Fifth Sunday in Lent
April 6, 2014
“Raising Lazarus–and Other Things as Well” (John 11:1-53)
Today we come to another one of those memorable chapters in the Gospel of John. So far during this Lenten season we’ve had: John 3, Jesus and Nicodemus; John 4, Jesus and the Samaritan woman; and John 9, Jesus heals the man born blind. Now today we have John 11, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. But that’s not all Jesus raises here in this chapter, as we’re about to hear. Thus our theme today: “Raising Lazarus–and Other Things as Well.”
The chapter opens with Jesus far away from Lazarus. He only hears a report about his friend’s condition: “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” And when Jesus hears this, he says: “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” This may remind you of what Jesus said last week, in regard to the man born blind: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” In other words, in both cases, Jesus is saying that this bad situation is an opportunity for him, an occasion for God’s works and God’s glory to be made manifest.
So you would expect now, once Jesus has heard this report about his good friend Lazarus, and Jesus saying that this illness does not lead to death and that he, the Son of God, will be glorified through it–you would expect now that Jesus will rush off to see Lazarus and heal him of his illness. You would think. But no. Jesus does just about the opposite. He doesn’t go. Instead, he hangs around where he is. He waits.
“Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” Huh? What? This does not make sense. If Jesus loves Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha–if he loves them so much, why doesn’t he go to them as soon as possible? Why doesn’t he go immediately and heal the poor guy? Imagine the distress his sisters are going through. They had sent Jesus the message, an urgent request, but he doesn’t respond immediately. What kind of love is that?
Maybe we feel like that sometimes. We have a friend or a loved one who gets sick, and we pray that the Lord will heal him or her, but then the person does not get better. That person may even die. So we wonder, “What’s going on here? Does God really listen to my prayers? Does God really love me, if he lets this person get sick and die?”
That may have been how Mary and Martha felt, when Jesus doesn’t show up and their brother dies. Jesus waits around until Lazarus dies. He tells the disciples, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep.” And he explains he’s not just talking about snoozing and catching some z’s: “Lazarus has died,” he says plainly.
But Jesus also says that this is not the end of the story. “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” This means that Jesus is going to waken him from death.
But this waiting business–it’s like Jesus is trying to make his miracle as difficult as possible: “Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.” Jesus is going to make it crystal clear, no mistake, that Lazarus truly was dead when he raises him. No one could say that Lazarus had merely lapsed into a coma or something like that, and therefore it wasn’t really a miracle. No, he was really dead. Four days dead.
So this brings us to the first thing Jesus is raising in this story. He’s raising the stakes on the miracle he’s about to perform. It would have been miraculous enough if Jesus had gone right away and healed Lazarus of his illness before he died. But by waiting and not going until Lazarus has died, Jesus is raising the stakes, making it that much more amazing and astounding, what he’s about to do.
Jesus raises the stakes. Secondly, Jesus raises the sights. He raises the sights of Martha, in regard to the resurrection. Now Martha did believe in the resurrection of the dead. She says as much when she tells Jesus, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” You see, Martha was a pious Jew who knew her Bible. And her Bible–what we call the Old Testament–does indeed teach the bodily resurrection of the dead on the last day. The Jews–most of them, at least, except for the Sadducees–the Jews did believe in the resurrection. And that’s what Martha believes. Good for her. She’s right.
But Jesus wants to raise her sights a bit. He wants her to realize the resurrection is standing there right in front of her, in the person of Christ himself. He tells Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.” In other words, “I can make the resurrection happen right here, right now. I can bring the resurrection in ahead of time. I am the resurrection, and the life.”
Then he says, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” What a beautiful and mysterious sentence this is! It sounds like a riddle, like Jesus is saying two opposite things. On the one hand, the believer dies. On the other hand, the believer will never die. How can this be? Well, it’s like this. You and I and everyone who believes in Christ–unless Jesus comes back first, you and I will die. Our heart will stop beating; our lungs will stop breathing. We will die. And yet we will live. We will never die a permanent, eternal death. We will not perish. The physical death of Christians does not extinguish, does not take away, the eternal life that Jesus gives.
“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” And then Jesus adds, asking Martha–and asking us: “Do you believe this?” Martha answers with the voice of faith, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” Jesus has raised the sights of Martha, so that now she makes the connection: Because Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God come into the world, he has the power to give life to the dead even now.
Which is what Jesus does when he raises Lazarus. Jesus goes to the tomb, and he speaks his powerful, life-giving word: “Lazarus, come out.” It’s a good thing that Jesus specifies “Lazarus,” or else all the tombs in the vicinity would have emptied out! Christ’s word has that kind of power. Jesus Christ has life within himself, and he has the power to give life by his mighty word. “Lazarus, come out.” And he does come out. Jesus raises Lazarus.
Friends, this is an advance demonstration of what our Lord will do on the day when he returns. Christ will speak the word and call our dead bodies from the grave. The dead in Christ shall rise. And we will rise with glorified, perfectly restored bodies, better than new, no longer subject to disease and death. Philippians 3 says, “We await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him to subject all things to himself.”
And so to demonstrate that ahead of time, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. Jesus is showing forth, in a remarkable way, the bodily resurrection of the dead that he will bring about by his life-giving word on the last day. “Lazarus, come out.”
Jesus raises the stakes on his miracle. Jesus raises the sights of Martha. Jesus raises the body of Lazarus. And now another thing Jesus raises: He raises the ire of Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin. He raises their ire, he raises their anger, so much so, that now they step up their plans to get rid of him. The Council members say to one another, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” The Jewish leaders are afraid Jesus will disrupt the status quo. They’re afraid Jesus will raise such a ruckus the Romans will come in and shut everything down. But they’re at a loss, the Jewish leaders are, as to what to do about it, how to put a halt to what Jesus is doing.
Caiaphas, the high priest, speaks up. He says, speaking much better than he knows, “It is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” Now what Caiaphas meant was, “If we get rid of Jesus, by killing him, then the Romans won’t come in and squash our nation and take our power away.” But what God meant was something much bigger and better than that. God was using Caiaphas to speak as an unwitting prophet. “He prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only.” Yes, Jesus would die for the whole world. And not to preserve the political power of the Sanhedrin, but rather to save us all from our sins and from eternal death and damnation. Jesus would die as our substitute, on the cross, taking the punishment you and I deserve. The evil machinations of the Sanhedrin ironically would have wonderful results. For by the death of Christ on the cross, our slate is wiped clean, our sins are forgiven, and we are at peace with God.
“So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.” Which would happen soon thereafter, on Good Friday. By raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus raises the ire of Caiaphas and the Jewish Sanhedrin. Out of their evil comes the greatest good. God used their plotting to achieve his most wonderful purpose: The atoning death of Christ, by which we are justified, put right with God.
And when he died, Christ raised first, not someone else, but he himself arose on Easter Day. Jesus has the power of life within himself, and death cannot hold him. On the third day, Jesus rose from the dead, the firstfruits of all who fall asleep in Christ. That’s you and me, my friends. We who believe in Christ, who trust in him for our salvation, we who have been baptized into Christ–we will share in Christ’s resurrection. Death will not hold us.
And so the last thing that Jesus raises in this story is–Jesus raises our hopes. He lifts our eyes toward heaven. He lifts our spirits and raises our hopes. We look forward with raised expectations, and this hope will not disappoint us. No, this hope is as good and as sure as Christ’s own resurrection. This hope enlivens our hearts and gives us joy–a radiant joy that radiates out to others. We live life now with a lively vigor, even in the midst of sorrows and setbacks, knowing that our future is secure in Christ. And we have hope for our loved ones who have fallen asleep in Jesus. They will get up. Death is not the end. We will meet again.
And so, because Christ has raised our hopes, we now raise joyful songs of praise to our living Lord, to him who raised Lazarus from the dead and who will raise us as well.