Kenny Wiggins was in Cub Scout Den 7, Pack 78, in Chert Green, Tennessee. He was an OK Cub Scout, I guess. Nobody was mean to him or anything, but he was pretty annoying, and we mostly felt sorry for him. To borrow from the comic strip Peanuts, of all the Kenny Wigginses in the world, he was the Kenny Wigginsest.
When we rang the front doorbell at Kenny Wiggins’ house for his birthday party, even at 8 years old, all of Den 7 was pretty well resigned to the idea that this wasn’t going to be a very good time for any of us. Maybe not even for Kenny.
And we were right. Everything we did, Kenny wanted to be first, wanted to have do-overs, and was generally just being annoying in that one-of-a-kind, sort of sad way of his. Every time his mom tried to convince him to let somebody else have a turn or whatever, he would say, “But it’s MY BIRTHDAY!” And as one Cub, the rest of us would say, “It’s OK, Miz Wiggins. It’s his birthday.”
Keep Kenny in the back of your mind.
A certain man in Jesus’ day was ill: Lazarus of Bethany, the brother of Mary and her sister Martha. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus: “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
It kind of goes without saying that when you are a disciple of the Messiah, and you’re sick — even dying — then something bigger is going on. Jesus said of Lazarus:
“This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
Though Jesus loved this family, after having heard Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then, only after those two days, did Jesus say to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”
The disciples are sort of like the other Cub Scouts and me standing on Kenny Wiggins’ front porch. They’re asking, “Er — Rabbi? Go to Judea again? The last time we were there, the Jews tried to stone you. Do you really want to go there again? Are you sure you want to ring this particular doorbell? You know how Kenny Wiggins is. You can’t unring that bell, Jesus.”
Asleep vs. Alive
Jesus told the disciples, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.”
And of course, “fallen asleep” is a gentle way of saying someone has died, the way people used to talk about putting a dog or cat to sleep. But for some reason, the disciples just didn’t get it. They said, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.”
So Jesus — and I like to imagine he did a face-palm, at least internally, at this point — told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
We don’t hear about what happened next, but I gather Jesus kept a lid on things for the next four days as they journeyed to Bethany. When they arrived, they found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Four days is significant because, “According to the cultural traditions of the Jews, it was believed that the soul hovered near the body for three days, but after that time there was no hope of resuscitation, and decay would begin.”
But it doesn’t really take that long for a body to go sour — a few hours will do the trick. After four days — ugh.
By that time, many friends had come from Jerusalem — only two miles away — for the funeral. The miracle-worker Jesus was back in town, but four days too late. Something Martha didn’t waste any time pointing out.
She said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”
Jesus assured her that Lazarus would indeed rise. But though she had good end-times theology, she didn’t get it, either,
Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Do You Believe This?
We often hear that verse at funerals, but we seldom hear the four concluding words: “Do you believe this?”
Martha said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
Martha still doesn’t really get it, but she went to get her sister, Mary, who similarly led with the timing issue: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
The passage says Jesus saw her tears and had great compassion: “He was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” And then He asked to visit Lazarus.
“Where have you laid him?” Jesus asked. They said, “Lord, come and see.” And that’s when Jesus couldn’t stop His own tears.
So the Jews said, “See how He loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not He who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
That didn’t set well with Jesus, either. The Bible says again how He was greatly disturbed. And when He saw the stone covering the opening of Lazarus’ cave-grave, He directed it to be taken away. But Martha didn’t like that idea.
“Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”
Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.”
When He had said this, He cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
An Authoritative Voice
Never underestimate the power of a loud voice.
May 1, 2005, I was on my way to church when Dad called to say Mom was dying. I got to the hospital, and for several hours, Dad, a minister friend of ours and I sat with Mom in her darkened hospital room, speaking in low voices, not making any loud noises. But around 4 in the afternoon, one of the techs came into the room — I guess nobody had clued her that Mom was dying — and said, breezy and loud, “Well, hello there, Mrs. Hall!”
Mom opened her eyes and said, “Hello!”
It was a real Lazarus moment for us all. Mom lived for another two and a half months after that. Two and a half, good months.
We don’t hear how long Lazarus lived after Jesus raised him from the dead, but it doesn’t really matter. We knew when this story began that it wasn’t really about Lazarus, or Mary or Martha. It is all about what Jesus can do with you, even if you happen to be a corpse.
I wish I had some similarly uplifting coda for Kenny Wiggins. Chert Green was too small to support a decent Cub Scout program, so Den 7 disbanded a few months after Kenny’s birthday. I had just finished the fifth grade when we left Chert Green, and Kenny was still pretty pitiful as a rising sixth grader.
Sometimes we can be like Den 7, Mary and Martha and fear the lifelessness of those around us. We want Jesus to do something spectacular, to change our circumstances. But sometimes we fear it just might be too late.
Other times, we can be like Kenny Wiggins or even Lazarus. We need Jesus to breathe some life back into us. We need Him to cry out with a loud voice, “Come out!”
But the bottom line is we all need Jesus. For wherever and whenever people gather in the name of God, the promise is this: We are not going to see the dead here, we are going to see life. We are not going to see what we expect to happen, but the glory of God.
The promise of our faith is: The Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in all of us.
But now here is the tough question: Do you believe this?
Can we answer, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world”?
Then we will know the victory over sin and death that is captured in these words: