What is the purpose of Lent? Ninety-nine percent of us will say it is to help us prepare for Easter, and this would be partially correct. More so, however, the purpose of Lent is to prepare us for Good Friday. Lent is a sacrificial time designed to help us enter into the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. If we do not enter into the sacrifice and death of Jesus, we cannot be part of Easter. Even in the baptisms that will be celebrated at Easter we will speak of going into the waters of death so that we can rise with Jesus on the last day. The story of the death of Lazarus points us directly to death, but again even more, the Gospel today points us toward life. The message is the same. We cannot appreciate life, especially eternal life, if we do not face death.
“And Jesus wept.” This simple but profound sentence is too often misunderstood and misused. Why did Jesus weep? Was He really sad about the death of His friend? How can we say He was sad when we’ve already been told by Jesus himself that Lazarus’s death was to serve a larger purpose? The implication of Jesus’ words is that He knew what He was going to do. How could He be sad? He knew that Lazarus was going to live.
Why is Jesus so angry that the Gospel says He wept? He is angry that, after all He has done, those around Him still do not understand Him. Both Martha and Mary say to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” These were statements of faith and belief in Jesus’ ability to heal, but their faith never moved beyond Jesus’ ability to heal.
The Gospel tells us that Lazarus was dead for four days. In that day, the Jews believed that the soul hovered around the body for three days, so by four days, the Gospel is telling us, Lazarus is really, really dead. Lazarus could not be merely healed; he had to be raised to life! It did not occur to those gathered at the tomb that Jesus could do such a thing.
John’s Gospel never speaks of miracles; it tells us of signs, and the raising of Lazarus is the seventh and last sign before Jesus’ passion and death. The first sign was at the wedding in Cana, turning the water in the ritual purification jars into wine. Then Jesus healed the son of a royal official. The third sign is the healing of a man born lame at the pool of Bethsaida. Next the Gospel tells of the feeding 5,000 and, then, of Jesus walking on water. We heard the sixth sign last week: healing the man born blind. Today is the seventh and final sign, and the number seven often carries the significance of something being perfect. These signs are far greater than the miracles in the other Gospels. These signs are things that had never before happened, things that no one was able to believe could happen.
The purpose of these signs is to point us toward a new creation, a greater creation. These signs are more than miracles; they are signs that a new creation was not only coming, but that in fact it was already beginning. If the number seven was used to indicate that something was perfect, the number eight was the exclamation point that something was beyond what we can imagine as perfect. Although today’s sign is the seventh, it is not the last. The eighth sign is Easter morning — the eighth sign on the eighth day, the first day of the new week, the first day of a New Creation.
These signs were to help those who had followed Jesus to understand His purpose. They are signs that signal our entry into the New Creation, signs to help us be faithful to the life to come. Why was Jesus angry and troubled? It seemed that the first six signs had been wasted, or at least that their profound meaning had not been grasped. Martha and Mary’s faith in what Jesus could do among the living was absolute, but they had not yet made the jump to believing that not only could Jesus heal, He could give life and was in fact the source of life.
Jesus’ command to Lazarus to “come out” is a command to all of us. We must come out of whatever grave it is that keeps us from understanding who Jesus is. We can pass with Jesus from death to a new life. We must let go of whatever binds us and keeps us from believing deeply.