This week we are focusing on Jesus’ seventh and most dramatic sign (or miracle) in the Gospel of John, The Raising of Lazarus. The sign itself only takes up two verses, but we have quite a thrilling tale to prepare us for the sign. After Jesus healed the blind man that we talked about last week, he went to the Temple during a festival. Once again, by claiming to be the Son God, he so enraged the Jewish leaders that they tried to stone him. He escaped them and left Jerusalem. He withdrew to the other side of the Jordan River near where John first had been baptizing people.
John 11:1-16 (The VOICE)
11:1 There was a certain man who was very ill. He was known as Lazarus from Bethany, which is the hometown of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary did a beautiful thing for Jesus. She anointed the Lord with a pleasant-smelling oil and wiped His feet with her hair. Her brother Lazarus became deathly ill, 3 so the sisters immediately sent a message to Jesus which said, “Lord, the one You love is very ill.” 4 Jesus heard the message.
Jesus: His sickness will not end in his death but will bring great glory to God. As these events unfold, the Son of God will be exalted.
5 Jesus dearly loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. 6 However, after receiving this news, He waited two more days where He was.
Jesus (speaking to the disciples): 7 It is time to return to Judea.
Disciples: 8 Teacher, the last time You were there, some Jews attempted to execute You by crushing You with stones. Why would You go back?
Jesus: 9 There are 12 hours of daylight, correct? [Remember, last week he said that he is the light of the world. (cf. John 9:5)] If anyone walks in the day, that person does not stumble because he or she sees the light of the world. 10 If anyone walks at night, he will trip and fall because he does not have the light within. 11 (Jesus briefly pauses.) Our friend Lazarus has gone to sleep, so I will go to awaken him.
Disciples: 12 Lord, if he is sleeping, then he will be all right.
13 Jesus used “sleep” as a metaphor for death, but the disciples took Him literally and did not understand. 14 Then Jesus spoke plainly.
Jesus: Lazarus is dead, 15 and I am grateful for your sakes that I was not there when he died. Now you will see and believe. Gather yourselves, and let’s go to him.
Thomas, the Twin (to the disciples): 16 Let’s go so we can die with Him.
17-18 As Jesus was approaching Bethany (which is about two miles east of Jerusalem), He heard that Lazarus had been in the tomb four days. 19 Now many people had come to comfort Mary and Martha as they mourned the loss of their brother. 20 Martha went to meet Jesus when word arrived that He was approaching Bethany, but Mary stayed behind at the house.
Martha: 21 Lord, if You had been with us, my brother would not have died. 22 Even so I still believe that anything You ask of God will be done.
Jesus: 23 Your brother will rise to life.
Martha: 24 I know. He will rise again when everyone is resurrected on the last day.
Jesus: 25 I am the resurrection and the source of all life; those who believe in Me will live even in death. 26 Everyone who lives and believes in Me will never truly die. Do you believe this?
Martha: 27 Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Anointed, the Liberating King, God’s own Son who we have heard is coming into the world.
28 After this Martha ran home to Mary.
Martha (whispering to Mary): Come with me. The Teacher is here, and He has asked for you.
29 Mary did not waste a minute. She got up and went 30 to the same spot where Martha had found Jesus outside the village. 31 The people gathered in her home offering support and comfort assumed she was going back to the tomb to cry and mourn, so they followed her. 32 Mary approached Jesus, saw Him, and fell at His feet.
Mary: Lord, if only You had been here, my brother would still be alive.
33 When Jesus saw Mary’s profound grief and the moaning and weeping of her companions, He was deeply moved [angry with indignation] by [the ultimate cause of] their pain in His spirit and was intensely troubled.
Jesus: 34 Where have you laid his body?
[Judeans]: Come and see, Lord.
35 As they walked, Jesus wept; 36 and everyone noticed how much Jesus must have loved Lazarus. 37 But others were skeptical.
Others: If this man can give sight to the blind, He could have kept him from dying.
38 Then Jesus, who was intensely troubled by all of this, approached the tomb—a small cave covered by a massive stone.
Jesus: 39 Remove the stone.
Martha: Lord, he has been dead four days; the stench will be unbearable.
Jesus: 40 Remember, I told you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God.
41 They removed the stone, and Jesus lifted His eyes toward heaven.
Jesus: Father, I am grateful that You have heard Me. 42 I know that You are always listening, but I proclaim it loudly so that everyone here will believe You have sent Me.
43 After these words, He called out in a thunderous voice.
Jesus: Lazarus, come out!
44 Then, the man who was dead walked out of his tomb bound from head to toe in a burial shroud.
Jesus: Untie him, and let him go.
45 As a result, many of the Jews who had come with Mary saw what happened and believed in [Jesus].
The Word of Life.
Thanks be to God!
There is a story in which a family is gathered for the graveside service of a family member who has passed. At one point the pastor says the Scripture passage that is fairly familiar at funerals. From 1 Cor 15, “Where, O Death, is thy sting?” One of the family members lifts his eyes and looks at the grieving faces of his family and sees all the headstones at the cemetery. He thinks, “Where, O Death, is thy sting? Why, it’s just about everywhere, seeing how you asked.”
During this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, as we watch the numbers of people infected and those who have succumbed to the illness go up each day, each hour, we easily can feel this way.
We worry about our loved ones. Some of you may have friends and/or family who have been diagnosed with the illness. Are they going to be one of the people with a more mild case, or will it be more severe? You may be dealing with another of the more familiar health problems that can still be pretty scary: cancer, pneumonia, heart disease, or something else.
It’s pretty much everywhere, seeing how you asked.
The denial of death is everywhere too. There’s the saying, “You’re only as old as you feel.” What do they mean by feel? If they mean think or the way I feel in my head, then I’m somewhere around 35. If they mean the creaking in my joints, and the pain I wake up with each morning, it might be slightly older. There are whole industries dedicated to trying to make us look and feel younger. There’s a joke going around that after this period of self-isolating and physical distancing that we’re going to know what everyone’s real hair color is. There are people who go to extremes to try to defy death to the point of being put into cryogenic frozen storage or even investigating being cloned.
However, the truth is that no matter what we do, even if we are able to extend our lives, even as we self-isolate in order to save our own lives and those of our neighbors through this pandemic, our lives will end one day. That is part of the brokenness of this world. We are all born with a terminal condition.
That sting, it’s pretty much everywhere, seeing how you asked.
That’s part of the strangeness of this pivotal story in the middle of the Gospel of John. It is the turning point where Jesus ends his public ministry in a very dramatic way. We start with Jesus and his disciples on the other side of the Jordan River. He receives a message that his dear friend Lazarus is seriously ill.
Imagine that you heard that your very dear friend was gravely ill. Let’s say he has a rare blood type and needs a blood transfusion, and the two of you are a perfect match. Would you not rush to your friend’s side to give him the blood that he needs in order to safe him?
Jesus has the power to save Lazarus’ life, but he waits two more days before departing. Does that not seem strange? When he arrives in Bethany Lazarus has been dead for four days, so even if he had left immediately he still would have been too late, but still.
And why? Why did Jesus delay? I’m not always the most patient of people. In this time when hours can feel like days and days can feel like weeks. Maybe, I’m not the only one asking what’s the delay? Why haven’t they come up with a vaccine or a cure for COVID-19? Why can’t we get facemasks? Why can’t we find hand sanitizer? What’s the hold-up in Washington DC? When can we get back to normal life?
So, we can understand when Martha says to Jesus, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” We can almost hear her thinking, “Why couldn’t you have been here sooner?”
Perhaps, you are familiar with that saying in the church, “God is good all the time … All the time God is good.” If that is true, why wait three days, three days to do good? Luke recounts a time where Jesus healed a man from a distance (cf. Luke 7:1-10). Yet, he does not do this for his dear friend Lazarus.
That sting, it’s pretty much everywhere, seeing how you asked.
I believe that God is love. I believe that Jesus is the Savior of the world, but why the wait? Why the wasted time? What about the grieving of Lazarus’ sisters? Why delay salvation? Why did he allow it to happen at all?
Some of these questions are so similar to the ones that will be hurled at him as he hangs on a cross in the near future. He saved others. Why can’t he save himself?
In today’s episode, Jesus will pull off something spectacular, something so spectacular that it prompts the Jewish leaders to plot his death. Jesus pronounces, “Lazarus, come out!” Yes, very impressive, but why the wait? What is so great about God’s goodness if is goodness delayed?
Have you thought about how from the time the Hebrews or Israelites entered Egyptian slavery until God delivered them from slavery, it was about 400 years. In Exodus, God appears before Moses in a burning bush. I am the God of your forefathers. I have heard the cry of my people and have come to deliver them from the hand of the Egyptians (cf. Ex 3:1-8). As Bishop Will Willimon puts it, this verse isn’t in your Bible, but can you imagine Moses saying to God, Lord, It’s about time. We’ve been slaves down here for 400 years. Don’t rush right over.
I know of a woman who has prayed every day to be delivered from the painful skin condition that has plagued her since she was a teenager. For decades she has prayed for relief from this affliction and has heard … nothing from God.
Stanley Hauerwas [Hower-was] writes that the Israelites’ faith was “long training in being out of control” of its relationship with God without despising God for God’s delay. That’s not a bad definition for the training needed for the faithful Christian life. We are on God’s time table. God is not on ours. (William Willimon, How Odd of God: Chosen for the Curious Vocation of Preaching, pg. 102).
So, how about it? Are you feeling a bit out of control lately? In this modern world, we are not used to this. In our arrogance, we feel that we, as humans, even if it is not us specifically, can control (or at least should be able to control) everything. Our current plight, shows that we cannot.
And Mary and Martha could not control their situation. They had sent a message to Jesus. They had done what they could, and they waited. Their expectations were unfulfilled. Then, finally Jesus arrives. He meets Martha outside of town. She expresses her disappointment at his delay, and yet she still expresses confidence in his power, as she understands it. She expresses her belief in the general resurrection on the last day.
Jesus explains to her that her understanding is incomplete. He says, “I am the resurrection and the source of all life; those who believe in Me will live even in death. Everyone who lives and believes in Me will never truly die.” (John 11: 25-26) “I am the resurrection and the life.” The resurrection is not an event. Jesus is saying that he is the resurrection, and he is the life. Not in some distant unknown future. He is it right here, right now. The waiting is over. The resurrection is a person, Jesus. It is a relationship with God.
All through the Gospel of John, Jesus has been inviting people into new life. He tells Nicodemus about it in chapter 3 when Jesus says that one has to be born again, born from above even to see the kingdom of God. There is the woman at the well who is given hope. She has new life. There is the man born blind that we talked about last week. How do you think his life changed once he could see? A brand new life, a new existence that he never could have experienced before. Now, Jesus is about to give new life in the most concrete way possible in this world. In response, Martha proclaims Jesus as the Messiah, the Savior, here in the exact center of the Gospel.
She rushes off to get Mary. She comes accompanied by the other people who had been at the house, and she says the same as Martha, “If you had been here, my brother would still be alive.” He asks where Lazarus is. And they say, “Come and see.”
It is then that Jesus weeps. I invite you to look at the first painting. We see Jesus there. How many of you felt that Jesus was responding to the expression of Mary’s deep grief? I know that I thought about it that way for a long time, but did you notice. He doesn’t weep immediately upon Mary arriving and collapsing at his feet. But, He didn’t weep then or when she expressed her disappointment at his delay. It is when these other people offer to show Jesus where Lazarus was. Many of our English translations say that Jesus was “deeply moved” by all of this. That’s not wrong, but it’s incomplete. The Greek word has a connotation of anger and indignation involved in it.
1- Jesus Wept by James Tissot
But why? Why did Jesus weep? Is it because it hurts God to see us have to suffer the brokenness of this world? Like the pain of watching your child struggle even get knocked down whether it is with bullies on the playground, being the victim of a practical joke, or even the confusion of math. Feeling the pain when someone that you love hurts. Maybe you could have prevented it. Maybe you couldn’t, like when a young person has to go through adolescence. You can’t prevent that pain. It is part of the living process. Even knowing what he is about to do, Jesus in both his divinity and his humanity weeps.
Then he arrives at the tomb. He commands for the stone to be taken away. And, the conscientious Martha reminds us that Lazarus has been dead for four days. There can be no doubt that he is dead, and she warns us that if the stone is taken away there will be a terrible stench. They roll away the stone, and I had never really thought about it before, but there is no stench. Jesus prays for the benefit of the people around him, but they all, we all, should be prepared for the extraordinary to happen. The truth is that it has already happened, it’s just that nobody can see it until now. Jesus in his own good time now calls for Lazarus to come out of the tomb … and he does.
Now, I invite you to look at the second painting. There are many groups of people in attendance there. Each one of them looks astounded, even Lazarus. Some are astonished. Some are afraid. All are astounded.
2- The Raising of Lazarus by Jean Jouvenet
So today, we wait, but we are people who can wait with hope. What does grace look like? It’s like when you feel dead inside and you hear your name being called by your Shepherd. The one that knows you and loves you. Then, you are able to walk out of your tomb into new life, new life with Jesus. And right now, none of us need a painting to imagine what that will feel like. When the time comes, we will emerge in to the life and light of God.
And that is seeing yourself in the picture of a life with Jesus.