By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
March 29, 2020
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John 11:1–45 (ESV)
1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it he said, “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.” 5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So, when he 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 seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. 10 But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” 11 After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 13 Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, 15 and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” 17 Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. 20 So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” 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. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” 28 When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. 34 And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus wept. 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 also have kept this man from dying?” 38 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for 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 lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” 44 The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with 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 he did, believed in him,
This week I have, like most everyone else, been stuck to the news. I am not necessarily watching in fear, but curiosity. I want to know what to look for, what to expect, what I can do to help those in need. I have seen people doing so much during this time of crisis. I have seen nurses that I am friends with go to New York to assist in the medical crisis there. I have seen a steady stream of Shipt Shoppers, coming through my store gathering groceries for people to deliver, I have even seen customers adapting to changing policies that happen without any real warning without any argument. Everyone is worried, everyone is in a state of anxiety and ignorance, yet for the most part we are in it together.
As the news of this pandemic began to hit, and as pretty much everything we used to do began to change, I found myself looking at scripture a little bit differently. I began to wonder why Jesus was so busy healing people. It is like every page of scripture we are reading that Jesus provided healing to the people of the villages around Judea. Then I began to wonder how many people really lived in that area. The truth is that Judea really did not have major cities. There were a few centers of population, like Jerusalem yet most of Judea was rural. The economy was agrarian, people raised livestock and crops. Or they process or sold items that were used in the food preparation, food consumption, or making fabrics out of the fibers produced on the farms. Yet Jesus went to these communities, villages and towns that the study of history will tell us were small, so small that if you lived in the town you would probably have known everyone living there.
Jesus went to these villages, towns that today might not even get put on the map, and it is said that he healed everyone. Which makes me wonder why so many needed healing? In a town of a hundred people how many did he heal? If anyone that is listening or reading this sermon knows the answer I would really like to know if there was a major pandemic in Judea during the first century. I wonder this because that is the perspective that we all have right now. We cannot help ourselves from bringing our current situations into our interpretation of scripture. We cannot help but bringing our personal perspective, because that is what is on our minds. When we read the verses before us we see the words and the emotions that we are feeling. We carry our own baggage in and hopefully we can leave it there and walk away a bit lighter.
This happens a great deal with literature of any type, but it happens even more when we look at scripture. When their times are a bit more stressful, the verses and passages that speak of apocalyptic events seem to jump out to us, and we begin to think this is it we are about to see the end of the age. When we are in those beginning stages of a relationship, the passages of love speak so loudly it is hard to believe that scripture speaks of anything else. When we are anxious the words of comfort and peace, draw us into their rest. Scripture is often seen as a living book not because the words change, but the people reading the words change. We as different questions, we deal with different issues and stresses, yet scripture always speaks. This book was written by farmers, fishermen, small town tax collectors, ancient professors, and even doctors. It was written by people who rarely left their own community and had no idea that there was land beyond the great sea. Yet the words they wrote still speak to us thousands of years later in communities where more people live within a square mile than lived in their entire province.
As I have sat with the scripture this week, I came to realize that for thirty years I have made assumptions about things and in the course of one week I ask a different question and suddenly I am sitting in wonder yet again.
In today’s passage we find Jesus near the end of his ministry. He is traveling through the various villages in the north and word comes to him that one of his closest friends has fallen ill. We do not know for sure how old Lazarus was. Was he a young man or someone of advanced years? Were his sisters looking to be married or were they widows whose husbands’ family were not able to care for? Was Israel at that time in a situation like ours?
The sisters knew Jesus, and they sent word to him informing their friend that their brother, the man whom Jesus loved was ill. That third verse is one of those verses that grabs hold of me. “So the sister sent to him saying, ‘Lord he whom you love is ill.’” Maybe we are too familiar with the story, but how many of us really think about what they are saying. They begin by saying Lord.
We do not live in a culture where people go around saying the word Lord. But to use that word indicates that they believe something about the one they are addressing. They believe that this person has power and authority. They call Jesus, Lord, yet they boldly approach. They believe that Jesus has power and authority, and they address him with respect, yet they do not tremble before him. They believe that God will bend to the demands of this man, yet they have no fear boldly asking this man to come see their brother.
Have you ever really considered that relationship? These women sent servants to the person they believed to be the king sent by God, and they demanded that he come near to help their brother. I do not know if we fully grasp the oddness of this. This is something that is out of character to the social structures of the ancient world. These women were bold, demanding, and unafraid. There is awe and intimacy in this exchange, and it is powerful.
Do we approach people like this? Do we approach God like this? Do we think that the issues that we face are something important enough to petition those in authority? Or do we simply think that everything that happens to us is fate that we must endure? Jesus listened to the message from these two women. And his response was, “this illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God my be glorified through it.” The servant took this response to the women. Imagine what a relief they would have felt at those words. But Jesus did not come, he stayed two days longer.
Imagine the anxiety Martha and Mary must have felt as they ministered to their brother’s needs as his illness progressed. Imagine them sitting at his bedside, wiping his brow with a wet cloth as a fever gripped him. They had sent for Jesus, and for two days they waited after the messengers returned yet nothing happened, nothing changed, and Lazarus their beloved brother slipped deeper into the illness. They sat there with the promise that this illness does not lead to death, yet they watched as the hand of death pulled their life from this man who had been their provider.
These women had faith that I could only dream of having. So often today people will say if you just have faith God will heal, or that it is God’s will that you will be healed. If faith was the measure of blessing, these women’s account was abundant. They even had the word of promise that the Son of God would be glorified through the outcome of this man’s illness. Yet they watched their brother slip beyond the veil of life.
Jesus loved this family, yet he stayed where he was for two more days. The disciples knew that Jesus loved this family and they assumed that they stayed in the northern region because the Jews were threatening to kill their teacher. Then all at once after two days of knowing about the illness of their dear friend, Jesus say, “alright boys let’s go to Judea.” They are floored by this statement. Why go now? We have been here two days, and now you want to go. And Jesus says something that confused them, and to be honest me. “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”
This is strange, but it goes with the ideas of light and darkness, ignorance and wisdom, fear and hope. Jesus told the sisters that the Son of God will be glorified through this illness. That is the light. Yet the disciples, the sisters, and even Lazarus are not focused on the light. They are focused on the fear, they are gripped by their own lack of knowledge and they lose hope. They begin to wonder if maybe they made a wrong turn somewhere.
The promise was that, “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.” That is a great promise. That is the one I am looking for in my stressful situations. But the reality that was facing them, was that the illness did lead to death, and Lazarus was bound in death’s clothes for four days and sealed behind a stone.
How many of us have been in that place? We had the hope and assurance that God was going to provide, yet things did not turn out the way that we had anticipated. Every day you praised God in the storm, in the illness yet your business failed, someone close that was ill continued to get worse, your spouse left, or your child made a choice that led them down a path of darkness. You had faith but the promise seemed to fall away.
The disciples were confused, Martha and Mary were mourning the loss of their brother, and we are often right there with them.
As Jesus approached the village of Bethany Martha and Mary both came out to him. They both cried, “If only you were here.” If only you were here, yet they knew that Jesus could have commanded that Lazarus could have been healed wherever he was, and he would have been healed. They had seen it happen with others, yet this man who was loved deeply by Jesus, still died.
As I read these verses the raw emotion always grips my heart. Often my breath catches when I read the words, “Jesus wept.” Jesus had the very same emotions that we have. Martha and Mary were confused, they knew that Jesus could heal their brother, they had faith, but they did not understand why he would not do what he did for others for the one he loved. And Jesus did not negate their emotions, he did not tell them to get a grip and keep a stiff upper lip, Jesus wept right along with them.
The promise is that God and the Son will be glorified through our lives. The reality is often life just sucks. I have been fired from jobs even as I knew that I was doing the will of God. I drove home wondering why this happened to me, when God knew full well that I would not be able to survive if I did not have a job. Yet, in that moment, my sister told me, “God gave you space because he knew you needed it.” At that time, I was working two jobs and getting my master’s degree. I was reading till three am and waking up to work at six. I was nearing a breakdown and I did not know it. In my mind something terrible happened but the truth was that I was stumbling in the darkness, and I could only see the light again when I could no longer rely on myself.
We are stumbling in the darkness right now. We are all wondering what is going on. Many of us are afraid. I ask what is God showing you during this time of darkness we are experiencing? The promise given to those women who boldly approached Jesus, was that this illness will not lead to death, but God will be glorified.” Are we living our life in this situation to bring glory to God, or are we stumbling in the darkness? If you are stumbling pray that you will be able to see God’s glory. If you are not stumbling give thanksgiving that God is with you through the storm. If you are just getting by pray that you will have the strength to keep going. And if you do not know what to think or where to turn, rest in the arms of God. As we pray, praise, move forward, and rest let us always remember the promise, and the reality that even in our darkness, Jesus wept. And in the end, God will be glorified. Because God will call out to those he loves, and we will rise and embrace him.
As we some time this day to sit in holy expectancy, I encourage you to consider Mary and Martha, consider the emotions and the loss. Consider the joy and celebration and consider our own lives. Lazarus was dead for four days, buried in a tomb and the community knew that. And Lazarus lived again. There is more going on than we are aware of, and God is going to use this dark time for his glory, will you join him?