It’s almost too much, to be honest, to read the story of Lazarus’ death right now. Danger is looming as authorities in Jerusalem are seeking to arrest Jesus, and yet he goes perilously close to the city to see his friends Mary and Martha, and to raise from the dead their brother Lazarus.
It’s too much in a couple of ways. It reminds me that the calendar plods on without concern for our quarantines and our viral pandemic. This is the Gospel we read on the Sunday before Palm Sunday. Holy Week is nearly here, and while this Lent has given me lots of time for introspection, I’ll be honest: I’ve just been trying to make it through the day, each day. No surprise that, without so many of the things I’ve arranged in my life to help me, my depression has been making itself know. The introspection helps. The meditation, the prayer. The walks. They help me put things in perspective, to find something that I can actually control, and to focus on that. But I’ve not been living a very intentional Lenten journey. I forgive myself for that.
But also I cringe at the appearance of this story of Jesus raising a friend from the dead right now, this year. In other stories, he healed wounds and cast out diseases, and now, two weeks before Easter, he is reversing the flow of death. Would it be so hard to, you know, do that more often? The preacher of this text is tempted to fall back on Christian platitudes. A preacher might say, “viruses come and go, but life with God is not interrupted.” Or perhaps “Jesus triumphs over death, and so you have nothing to fear.”
Those won’t do. We know now that Lazarus was a one-off, sort of a proof of concept before the big event on Easter. Long gone are the hopes that the loved ones we lose will be miraculously raised to be with us again, here and now.
Our discomfort is not just a fear of the Coronavirus, but also—perhaps most prominently—a despair at what it has already taken away. We have lost time together, annual traditions, rites of passage, Easter and LDOC and March Madness. The communities we inhabit at Duke are not accidental. We build them because we are a social species and because we need support and inspiration and company. Even if we stop the virus from spreading, we will have lost something very real.
So let me direct your attention to the part of the story before the raising of Lazarus. That is where you will see God’s instincts.
Jesus should reasonably avoid Jerusalem. Bad things will happen to him there, and everyone knows it. But Mary and Martha are grieving, and he loves them. They have hosted him and cared for him, and it is clear that the love is reciprocal. So he goes to Bethany to see them. Two miles is all that separates Bethany from Jerusalem, but that is where the people he loves are. So goes.
Jesus’ words are pretty stoic in this story. He says he’s only doing all this to show people and teach them, but look at his reactions to the suggestion that Lazarus only died because Jesus was not there. He is disturbed. For all of the talk of God as an unmoved mover in the tradition of Aristotle’s philosophy, this is a divinity who is moved by the pain of his friends. We can see the tension between his mission of teaching the Good News and his desire to protect the ones he loved. Jesus couldn’t have stayed in Bethany without turning away from his calling, but when Mary and Martha tell him he could have kept Lazarus from dying, we feel him wish he could have stayed and done exactly that. For all of his power, Jesus couldn’t be everything to everyone. That pained him. This is who Jesus is.
It’s this compassion that I want you to hold onto this week. Jesus suffers with those who suffer. He not only suffers with them, but he goes to be with them. In our Lenten readings, we see him turn away from an understanding of power that would insulate him from the world’s pain, and instead walk directly toward the pain. Where things are hard, where people grieve, or feel isolated…these places are where Jesus walks.
It’s not just by metaphor that I suggest that God is with you. It is in the movement of the Holy Spirit, who moves through our scattered online space here and makes it sacred. In the presence of the Spirit, Jesus, too is with you. We won’t have the sacrament of communion today, but the lights we all have with us represent that presence. A thread that tangles us together, and a love that pours out on us even in the solitude of social distance.
Remember then, that ours is not a distant and aloof God. Ours is a God who does not abandon God’s people, even when they may feel abandoned, and who knits together community and love across whatever divisions may arise. The God who went to be at Bethany is the God who comes to be with you. The love is the same. The compassion is the same. Lazarus rose. Yes, that is the exclamation point on this story, but God’s insistence on being our companion is where I find the comfort today.