Lazarus is probably one of the best known characters in the Bible. His name is certainly part of our vernacular. After all, it is synonymous with the most miraculous act performed by Jesus: Lazarus was literally brought back to life after having died.
The story is set forth in the Gospel of John (11:1-12;11). Lazarus was the brother of Mary and Martha, the two sisters who showed such kindness to Jesus. Johns explicitly points out that Jesus loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Jesus learned that Lazarus had fallen ill. Two days later, he told his disciples that they were going back to Judea to see him. As was so often the case, the disciples did not comprehend Jesus’ real meaning when he told them that Lazarus had fallen asleep. They figured that if he slept, his condition would improve. Then Jesus’ explained that Lazarus had died, noting that he was glad he was not there when he died, because now the disciples have an opportunity to believe.
By the time Jesus and his disciples reached Bethany, the village where Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived, Lazarus had already been dead for four days. Both Mary and Martha met Jesus with tears and disappointment, telling him that if he had been there, Lazarus would not have died. Jesus asked to be taken to Lazarus’ tomb. When he arrived, he instructed his followers to remove the stone that had been used to seal it. The crowd was horrified because, after all, Lazarus had been dead for four days, Bethany is situated in a desert climate, and the body would surely have begun to decompose. Still, his followers obeyed, bracing themselves for the unpleasantness that was sure to result.
After thanking God for yet another chance to demonstrate that he was the Son of God, Jesus called to Lazarus, instructing him to come out of the tomb. Sure enough, he appeared in the doorway, still wrapped in the strips of linen that had been placed around him for burial.
Jesus’ latest — and greatest — miracle caused many to believe in him, but further riled up the chief priests and Pharisees, who issued the equivalent of an arrest warrant. That forced Jesus and his disciples underground until six days before Passover when he returned to the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus who held a dinner in his honor. It was on that evening that Mary put her expensive perfume on Jesus’ sore and dirty feet, and then washed them with her long hair. Her actions angered Judas Iscariot, the disciple who soon betrayed him.
But what else is known about Lazarus? There is no mention of him engaging in any great acts of faith or sacrifice, there are no quotes from him. There is only mention of one thing: Jesus loved him and his sisters. Lazarus Awakening is actually the third and final installment in author Joanne Weaver’s trilogy. The first two books, Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World and Having a Mary Spirit, focused upon Martha, who was a great servant, and Mary, who worshiped unselfishly and completely. The only thing we know for sure that Lazarus did was take ill and die. But he was the recipient of Jesus’ unconditional love.
Lazarus Awakening is Weaver’s exploration of what it means to be truly loved by God and, more importantly, accept that love, “[e]ven when we don’t deserve it. Even when life is hard and we don’t understand.” Even when it feels like our prayers are going unanswered. Even when it feels like we are the most unworthy, unlovable creature on the planet.
The one thing human beings want most is unconditional, unwavering love. Ironically, that is precisely the kind of love that is so often difficult or even impossible to receive. Why?
In a series of chapters accompanied by a study guide that provides probing questions for discussion and reflection, Weaver takes readers on an exploration of the myriad ways in which we reject what Weaver refers to as “the scandalous availability of God’s love . . . ” That’s such a wonderful description of the acceptance and forgiveness that is readily and amply provided to us 24/7. But, as Weaver cogently explains, we feel inherently unworthy, questioning why terrible things sometimes happen to us or our loved ones and, all too often, blaming ourselves for those events or circumstances. Forgiveness is forthcoming from God simply for the asking; forgiving ourselves is a sometimes insurmountable task.
Weaver also explores the concept of generosity. God is a generous creator, providing all we need. How good are we at modeling the kind of open, generous friendship Jesus offers to us with our neighbors and colleagues? Being cynical and self-centered can keep us isolated, alone, and feeling very unloved. Weaver writes about patience, timing, obedience, surrender, death, and one of the most difficult aspects of faith: all of those purportedly “unanswered” prayers.
There are many visual aspects of the story of Lazarus that easily lend themselves to clever and memorable metaphors. For instance, we live in our own emotional, psychological tombs, but Weaver encourages readers to follow Lazarus’ example and unwind the grave clothes that bind us and keep us from true happiness and contentment.
I hope [my readers] come away with a deeper understanding of how very much they are loved by God, no matter their personality type. Whether we’re more like Martha or Mary, or even Lazarus, we are all invited to sit at Jesus’ feet.~ Author Joanna Weaver
Weaver injects her plain-spoken narrative with vignettes from her own life, those of friends and acquaintances, and observations from other writers and theologians. Each chapter focuses upon a segment of the story of Lazarus, her analysis broken down into what she believes constitute stumbling blocks and barriers to receiving God’s love freely, followed by her proposed solutions. She makes the case that none of us will escape death. But in fact, there is no need for believers to fear death or live their lives dreading it. We need not live like Sarah Winchester, the widow of the manufacturer of the Winchester repeating rifle. Mrs. Winchester believed that she was haunted by the spirits of persons killed by the rifles that earned her family’s great fortune. In order to appease those spirits, a medium told her to build a huge home for them and keep the hammers swinging. So long as building continued, Mrs. Winchester believed she could live forever and escape the wrath of the spirits who plagued her day and night. The result was the Winchester Mystery House, a tourist attraction in San Jose, California, with 160 rooms, 13 bathrooms, 2,000 doors, 47 fireplaces, and 10,000 windows. The house is “a silent [and extreme] witness to the dread of death.” The good news is that believers need not dread death. Rather, Weaver challenges believers to “keep living as if we’re dying, keeping eternity ever in view.” She readily acknowledges that to do so is a daily effort and the reality is that “bad things happen to good people.” The story of Lazarus clearly illustrates that point, as do so many other Biblical examples of triumph over adversity in the name of the faith.
Weaver’s writing style is joyous, effervescent, and infectiously upbeat. She invites readers to roll away the stones in their own lives — resentments, grudges, hurts, bad habits, feelings of unworthiness, etc. — that keep them from enjoying true intimacy with their creator by becoming more spiritually disciplined and, thus, able to hear and discern that still, small voice that tries so desperately to break through the cacophony of our daily lives. Her enthusiasm is difficult to resist. She writes, “When Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus that their brother was ill, they said, ‘Lord, the one you love is sick.’ I don’t know about you, but that gives hope to my often unworthy, sometimes sickly, occasionally fickle heart. We are loved. Not because of what we’ve done, but because of what Jesus did. But we’ve got to get around to receiving that love or we will miss everything Jesus came to give.”
So when Weaver challenges readers to “come forth,” just as Jesus directed Lazarus to “come forth” out of his tomb, her message is inspiring, uplifting, and impossible to resist. Lazarus Awakening, with the included study guide, would make an excellent choice for book clubs or women’s Bible study groups, especially within groups that are able to explore a single chapter at a time (because each is full of so much information that is worthy of consideration and reflection) whose members are well-acquainted and willing to share personal feelings and experiences.