Malankara World

Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Syrian Orthodox Church

Raising of Lazarus, Lazarus Saturday

Sermon / Homily on John 11:1-46

His Sheep Hear His Voice!

by John Petty, Progressive Involvement

Gospel: 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.


But a certain person was weak, Lazarus from Bethany, the village of Mary and Martha, her sister. And it was Mary who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair whose brother, Lazarus, was weak. Then the sisters sent to him, to say, "Lord, you know who you love is weak." And when Jesus heard, he said, "This weakness is not to death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God might be glorified through it." And Jesus was loving Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Therefore, as he heard that Lazarus was weak, then he remained in which place he was two days.

The word "Lazarus" comes from the Hebrew eleazer. "Lazarus" is believed to be a Galilean pronunciation of Eleazar, indicating that Lazarus and his sisters perhaps were "Galileans." To be a Galilean in the fourth gospel was not determined solely by geography. To be a Galilean means to share a "Galilean" frame of mind.

The fourth gospel can be said to be an argument between a Galilean and Judean worldview. The Judean view represents that of the empire, what Walter Wink calls "the powers." The Galilean point of view is that exemplified by Jesus--a new world of equality, mercy, justice, and true life.

The fourth gospel uses two words for "life." One is bios. Bios is day-to-day physical life--"the phenomenon of life in its outward manifestation," according to John Sanford. The current way of life is bios. The empire is bios. Bios life dies.

Zoe is "saved" life, God's life--with both an inner, mystical element, and an outward connection to Life itself. Zoe is Jesus, according to the fourth gospel. "I am the resurrection and the life," he will say in today's lection.

Lazarus, we are told, is sick. The word is astheneo. In psychology, the word "asthenia" has the sense of lassitude, without energy--"weakness," defined broadly. The word had this same sense in the first century. It appears five times in the first six verses.

The reference to Mary is curious. We have not yet been introduced to Mary, yet she is referred to here as if we already knew the story that comes in the following chapter. In chapter twelve, Mary of Bethany applied an extravagent ointment to Jesus' feet and wiped them with her hair. Is Martha, her sister, being placed in a slightly secondary position to Mary? Their home, Bethany, is described as the "village of Mary and her sister Martha."

In the chapter previous to this one, Jesus had been in Jerusalem, but, under threat of arrest, Jesus left Jerusalem and hid out "across the Jordan" (10:40). Jesus' specific location is not mentioned, but Mary and Martha seem to know where he is. Underground movements often have their own methods of communication. They send a message to Jesus in which they tell Jesus that Lazarus is sick. They make no request, however, for him to come to Bethany, perhaps because Bethany is only two miles outside of Jerusalem. Bethany is in the heart of Judea--a place which, for Jesus, is very dangerous.

Jesus' response to the message is reminiscent of what he said about the man born blind in chapter 9. In that case, the man was born blind "so that God's works might be revealed in him." In the case of Lazarus, his sickness is for "the glory of God, so that the Son of God might be glorified through it."

In the sisters' message, they had referred to Lazarus as "he whom you love." The word is phileis--"friendship love." The narrator informs us in verse 5 that Jesus "loved" the three siblings. The word here is egapa--unconditional love. Jesus loves Lazarus more than his sisters know. (This is odd: Here, Mary is the one who is referred to indirectly--Jesus "loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.")

Even more odd, Jesus hangs around for another two days "in the place where he was"--presumably, "across the Jordan." No two ways about it, this seems cold. On the other hand, we've already been told that Jesus loves Lazarus unconditionally. Even though he seems to delay unnecessarily for two days, he also seems unperturbed, and also seems to know exactly what he is going to do. The reader's trust level in Jesus is, somewhat paradoxically, enhanced.

7 Then 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.’


Then after this, he was saying to the disciples, "We may go into Judea again." The disciples are saying to him, "Rabbi, just now the Judeans were seeking to stone you, and again you are going there?" Jesus answered, "Are there not twelve hours in the day? If a certain one might walk around in the day, that one is not stumbling, for that one sees the light of this world. But if a certain one might walk in the night, that one stumbles, for the light is not in them."

These things, he said, and after this, he was saying to them, "Lazarus, our friend, has been sleeping, but I go so that I wake him." Then his disciples said to him, "Lord, if he has been sleeping, he will be saved." But Jesus answered concerning his death, but they seemed he is speaking concerning the rest of sleep. Then Jesus said to them openly, "Lazarus is dead, and I rejoice through you so that you might trust. But we go to him." Then Thomas, the one called Didymus, said to his fellow disciples, "We go, and you, so that we may die with him."

The disciples are unnerved at the idea of returning to Judea. They had only recently escaped Judea by the skin of their teeth, and now Jesus wants to go back? In chapter 9, Jesus had said that, while he is in the world, he is the "light of the world" (9: 5). This indicates that there will be a time when he is not "in the world." This will be "night." Staying faithful will be difficult in that circumstance. But, for now, he is "in the world." His followers are able to follow him, even into treacherous situations, while he is with them.

Jesus identifies Lazarus as "our friend." This, incidentally, is the first indication that the disciples even knew who Lazarus is. Lazarus has "fallen asleep." The disciples make the common sense point that, if all he is is asleep, "he will be all right."

It could as well--and better--be translated this way: "Lord, if he has been sleeping, he will be saved." The word is sothesetai--sozo, in its future passive form. In the fourth gospel, sozo, when used by Jesus, means spiritual salvation. Here, however, it is used by the disciples, and seems to indicate a recovery from illness. Both uses of the word are acceptable, although its usage here is an indication that, as per usual in the fourth gospel, Jesus is speaking on one level, where everybody else is thinking more concretely.

Prior to the resurrection of Jesus, there are seven "signs" in the fourth gospel. If the number seven is the number of God--the number of completion and wholeness--then the seven signs of the fourth gospel, taken together, give us a complete picture of Jesus. (After Easter, there is an additional sign, the eighth one, which is a sign of the new creation.)

The first sign is the wedding at Cana where Jesus revealed his "glory" and his disciples "faithed" in him. The story of the raising of Lazarus is the seventh "sign." In this seventh "sign," God is "glorified" and the disciples will "faith." The seven "signs" begin and end in "glory" and "faith."

The disciples had resisted going back to Judea. Thomas says that, yes, they will go with him, but, rather fatalistically, expects the journey not to end well. In fact, he supposes that all of them will die with Jesus, a not unreasonable assumption. As the story progresses, however, there is no mention of the disciples actually being with him as he goes to Bethany, and, indeed, they appear not to have gone. The next time we see the disciples, it is verse 54, and they are "out in the wilderness."

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for 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.’


Then when Jesus came, he found him now four days having been in the grave. And Bethany was near Jerusalem, about fifteen stadia off, but many of the Judeans had come to Martha and Mary so that they might comfort them concerning their brothers. Then Martha, as she heard that Jesus is coming, met him quietly, but Mary sat in the house. Then Martha said to Jesus, "Lord, if you were here, my brother would not have died. and now I know that whatever you might ask God, God will give to you." Jesus said to her, "You brother will rise." Martha said to him, "I know that he will rise in the resurrection in the last day."

When Jesus arrives, he is told that Lazarus has been dead--"in the tomb"--for four days. He is thoroughly dead, in other words. Moreover, Judeans are at the home of Martha and Mary. The Judeans are professional mourners who were hired to come in and do the job of mourning with the family. These Judeans are "the death people," you might say.

Martha goes out to meet Jesus. This would seem to say, somewhat contrary to verse 17, that Jesus wasn't all the way in to Bethany. We are not told how Martha knows that Jesus is in the vicinity. Nor are we told why Martha goes to meet him while Mary stayed home. One wonders: Is Jesus' visit a secret? Does he not want the Judeans to know where he is? Is Mary staying at home with the mourners in order to provide cover for Martha to leave? Does Mary even know that Jesus is near?

Jesus' conversation with Martha is odd. Martha expresses faith is Jesus' ability to ask God for special favors. Jesus replies that Lazarus--"your brother"--will rise again, most likely an indication of what he is about to do. The fourth gospel has already told us that "the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out (5: 28-9)." Martha, however, responds with a statement of belief in the general resurrection "on the last day," a rather typical pharisaic belief of the time. What about Jesus' ability to raise someone right now?

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.’


Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. The one trusting into me, if that one might die, that one will live, and anyone living and trusting into me might surely not die forever. Do you trust this?" She said to him, "Yes, Lord, I have trusted that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one coming into the world."

Jesus responds with the divine name--ego eimi, "I am." "I am the resurrection and the life"--zoe life. He goes on to explicate both resurrection and life. Those who "trust" (pisteuein) will live again even if they die, and those who "live" and "trust" will not die at all. Zoe life is not only "life eternal," but true life--the essence of life, the Life Principle itself--right now.

At the same time, death literally hangs in the air in this text. Lazarus is already dead, the "death people" are wailing, but Martha has gotten free of them for a time in order to be with Jesus. The fourth gospel is raising the pressure in the confrontation between death and life.

For the Johannine community reading this text, c. AD 90, the persecution of Christians had already begun. It was sporadic and localized, yes, but also brutal. The Emperor, Nero c. AD 65, had used Christians as human torches, after all, and Emperor Domitian would soon ratchet up these persecutions another notch. Trusting in the Lord's ability to bring life out of death would have been a crucial aspect of discipleship for a beleaguered religious minority.

28 When 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?’


And when she had said this, she went and she called Mary her sister secretly, "The Teacher is near and he calls you." And as she heard this, she was raised quickly and was going to him. But Jesus had not yet come into the village, but he was yet in the place where Martha met him. Then the Judeans, the ones with her in the house and comforting her, saw Mary, that quickly she arose and went out, followed her. They thought that she was going into the tomb so that she might weep there. Then Mary, as she came where Jesus was, saw him (and) fell to his feet, saying to him, "Lord, if you were here, my brother would not have died." Then Jesus, as he saw her weeping, and the Judeans, the ones who came with her, weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and emotionally agitated. And he said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see." Jesus wept. Then the Judeans said, "See how he loved him." But some of them said, "Is not this one, the one who opened the eyes of the blind person, able to do so that this one might not die?"

Martha goes back and calls for Mary. She tells Mary "privately" that Jesus wants to see her. Martha must speak privately because she doesn't want to tip off the Judeans that Jesus is near. Now, finally, we are told that Jesus is not actually in the village. Martha apparently wants to keep the Judeans from knowing that he is nearby. This works, except that the Judeans, apparently intrigued by Mary's sudden departure, decide to follow her. Unwittingly, Mary leads the Judeans to Jesus.

Mary says exactly the same thing to Jesus that Martha had said: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." Jesus responds differently to Mary than he did to Martha. Here, Jesus does not engage in high-level theological discussion as he had with Martha. Instead, surrounded by death and mourning, he was "deeply moved in spirit and emotionally agitated." Enebrimesato has its root in the sound of a horse snorting, and expresses great anger. Etaraxen relates to fear and dread. Another possible translation: "He was enraged in spirit and agitated with fear."

Nevertheless, this is a necessary confrontation. True life and resurrection cannot deny the reality of death. Sorrow is a part of human existence. In response to the grief and sorrow he sees, Jesus is overcome by grief and sorrow himself. Out of love and compassion, he shares fully in the sufferings of life.

Suddenly, the conversation includes "they." No longer is Jesus talking with one person, either Martha or Mary, but now, when Jesus asks where "you" (plural) have laid Lazarus, "they" say "come and see." This is ironic. The phrase "come and see" has been used to bring people to Jesus. Now, it is used to bring Jesus to face death. Confronting death, sorrow, and grief directly, Jesus weeps.

38 Then 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 for 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 upwards 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.’ 45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.


Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed in himself, comes into the tomb, and it was a cave, and a stone was lying upon it. Jesus said, "Take away the stone." Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, "Lord, now he stinks, for he is four days." Jesus said to her, "Did I not say to you that, if you might trust, you will see the glory of God?" Then, they took up the stone. And Jesus lifted up the eyes and said, "Father, I give thanks to you that you heard me. And I know that you always hear me, but through the crowd, the ones standing by, I spoke so that they might trust that you sent me." And saying this, he cried a great voice, "Lazarus, come out!" The dead one came out, having been bound hand and foot (in) graveclothes, and his countenance had been bound about (in) a sweat-cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him and let him go." Then many of the Judeans, the ones who came with Mary and they saw what he did, trusted into him.

Jesus anger and agitation continues as he comes to the tomb. "It was a cave." In mythological language, caves are places of spiritual mystery and are symbolic of the womb. Going into a cave upon death is symbolic of return to God as Mother. It is also a way of saying that new life can emerge only out of the death of the old. This is mortificatio, a word which appears often in medieval Christian mystical writings.

Martha, identified as the sister of a dead man, speaks to the ghastly reality of death. "Lord, already he stinks." Jesus reminds her that if she "trusted" she would see the glory of God. (Jesus had not actually said this to Martha. He had said it to the disciples in verse four.)

"Raise up the stone," he says--arate ton lithon. "They raised up the stone, but Jesus raised up his eyes upward." Jesus speaks directly to God, the first time he does so in the fourth gospel. His prayer recalls the prayer of Elijah in 1 Kings 18:37: "Answer me, O Lord, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back."

Jesus cries out "with a loud voice," "Lazarus, come out!" "The dead man came out." His sheep hear his voice! (10:27) Lazarus--"the dead man"--is still wrapped in the garments of death. Jesus tells "them" to "unbind him, and let him go."

The major work of raising Lazarus is done, but the work is not completed until those who hear Jesus' command "unbind" Lazarus and free him from the restraints imposed by death.

See Also:

What is Missing?
by Fr. Andrew

I Am the Resurrection and the Life
by Rev. Bryan Findlayson

The Resurrection of Lazarus
by George Whitefield

The Time to Uncover and Unbind!
by Sarah Dylan Breuer

Sermons and Commentaries for Lazarus Saturday

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