John 11:1–45 (NRSV)
The Death of Lazarus
11 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
The past couple of weeks we have followed Jesus basically through his last year of ministry prior to his crucifixion. Last week we spoke of the healing of a man who had been born blind. This took place on the last day of the feast of Booths. It was at this time that Jesus declared before the temple that he was equal to God, both in word and in deed. I say that he proved his divinity in word and deed, but this is only based on the teachings of the Jewish people at that time. Because a man who was born blind was beyond grace because he could not offer sacrifice, and to be blind was considered a curse from God. For this curse to be removed God himself would have to do it outside the temple sacrificial system. Jesus healed this man, without the temple. The people of that day saw that Jesus had power greater than that of the temple. No one had ever opened the eyes of a man who was born blind.
This week we advance through one more season of the year and with each visit to Jerusalem, Jesus progressively pulls attention away from the religious establishment. Each time he does this he redirects attention to a relationship between the Father and Jesus, and between Jesus and mankind. If we were to have read the chapter between last week’s passage and this week’s we would find that there was a continued discussion about miraculous event with the blind man. After the teachings from Jesus the religious leaders ask an important question, “Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”
If all the teachings you had received to that point had told you that sin had caused your all your problems, what is the natural response? We want to live life without problems so we gravitate toward those institutions that can remove sin and alleviate our problems. People were attracted to the temple for this reason. This makes the temple a powerful, influential, and profitable institution. Those that work within the temple system are people wishing to help those in need or they are people who crave power and influence over people for their own gain. Power can be used for good or evil, even within an institution designated for good. Jesus did not work within they temple system, His presence was causing the power of the temple to diminish because their power was based in the kingdom of God but of men. Those focused on their power called Jesus a demon, and those that were focused on God asked, “Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”
Jesus left Jerusalem while the leaders debated, he then returns for the feast of Dedication (Hanukkah). At this meeting, they ask him to make to clearly tell them if he is the Messiah or not. Jesus again speaks of relationships. Teaching of the relationship between sheep and their shepherd. And then he clarifies his relationship with God the Father. “The Father and I are one.” Again, they wanted to kill him for a couple of reasons. The first is that Jesus is telling them that they are guiding the people away from God, and because he said clearly that He was equal to God. Jesus made them mad and he left them to figure it out for themselves, and he went back to the north to the place where John the Baptist baptized.
Jesus then hears that his friend is sick. This was not just any friend, it is probably the closest friend of Jesus outside of the disciples. The closeness of this family to Jesus is so deep that many stories have been told of it. Some scholars make a convincing argument that maybe the disciple who Jesus loved is not John, but Lazarus. I do not consider this much because John is designated to care for Jesus’ mother while Jesus is on the cross. Lazarus is sick and his sisters call for Jesus to come. Jesus does not respond the way we expect. He tells the messenger that the disease will not lead to death but glorify God. And he stays where he is for another two days.
After this time, Jesus tells his disciples that they will be going to Bethany. We do not know the time exactly only that it is the time between the feast of Dedication and prior to Passover, so late winter or early spring. The disciples tell him that he is crazy. And they try to convince him that if they go south they will die. He tells them that their friend is asleep and he needs to wake him up. They remember that Jesus said that Lazarus would live. So, they are like, “No Jesus if he sleeps he is getting better. We need to stay safe.” So, Jesus has to be very clear, He is dead and its good because now you guys are going to really believe something.
They go to Bethany, and a great crowd is gathered to mourn the loss of Lazarus. As Jesus approaches Lazarus’ estate the sisters each meet him on the road to speak to him privately. Both begin the conversation the same way, “Lord, if you had been here, then my brother would not have died.” I want us to focus on that statement for a moment. “If you had been here, then…” How often have you used that same statement?
We all have struggles. At times, we believe that the cause of our struggle is God’s judgement of our actions, and we like the ancients try to do things to alleviate our guilt. I will not lie, in many ways that is how I approached church in the past. There was even a small part of me that believed that if I did something for God then he would answer my prayers in the way I wanted. I remember sitting on a cliff overlooking the Black Sea praying passionately that I went halfway around the world for God and he should start doing something for me. I serve, I give, I help, and I expect something in return even after two thousand years we still struggle with the concept that God does not require sacrifice but mercy. He desires friends not employees, He gives grace not wages. Wages are attached to concepts of sin not friendship. Wages of sin is death but eternal life is a gift from God. All that we have is gift, is grace. Our very existence is a gift because we did not earn our life but it was given to us by other. We do not always see our life as a gift. If you look at the pictures of the children of Syria, even considering that statement makes me feel terrible because how can a good God allow such suffering?
We have struggles. And at times these struggles are dire. I cry out to God why did this have to happen. If only you were here you could have prevented this! If only you were here, I would not have lost my sister. If only He were here I would not have lost… Yet Jesus told his disciples that it was not sin that caused the blindness of the man by the pool of Siloam, but it was there to glorify God. And the illness that took the life from Lazarus was there to glorify God. I have cried often. I have screamed to the heavens how much I hate the very life that God gave me. Yes, how much I have hated it. I hate the pain, I hate that nearly every day I have pain, I hate that children suffer, I really hate cancer, I hate war, and at times I really do not like that God allows all this to happen. I cry. And then I read one small simple verse, the shortest verse in the bible. The shortest and most profound. John 11:35, “Jesus wept.”
Jesus said that before Abraham was I Am. Jesus said that the Father and I are one. Both statements the Jewish leaders saw as Jesus calling himself equal and one with God. If Jesus speaks truth then God wept with Mary over his friend. In our grief, our struggles, our pains God is saying this is for my glory. And He weeps with us. The apostle Paul also struggled with things in life, he said once that he prayed that God would remove a thorn from his side, a great struggle that was hindering his ability to minister in his own mind. And the answer to that prayer is that Jesus is enough.
I cannot stand because of the pain, and Jesus weeps with me. I laugh with my sons and Jesus laughs with me. His grace is enough. Yet often we want more, and we let bitterness creep into our lives when our desires and that of God’s do not meet. We do not always see that what is happening is for God’s glory, so that it can glorify Jesus the son. And when we let the seeds of bitterness creep in we start turning from relationship and turning back to wages, suddenly we no longer see the glory and we only see death. Yet Jesus weeps with us, and says roll the stone away. Roll whatever it is dividing and separating us from him away so we can again be near. And out of the sorrow He cries out to us, “Come out!”
When we dwell on ourselves, we sit in the cave sealed by the stone smelling like decay. All we see is pain and sorrow, or as C.S. Lewis says, “always winter but never Christmas.” Jesus gives us new life, life from above, and he showed us how to live it. By making it our custom to worship, withdrawing often to pray in the isolated places, and ministering to those around us. This is a rhythm of relationship, enjoying the company of our beloved, resting in conversation, and caring for others. We see the rhythm all around us in various relationships and in our families. This rhythm is life giving because it focuses on what is most important. It allows us to come out of the cave within ourselves and into the light. And when we enter this life with Jesus he will say, “Unbind him (or her) and let him go.”
So often I live in moments focused on the “if only you were here,” I totally miss Jesus saying, “Hello, Come out here!” And when I am so totally focused on worrying about the problems I’m facing I am continually wrapping myself up in burial cloths instead of letting others help unbind me, or me help unbind them.
As we have walked with Jesus through this last year of his ministry, I notice something important. Jesus redirects the focus of faith. It is about being born from above, given a new life or lifestyle from God. It’s about restoring relationships and bringing even the most unlikely people into the light. It’s about sharing life with other. Nicodemus was too worried about being right, the religious leaders were too worried about being right and losing control, and now Jesus has just raised a dead man from the grave. The religious leaders, if we read on will seek to take Jesus’ life as well as that of Lazarus. As we enter a time of Holy Expectancy I encourage us all to consider these events over this last year of Jesus’ life. Where are we? Who are we resembling the most? Where can we improve? Are we living in the “If only you were here” moments or are we living in the Come out? Are we bound in the grave or loosened in His glory? We all face struggles, are we able to see God’s glory through them?