Jesus the Resurrection - John 11:1-44
Life is full of surprises, not least when dealing with the media. When he was Bishop of Bath and Wells, George Carey commentated on a decision to turn part of Shepton Mallet cemetery into a childrens recreation area. The Bristol Evening Post reported him as saying: Graveyards too often have a morbid atmosphere because people associate them with death. Well, this morning we turn to a most amazing story set in a cemetery, full of surprises and more importantly full of hope.
There are three elements of this story I want us to focus on : a love expressed in delay, a care shown in diversion, and anger and hope revealed in devastation.
First of all, love expressed through delay. This wonderful story begins with a desperate plea for help from the tiny village of Bethany, located just under two miles from Jerusalem. It was the home of a closely knit family, the two sisters of Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus. So the sisters sent word to Jesus v3 Lord the one you love is sick. Such is the intimate relationship between this family and Jesus that all Martha and Mary have to do is sign the note and say the one you love is sick and Jesus immediately understands - and you know he still does, because all his people are loved ones, known by name.
On hearing the news Jesus says in v 4 that this sickness will not end in death, that is it wont be final, Jesus knows what he is about to do - raise a corpse from the grave. What is more this will be for Gods glory so that the Son will be glorified through it. In other words something so mind - blowing is going to occur, something never seen since the creation of the world - bringing back to life someone who has been rotting in a grave for four days, that Gods power, his character will be revealed through the work of his Son. So in Jesus we see that this is the God who raises the dead and will raise the dead at the last day and he will do it through his Son.
But then we are hit with a surprise not to mention a puzzle. In v 5 we are told that Jesus loved this family, but then in v 6 which should be translated : Therefore, when Jesus heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days. Now that is not what we would expect is it? We would expect : Jesus loved Mary, Martha and Lazarus, therefore as soon as he heard the news that Lazarus was sick he took the fastest donkey out if town on a desperate mercy dash. But no. Now, why the delay?
At the end of chapter 10 we are told that Jesus is where John had been baptising in the early days - which was a different Bethany beyond the Jordan, a region NE of Galilee - about 95 miles from Jerusalem. In those days a days journey was about 20 miles - so here we are talking about a four day trip back. When Jesus finally does get there we are told that Lazarus has been four days in the tomb. So he must have died when Jesus set out. Had Jesus not delayed the two days, Lazarus would still have still been dead - by two days instead of four. So what difference did it make? Well, it could be that Jesus was responding to a common folk lore of the time. You see, today we have medical experts who can tell us quite clearly when a person has died. You didn't have that sort of precision then. So sometimes a person would slip into a coma and people thought that the person was deceased, but one or two days later they come back to consciousness again. There are reports from this time of folk who had been buried while in a coma and people heard tapping on the tomb and so you can imagine the sort of stories that began to circulate about ghosts and people coming back from the dead. So the Jews developed a popular superstition. One document says 'When the soul hovers over the face for three days and it sees the face change (that is, decomposition sets in) then it departs. Now Jesus isn't supporting this belief, but he is making sure that no one can say after his miracle, Well, the fellow hadn't really died - the soul hadnt fully departed. that is why the words of Martha are carefully recorded in v 39 when Jesus says take away the stone and she replies, But Lord, by this time there is a bad odour - in other words - the body has started to decompose - what do you think you can achieve at this late stage Lord?
Now we might think this is a strange way of showing love - by delaying in the face of need. But that is what he is doing. Jesus isn't being callous or hard hearted - the fact that he went at all given the political situation mentioned in v 8 where people are ready to kill him, shows how much he cares. But it has to be admitted that from the standpoint of the sisters it is hard to understand. They would have calculated how long it would take - and he is late, at least he could have made it to the funeral. And that must have hurt, where is Jesus when you need him most? Sure, after the fact we can see how his love is displayed - by this miracle he not only gives hope to these people that death is not the end for all who trust him, but to anyone who reads these words. That is the mark of his love so as not to leave us in this world of death without any hope or certainty of life beyond the grave.
But in the experience when you don't quite know the outcome, it is far more difficult to take, isn't it? But isn't that often the way God deals with his people in the Bible? Causing them to wait, to learn what faith really means? In fact isn't it the case in our own experience that immaturity is linked with the demand for the immediate? It is little children who want that ice cream now, who after you have set off on your summer holiday and you have only just managed to travel down the street a few hundred yards ask: Are we there yet? Part of raising a child is teaching them that some things have to be put on hold in order that other more important matters might get dealt with first. How much more is that the case with our heavenly Father in his dealing with his spiritual children? There is a brand of Christianity which gives the impression that the bigger your faith the more you can demand of Gods action now. Don't wait - name it and claim it, its yours for the taking. That is not the way Scripture views things. Gods sovereign timing is perfect - as we see here, even, and especially, in the dark times - and we will all have to go through such dark times - all of us. And in such times we must remember that God is good, that God is sovereignly in control and that he is very, very wise.
Secondly, Jesus shows care by diversion, that is by diverting attention to himself - v17 - 22(read). Now this is not a rebuke, it is more of a cry, Lord I so wish you had been here, then he wouldn't have died. But then we come towards the centrepiece of this story in one of the most amazing claims Jesus ever made. In v 23 Jesus says Your brother will rise again, which could simply be taken as some sort of Christian comfort - you know - Death isn't the end, we shall all be reunited one day and that is how Martha understands it in v24. But then Jesus goes on v25 - 26a (read). Do you see what Jesus is doing? He diverts attention from some general belief about what is hoped will take place at the end of time into something specifically focused upon himself. He is the resurrection and the life. He is the resurrection so that whoever believes in him - personally trusts in him for who he is and what he can do - will live even though he dies - that is, physical death will not be the end. Why? Because Jesus is the one who has the power to grant this - as this acted parable in raising Lazarus is about to show. What is more he is the life so that whoever lives and believes in him will never die: there is a sense in which the eternal life, the new spiritual life which believers enjoy now cannot be terminated by death, it just becomes re - embodied - like changing clothes.
Now do you believe this? asks Jesus. And Marthas response is beautiful: Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God who has come into the world. Because she believes that Jesus is someone special, the Son of God, it follows that he has power over life and death itself which is uniquely the prerogative of God.
And because she has answered positively, the story moves on and the raising of Lazarus becomes an enacted parable - Jesus gives us life now, he gave Lazarus life then, and he will give life on the last day. Now Lazarus resurrection is not like what will happen at the end of time, his is more of a resuscitation. Lazarus comes out of the tomb with the same mortal body with which he went in. Neither is it like Jesus resurrection. Just look at the details in v43 ff. He has the cloth strips around him, bound. With Jesus they were left folded, like an empty chrysalis, his resurrected body having passed through them. Here the stone in front of the tomb was moved to let Lazarus out, with Jesus the stone was already rolled away to let the eye witnesses in. Jesus had a glorified body, never to die again, this is still a mortal body ready to perish another day. But nonetheless, this constitutes a vivid picture of what Jesus can do in our spiritual life - raise the spiritually dead, as well as what he will do when he returns to judge - raise the physically dead. It will happen for all to see, as this happened.
Now why is this diversion of peoples grief to himself so important? When you suffer the loss of a loved one, or maybe having to face your own mortality having been diagnosed with a life threatening illness - what is the one thing most needed? Someone to talk to? Yes. The warmth of friendship? Yes. But above all we need to come into touch with reality - the reality of God himself. When we are sinking in the abyss of grief - we need more than mere sentiment that things might be all right in the great by and by - we need the assurance that there is one who is waiting for us, who will be our great companion on that last journey we all have to make from this world to the next and that the icy waters of death need hold no fear for us. In short we need Jesus who is the resurrection and the life.
Let me tell you about a student we shall call Bob. He had come from a tough home, life had never been easy for him. Eventually after much questioning and a good deal of resistance he became a Christian. And almost immediately he was diagnosed as having cancer which spread through his body with breathtaking speed. His Christian student friends were terrified about going to see him. It wasn't so much his grotesquely bloated body which caused the distress, but the sort of questions he might ask for which they felt they had no answer. They imagined him saying Why doesn't God cut me a bit of slack? Let me enjoy something of this new Christian life I've just entered. But when they did see him lying in his hospital bed, they were amazed. He wasn't interested in the big Why me? questions. All he wanted was for his friends to read to him chunks of John 11. That is where he drew his comfort, reciting the words of Jesus: I am the resurrection and the life. Then he died or rather he began to live. For Bob it wasn't so much a departing from, it was a going to, a reunion with the Jesus in whom he had put his trust but a few weeks before. You see, when we stand on the edge of eternity - we need God. Nothing less will do.
And what a God we have as we see him in the face of the Lord Jesus Christ - a God whose anger is revealed in devastation: 28 - 35. Now we must picture the scene. Unlike our society in which to show too much emotion is not British, this society had no such qualms. Hence all these references to mourning and weeping. In fact it goes beyond that, it was more of an outpouring of emotion by wailing. I am sure you have been moved by some of the scenes we saw from Kosovo and the women openly weeping, often uncontrollably before a watching world. That is the picture here. Furthermore, this society would have professional mourners as part of the undertaker business, to help people work through their grief more effectively. And given that this family of Martha and Mary was probably quite well off they would have had a whole orchestra - with musicians, and mourners gathered around the heart broken family. And when Jesus sees this we read in v33 He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled, and then later Jesus wept - the shortest description of Jesus in the Bible - Jesus wept. In fact this translation is very weak. What it should read is : He was outraged and troubled and he wept. Now why? It couldnt have been the sort of grief or anger we might feel at a funeral because he knew what he was about to do. So why should he be angry about that? Why should he cry about that? Surely the answer is this, he is angry with death itself. He sees the loss and the pain it causes. Entering his Fathers world as the on of God, he found not order, beauty or harmony, but fractured disorder, raw ugliness, complete disarray - everywhere the abortion of Gods original plan. Standing at that graveside, he came face to face with a death which symbolised the accumulation of evil, sorrow, suffering and despair which the moral infection of sin brings in its wake and he is rightly angry. But this is no hard, callous anger, this is compassionate anger - he grieves. My dear friends there is nothing romantic about death. Although to soften its effect and avoid thinking through the consequences we do try and romanticise it. Death is morally disgusting and is a poignant reminder of what the price is for our pride and rebellion against our Maker, and it moves him to tears as it should us.
Never think that God remains unmoved by death - he is not. The God of the Christian faith is not some detached impartial observer, he has seen it all first hand. As he stood by that graveside, heard the wailing, smelt the stench of death, saw the look of hopelessness on Marys face when she said Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died. But a God who simply looks on our plight and empathises with our predicament may be worthy of our admiration, but he would not be worthy of our worship. For it is only a God who acts who deserves that. And that is exactly what Jesus does - v 38 - 44 (read).
One commentator has remarked that had Jesus not prefixed his command with the name Lazarus, all the graves in Jerusalem would have given up their dead on that day, such is the authoritative voice of the Son of God.
So let me end by telling you about Peter and Judy. Peter arrived at Keele University when I was chaplain - a sceptic. After many hours of discussion and much prayer, both committed their lives to Christ. Soon after Judy became pregnant with their second child. He was born in the June, within a week he was dead. He had a congenital heart defect. I took the funeral which was simply heartbreaking as that little white coffin was carried into church. What was it that enabled them to cope with such loss when so many today would simply not know where to turn? Two things. As they reflected upon the loss of their own son, they came to a deep and profound realisation of what it must have meant for God to lose his Son as he gave him over to bear away our sins on the cross. What they had wrestled with and resisted for so long became so real. But secondly, they knew that the one who died on that cross was the one who was raised from the dead, indeed the same one who stood by this grave and wept as they had wept. They came to trust in the one who had defeated death and who one day would bring their son Adam back to life, in the meantime they have to wait. For you see, they really did believe the truth of these words when Jesus said: I am the resurrection and the life.
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