Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”
When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.”
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”
“But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?”
Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”
After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”
His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.
So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
Then Thomas (also known as the Twin) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.”
When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him.
When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.
When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.
“Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.
“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.” Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
When he had said this, Jesus called 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.
Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
– John 11: 1-44
How does that story feel to you? Does it seem like it’s impossible? Is it unlikely? Is it inspiring? Is it confusing? Or is it all just a little bit creepy?
Stories like this are difficult for us to deal with. We shy away from them. It’s more comfortable for us to stick to stories with plain teaching about safe subjects. Stories about miracles, or about resurrection, feel strange and jarring to us.
Usually I read the story of Lazarus at funeral services. I stand at the grave and repeat Jesus’ words – “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even though they die, yet shall they live; and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. . .”
Those words are the greatest affirmation of faith that I know. Those words say that death is not the last word. I believe, I put my trust, in God who is the Lord of life.
Jesus’ resurrection at Easter shows us the power of God. But then we start thinking, maybe Jesus was special. Maybe resurrection is just a one-time deal. It only happened for Jesus. But the story of Lazarus shows that it can happen for the rest of us, too.
We don’t know anything at all about Lazarus personally. We only know about his sisters, from another story – Martha, the responsible sister, the detail person, the clock watcher.
And then there’s Mary, the one who stayed close to the feet of Jesus, listening. Mary was the extravagant sister, the impulsive one, the sister who poured expensive ointment on Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair.
So, we know Mary and Martha. We’ve all met people who were just like them. We don’t know anything about Lazarus, except here in this one story.
Lazarus, in a way, is what I’m going to call the universal Christian. He is every one of us. We see ourselves in him. His story is our story. The story of Lazarus is about the universal experience of death which every one of us has to face some day.
There are other people in the Bible who function in that same way as universal figures. Peter, for instance, is sort of like that. Peter is the one who asks the dumb questions that everybody else wants to ask. Peter makes the same big mistakes that we would make, if we had been there.
Remember we talked about Peter just a couple of weeks ago? The disciples are out in a boat, and there’s a big storm on the lake, and the boat’s about to sink, and Jesus came out to meet them, walking on water.
And Peter says, “Lord, if it’s really you, tell me to get out of the boat, and come over there to you.”
And Jesus says, “OK. Come on.” And Peter gets out of the boat, gets about three steps, and his faith gives out. Glub, glub, glub, glub. . .
Whether or not it really happened almost doesn’t matter. It’s a story about faith. It’s about how we feel – surrounded by storms, battered by waves, overwhelmed by things happening around us, over which we have no control. And Jesus invites us to get out of the boat, and not look at the storm – just look at him.
It’s a ridiculous thing to do. It’s foolish! And when Peter’s going down for the third time, he cries out, “Lord, save me!” And we are there with him. We are there with Peter. His story is our story. We cry out, in just the same way. We cry out to God, because it’s the only thing we can do.
You know, I hear people bragging all the time about how they’ve been saved. And it bothers me sometimes, because it makes people sound stuck up. It’s like they’re special, they did it themselves! They must be really good! God must like them more than the rest of us.
But being saved doesn’t mean any of us are special. God wants to save everyone! A lot of the time, being saved means we did something dumb, like thinking we could walk on water, or thinking that we could live in a stupid way, or thinking that we could beat death. Being saved doesn’t mean that we’re superstars or spiritual athletes. It means that Jesus reached out a hand to us, when we were hurt, or drowning.
The story of Lazarus is kind of like that. It invites us to join in, and be a part of it.
One of the things about this story is that it shows us, very dramatically, how Jesus felt when his friends were suffering. The story of Lazarus is where we see Jesus’ own emotions naked and out in the open.
Did you know that there was a group in the early Christian church that said that Jesus never really suffered? They thought Jesus was too high and mighty, he was too divine, to really feel things.
Jesus didn’t really feel anything, they said. He always knew exactly how it was all going to work out, way ahead of time.
According to this way of thinking, Jesus was always kind of above it all. Maybe he
cared, but it was in a removed and cerebral sort of way. He didn’t have any real human emotion or shed any real tears.
But the story of Lazarus says, very clearly, that Jesus wept. His friend had died – Lazarus, the “one who he loved.” Jesus loved this family. He had stayed in their house. He had eaten with them. He wasn’t their guest. He was their friend.
So when his friend died, it says that Jesus was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” And on the way to his friend’s grave, Jesus wept. This story is the clearest insight we have into the reality and depth of Jesus’ emotions.
And when they got to the cemetery, there was a big stone lying across the mouth of it the grave. And Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”
Those words were probably the bravest and the most faith-filled words that Jesus ever said. With the crowd all standing there, Jesus had faith for what was going to happen next. Jesus believed it was going to happen.
On another level, those words ask if we have the faith, to roll the stone away from whatever is the place of death in our lives, or in our society. Do we have the courage to roll away the stone?
Martha – she was always the practical one – Martha said, “Lord, if you do that, it’s going to smell bad. He’s been in there four days!”
But Jesus said, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe you would see the glory of God?”
And then he prayed, and he gave thanks. Jesus saw how this whole story would bring faith to people.
And then Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
I always wonder, whenever I read this story, what it would be like, to be Lazarus. What would it be like, to be dead, and to be called back to life? What would it be like, to hear the voice of Jesus, calling me out of the tomb?
Most of the time, we see this kind of stuff in horror movies. What would it be like, instead, to have this be part of a FAITH story, a story that showed us the power of prayer, and the power of love, and the power of God? What would it be like to hear God, calling us out of our own graves?
Resurrection means more than just what we think it does in this story. This story is about all kinds of things that we think are permanent and cast in stone. We think that society can’t change, that things in the world can never get better. We think that war is inevitable. We think that poverty is a forever thing.
We think that people with addictions are never going to get free. We think that people with prejudices are never going to change. We think that our personal failures are going to be with us forever. We think that we’re tied up, bound, hand and foot, in our own death clothes.
And then we hear the voice of Jesus, calling out to us, calling to us down in our own graves. “Come out! Come OUT!”
Can you imagine what it felt like for Lazarus, to hear that voice, to come out of the grave, staggering and stumbling, blinded by the light of day? And Jesus says, “Unbind that person, and let them go. . .”
If you have ever been bound, in your own life, or if you know someone who has been wrapped up and bound and left for dead, then I want you to read this story again.
This is what faith is like. This is what being saved is like. Jesus reaches out, not just when we’re hurt, or sick, or at the point of death. Jesus reaches out to us, when we’re beyond the point of death. Jesus reaches out to us, in our own graves, and calls us back to life again.
That’s all I want to say this morning. Let’s be thinking about the story of Lazarus, during this week before Easter. Let’s spend some time together in prayer.
Copyright © 2016 by Joshua Brown