One of my favorite Johnny Cash songs is Ghost Riders In The Sky. Stan Jones wrote the song about the cowboys who had missed out on heaven; the devil had sentenced them to the eternal work of herding his red-eyed cattle, hell-cows they would never catch. “Cause they got to ride forever in that range up in the sky; On horses snortin’ fire;” as they ride on, we are to hear their cries and be warned against their fate. Jones wasn’t the first to use the fury of the horse to draw pictures of all that should be feared. I’m reminded of the fire-breathing steeds of Ares in Greek mythology or in the realm of the prophetic, of the Apostle John’s vision of horses in Revelation: “And thus I saw the horses in the vision, and them that sat on them, having breastplates of fire, and of jacinth, and brimstone: and the heads of the horses were as the heads of lions; and out of their mouths issued fire and smoke and brimstone.” (Rev. 9:17)
How did you get to horses today, you might ask. I got there by way of the Greek word embrimaomai (em-brim-ah’-om-ahee), which means literally to “snort like an angry horse; “snort (roar) with rage”.1
Our rather softly translated Gospel according to John reads “When Jesus saw her (that is, Mary, Lazarus’ sister) weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” No He wasn’t “deeply moved and troubled;” He was, as John tells us, embrimaomai; He was agitated, His spirit was disturbed, to the point where Jesus found Himself steaming, breathing fire.
His best friend was dead. His friend’s sisters were distraught to the point of death, and even in expressing a level of faith rarely seen, there’s still anger, still disappointment: “If you had been here, our brother would not have died.”
“Then Jesus asks where they have laid Lazarus, and the people offer to take him to the tomb. At that point Jesus begins to cry. But the word in Greek for Jesus’ crying is a different word from the word used to describe the weeping of Martha and Mary. In fact, it is the only time this word ever appears in the New Testament. Jesus is crying in a different way than anyone else. What the text seems to indicate is that this crying is connected to the audible snorting of Jesus that has just happened. Perhaps it is only tears welling up in his eyes in connection with his snorting. But it may be a kind of compassionate sobbing infinitely deeper than mournful weeping. All we can be certain of is that Jesus’ crying at this point expresses passion, and that it is unique.
“Standing before the tomb, he offers a prayer of gratitude to God. Then he cries out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” Here again the English translation is weak. The Greek word translated “cried out” means shouted. It is the same word John uses elsewhere in his gospel to describe the Palm Sunday crowds shouting their Hosannas and then a few days later the Good Friday crowds shouting for Jesus’ death. It wasn’t, “Lazarus, come out!” It was LAZARUS, COME OUT!”2 As if Lazarus had to hear his friend’s voice from beyond the grave, which I guess he did.
We know what happened: Lazarus was resuscitated, brought back to life with the knowledge that he would someday have to die again, which doesn’t seem pleasant. Lazarus, along with Mary and Martha, his sisters, according to tradition, followed Jesus through His last supper, Martha even preparing the meal.
In the following two weeks, we will also follow Jesus; we will follow Him into Jerusalem, through His last supper, His arrest, His death sentence, His crucifixion, and, thanks be to God, through His resurrection.
If we truly follow Him, we too will embrimaomai; we too will snort with anger, seize up in pain, over the loss of our friend and Savior. If we truly follow Him, we too will know the feeling of crumpling to the ground in grief like Mary and Martha; like Jesus, we too will be agitated, disturbed, we too will breathe fire, wondering what would have happened if just we were there, there to stop all this madness.
This, my beloved, is what Lent and Holy Week is; it’s the breathing fire at the injustice of it all so that in the end, the eternal fire has no dominion over us; it’s Christ giving His life so that Lazarus and all His friends, us included, may live. It’s not easy to follow Jesus through the next two weeks, but there is true life waiting for us at the end.