The Second Sunday after Easter April 19, 2015
John 11:17-27, 38-45
1 John 5:1-6
341, 370, 457, 50
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
So when Jesus came, He found that [Lazarus] had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles away. And many of the Jews had joined the women around Martha and Mary, to comfort them concerning their brother. Now Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met Him, but Mary was sitting in the house. Now Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to Him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to Him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”… Then Jesus, again groaning in Himself, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of him who was dead, said to Him, “Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not say to you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead man was lying. And Jesus lifted up His eyes and said, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. And I know that You always hear Me, but because of the people who are standing by I said this, that they may believe that You sent Me.” Now when He had said these things, He cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!” And he who had died came out bound hand and foot with grave clothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Loose him, and let him go.”Then many of the Jews who had come to Mary, and had seen the things Jesus did, believed in Him.
In the name of Jesus Christ, our one true and eternal hope, fellow-redeemed:
The story of Lazarus is a familiar story, not simply in terms of Scripture, but in daily experience. One day Lazarus was fine—out the door, off to work. The next day he wasn’t feeling well. A few days after that he was dying—perhaps in his thirties, perhaps unmarried, perhaps with a thousand unfulfilled dreams. This isn’t just Lazarus’ story. It could be anyone’s story.
All of us have faced desperate circumstances in which our hopes, like Lazarus himself, grew ill and weaker, until they eventually died and were laid to rest. How many stories could you tell that begin with a phrase like “Oh, I never thought that would happen, not in a million years.” I never expected to lose a loved one. I never expected to get sick. I never expected to live alone. I never expected to go through a divorce. I never expected to spend my retirement struggling to buy groceries or pay for medication. I never expected to lose my job or home. I never expected to be injured in an automobile accident, or be betrayed by a dear friend, or see my children turn from their faith. “I never expected this to happen.” Don’t you think that Mary and Martha may have felt this way too? I do.
At times, I believe desperate circumstances like these can be even worse for Christians, not because we doubt God’s control, but because we confess it. Not because we doubt God’s love, but because we believe it. We read verse after verse about God’s sovereignty and control of the universe. Jesus said, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” (Matthew 28:18). We read verse after verse about God’s love. “I have loved you with an everlasting love,” God says in Jeremiah 31:3. “God so loved the world,” declares John 3:16. “Yeah, but…but God, if you are in control of everything, if you love us so much, why did this happen? Why did that happen?” You know the questions. You’ve heard the questions, perhaps asked them yourself.
We’re not alone asking these questions. The prophet Habakkuk complained, “O LORD, how long shall I cry, and You will not hear?” (Habakkuk 1:2). The psalmist asked of God, “Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression?” (Psalm 44:24 NIV). Job lamented, “The arrows of the Almighty are in me, my spirit drinks in their poison” (Job 6:4). Even the great prophet Elijah slumped down beneath a juniper tree and said, “I have had enough, LORD. Take my life…” (1 Kings 19:4 NIV).
What did Mary and Martha do when Lazarus became desperately ill? They sent a note to Jesus. What did that note say? “The sisters sent word to Jesus, ‘Lord, the one you love is sick’” (John 11:3 NIV). These are significant words. Note that Mary and Martha did not presume to tell Jesus what to do as you and I so often do. Instead, they entrusted the matter to Jesus’ love. “The one You love, Lord, is sick. You love Lazarus as much as we do.” Only, what must these sisters have thought as the hours passed and Lazarus grew increasingly ill and Jesus failed to appear?
It takes little imagination to see Mary and Martha sitting at the bedside of Lazarus, dabbing his feverish forehead with cold, wet cloths, whispering to him, “Don’t worry brother. Jesus is coming. Jesus is on the way. When He arrives, everything will be fine. You’ll see. Fine.” Yet, I wonder how many times, when away from Lazarus, these sisters must have peered out the window in desperation or asked each other in hushed tones: “Where is the Lord? What is taking him so long?”
In John 11, there is no record of Mary and Martha asking Jesus what we are so often tempted to ask: “Did you allow this to happen, Lord, because You don’t care?” But notice what both sisters did say to Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” They were identical words spoken at different times—by Martha in John 11:21 and, subsequently, by Mary in John 11:32. It’s hard to miss the sadness and disappointment in these words, and perhaps even a hint of reproach. “If you had been here on time, Lord. If you had only acted. If you had been doing what you should have been doing.”
I can’t tell you how many times these very words have crossed my mind. I remember thinking them when my mother died after a quadruple bypass. “The surgeons did a decent job, Lord. Where were you? All my mother ever talked about was living long enough for me to return to Florida permanently. Was that too much to ask? But now it’s too late now…Too late.”
Are these assumptions true? Are there in fact times in our lives when God completely ignores or neglects or forsakes us? Are there circumstances in which Jesus yawns and says, “Yeah, well, I know Lazarus is in trouble”—Lazarus, Mark, Frank, Liz, insert your own name here— “but I’m so tired and not in the mood?” Ironically, a casual glance at John 11 may lead us to think such assumptions are absolutely true. How do we explain John 11:5-6? “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet, when He heard that Lazarus was sick, He stayed where He was two more days.” (NIV).
How do we explain these two verses? Aren’t they saying that Jesus purposely delayed going to Lazarus? And if so, was His love really consistent with his actions? After all, if he truly loved Lazarus, wouldn’t He have hurried to his bedside? And since He didn’t hurry to that bedside, perhaps He didn’t love Lazarus all that much. This is a common, disconcerting argument. According to Scripture, it is an argument that is one hundred percent wrong.
There are so many lessons in John 11 that I truly don’t know where to begin or how to stop. But let me share three important truths today, the first of which is: Even in our darkest hours and most hopeless circumstances, God still loves us.
Allow me to share two insights about John 11:5-6 not readily apparent from the English translation. The first has to do with the word “love.” Ancient Greek had three words for love: eros—referring to sensual love; philos—referring to a friendship love; and finally agape—the love of deep understanding and unswerving commitment. When John 3:16 declares that “God so loved the world,” it uses the word agape. When John 11:5 states that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus,” it uses the same word agape. Clearly, then, what Jesus did in delaying His trip to Bethany, as strange or troubling as that delay may seem, was done out of agape—out of this deep, committed love.
But there’s more. Listen again to the words of John 11:5-6. Unfortunately, the word “yet” in verse 6 is not the best translation because the Greek word oun literally means, “therefore.” What happens to the sense of John 11:5-6 when we substitute “therefore” for “yet?” Notice: “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Therefore, when He heard that Lazarus was sick, He stayed where He was two more days.” In other words, it was precisely because Jesus loved Lazarus, Mary, and Martha that He delayed going to Bethany.
What an important lesson! When difficult problems go on and on with no resolution and with no Jesus in sight, we inevitably equate our suffering with God’s indifference. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus deals with us in the same way He dealt with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. We may not always understand the circumstances. We may not always recognize the beautiful picture among the jumbled pieces of the puzzle. But the one thing that we can be absolutely certain of is this: God is always dealing with us out of agape—that deep, committed love that will never forsake us, never give up on us, never leave us to our own foolish devices. It is that same deep, committed love that led Jesus Christ unswervingly to the cross and kept Him there when He had every legitimate reason and ever necessary means to come down.
Even when God makes us wait, He is dealing with us out of pure agape. What a difference this knowledge makes to our Christian lives and hopes. This is why King David, in a psalm that opens with the lament, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD,” also says, “I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in His Word I put my hope” (Psalm 130:1,5 NIV). The Hebrew word translated as “wait” in this psalm, kavah, literally means, “to bind” like strong rope. This is what enables us to hang on, to have hope, amid the most difficult of times, namely, the knowledge that God is faithful and that God is dealing with us in absolute love. The author of the hymn, What God Ordains is Always Good, put it this way: “Someday I shall see clearly that He hath loved me dearly.” (TLH 521:4). This is the first great lesson of John 11.
The second great lesson is this: the solution that God will bring about in your life will be for your good and to His glory. Notice what Jesus said in John 11:4 about Lazarus’ illness: “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” (NIV) To His disciples Jesus said in verse 14, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” To Martha Jesus said in verse 40: “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” (NIV)
I submit to you, Christian friends, that today and every day of our lives—especially those dark days when all hope seems lost—that Jesus is saying exactly the same words to us. Exactly the same words. “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
This text may be two thousand years old. Bethany may be seven thousand miles away. But human problems are the same. Better still, Jesus Christ is the same. As much as I’ve wrestled, sweated, fretted, and resented the various problems in my life, I can honestly say that God has never failed to force even the worst circumstances to serve my best interests. Never.
What is it that we read in Psalm 50? “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me” (Psalm 50:15). And not only will you glorify God for His deliverance, but others who see you will glorify God because of you. Have you ever thought about that? Have you ever considered that the “day of trouble” in your own life will not only result in you glorifying God but in others doing the same? It’s true.
If you want proof, turn to John 12 and read verses 9 through 11: “Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of Him but also to see Lazarus, whom He had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in Him.” (NIV)
My grandparents, Emil and Ernestine Weis, were like second parents to me. When my grandfather died in 1978, I flew home to Florida for the funeral. I remember walking into Ott-Laughlin funeral home in Winter Haven, seeing my grandfather’s coffin, and then seeing my grandmother sitting in one of the front rows of the viewing room. “She looks so small,” I remember thinking. “What will she do now? She and grandpa were married for more than fifty years.” When I sat down next to her, she looked at me, smiled, and slipped one arthritic hand into my own. There were tears in her eyes, yes. How could there not be? But amid the tears, I also saw great faith and a quiet peace in the Lord. Christians talk incessantly about how to witness for the Lord. I’ve never seen a better witness for the Lord than the one I saw that day in Ott-Laughlin funeral home. I didn’t have to ask if my grandmother if she believed the words of Jesus, “I am the resurrection and the life.” [v.25] I could see it.
The third great lesson of John 11—I won’t say the “last great lesson” because when one is discovered a new one emerges. Such is the nature of God’s Word. The third great lesson is: the means to life in every sense of the word, whether physical, spiritual, or eternal, is through the living Word of God.
“Well, what’s so important about hearing God’s word anyway?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that question, and I perhaps shouldn’t tell you the number of times I’ve secretly asked it myself when working on a sermon until eleven o’clock on a Saturday night or when the alarm beeps at five on a Sunday morning. We could wish for the repose of Mary, who sat at Christ’s feet, listening to Him teach. But perhaps we are more like Martha, who fretted and fumed over dinner preparations—or in our case, perhaps over an NFL Playoff Game—until she heard Jesus say in Luke 10:41-42, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed.” (NIV)
If you want to know why it is so important to hear God’s Word, if you want to know the power of God’s Word for the life you now lead and the life yet to come—I’m not going to recite the Third Commandment to you, as important an admonition as it is: “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.” Instead, I’m going to direct you to a grave in Bethany where Lazarus lay dead and decaying for four days, and to these words of John 11: “When he had said this, Jesus called out 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.” [vv.43-44 NIV]
If we need more incentive than this to hear the Word of God, I can’t imagine what it would be. Ponder this: There is absolutely no difference between the words from Scripture you heard today and the words Jesus spoke when raising Lazarus from the dead. One word. Same Lord.
When your hope lies dead and buried, turn to the living, almighty Word of God. In its power do what Jesus Christ empowered a once dead-and-buried Lazarus to do: “Take off your grave clothes and go free.” Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.