The Resurrection - John 11:1-53
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The story in many ways is so familiar and ordinary. It begins with a desperate cry for help from a closely knit family, a family of orphans- the two sisters of Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus. It continues as so many such circumstances do, illness, followed by hope, followed by death and what seemed to be the end of this small family’s world, lying broken by a grave. But then something happened which no one could ever have envisaged, because someone quite extraordinary appeared on the scene- Jesus.
So do turn with me to John chapter 11 and look at verse 3 and the words of the two desperate sisters as first of all we think about the strange love of Jesus: ‘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 ill and immediately Jesus understands-and of course he still does, because all his people are his loved ones, known to him personally by name.
Upon hearing the news Jesus says in v 4 that this sickness ‘will not end in death’, that is, it won’t be final, for Jesus knows exactly what he is about to do. What is more, this will be for God’s glory so that the Son will be glorified through it. In other words, something of seismic proportions is about to take place, an event which has never been seen since the creation of the world- the bringing back to life of someone who has been decaying in a Palestinian grave for four days- such that God’s power and character will be revealed through the work of his Son.
But then we stumble over a perplexing puzzle, for in v 5 we are told that Jesus loved this family ,but then in v 6 : ‘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 to read: ‘ Because Jesus loved Mary, Martha and Lazarus so much therefore as soon as he heard the news that Lazarus was sick he left straight away.’ Or, ‘Even from that distance Jesus simply said the word and he was healed’- after all he had done similar things before. But no, quite the opposite, he actually delayed leaving because he loved them- that is the logic of the text Now, why?
At the end of chapter 10 we are told that Jesus is now 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. At this time, a day’s journey was about 20 miles-so here we are talking about a four day trip back. When Jesus finally does arrive we are told that Lazarus has already 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 been dead-but by two days instead of four. So what difference did that make? Why wait the extra couple of days? Well, one possibility is that Jesus was responding to a piece of common folk lore of the time. You see, today we have medical experts who can tell us quite clearly when a person has died-brain death for example can be ascertained. But you didn't have that sort of precision then. Therefore, sometimes a person would be seriously ill and slip into a coma and people thought that the person had died, but one or two days later they come back to consciousness again. So you can imagine the sort of stories that began to circulate about ghosts and people coming back from the dead. Therefore, the Jews developed a popular superstition. One Jewish document from the period 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 certainly making jolly sure that no one can say after his miracle, ‘Well, the fellow hadn't really died-the soul hadn’t fully departed.’ That is why the words of Martha are carefully recorded in v 39 when Jesus says take away the stone, 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, the soul of my brother has long gone?’
Now we might think this is a very strange way of showing love to someone - by delaying in the face of need. But that is precisely what Jesus is doing. Jesus isn't being 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 very hard to handle. They would have done the maths and calculated how long it would take-and he is late. And so we can understand Martha’s reaction in v 21 as she storms out to meet Jesus with the accusatory words, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” Do you not detect hurt in those words as well as anger? Hurt and disappointment. The one person in the world who could have made a difference didn’t. It is not heard to imagine the thoughts racing through her mind as she waited. ‘Surely he will come. Didn’t he heal the paralytic? Without even seeing him he healed the Centurion’s son and he hardly knew them. But Lazarus is more like a brother to him than a friend. Doesn’t Jesus eat with us? Are we not like family to him? When he hears Lazarus is sick he will be here in a heartbeat.’ But he didn’t come. Lazarus simply got worse. She watched out the window and Jesus is no where in sight. Lazarus drifts in and out of consciousness. But the knock at the door never came. Not to help. Not to heal. Not even to bury. And now four days later he shows up. The body is buried and Martha is hurt. And those are words which have been repeated a thousand times by gravesides the world over: ‘If you had been here my brother would not have died.’ ‘If only you had being doing your part God, my husband would still be here. If only you had heard my prayer God, my arms would not be empty.’ Isn’t it when we face death that our view of God is challenged, which in turn challenges our faith? But why is it that we interpret the presence of death as the absence of God? Why do we think that if the body has not been healed then God is not near? Is healing the only way God demonstrates his care? Sometimes we think so. The result is that when God doesn’t answer our prayers for healing we get angry and resentful. But what if God is going to demonstrate his care in other ways- as we see happening here? What if something is taken away so that something even more valuable can be given? If God works to a different timetable to the one we work with and with a different set of priorities then we might wish to hold back on the blame.
Certainly, after the fact we can see how his love is displayed in this instance for 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.
And so we come to the strange claim of Jesus. Just look at what Jesus does- first, he diverts people’s attention to himself-v17-22 .On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. "Lord," Martha said to Jesus, "if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.’ 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- of the ‘you know-Death isn't the end, we shall all be reunited one day in the great by and by’ variety, and that is how Martha understands it in v24 ‘ I know he will rise again at the resurrection on the last day.’ But then Jesus goes on v25-26a Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.’ .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 in time. He is the resurrection and the life. He is the resurrection so that whoever believes in him 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 a set of clothes.
‘Now do you believe this?’asks Jesus. And Martha’s response is so beautiful isn’t it, so simple and yet so profound: ‘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. This is not just a good man, a powerful man, a holy man, this is God in the flesh!
And because she has answered positively, the story moves on and the raising of Lazarus becomes an enacted parable- Jesus gives us life now as he gave Lazarus life then and he will give life on the last day by calling us forth from the tomb. Now let’s understand that Lazarus’ ‘resurrection’ is not like what will happen at the end of time. Lazarus comes out of the tomb with the same mortal body with which he went in. But the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 speaks of us as having immortal bodies. 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 an evocative 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, just as this happened in front of people’s very own eyes.
Now why is this diversion of people’s grief to himself so important? Think of it like this. 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 you need most? 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 into the abyss of grief-we need more than mere sentiment that things might be all right in the great by and by-we need 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.
So let me tell you about a student we shall call Bob. That was not his real name. 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 at all .All he wanted was for his friends to read to him chunks of John 11.This 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- and the strange anger of Jesus: 28-37.Now we must try and picture the scene. Unlike our society in which to show too much emotion is simply 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 explosion of emotion by wailing with professional mourners and all. But when Jesus sees this going on 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 entire Bible. In fact that translation is lamentably weak. What it should read is this: ‘He was outraged and troubled and he wept’. Now why? Well it couldn’t have been the sort of grief or anger we might feel at a funeral- the anger of loss 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 Father’s world as the Son of God, he found not the order and beauty and harmony of his Father’s original creation, but fractured disorder, raw ugliness, and complete disarray-everywhere the abortion of a world gone badly wrong because of sin. Standing at that graveside, he came face to face with a death which symbolised the accumulation of all the evil, all the sorrow, all the suffering and despair which the moral infection of sin brings in its wake and he is- angry. But this is not a hard callous rage; this is compassionate anger for he also weeps. Let me tell you there is nothing even remotely wonderful about death. Death is disgusting and is a poignant reminder of the price which is paid for our pride and rebellion against our Maker. It makes God weep and so it should us.
Never think that God remains unmoved by death-he is not. The God of the Christian faith is not some cosmic superscientist clinically detached looking on at an interesting experiment. He is not like some statues of Buddha smiling benignly on all he sees, for he has seen it all first hand through the eyes of his Son as he stood by that graveside. He heard the wailing, smelt the stench of decaying flesh, and saw the look of hopelessness on poor Mary’s face. But while a God who simply looks on our plight and empathises with our predicament may be worthy of our admiration, 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 doing as we see in the strange power of Jesus.-v 38 -44. Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. "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." Then Jesus said, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, "Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me." When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
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. And it is that same authoritative voice we shall all hear one day.
You know, Christianity is the only religion that has something firm and positive to say about what happens after death. What is has to say is not based upon wishful thinking but hard fact- the fact of Jesus. The evidence that John has been presenting about the person and purpose of Jesus has been steadily cumulative and here we reach a high point in the Gospel. Here is one of the greatest signs regarding the identity of Jesus- he is Lord over life and death. And as with today people were divided around Jesus as we see in v 45: ‘Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him.’ That is one response, the response God is calling for. But there is another darker response- verse 53: ‘From that day they plotted to take his life.’ You see there is no neutrality with him. You are for him or against him; put your faith in him or try to do away with him. But don’t you see how totally unreasonable that dark response is? And is often the case in John irony abounds with people saying far more than they realise, look at Caiaphas’s statement in verse 50, ‘You do not realise that it is better for you that one man die for the people than the whole nation perish.’ He was thinking of political expediency, get rid of Jesus before the Roman’s turn nasty and wipe out the nation. That they did more or less 40 years later. But this is why Jesus came, to die as a substitute for his people, now all who trust in him- so that they will not receive the judgement of God. The raising of Lazarus and the rising of Jesus one week later point to the utter trustworthiness of Jesus’ claims and the Bible’s. You can trust his words because they are backed up with actions. And on the basis of that trust, what he did for Lazarus he will do for you and much more when one day you will hear his voice and you will rise- unbound, free the creature of beauty God had always intended you should be.
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