Four Days (Fifth Sunday in Lent)

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Four days.  When Jesus arrived, Lazarus “had already been in the tomb four days.” It seems like an insignificant detail, but it’s not.

In the culture in which Jesus was living, there was a prevailing belief that when someone died, their spirit hovered near the body for three days.  Now there’s nothing in the Old Testament which says this.  Indeed, the whole idea of “spirit” and “body” is more of a Greek concept than a Jewish one.  But that’s what most people thought happened when someone died.

It’s kind of like today, when people picture folks who have died sitting on clouds with harps in their hands.  There’s all kinds of artwork that depicts that, and it’s part of popular culture even though, again, there’s absolutely nothing in the New Testament that says you float on clouds and have a harp in your hand! But that’s the popular concept.

And the popular concept among those who came to console Martha and Mary was that Lazarus’ spirit might have hovered near his body for three days.  But then he was gone.  By day 4, it was over.  There really was no hope. 

And then Jesus arrives.  But Lazarus had already been in the tomb 4 days.  “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”, say some of the bystanders.  But Jesus hadn’t kept him from dying.  He was dead.  And it was now 4 days later.  There was no hope.

When Martha arrives, grieving for her brother and probably a little ticked off at Jesus, she states the obvious expectation: “Lord, if you had been her, my brother would not have died.” 

But she goes on, “but even now, I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”  Yet it would be a mistake to think that Martha anticipates Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. 

“Your brother will rise again,” says Jesus. “Yeah, yeah,” says Martha.  “I know that on the last day Lazarus will rise again.”  Martha, like many Jews in her day, saw the promise of Resurrection in the Old Testament writings and believed them.  She believed the promises for her brother.  She believed the promises for herself. But that was probably a long way off.  She didn’t really think there was any hope left for now.  Hope was gone, notwithstanding Jesus’ arrival.  It had been four days.

She reiterates this when Jesus tells her to have the stone taken away.  “Lord”, she says, “he stinks!” (This is literally what she says!)  “because he has been dead FOUR DAYS.”  And what are you gonna do after four days?

Yet Martha trusts Jesus to do something, even though she doesn’t know what.  She has the stone moved away.  And Jesus calls Lazarus, who walks out of the tomb after four days.

The raising of Lazarus is the final “sign” in John’s Gospel, and it’s the only time Jesus raises anybody from the dead.  Jesus raises people from the dead in the other Gospels, too, but it’s never after four days (and the stories don’t take nearly so long!)  Yet John records this story, not only because Jesus raised someone from the dead, but because he raised someone from the dead after four days.  And in doing so, Jesus didn’t just revive a dead person.  He revived hoped.

Everybody who gathered to mourn Lazarus probably felt that after a certain amount of time (four days in this case) their hope was gone.  Nobody could help them, not even God.  It was over.  And often, when someone close to you dies, you feel like it’s over for you, too.  You lose any sense of hope that there’s a way forward and that there’s anything that even God can do to “revive” you.

And it’s in this context that Jesus not only revives Lazarus, but he revives the hope of everyone else – everyone who might feel that hope was gone for them.  And this doesn’t mean that people now felt that everytime somebody died, Jesus would come along and fix it.  The raising of Lazarus was the one and only time Jesus brought anybody back from the dead in John’s Gospel.  It also doesn’t mean that Jesus will fix things so that everyone lives “happily ever after.”  Spoiler alert, if you read on for another 20 verses or so, you find out that, because people start believing in Jesus because he raised Lazarus, the folks plotting to kill Jesus also begin plotting to kill Lazarus as well….!

When Jesus revives hope after four days, it doesn’t mean the hope that everything will be fine, or that Jesus will fix all of our problems.  But it does mean that God:

  • Has not abandoned us or forgotten about us, even “after four days” – or whatever time period I decide is so long that God must surely not be listening or caring – one of the biggest take aways from this story is never to think that God doesn’t hear or care, just because it feels like it’s been too long that we’ve been waiting for an answer; and how long is that in your life?  How long is “4 days” for you – when you’re tempted to just give up on getting an answer from God…
  • Will give us strength and courage to move the stones that have kept us back, even “after four days” – Sometimes, “after four days”, or whatever time period I think is so long that hope is gone, I just don’t feel like moving the “stones” in my life to see what God might have in store for me.  Yet sometimes, just the willingness to get up and try is the sign that Jesus is there and calling us forward; and sometimes, it’s the moving of the “stone” that shows us the way forward…
  • Is giving us a future, even when, like Martha and Mary, it’s difficult to see that future because of the tears and the trauma of the moment – Often, I get caught up in wanting the future I can imagine, even though I know it’s not gonna be like that!  Neither Martha nor Mary (nor for that matter Lazarus!) envisioned what Jesus was about to do.  And because of what Jesus did, their future was very different from what they might have envisioned only a week before.  Yet there was a future, for them and for the world, and Jesus would be leading them into that future, just as Jesus promises to lead us into ours…

Jesus revived hope, even after four days.  And the hope Jesus revived is not simply the hope for life after death.  Instead, Jesus revived hope by showing the power of God even after four days.

Jesus shows that God’s power to act is never limited by four days, or any other time period.  Jesus shows that no “stone” that we put at the end of our hope is heavy enough to prevent God from giving us new life.  And Jesus shows that, even if it’s different from what we imagined, there is a future for all of us right now, beyond whatever “four days” we may have been living through.