrection was the final straw for the people in power there. It put too much power in Jesus’ hands, threatening their leadership and relationship with Rome. By raising Lazarus, Jesus sealed his fate. By sealing Jesus’ fate, ours was sealed as well. The high priest, supporting Jesus’ death warrant, said, “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” He thought he was saying that killing Jesus would preserve his nation’s status quo and power structure. He couldn’t know that he was describing all of humanity across time.
This is the sign: Now and forever, there is no place too far for God’s reach. Death is nothing more than sleep, awaiting Jesus’ voice to rouse the sleeper. There is no “far country” too far away, no line we can cross that we cannot come back from.
The ancient Psalm writer knew it: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there, your right hand will hold me fast.”
Lent invites us to trust that Jesus can find us in the darkest places. This way is life.