John 11:1-45 “Tomb-Vision”

John 11:1-45  “Tomb-Vision”

Caitlin Trussell on April 6, 2014 at Augustana Lutheran Church


John 11:1-45   Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5Accordingly, though 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.
7Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
17When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
28When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I 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.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
45Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

[See Ezekiel reading at end of sermon]

Some of us know what it’s like to watch someone’s life leave their body through an illness.   Mary and Martha certainly do.  There is enough time after Lazarus became ill to send word to Jesus.  There is more time after the sisters sent word and even more before Jesus arrived after Lazarus died.  Some of us know how long those days, hours, and minutes can seem while we wait to see what will happen.   Will the outcome be life?  Will it be death?  We know the fear and the despair as we wait and as we watch…as we lose.  We develop tomb-vision as we try to look everywhere but toward the downward spiral of life on which our loved one is attached.  We try, but we cannot keep from seeing the tomb edge closer and closer.

The prophet Ezekiel knows this despair too.  In the early 500s B.C.E., Ezekiel became part of the first deportation of the Southern Tribes of Israel at the hands of the Babylonians.  They were taken into exile to ancient Babylon, located in what is now modern day Iraq.  The Northern tribes of Israel were long gone, taken by the conquering Assyrian armies in the late 700s B.C.E..  Everyone knew that the temple in Jerusalem was God’s dwelling place.  Everybody knew.  And yet Ezekiel and the Southern Tribes ended up far, far away in a land where their God was not known.  From this reality, comes the lament of the people in verse 11, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”   After all, their cousins in the Northern Tribes had disappeared just a hundred or so years before.  It was in the realm of possibility.  These people can’t even pretend to look anywhere but the tomb that edges closer and closer.  Their tomb-vision is sharply honed; with death seemingly inevitable they make the leap that God certainly doesn’t seem to be anywhere in sight…in this valley of the dry bones.

Mary, Martha, and Ezekiel are not the only ones with tomb-vision.  Variations on tomb-vision connect natural disasters, or illness, or accidents to the absence of God…or, even worse, attributing these events to the intentional hand of God.  The temptation is to deny God’s presence in times of despair and presume God’s presence when things go well.  Many, many of us actively worry about where God is and where God isn’t.  We add this to some additional worry about what’s going to happen to the people we presume that God has abandoned because of certain actions.  Presuming God’s absence in this way is antithetical to the crescendo of the cross and the silence of the tomb that we are edging toward as Palm Sunday and Holy Week loom on the calendar a week from today.

We are treated to whispers of Holy Week in the first few verses of the John reading today.  Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet is remembered to us even though we don’t actually get to that part of the story until the beginning of the next chapter.   Anointing is done for divine kings and for the dead.  Jesus’ anointing conflates the two.  In verse 25, using yet one more divine “I am” saying, Jesus claims to be the resurrection.  In verses 4 and 40 Jesus talks about God’s glory in conjunction with the Son of God being glorified.  When the word “glory” is used in the Gospel of John, it is code for Jesus hanging on the cross. We tend to think all kinds of things when we hear the word “glory” but hanging on a cross is not typically one of them.

Years ago, I had a strong aversion to Holy Week.  I just wanted to go from the Transfiguration straight to Easter.  After all, Lent is quiet and grey culminating in Holy Week that is dark and gloomy and ends in a tomb.  It runs smack up against the addiction to optimism, smack up against our desperation not to look at the ever-so-obvious tomb.  But these days, as I look forward to sinking into the depths of Holy Week, focusing on cross and tomb simply feels like freedom.  It feels like freedom because it feels true.  There is pain in the world and human beings are the cause of much of it.  Since I include myself in the ‘human beings’ category, the relief of Holy Week is enormous.  Facing this truth head-on, using the clarity of tomb-vision that neither looks away nor blocks out God in the midst of it, reveals what Jesus does when confronted with a tomb.

In the tomb of Lazarus, lays a man who’s about to walk again.  Jesus tells him to come out.  Lazarus comes out.  His disorientation must be staggering.  Jesus looks at the people and says, “Unbind him.”  They are participants in Lazarus’ moment.  Among the people who unbind Lazarus are surely many who participate in Jesus’ crucifixion.   A lot of us might be able to relate – after all, how many of us participate in a moment of new life only to turn around and call for a crucifixion of one sort or another?[1]

Raising Lazarus is Jesus’ final sign – at the same time declaring his divinity and inciting his execution.  On Palm and Passion Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday we are confronted by Jesus’ passion, all the events that lead to Jesus hanging on the cross and dead in a tomb.  It is a week during which we can relate to those people at Lazarus’ tomb who unbind a man into life one moment, and march off to court to call for the execution of another man in the next moment.  The people are ready to crucify because the fear that the one who brings life might get noticed by the powers that be in Rome and bring death to them all.  So as Holy Week whispers to us from the faraway place of next week, we pause with the crowd of people who unbind Lazarus.  We, like them, wonder about the power that can resurrect.  The power that can draw unwanted attention.  Lazarus isn’t the only one standing there dazed and disoriented, afraid.

There’s this one thing that occasionally pops up during Holy Week on Good Friday.  It’s called the Solemn Reproaches.  The accusations come fast and furious from the Crucified one and, in turn, the refrain from the people gathered is a cry for mercy.   Here’s one example:

O my people, o my church, what more could I have done for you?  Answer me.

I lifted you up to the heights, but you lifted me high on a cross.

I raised you from death and prepared for you the tree of life,

but you have prepared a cross for your Savior.

[and the people gathered together on Good Friday respond]

Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal, have mercy on us.

And as we the people acknowledge the mercy of God our tomb-vision gets clearer still.  We see the fullness of life that God pours through us in the face of our fear.  We see what is already there; our asking merely unveils what is already there.  We see the Christ, Word made flesh.   We see Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the cross simultaneously revealing the breadth of divine power poured out to reveal the depth of divine love. [2] We see each other receiving the Spirit who breathes life into our bodies – here, now, today, with these people whom Jesus calls to help unbind us as we are called into resurrected life.


Ezekiel 37:1-14 The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” 4Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. 5Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD.”
7So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
11Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act, says the LORD.”

[1] Personal conversation, April 2, 2014, Nadia Bolz-Weber reminded of her friend “Sara’s” question about this Lazarus story.

[2] Koester, course notes, 12/1/2010.  For further study see: Craig R. Koester, The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).