In the Gospel of John, from which all the gospel texts have come this Lent, there’s a special term for what we usually call “miracles.” John calls them “signs.” By using that term John says that any miracle, water into wine, making the blind to see or the lame to walk, and (this week) raising Lazarus from the dead, points beyond itself to a deeper truth.
“Sign” says, don’t stare too hard at the thing, look beyond it. What’s it saying? What’s it pointing to? That’s how you see animals in the wild, if you do. Not directly (as in a zoo) but only a movement, a glimpse at the corner of your eye. In peripheral vision.
This week’s narrative, like the others in this series, is long (John 11: 1 – 45). And like the others, it is a very carefully worked out drama, scene by scene. It unfolds with elements that perplex, mystify, evoke and disturb.
I like John’s use of the term “sign.” It suggests something a little vague, something mysterious. “Did you see that?” “Maybe . . . maybe not.” “What’s it mean?” “I’m not quite sure, but I feel like the world is a little more mysterious, more open-ended than I had thought.” Such is a world in which signs occur, intrude.
The problem with miracles is that everyone wants one. To see one leads people to ask, “How can I get one of those?” “Would you do that for me?” “Do another, just one . . . well, actually, just one more.” As someone observed, “A faith based on miracles always needs one more.”
In John, this particular sign — raising Lazarus from the dead — is the last of Christ’s signs. “Last” in a couple senses. The final one in a series. But also the straw that breaks the camel’s back. After this the authorities have had enough. Jesus has to go. This is too much, conclude the powers that be. Surely, the people will go crazy, the Romans will move in, chaos will reign — and we will lose our grip on power. “Better that one man should die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed,” says the high priest, Caiaphas. (11: 50)
One of the especially interesting things about this sign story is that Martha (Lazarus’s sister who is disappointed with Jesus that he has not come earlier when it might have done some good) tells Jesus, when he mentions the resurrection, “Yeah, yeah I get it. I know Lazarus will arise at the last day, in the resurrection of the dead.” (11: 24) Jesus says, “No, actually you don’t get it. The resurrection is now. I am the resurrection. Do you believe that?”
Lots of people take Christian faith to mean what Martha thought, that when they die they will go to heaven and live forever. Nothing big happens until you die. Jesus says something different to Martha and to us. Eternal life is not just an after you die thing; it’s a here and now thing. By faith, we pass — now — from death to life. In John especially, eternal life is not so much a quantity of life (on and on), but a quality of life, present now, Alive Now.
So in John, Jesus signs leave us wondering, dumb-struck and challenged. Which is a good place to be.
In the midst of our present, strange time, we are tempted to look — quite understandably — for when it will all be over. When life can start again. But this sign and Jesus’ claim that eternal life is not just something that starts only at the grave, but starts now when faith claims us, is a word of God for us. It may seem that life is now on hold, stalled, and will someday start again.
No, life is here. Life is now. We can be fully alive right now, even in these strained and constrained circumstances. Whether it is doing our part by keeping apart, or by sending words of love and care to those at distance, or by going to work when it’s risky — doctors and health personnel (including our son Joe at the VA Hospital), grocery store workers, people picking up the garbage — shout out to you all –, giving a gift to help those hardest hit, or making like the Europeans to sing and applaud from our windows or balconies as a sign of hope and gratitude, we can live and we can love now. To us in our present COVID tomb, Jesus says — as he cried out in a loud voice to Lazarus — “Come out!” (11: 43)