“Raising the Stakes, Raising Our Sights, Raising the Dead” (John 11:1-53)

Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 26, 2023

“Raising the Stakes, Raising Our Sights, Raising the Dead” (John 11:1-53)

Today we come to another 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 and the man born blind. Now today we have John 11, Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. But that’s not all that Jesus raises, as we will hear. Thus our theme this morning: “Raising the Stakes, Raising Our Sights, Raising the Dead.”

The chapter opens with Jesus hearing a report about his good friend Lazarus: “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 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 about 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 to do the work of God for the glory of God.

So you would expect that now, with Jesus hearing this report about his friend Lazarus, and with 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 that now Jesus will rush off to see Lazarus and heal him of his illness. You would think. But no. Jesus does just the opposite. He doesn’t go. Instead, he hangs around and 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 Mary and Martha 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 the sisters must be going through. They had sent Jesus an urgent request, but he doesn’t respond. What kind of love is that?

Maybe we feel like that sometimes. “Why doesn’t God answer my prayer right away? Why do I have to wait? Why is this taking so long? What’s going on here? Does God really listen to my prayers? Does God really love me? It sure doesn’t look like it.”

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. Then he tells the disciples, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep.” And he explains he’s not just talking about taking a nap. No, “Lazarus has died,” he says plainly. But he 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–it’s like he’s trying to make this miracle as difficult as possible: “When Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.” But by waiting that long, Jesus will make it clear that Lazarus truly was dead when he raises him. No one could say that Lazarus had merely lapsed into a coma, and so it wasn’t really a miracle. No, Lazarus really was dead. Four days dead.

So this is the first thing that Jesus raises 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 was already dead, Jesus is raising the stakes. He’s making what he’s about to do that much more amazing and astounding.

Jesus raises the stakes. Secondly, Jesus raises our sights. He raises the sights of Martha regarding the resurrection. Now Martha did believe in the resurrection of the dead. She tells Jesus, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Martha was a pious Jew who knew her Bible. And her Bible–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 that the resurrection is standing 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 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 will die. Our heart will stop beating. Our lungs will stop breathing. We will die. And yet we who believe in Christ will live. We will never die a permanent, eternal death. We will not perish. The physical death of Christians will not put an end to 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 a question. He asks Martha, and he asks 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 next when he raises Lazarus. Jesus goes to the tomb and speaks his powerful, life-giving word: “Lazarus, come out.” It’s a good thing he specifies “Lazarus,” or else all the tombs in the area 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 comes 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 will rise. And we will rise with glorified, perfectly restored bodies, 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.” To demonstrate this ahead of time, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. Jesus shows 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 Lazarus. Many of those who witness this miracle believe in him, but some go and report this to Jesus’ enemies in the Sanhedrin. This angers them, and they step up their plans to get rid of him. Caiaphas, the high priest, tells the Council members, “It is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” What Caiaphas meant was, “If we kill Jesus, then the Romans won’t come in and squash our nation and take away our power.” But 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, he would die for the whole world. By his sacrificial death on our behalf, Jesus saves us all from our sins and from eternal death. The evil plans of the Sanhedrin will have wonderful results. By the atoning death of Christ on the cross, our slate is wiped clean, our sins are forgiven, we are at peace with God, and the grave will not hold us.

Even as the grave would not hold Jesus himself. The raising of Lazarus foreshadows Christ’s own resurrection soon thereafter. Which in turn is the firstfruits of the resurrection that you and I will experience on the last day. We who believe in Christ, who trust in him for our salvation, we who are baptized into Christ–we will share in Christ’s resurrection. Death will not hold us.

In this story of the raising of Lazarus, we have seen what Jesus raises. He raises the stakes on his miracle by waiting. He raises the sights of Martha–and he raises our sights–by saying, “I am the resurrection and the life.” And he raises the dead by his mighty, life-giving word, “Lazarus, come out.” And by all this, Jesus raises our hopes. He lifts our eyes toward heaven, and we look forward to what our Lord will do when he returns. And this hope will not disappoint us. Our hope is as good and as sure as Christ’s own resurrection. This hope enlivens our hearts and gives us joy. We live life now with a lively, living hope, even in the midst of sorrows and setbacks, knowing that our future is secure in Christ. Death is not the end for those who trust in Christ. Brothers and sisters, the one who raised Lazarus will raise us as well.

Published in: on March 26, 2023 at 4:26 am  Leave a Comment  
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