The reading today from the eleventh chapter of the Gospel of St. John tells the story of the death and resurrection of a close friend of Christ, Lazarus from the village of Bethany, near Jerusalem. St. Lazarus was the brother of St. Martha and St. Mary, who had told Christ that their brother was seriously ill, but Christ waited four days before He came, even though Christ knew that Lazarus was dying. As St. John Chrysostom tells us, Christ waited “so that no one might say that [Christ] raised him when he was not yet dead.” Christ waited for the body of Lazarus to stink, so that everyone would be very sure that Lazarus was indeed dead. Christ Himself told the apostles “I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe, but let us go to him.”
I propose in this sermon to do precisely what Christ did with the apostles—to bring all of us to the tomb of the dead Lazarus, the cave in which he was buried for four days before he was raised by Christ. Sylvia and I have been there. It is a deep tomb, twenty-four rough, worn and rather dangerous steps below the modern street level, which lead to a square chamber that is a place of prayer, from which more steps lead to a lower chamber believed to be the tomb of Lazarus. Of course, it may not be precise tomb, but the tradition in favour of this particular location dates from the fourth century. As one encyclopaedia suggests: “The identification of this cave as the tomb of Lazarus is merely possible. . . .The site of the ancient village may not precisely coincide with the present one, but there is every reason to believe that it was in this general location.” What is important is not so much whether this was the actual tomb, although we believe it to be so, but what Christ said there, to the apostles, to Martha and Mary, to all the friends of Lazarus and to us. The words of Christ were simply, “Lazarus, come forth.” And when Lazarus emerged from the tomb, Christ said, “Unbind him and let him go.”
In a book of meditations, The Prologue from Ochrid, the Serbian bishop, St. Nikolai Velimirović, who died in 1956 and was glorified by the Serbian Orthodox Church on May 19, 2003, wrote: “When the Lord cried: ‘Lazarus!’, the man awoke and lived. The Lord knows the name of each of us. . . . [Christ can] wake [each of] us from the sleep of sin.” In other words, Christ the Lord is calling each of us by name, to come out of our self-centred lives and be unbound—to revive those aspects of our Christian lives that are dead and to be unbound from our natural tendency to be more dead than alive to the life that Christ would have us lead. Christ made an important promise to St. Martha and to us with the words: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies.”
As Christians we believe in the resurrection of Christ; and it is that belief which guides our lives. There is a phrase: “Life begins at the end of our comfort zone”—that life begins when we are challenged. However, the more important truth is that precisely because we believe that Christ is “the resurrection and the life” we live always with the comfort of Christ. As St. Paul was told by the Lord in the 12th chapter of Second Corinthians: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” In other words, the grace of Christ empowers each of us to face the challenges of life while being comforted by Christ, in the midst of our weaknesses.
In The Lenten Triodion Metropolitan Kallistos has explained the theological meaning of the raising of Lazarus: “The resurrection of Lazarus is a prophecy in the form of an action. It foreshadows Christ’s own Resurrection eight days later, and at the same time it anticipates the resurrection of all the righteous on the Last Day. . . Christ raises Lazarus from the dead . . . disclosing the fullness of His divine power.”
The apostles clearly were impressed by this fullness of the divine power of Christ. St. John takes 45 verses to describe what happened. We too can be impressed—impressed by the theology, impressed by the power of Christ to bring a dead human being back to life, impressed by the impact that the raising of Lazarus had at that time on the Jews of Jerusalem. However, what is especially important today is that Christ is calling each of us by name and is raising each of us NOW from whatever is dead in our lives.
Make no mistake: the words that Christ addressed to Lazarus who came out of the tomb still bound up in bandages and burial wrappings, Christ addresses also to us: “Unbind him, and let him go.” Christ does not take away our free will. We still decide how we will live once we have been unbound; however, what Christ can do for each of us is to heal the spiritual and emotional and physical injuries that we have received thus far in our lives. Christ offers us the chance to live with Him forever. The third century Biblical scholar from Palestine, Hippolytus, suggested that Christ used the death of Lazarus to deepen the faith of the apostles; and so it can be for us, Christ can use the healing of our wounds and injuries to deepen our faith in Him.
When I talked with Deaconessa Sylvia this morning about this sermon, she proposed a one-sentence summary, “Christ can sort us out!” That is an excellent summary.
The name “Lazarus” has been Latinised from the Hebrew word Elʿāzār or Eleazar, meaning “God is my help”. That is an appropriate name indeed, for just as Christ called Lazarus by his name and unbound him, so Christ helps each of us today to be at peace with Him, to accept the forgiveness that He offers us for our past sins and to move ahead in our lives with Him. For each of us: God is indeed my help.
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit always now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Deacon Emmanuel Kahn