While some bible stories seem mostly about God being with us, other stories seem more about God for us. The story of Jesus raising of Lazarus from the dead, however, is about both.
In John's gospel, the scene opens with Mary and Martha desperate for a miracle. Their brother is on the verge of death, so they send word for Jesus to come and heal him.
Now, these sisters weren't just calling upon some run-of-the-mill healer they heard about through the grapevine. They weren't just looking for some doctor who happened to have good ratings on an ancient Hebrew version of Angie's List.
Mary and Martha were calling out for someone they trusted.
They were crying for help from a beloved family friend.
They were calling for Jesus.
This was personal.
But for days Jesus was AWOL. A no-show.
When Jesus finally arrives, he's too late. Mary and Martha's beloved brother is dead.
Both sisters confront Jesus saying, "If you would have been here, my brother would not have died." But Jesus doesn't respond to their lament with words. At least not at first.
Instead of offering explanations, Jesus offers empathy. Though Jesus knows the future promise, he doesn't ignore the present pain. Though Jesus could've dished out a sophisticated theological response he instead becomes "greatly disturbed, deeply moved, and begins to weep."
Jesus responds to Mary and Martha's grief by simply being Emmanuel, the God who is with us, even in the valley of the shadow of death.
But Jesus doesn't stop there.
Though it's good news God is with us in moments of deep suffering, crushing doubt, and paralyzing grief, sometimes we need more. Sometimes, we need a God that's not only with us, but also a God that's for us.
In this story, Jesus isn't just with Mary and Martha, he's also for them.
Jesus doesn't just share in their pain. He delivers them from their pain.
Jesus goes to the grave and calls to those standing around, "Move the stone!"
Once the stone's rolled away, Jesus hollers toward the cave, "Lazarus, come out!" Lazarus steps out of the tomb, still bound in his stinky burial bandages. Though once dead, Mary and Martha's brother is alive.
Death was, and death is, no match for Jesus of Nazareth!
What a story, huh?
This is a story about life trumping death; a story of hope in shadowy hours of grief and despair; a story about a God that's not only with us, but a God that's for us.
This story helps us anticipate the resurrection power of Jesus, even as we wait in the wilderness of Lent.
Still, I have a hunch there's even more to this story. I think its possible this story is a charge for us to participate in God's resurrection work, in our culture of death.
To be clear, when I say "participate in" I mean in and through God's power, not our own. To be sure, when we participate in God's restorative, redemptive, resurrection work, we do so not because God needs us, but because God wants us. God asks us. God invites us. Sometimes God even commands us.
Like in this story.
First, Jesus tells those standing around to move the stone blocking the tomb. And again, after Lazarus steps out of the grave, Jesus declares this to the community:
"Unbind him, and let him go." It's a charge.
"Unbind him, and let him go." It's a commission.
"Unbind him, and let him go." It's a command.
Sure. Jesus could've mustered up some sort of messianic-mojo, snapped his fingers, and unwrapped Lazarus from his stinky cloths of death all by his Son-of-God-Self.
I mean really. Think about it. Jesus was an established miracle worker. He just raised a dude back to life. Clearly he possessed the capacity to unbind Lazarus, without any help from others.
But for some reason, Jesus charges the community to do the messy, post-miracle, stinky-work, of unbinding Lazarus, and letting him go.
So here's a crazy suggestion: Perhaps, at least in part, this story is as much about the messy ministry that happens in the wake of the miracle, than it is about the miracle itself.
Maybe this story is a call for us to roll up our sleeves, and roll away anything that blocks us from seeing those trapped or hidden away in places of death. Maybe it's a charge to "unbind and let go" all those bound up in institutions, relationships, systems, beliefs and attitudes that lead to death.
Just maybe, this story is a commission to bear the image of God in Christ: the One who, in life and in death, is a God both with us and for us.