By the time John tells the story of the death of Lazarus in John, chapter 11, it is apparent that it has required layers of plots and subplots, themes and counter themes to accurately express the depth of meaning and significance of Jesus’ life. It is true of the story of anyone’s life. No one would contend that the discovery of electrical current tells everything there is to know about Edison’s life. There are as many characters in Jesus’ story as a Tolstoy novel. Every paragraph introduces us to a new character and a story line that could stand alone. We tell the stories over and over as though complete in themselves. When we stand back, however, we see each story as another pearl on a necklace, more beautiful as a whole than any one pearl alone.
Here is an idea of the thematic layers that could be helpful in understanding John’s good news story. First, in no order of importance, there are the individual stories. John and the Jordon. Andrew, Cephas, Philip, Nathanael, and Mary at a wedding reception. The temple, Nicodemus, and a Samaritan woman coming for water. Wait a minute. She was Samaritan? An official’s son, a lame man by a cistern, and a boy with a sack lunch. There is a storm on the lake and there are people who just don’t get it. Spit in a blind man’s eye on Sunday. The death of a friend.
The stories leap off the page into reality. In verbal staccato they incite our imagination, our admiration, and our hope. Can it be true? Can this really be Him? So, we read them again. This time without putting the book down. There it is. This time it doesn’t get past us. In every word and in every story, we see the plot more clearly now. These are stories that have no intention of standing on their own. Each one reaching back a hand to join the firm grip of the one before. The story is bigger than we could have ever hoped. Our fragmented pieces of the particular become melded together by something that seems more galactic, even cosmic.
He told us. Right up front, John told us what this account was about. It is the unveiling of the universal. The eternal. It was about things we had never seen before. It is the story of what is truer than true. The Word had become flesh. It is the story of a God who has an address. The post office box is next to mine. Our farms share a fence line. The Eternal One is here and now. I can see it now. In every particular story it is as though I am touching forever. I can hear for myself the cosmic resonance in the heartbeat of one who is now standing among us.
There is, however, also a coarse cord that introduces another subplot to the story. Not everyone, it seems, is euphoric about hearing from this “Source of Light” iconoclast. He tampers with the chain of command and income streams and with judgements about who is in and who is out. This coarse cord doesn’t just create a light abrasion but could be used in a potential lethal hanging of long established traditions (translated: privilege, prosperity, and power.)
It is now obvious that several plots and subplots are at work in telling the story of Jesus. The story of Lazarus now becomes pivotal in understanding the tensions between the lines.
Prelude: Jesus had healed a man who had been born blind. On several accounts the moral majority had been offended. One, He did it on Sunday. “You can’t do that. We have laws.” This led to a deeper sense of offense by the tight fisted religious crowd. They accused Him of saying that they were blind. This had to be dealt with. A stoning seemed to be in order. They grasped, but “the darkness could not apprehend Him”. He alludes them.
You might think that the response of Jesus and friends would be more ecstatic over their escape. But that doesn’t seem to be Jesus’ emotional reaction. For the religious tightwads they could no longer see God at work in the miraculous. Their mortal rage was now set on insuring the survival of the system. It was that violent and willful blindness that pushed Jesus “back across the Jordon where John had been baptizing in the early days”.
Does it make any sense that Jesus went back to the place on the Jordon where he had been before? Where he had gotten sopping wet? Sated by the immersive presence of His Father? Was this trip a longing to relieve some corrosive effects of rejection? Perhaps Jesus waded into water where he had once before stepped off the bank. Could the unspoken words of a troubled psyche be, “Father, please say it again.”?
This time, nothing. That we know of.
What is left unspoken, however, is a silent courage to be who He knew himself to be. There had been a wilderness before. “If you are….”. The most damaging temptation of any of us is to forget or deny who we are. To be confused about who we are is to be forever confused about what we are to do. So much of our muddling through life is because we have hidden from the reality of who we really are: children of our Father. Recovery of identity is always expressed in a new resoluteness in doing what we must. We don’t know exactly how Jesus received the word on His river retreat. But we do know what follows. “Guys, we’re going back.” His friends knew what might be in store. The people who had threatened him back in Jerusalem still had the rocks in their pockets.
The message had come that Lazarus was dead. Jesus loved these people, Lazarus and his two sisters. His grief was palpable. He wept openly. No danger would now forbid Him to do what he knew he must do. And what was it he had to do? To resurrect life out of its deathly stench. To free up what had been bound. To affirm the plot. Listen to the vibrato that still moves molecules at the edge of the universe, “Lazarus. Come out!!!!!”
Let’s meet again Sunday morning and re-hear some of Jesus’ best words, “I AM the resurrection and the LIFE.”