The Raising of Lazarus

John 11.1-45

Well, once again good morning everybody and welcome to our service. You know the passage that we have before us today, apart from being one of the longest, if not the longest in our lectionary (well done Andy for reading it) is also one of the most exciting and the most glorious, but it’s absolutely jam packed and stuffed with things, little nuggets and pieces of information that we could easily spend hours discussing and thinking about if only we had the chance – it’s got that little bit right at the start of the story in the conversation between Jesus and his disciples when having heard that Jesus is thinking about going back to Judea because he’s heard that his good friend Lazarus is sick, they are absolutely astonished because only a short time before the Jews there had threatened to stone Jesus and put him to death – and now he wants to go back! And Jesus responds with this cryptic little statement about don’t they know that there are 12 hours of daylight, people who walk by the light walk safely and securely, it’s only when people walk by night that they stumble and fall – and the clear implication is that somehow people have got to come out of the darkness and into the light – and perhaps they should take advantage of walking in the light while they still can. I’m not sure that the disciples really got it – there’s a lot of ignorance and misunderstanding here!  Particularly in that little discussion about Lazarus falling asleep and needing to be woken up. The disciples just didn’t get it until Jesus spoke plainly and told them that Lazarus is dead! And yet it’s Thomas, the one who we subsequently come to think of as being ‘doubting Thomas’. He’s the one who expresses a desire and commitment to walk with Jesus wherever it may lead. “Let us go he says, that we may die with him” Golly, Thanks Thomas!

But there is something true here – to go back to Judea is to court death – as we shall see!

For you see, there’s a whole lot here that we need to contemplate and get our minds around. Yes Jesus had heard that Lazarus is sick and close to death, and yet instead of rushing to be at Lazarus’ side which one might think is the most natural response he seems to dither and delay. Why is that? Is he frightened to return? Doesn’t he care? Well of course he cares, but I’m sure that Jesus need to think carefully about what he was going to do, he needed to consider the implications and above all he needed to pray about it. Because you see the story of Lazarus and the story of Jesus are closely related and intertwined, one is going to be a foreshadowing and foretaste of the other and whenever Jesus speaks about Lazarus, he must surely be doing so with his own forthcoming death in mind. It’s not anything that he could possibly consider lightly.

There’s also been a lot of misunderstanding around this passage. For we know that Lazarus and his two sisters Martha and Mary lived at Bethany, which is right on the outskirts of Jerusalem probably no more than 2 miles away, and yet it takes Jesus three days to get there – well if Jesus is at Bethany then it seems impossible to us that it should take so long, and rather cruel that he doesn’t get there in time, but this isn’t where Jesus actually is. Yes, Jesus is at Bethany but it’s not this one! For you see when Jesus retreated from Judea because of the Jews we are told in John 10.40 ‘that he went back across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptising in the early days.’ And John 1.28 tells us that in those early days it all “happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan”. That’s where Jesus was, so he wasn’t at Bethany just next door he was at Bethany beyond the Jordan many miles away, which you can see on this map and which in a practical sense helps us to understand his delay and make it much more reasonable.

But we shouldn’t forget that there is a very profound and theological purpose for Jesus’ delay because hadn’t he already said in verse John 11.4 “That this sickness will not end in death. No it is for God’s glory so that God’s son may be glorified through it”.

All will be revealed!

When Jesus eventually arrives at Bethany, all hope seems lost, Lazarus is well and truly dead and had been enclosed in the tomb for 4 days. Martha and Mary are grief-stricken and surrounded by mourners.

As soon as Martha heard that Jesus was coming she went out to meet him and what are her first words? “If you had been here my brother would not have died”. I’m so glad that these words are here because you know it’s a common response for people who have suffered a bereavement. Where is God when you need him? In the midst of your trauma and sadness, God so often feels strangely absent! If she was being accusatory, then Jesus couldn’t have felt any better when he met Mary, because she says exactly the same thing. “If you had been here (Lord) my brother would not have died”. Where were you? But Martha’s next statement in verse 22 is astonishing “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask” Mary had sat at the Lord’s feet and initially ‘good old practical’ Martha had chastised her sister for doing so, but it’s clear now that both had learnt a lot from Jesus and they were putting their faith in him.

23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26 and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

27 “Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”

John 11.23–27 (NIV)

Two wonderful statements here. Martha articulates her faith that Jesus is the Christ – the Son of God, and her belief that Jesus is the resurrection and the life.

Jews understood that we don’t live in a perfect world, accidents happen and sickness and decay is all around, and they passionately believed that one day in the fullness of time when the Messiah came he would redeem the world and make it right –  and there would be a general and bodily resurrection from the grave – as all is wonderfully restored.

But what Jesus is saying is that I am the resurrection. In other words he reaching out and grabbing that future hope and bringing it right in to the present. And he asking Martha if she believes it and she says yes. For you see the resurrection isn’t simply a future hope, or even a moment in time – it’s a person! And his name is Jesus!

 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked.

“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.

35 Jesus wept.

36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

 John 11.33–36 (NIV)

 And I think that this is lovely. Sometimes in our grief we think that God is strangely absent, that he’s cruel and unkind. Where were you when we needed you? But what this passage shows is that in Christ, God is always deeply compassionate and moved by our lost – and he weeps. Jesus didn’t delay because he was uncaring about Lazarus but because he was always going to restore him and bring him to life – Jesus loved him.

38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39 “Take away the stone,” he said.

“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odour, for he has been there four days.” (Good old practical Martha always with an eye to the realities)

40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

41 So they took away the stone. 

John 11.38–41 (NIV)

And then with a word of thanks. Jesus commands Lazarus to come out! And so, he did, the dead man came out except that he wasn’t he was wonderfully alive, still wrapped up in his grave clothes. Lazarus came out of the darkness – and into the light! Take off his grave clothes we have no need for them and let him go.

Lazarus was wonderfully restored to life, but the miracle was not just for him it was for the benefit of all those who were standing there. “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God” The miracle was a wonder demonstrating that Jesus was indeed the resurrection and the life, he was the son of God and that he was sent by God.

You know today, we live in very difficult and tricky times, the mere fact that I am standing is an empty church is evidence of that! And people are wondering about their futures and their daily lives and they are wondering if they will get through it. And sadly some people are grieving but there are two types of grief, there’s a grief which is completely lost, without hope and lonely – and there is a grief that isn’t. For as painful as it might be and I don’t belittle it, is a grief which sits within the bedrock of future hope and confidence in God who loves us.

Lazarus’ story is wonderful but he was restored to a natural human life and one day would sadly die again, but his story is a foretaste of something better, of something still to come, for when Jesus dies, he is restored not to a natural life, but to immortality, he goes through death and comes out the other side wonderfully raised as a man of the new creation where there is no more sickness, sadness or pain, because sin has been dealt with and death has been banished once and for all.

So the apostle Paul was absolutely right when he later says:

13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be ingnorant about those who fall asleep or grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.

1 Thessalonians 4.13 (NIV)

For we have a wonderful hope because as you know.

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

John 3.16 (NIV)

So in these dark and difficult days let us comfort, console and certainly encourage one another, but above all let us always be a people looking to step out of the darkness and walk in his wonderful light.

In the name of Christ. Amen

Prerecorded at St Andrew’s Holme Hale and released online for Sunday 29th March 2020

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