Jesus had received a message from Mary and Marth of Bethany, Lazarus was gravely ill. But rather than come to them, Jesus sent word back that Lazarus’ illness was not to death but to God’s glory. It’s hard to imagine how they felt when the messengers returned with words that seemed so entirely wrong.
For Lazarus was indeed dead, and buried. They had left his tomb open, as was the custom, and would not seal it till the third day. But there was little question he had died.
For two days, Jesus had stayed to teach and baptize by the river Jordan. The days were so long, so full of people, many of whom became followers, so intensely emotional, so spiritually powerful as Jesus performed many wonders of healing and restoration, the disciples soon forgot there had been messengers. Jesus had returned to them smiling and unconcerned.
Early in the morning, even as people were arriving, coming on the road leading from Bethany, the disciples were heading to the nearby village to buy bread, cheese, olives, and fish for their morning meal. Sometimes, when the people who came to them were able to give generously in thanksgiving, Jesus had instructed them to buy enough food to share with others.
Laden with their purchases, the disciples would return to a gathered crowd around their seated Messiah, teaching them in his voice of quiet, yet impassioned authority. In the clear air, even with the Jordan’s waters behind them, Jesus’ voice would always carry to the outer edge of the encircled people. Always, the ever-present wind would move, rustling the tree leaves, bend the swaying grasses, lifting hair from faces, and bringing with it fragrances and aromas from all around.
This morning, as they neared the assemblage of pilgrims, John noticed the spicy incense of cardamom and frankincense. He looked wonderingly at his brother James. James looked back, his eyebrows raised. And was that myrrh and aloes as well?
“Who died?” Bartholomew was kidding, and they all laughed, but it was strange, nonetheless. They should be smelling the clean scent of water, and the marsh grasses along Jordan’s banks, not spices for embalming.
The disciples jostled through the tightly knit gathering, who were leaning in to catch every word of the rabbi. They gave Jesus some barley buns, a few fish and olives, wrapped in a cloth, then hung back, to stand behind him. Jesus lifted the food and prayed, “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the universe, Who brings forth the bread from the earth.” Jesus offered what they had brought to those who were near, some accepted, and they all ate.
It was midmorning still, and they had been about to enter the Jordan to begin baptizing, when Jesus dismissed the crowd. It was another one of those unnerving, unsettling times when Jesus would do something without telling them ahead of time. But they learned to come to him right away, for he would explain what would come next. It took them only a little while, to gather cloaks back up, tie their capes and gather around him.
“Let us go into Judea again.”
A moment passed as they all stared at him.
“Rabbi!” It was Peter. As usual, he had recovered enough to start talking before the rest of them had gathered two thoughts together.
Now, he was thrusting his hands in the general direction of Jerusalem, up the same road as to Bethany, “They were seeking to stone you,” and the rest of them were murmuring a variety of assents, “yet you are going there again?!”
Jesus had been watching Peter intently, and smiled. Then, he turned towards Bethany, and spoke in a far-off voice, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? Whoever walks in the day will not stumble, because this one sees the Light of the World. But, whoever walks in the night stumbles because the Light is not in that one.”
Peter’s mouth had fallen slightly ajar, and his eyebrows were drawn close together, as he tried to work out what Jesus was saying. He as not alone. Jesus had not begun this saying with “Amen, amen,” yet it had sounded like a spiritual truth they needed to learn, as his disciples.
John was trying to repeat the saying to himself, quietly voicing the words, and even Nathanael seemed a little perplexed. How did this saying go with the danger of stoning that awaited Jesus, and probably them all?
Jesus turned his head back to them, and his eyes slowly came back into focus as he watched them watch him for further instruction. He raised his hand and made as though to usher them up the road.
“Lazarus, our friend, has been lulled asleep, but I go that I may awaken him.”
Peter scratched his head, then scratched his beard, down where it itched at the neck of his robe. Phillip looked over at Nathanael, and their eyes shared a mutual question. Did it mean something? Was this metaphor? Was this another strange outing that would only make sense when Jesus explained it, afterwards?
Now Judas spoke.
“Sir, if he has fallen asleep, he will be saved from suffering, restored to health.”
They were all nodding their heads. Too often, then had had to sleep rough, and those were sometimes difficult nights, most of the time they did not get enough sleep, which made the fullness of the day even hard to persevere through. Truthfully, would they all not enjoy a nice, deep sleep? It was restorative. Let Lazarus have his rest.
Later, as John remembered this story, he would explain to his audience, “Jesus had been speaking of his death. But the disciples,” and here he would look down as though chagrined, and move his hand to his chest, indicating himself, “thought it was concerning the taking of rest in sleep.”
There was nothing for it, but that Jesus would have to speak plainly.
All movement stopped, and they started at him in various poses of astonishment and grief. One by one, it dawned on him the messengers who had come two days previously might have been bringing word of Lazarus. Faces clouded, others darkened.
Jesus raised his hand up and held it out in front of them, his palm towards them, to stop them from speaking.
“And I am glad for your sake,” he emphasized the word ‘your’—Yes, for your sake—and his eyes held both power and warning, “In order that you might believe, because I am not there.”
John, who had been especially close with Lazarus, felt hurt and angry. With a word, Jesus could have healed him without even having gone there. Had he not already done this very thing, several times? Was their good friend Lazarus not worthy of that healing?
“But rather, let us all go to him.”
Thomas, whom they had nicknamed “The Twin” for his uncanny resemblance to Jesus, had begun to shake his head slowly and ironically. They movement caught Jesus’ eye, and he turned towards Thomas, his face questioning. Others followed Jesus’ gaze, and when Tomas say he was the center of attention, he said in a grave voice, “Let us all go then, in order that we ourselves might die with him.”
And he nodded his head towards Bethany, where Jesus was standing as well. They would go to Bethany to raise their dead friend only to be stoned to death.
Quietly, morosely, the disciples gathered their few things, and began with heavy steps, their walk back to Bethany.
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