5Though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
John is careful in this narrative to tell us that Jesus loved Mary, Martha and Lazarus. He needs to do this, because Jesus’ action is inexplicable. When the family sends word that Lazarus is ill, it means he is dying. It is a summons. It is that moment when the doctors tell you to gather the family.
In my very first years of ministry I knew a wonderful young woman who was dying of cancer. It was before hospice, and the doctors wouldn’t tell the family. Both her children were away at school and missed the chance to say goodbye – as did her parents, because everyone was trying so hard to stay positive.
You don’t send word that a family member is ill unless it is time to come. And Jesus is, for all intent and purposes, family. That is the significance of the word ‘love’. It is the meaning of the word ‘friend’. Nothing would keep a friend from coming. But Jesus doesn’t come.
I remember this verse from my brother’s funeral. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It is one of those haunting verses that whispers secret thoughts you try to keep buried: “Where were you God? Why did you let this happen?”
A ‘friend’ would come. Immediately. Even at the risk of his life. So John has to tell us again that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus,” when he reports that Jesus didn’t come.
Jesus is more than a friend. He loves, but he is to us more than family. He is the light and life of the world. Jesus weeps at Lazarus’ grave, but he has not come as a friend. He is not present because of sentiment. He has come as the Lord and giver of life. He has come as the resurrection, the way and truth, the new wine, the light, the living water, the bread of life. He is the radiant power that vibrates through all creation. He is the incarnation of grace. Healing Lazarus’ illness must take second place to the witness that Christ is our life.
Martha and Mary were not quite prepared to admit this. Their question of Jesus has the aura of a stunning rebuke. “Where were you?!”
It seems a little trite to say that Jesus sees the big picture, but that is precisely the case. To make clear to us that Christ is our life, he must let Lazarus die – just as, to connect us with the Father’s life-giving Spirit, Jesus must let himself die. But Jesus is the life of the world. In him, Lazarus is called forth from the grave, even as Jesus comes forth from the grave. Death cannot hold him. And if death cannot hold Jesus, it cannot hold us who live in him – now, or ever.