Because the reading was so long for this message we used the visual bible. It also helps to show the fact that John 11 presents itself as a series of scenes. That explains the screen shots I used as images in the second half of the message.
At the church I worked at in Tauranga there was a woman who was a receptionist at a local funeral home. She told us of the time two young men arrived at her counter and asked if they could have a body so they could pray for it to be raised from the dead. No, it wasn’t April 1st or a prank, one of the local Pentecostal churches had been doing a series of studies on miracles and had been encouraging the young people who had been attending to practise praying for these various healings. This week apparently it had been about raising the dead and so the young men in their earnestness and innocence had come to borrow a body to practise on. Now in the providence of God, the women at the counter was a wonderful Christian and graciously explained to them that she couldn’t do that as the funeral home was there to serve the families, to which the love ones belonged, so it wasn’t appropriate, she let them down very gently.
As we are heading into Easter we are working our way through ‘encounters with Jesus in John’s Gospel and now’. This week we are looking at Encountering Jesus in the face of death. In a very real way this narrative leads us directly to the cross, in the end of John 11, beyond our reading, we see that the religious authorities actually decide that if because of this miracle people will flock to Jesus, then the romans may crackdown on Judea, and it is better for the sake of the nation for one man to die than for all to die. This morning I want to have a look at this passage and see what it tells us about Jesus, remember that the miracles in the gospels are called signs and wonders and they point us to see who Jesus really is. And I want to explore what it has to say to us as followers of Jesus.
Ok what does it have to say to us about Jesus?
You’ll notice in the icons in the image to the right that the figures are making a sign with their left hands, holding two figures up, it’s not a gang sign, we’ll it could be, nor are they being your typical Auckland drivers, it signifies the two natures of Jesus, his divine nature and his human nature and how the two met perfectly in Jesus. In the narrative of the raising of Lazarus this comes through most strongly.
We have one of the most moving pictures of the humanness of Jesus. The gospel narratives only give us glimpses of the private life of Jesus, but we capture some insight into Jesus friendships in the way that John talks about Jesus loving Lazarus and his sisters. Adrian Plass says that you get the feel that these are the people that Jesus would relax and hang out with on a Friday night. From Luke’s gospel we know that he had been to their place for dinner.
The other thing that shows Jesus humanity is that shortest of bible verses ‘Jesus wept’, which comes also in the midst of verse that tell us that Jesus was deeply moved by what was happening. Paul Metzger says this does open “an ocean of questions for us.” Why when Jesus knew what he was going to do did he weep? What did he weep over? Yes Jesus identifies with the grief of the situation and the pain of those around him; he is a compassionate man, maybe even aware of the turmoil and pain he has caused by his delay. Although we do need to be aware that if you do the arithmetic Lazarus had died by the time Jesus would have been notified, as he had been dead for four days when Jesus got there. But that delay would have caused some anguish for Mary and Martha. There is also a sense that he is moved by the disbelief of the people. Even Martha and Mary’s trust in Jesus as great as it is, will not go as far as trusting him in the face of death. In the end Metzger concludes by saying ‘God’s knowledge does not stop God from identifying with us fully in our pain.”
More than any of the other miracles stories in John’s gospel this also shows us the divine nature of Jesus. Jesus has been talking about being the giver of life and here there is a sign of what that means. That to believe in Jesus is to believe in the one that vanquishes death. There are other instances in the gospels where Jesus has raised someone to life, the son of the Widow in Nain in Luke 7 and Jarius’ daughter in Luke chapter 8, both of which could be written off by sceptics as being close to death comas, but here Lazarus has been dead for four days and as Martha tells Jesus has probably started to decompose and smell, so there is no doubt he is dead. In fact in Jewish thought, the spirit of a person would wait by a body for three days before finally departing so even in their world view Lazarus was beyond the pale. We see Jesus here showing us that he is the resurrection and the life, that that is not just a future hope, as Martha said, ‘I know he will be raised to life on the last day’ but a present reality. Not that those who believe in Jesus will not die, but that what Paul calls our last enemy death has been defeated.
It also gives us insight into what Jesus means by revealing the Glory of God. All the way through these narrative Jesus talks of ‘the glory of God’ being shown in what will happen to Lazarus. It would be easy to wonder at why Lazarus and Mary and Martha had to go through what they did simply for the Glory of God to be revealed? When we think of the Glory of God, we need to realise that in John’s gospel that glory is always shown to us in the cross. The cross is where the Glory of God is shown most. And this is reflected in this narrative “Jesus approaches the grave of Lazarus” say RVG Tasker, “with tears in his eyes and anguish in his heart, to expend the divine power that would raise Lazarus from the dead, and knowing that he was destined to experience the same anguish in Gesemenene before moving on to Calvary to perform the redemptive act by which the sting of death would be forever drawn and in which believers would always see the glory of God.”
What does the passage have to say to us as followers of Jesus?
I have to admit that I started reflecting on this passage from a theological perspective, but when you read it, it’s a very human story. It’s told as a series of scenes with people and Jesus.
n this first episode or scene, the disciples find themselves wrestling and concerned for Jesus they know for Jesus to go back to Judea is to court danger. The proximity of Bethany to Jerusalem is not just a geographic note; it tells us of the closeness of Jesus to the people who we saw last week had tried to stone him. When it says many of the Jews came down from Jerusalem, it is short hand for the people who would have been Jesus enemies; it does not refer to the whole Jewish community.
The key thing that Jesus is hoping for is that the disciples may get a greater understanding into who Jesus is and believe. Thomas who we equate with his doubt rather than his faith is the one who shows leadership and courage. Admittedly he phrases it in a negative way, ‘we might as well go and die with him,’. In the end of course when it comes to Jesus death they will all desert him. In this scene I see a real challenge to us that we will see the glory of God more as we are willing, to step out of our comfort zones, to live a little dangerously. Jim Wallis talks of the best way to that is to trust our questions and where they will lead us and to get out of home a bit more often. Remember Jesus is the one who invites us to go with him and see, and who know what we will see as we trust Jesus to led us.
The second scene we have is Jesus meeting with Martha. Again Martha gets some bad press in the gospel, she is seen as being so focused on being the hostess with the mostest that she misses the opportunity to sit and learn from Jesus. She is probably the oldest sister and the weight of dealing with the visitors and making the arrangements for the funeral have fallen on her. Part of that may be why she goes out to greet Jesus, it is what would be expected, a social norm. But again she is a great example for us of faith. She tells Jesus that she believes that if he had been their sooner, , that Lazarus would not have died, because she believes that God will answer Jesus prayers. I wonder if there isn’t a bit of a rebuke in that because we know that Martha was not above being straight up with Jesus. However she affirms her belief in Jesus as The Son of God and her faith in the eternal life that Jesus had been talking about. But she does not get her head around the fact that Jesus can speak that life into the situation here and now in the face of death. There is no thought of a resurrection in her mind; in fact she is the one who tells Jesus there will be a stink if they open the tomb. I wonder if there isn’t a great hope for us here as followers of Jesus that in the midst of grief and sorrow and suffering that even beyond what faith we can have that Jesus is able to show the glory of God in those situations. It may not be the raising of Lazarus it maybe in another way, but for us as followers of Jesus there is the hope that even in the face of death Jesus is able to bring life.
It might be unfair to speak of Jesus love and compassion only when we talk of his encounter with Mary rather than Martha, maybe he meets both of them at the level they need to encounter him, Martha at the intellectual faith level and Mary at the emotional level. But we see in Mary’s sorrow that Jesus response is compassion and care. He delays no longer and goes to the tomb. He identifies with the grief and pain and is moved to act. Not that he is able to be manipulated by emotion or our fervour, remember Jesus had already told the disciples that he would raise Lazarus, but he identifies as we’ve already looked at with our human experience. I think for all of us there is that wonder of knowing God’s compassion and care, that in Christ God is with us in the midst of our suffering and sorrow, with our brokenness and pain, and as we’ll see as we head towards Easter, just how far Jesus is prepared to go to bring life and light into that situation.
And finally there is Lazarus, the last scene in our reading today is Lazarus being raised to life. We don’t ever really get to know much about him. He is only mentioned here and in the party in the next chapter, he didn’t seem to be at home in Luke’s account of the other dinner party at Martha and Mary’s. We don’t have an interview about what death is like in the local newspaper or TV talks show. But we have a sign in his resurrection of the hope we have in Jesus own death and resurrection, that as followers of Jesus death is not the end, it is a door through which we walk, to be with Christ. Not only that but in this life as well Jesus is able to breathe and speak life into the most hopeless of situations, maybe it is not to prompt us to be like the two young guys in the story I started with, but that we can experience that new and abundant and eternal life In Jesus here and today. I wonder if many of us aren’t walking round like Lazarus and death hangs off us like grave clothes restricting us and we need to hear Jesus words “take off the grave clothes and go free”.
Jesus is ‘the resurrection and life’ in this life and as we have so powerfully been reminded of by the end of Desmond Tutu’s great tribute to his friend Nelson Mandela in the face of death “rest in peace, and rise in glory”.