Julie hasn’t been to church in ages. She’d grown up in one, but it had been a few years since she’d attended a service outside of her college roommate’s wedding. She’s here on impulse this morning. The sermon title says “weeping” and that pretty much sums up her life lately.
She notes her displeasure as the pastor begins to read the story of Lazarus. Julie remembers this story from Sunday School. She had thought it was creepy and they had joked about Lazarus rising up like a zombie or something out of a nightmare. In youth group, she’d wondered with Martha about the smell or how someone could rise up after 4 days of being dead, and then what happened to Lazarus afterward, cause didn’t he just die again? The story was strange and fascinating.
But now the passage is just vile, a bitter reminder of how people don’t come back to life. Her brother Josh had died five months ago. He didn’t have friends and family around him to even call for help or resuscitate him. And Jesus didn’t raise him back up. He died in a hospital, with strangers around him, hours after he’d been found beaten on the street for no good reason. Just at the “wrong place at the wrong time,” the police officer said.
Julie had cursed God in those days, railed against Jesus and her faith and turned her back on the church once and for all.
Her eyes well up as she listens to this scripture. She’s ready to leave, because what’s the point of listening to this story? A story of the miracle she wanted most of all, the story that happened for one man and his family, but not for hers. A story that teases her with the possibility that someone could be restored to life after death, but that remains so out of reach for her.
She stays, though, because she doesn’t want to make a scene. She steels herself for the rest of this ordeal, called worship. The pastor continues to explain how this is the end of a series of miracles in the gospel of John. Jesus has healed the sick, restored sight to the blind, fed the hungry and now this, his final move, his piece de resistance as he says in verse 4 that Lazarus’ illness is “for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
Julie thinks back to all the well-meaning, yet misguided people who told her that Josh’s death happened for a reason. That Josh was such a good young man, that God must have wanted him in heaven early. That this death is all part of God’s plan and she should find comfort in that. And her favorite that Josh is now in a better place.
But Julie doesn’t see the point in her brother’s having to die just to prove that God is all powerful or to somehow create something good. Couldn’t an all-powerful God do great things without having people die untimely deaths? Why couldn’t God have just wanted Josh to keep being her fabulous brother and living his life to the fullest? Wasn’t that enough of a good purpose?
The pastor starts to explain how this is a metaphor—one of those likely things pastors say these days, a way of distancing us from questions like if it really happened, and if so how did Jesus actually raise someone from the dead. She then says it foreshadows Jesus’ own resurrection, making us realize that Jesus has power over death and life.
Even though she’s annoyed, Julie understands the idea of the metaphor here—of this snap shot account, being more about the power of Jesus to conquer death, his own eventual resurrection, than it is about the particular resurrection of Lazarus, and how that might have worked or why Jesus chose only him. But for Julie, who sees herself like Mary and Martha, calling for Jesus, wishing he would do something, it’s hard to look past the literal story of a beloved brother who was saved and restored, and her brother who was not. The pastor points to the humanity of Jesus—how he loved his friend and weeps at his passing.
“But,” Julie thinks, “If God wept over Josh’s death, why didn’t God save him? If Jesus could raise Lazarus, why doesn’t he do it for everyone?”
She has this image of Josh, the one she’s dreamed about a thousand times, his lifeless body, his beloved face, his scraggly blonde hair, just laying there—bruised and broken. But this time there is a person kneeling over him, crying and Julie can see that this is God and Josh awakens and smiles at her—and Julie hears this voice saying, “I was with him Julie, I cried over your brother just as you did.” The scene changes, and Julie sees the lifeless body of Jesus, so long ago, and that same shining person who says, “I wept over him too. I weep for all of you, my beloved children. But I cannot save you all from death. Your eternal life is with me, not here on earth. And it’s painful and confusing and I’m sorry that it happened this way to Josh, I’m sorry that some survive longer and some do not, I’m sorry for the evil men who killed Josh, but I love those killers too, because they all belong to me. I work with what I have, I don’t cause disaster, but I help turn it into beauty. The death of Lazarus, the death of your brother, the death of Jesus—my son and myself—all disasters, but in resurrection, those deaths become beauty.”
Julie blinks and sees the sanctuary again and hears these words, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die. Will live, and everyone who lives and believe in me will never die.” The pastor reminds them that this is not to say that we will all avoid the end of our mortal lives. But it’s a message that resurrection can happen in our lives now. Our lives can be made new in Christ. Beauty can come out of disaster. Life out of death. The message of the resurrection of Lazarus and of Jesus too. She mentions that it’s this particular miracle, in the gospel of John, that will cause Jesus’ death, will be the miracle that draws attention to him and raises questions. Jesus will pay a price for this act.
Julie gets that Josh didn’t get to live to 90 like their grandmother did, but his death wasn’t for nothing. She remembers that four other lives were saved because Josh was an organ donor. And even though Josh is gone that counts for something. Knowing that God didn’t need or want Josh to die helps. Knowing that God cried with her when Josh died helps even more. Knowing that God shares in her grief and pain, helps her feel like she’s not alone. Her grief is still with her, but her anger lessons.
By the time she’s singing the final hymn, Julie feels lighter. She feels peaceful for the first time in months. Her faith is restored, just a little bit. She has the glimmer of hope that maybe Josh hadn’t been alone and that God hadn’t really wanted him to die, especially not such a horrible death. And that his death, leads to new life, after all. That in Jesus, through his grace and glory, all life can be made new.
And it feels a bit like resurrection. Thanks be to God.