Lazarus, Come Forth!

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, March 21, 1999


Psalm 68:19, 20 The Lord gives escape from death

Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior,
Who bears our burdens day by day.
Our God is a God who saves;
From the Lord God comes escape from death.

John 11:1-16, 38-45 Jesus raises Lazarus from death

Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair. So the sisters sent word to Jesus, "Lord, the one you love is sick."

When he heard this, Jesus said, "This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it." Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.

Then he said to his disciples, "Let us go back to Judea."

"But Rabbi," they said, "a short while ago the Jews tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?"

Jesus answered, "Are there not twelve hours of daylight? A man who walks by day will not stumble, for he sees by this world's light. It is when he walks by night that he stumbles, for he has no light." After he had said this, he went on to tell them, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up."

His disciples replied, "Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better."

Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. So then he told them plainly, "Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him."

Then Thomas (called Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him."...

Jesus came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. "Take away the stone," he said.

"But, Lord," said Martha, the sister of the dead man, "by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days."

Then Jesus said, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?"

So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, "Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I know that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me."

When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, "Lazarus, come forth!" The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, "Take off the grave clothes and let him go."

Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him.

Heaven and Hell #445 Death and resurrection

When our body can no longer perform its functions in the physical world, expressing the thoughts and feelings of our spirit (which we have from the spiritual world) we say that we die. This happens when our lungs stop breathing and our heart stops beating.

Yet we do not die, but are only separated from the body that had been useful to us in the world. We ourselves continue to live. I say we ourselves continue to live since we are not human because of our body, but because of our spirit. It is the spirit within us that thinks--and thinking together with feeling makes us human.

This means that when we die, we only pass from one world to another. Because of this, when "death" is mentioned in the Bible, its deeper meaning is re-awakening and continued life.


Jesus called in a loud voice, "Lazarus, come forth!" The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, "Take off the grave clothes and let him go." (John 11:43, 44)

I am sure that I was meant to be a minister and not a weather forecaster. In this month's Correspondent, I began my Pastor's Column by saying, "Now that the snow has melted away . . ." only to have two more snowstorms hit us in rapid succession!

Still, this season is a time of resurrection. We've already been through the coldest months, and the warm days are starting to come back. Last week I was delighted to see the first crocuses coming up in our front borders at home, assuring us that the spring that officially started yesterday really is on its way. And the flowers of nature are perfect emblems of the Lord's resurrection, which we celebrate at Easter time.

Our reading today, which we also studied in Sunday School, gives us an opportunity to prepare our minds and hearts for the events of Holy Week, from Palm Sunday to Easter. And the first thing we realize as we read the story of Lazarus is that before the Lord resurrected him, he experienced death--just as the world of nature experiences the dormancy of winter before the new resurrection of spring.

Of course, when we read the story of Lazarus, we know the ending. But for a moment, let's put ourselves in the shoes of Lazarus, and consider how he experienced these events. When the realization hit Lazarus that he was dying, he could not have known that he would be brought back to life to continue living here on earth. He had to face his own death with the same sense that we all face death: that this was the end of his earthly life. Depending on his particular faith, he may have felt that this was the end of his existence, or that he would continue on in some form of afterlife. If he shared his sister's views, he probably thought he would be raised up in a great resurrection at some future last day.

But all of these would have been speculations. The reality for him at that moment was that he was dying. His old, familiar life was over. What happened next, if anything, would be very different from what he had ever experienced before. Perhaps it was with thoughts like these that he breathed his last breath, and subsided into the sleep of death.

And in fact, his life ever after that was entirely different--even if in many ways it was the same. Lazarus could never have anticipated hearing, or perhaps sensing, those powerful words, "Lazarus, come forth!" and walking out of the grave to rejoin his family and friends. And when he experienced that wonder, he could hardly help becoming a different person. He knew that his life had a meaning far deeper than he could have suspected. As we learn later on in the Gospel story, the religious leaders of the day made plans to kill Lazarus just as they planned to kill Jesus. And so he continued to live in the balance between life and death.

Unlike Lazarus, most of us experience physical death only once. But we can experience death in our spirits many times. Of course, we experience death whenever a loved one dies. But we also experience death whenever we leave behind something that has been a part of us, and we experience death whenever a particular phase of our life ends.

I still remember my first bicycle. I got it for Christmas one year when I was about six years old. It was shiny and red, with white trim. I loved that bike! At first I needed training wheels to ride it, but in time the training wheels came off, and after numerous scrapes and bruises, I was proudly riding it up and down the road all by myself.

But a time came when the bicycle seat just wouldn't go up any higher, and that bike that had been so big when I first got it was seeming mighty small to me. I hated to let it go, but I had to admit, it was time for another bike. The bike that had been my pride and joy became a hand-me-down for my younger brother, and I, in turn, received a bike that had belonged to one of my older brothers. It was traumatic to leave behind that not-quite-so-shiny bicycle, but it certainly did feel good to have a bike that fit again!

We all went through these childhood "deaths" of the old as we moved on to the new. Sometimes we cried when a beloved toy was broken beyond repair, and we realized we would never be able to play with it again. The pain could linger on; but it was usually overcome with the passage of time, as new toys and new interests took the place of the old.

It is harder to get over are the emotional deaths that we have had to endure. For me, one of the most difficult times in my childhood was when our family moved away from the neighborhood in Missouri where I had good friends, to a new place where I never quite regained the same sense of belonging in the neighborhood. I remember sitting on the curb at the new house with my sister, and both of us knew it would never be the same.

Yet life goes on. I learned to find good things about the new town where we were living. I was getting old enough to range farther abroad on my own, and soon grew to appreciate the woods, streams, ponds, and lakes in the new place. And I found my own small circle of friends that I could share thoughts with and enjoy their company.

But even deeper are the deaths we must face as we go through the changes that come with our growth as a person. We may face the death of our youthful idealism as we leave school and find that the practical realities of life are dictating how we spend most of our time. We may face the death of our independence as we settle down with a marriage partner and start a family, learning what it means to be responsible to another person and not just to ourselves. We may struggle with further loss of independence as we grow older and are no longer able to fully take care of ourselves. We may struggle against the death of old, ingrained habits as we realize that they are hurting both ourselves and the people we love, and are damaging our relationships. Each of us, if we look at our lives, can find many deaths, on many levels, that we have had to go through--and that we may be going through right now.

And yet, both this season and the events of our Bible story assure us that these emotional and spiritual deaths are not the end. Through these experiences, a new and deeper life can come forth that we had never known before. For all the struggles that come with family life, there are also newer and deeper satisfactions with our marriage partner and our children. And when we have struggled against a faulty attitude or bad habit that has been hurting both ourselves and those around us, we gain a new level of freedom within ourselves, and often a new level of love and connection with the people around us.

We must endure many deaths during our lifetime. But we have the comforting assurance that death is not the end, but the beginning of new life and new love. And so we can say with the Psalmist, "Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior, who bears our burdens day by day. Our God is a God who saves; from the Lord God comes escape from death." Amen.






© Danny Hahlbohm
Painting entitled Trinity

Music: Prism: Color of Love
©Bruce DeBoer