John 11:1-7; 17-36 (New International Version, ©2011)
The Death of Lazarus
1 Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 (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.) 3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”
4 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.” 5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, 7 and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”
Jesus Comforts the Sisters of Lazarus
17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. 21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
28 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.” 29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 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.
32 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.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. 35 Jesus wept. 36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
I was driving my VW Jetta on Friday, just like I do most days out of the week, when I noticed something that I hadn’t noticed for some time. I noticed a yellow leaf made of felt hanging from my rearview mirror. This yellow felt leaf has been hanging from my mirror for some time now. It has probably been years since I placed it there and today it is noticeably faded on one side. I also believe that it has been a long time since this yellow leaf stopped serving its purpose. This yellow felt leaf is an air freshener. It was intended to take away some of the smells that accumulate in a car that does not frequently get cleaned.
As I said, this air freshener has stopped serving its purpose, but yet it still hung on my rearview mirror right up until yesterday. I think that I haven’t gotten rid of it because I didn’t realize that it was no longer working or serving its intended purpose. I just left it around because it has always been there. Then when I really needed it, that is when I noticed that it just wasn’t doing the trick.
Our actors have been doing such a great job of acting out our Bible stories for us through Lent, but I feel that it is really important for me today to give you a short, two-word quote directly from the Bible, specifically the King James Version. John 11:39 gives Martha’s response to Jesus’s request for the stone to be rolled away from Lazarus’s grave. And in the KJV, Martha says, “He stinketh.” (Thanks, Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis, pg. 90)
As I thought about those two words, I started to think about how much life can stinketh. Pain, suffering, poverty, and even death itself can stinketh, both figuratively, and as in the case of Lazarus, literally. Life and death stinketh.
As little children, we are given reasons for why life stinketh so much. Sometimes those reasons are helpful, and they can continue to be helpful as we grow into adulthood. But all too often, those reasons fail us as we grow into adulthood, much like my car air freshener has failed me after all of these years. And all too often, our faith suffers because of a bad understanding of who God is and how God interacts with his creation, including us as human beings. God did not create a world that stinketh. God created a world and he said, It is good.
Before we look at today’s scripture, we need to wrap our minds around a concept that will help us to better understand the person of God. The thing that we need to wrap our minds around is the concept that Jesus is the clearest revelation of God that we have. Throughout history God has revealed himself in a number of ways a number of times: God revealed himself to Moses through the burning bush when he spoke to Moses and revealed himself as the great “I am.” God revealed himself through the Torah and the Prophets; the Hebrew Bible. The Bible tells us that God is revealed through creation: Psalm 19 says that the heavens declare God’s glory and the skies proclaim the work of his hands. But all of these revelations of God are incomplete. We cannot know God just by looking at nature, nor do I believe we can fully know God just by looking at the Torah. We need more. The clearest revelation of God is Jesus Christ.
Colossians 1:15 tells us that Jesus is the image of the invisible God. Jesus says in John 14 that if you have seen him, you have seen the Father. And in John 10:30, Jesus tells us that he and the Father are one. Hebrews 1:1-3a says it best, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” If you want to know what God is like, the best thing to do is to look at Jesus. So when we read scripture about Jesus, we can know that what Jesus does is exactly what God would do or how God would react in the same situation because Jesus is God in human flesh. With that in mind, let’s turn to our text for this morning.
I love today’s passage because one of the main characters in out text has no speaking lines. His name is Lazarus. Lazarus had two sisters named Mary and Martha that he may have lived with. Jesus had an on-going relationship with this family, and likely visited with them when he stopped by Bethany, which was only two miles outside of Jerusalem. Well Lazarus became ill and his sisters sent word to Jesus saying that “the one that he loves is sick.”
The Greek word used there for love is Phileo, which we would translate as brotherly love. So when the sisters send a message to Jesus, they tell him that the one that he loves like his own brother, like his own flesh and blood, is sick.
But there is something here that bothers me. Jesus gets word that Lazarus is sick and…he…waits. He does nothing about it. He doesn’t jump up, buy a first-class donkey ticket to Bethany, or lace up his running shoes and get there as fast as he can. The text doesn’t even tell us that Jesus prayed for Lazarus or attempted to heal him from a distance. No, Jesus waits. He waits two more days. He gets this message and he does nothing about it for at least 48 hours. Then he says to his disciples, let’s go to Lazarus because he is dead.
What does this tell us about the person of God? The reason I don’t like the response of Jesus here is because it makes Jesus and therefore God seem like he isn’t worried about Lazarus and his sisters having to experience this death. The reason for Jesus’s delay that is often given is found in verse 4 where Jesus says “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Yes, maybe it softens the whole concept of Jesus allowing his friend whom he loves like a brother to die to know that he had every intention of bringing him back to life. But to be honest, that seems a little selfish of Jesus. It seems a little selfish that Jesus would knowingly allow Lazarus to die and allow his sisters to experience that great loss so that he could be glorified. Would he not be glorified if he had healed Lazarus right away? It doesn’t seem right to have Jesus put them through this rollercoaster ride of emotions just to bring himself more glory. My friends, that reasoning stinketh. But we will come back to it in a few minutes.
After Jesus stays where he was for two more days, he tells his disciples that he is going to Judea, in the territory where Bethany is. There is some discussion that goes on because the disciples know that if Jesus goes back to the area near Jerusalem that he will be killed. And they are right. But with a little bit of convincing they take off to Bethany.
Before they get all of the way to Bethany Martha hears that Jesus is coming so she goes to meet him. And Martha doesn’t hold back her disappointment. She tells Jesus that if he would have been there, her brother would not have died. Jesus replied, “Your brother will rise again.” And Martha assumes that Jesus is talking about the resurrection of the dead at the end of time and she says, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” And Jesus’s response confirms Martha’s belief that they will be reunited at the end of time. Jesus says that he is the resurrection and the life.
Jesus asks about Mary. He wants to see her as well, so Martha goes to their home and asks Mary to meet Jesus at the place where he and Martha had met. And when Mary gets there, she tells him the same thing. She says, “If you had been here my brother would not have died.”
Verse 33 tells us, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” Then we come to verse 35, one of the shortest verses in all of the Bible, but I believe it is one of the most powerful. “Jesus wept.” Only two words in the NIV, but what powerful words! Jesus, the image of the invisible God, God incarnate, the Word made flesh, wept. Jesus agrees with them that this stinketh.
So now let’s go back to that first observation that I made that really didn’t sit too well with me. Did Jesus waste time and put off going to Bethany to allow Lazarus to die, putting Martha and Mary through extreme stress, duress, and pain, just so that he could be glorified? No, I don’t think so. Jesus is not playing some game with these people that he loved so dearly, allowing Lazarus to die and then bringing him back to life again, putting Mary, Martha, and his self on some emotional rollercoaster. We need to remember that when Jesus arrives at Bethany that Lazarus had already been dead for four days. Jesus waited to travel to Bethany for two days. If the trip took a day then the timeline looks something like this. Mary and Martha send a messenger to Jesus to tell them that Lazarus is sick. Jesus then waits two days and travels to Bethany. For Lazarus to have been in the tomb four days he must have died the same day that the messenger was sent. I believe that Jesus knew that Lazarus had already died by the time that the messenger got to him. Then he waited two more days and traveled to Bethany on the fourth day.
What does this tell us about the person of God? I don’t believe that God causes us pain and suffering just to show us his glory. However, God can choose to use our pain and suffering to show us his glory if we will let him. Jesus didn’t just let Lazarus die to show his glory. Lazarus was already dead before the messenger even got to him. But Jesus used that tragedy to reveal his glory.
After Jesus told his disciples that Lazarus has already died and that they are still going to Bethany, they are clearly confused. So Jesus says in verse 15, “For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” This says to me that Jesus would have healed Lazarus if he had been there. But he wasn’t. Jesus didn’t just let Lazarus, Mary, and Martha go through the suffering and pain of death so that he could bring him back to life for his own glory. But since Lazarus had died, he was going to use that suffering for his glory.
The next thing that I believe today’s text tells us about the person of God is that God cares about this life. We as Christians have a lot of little phrases about this world in which we live. And to some extent, they are true. We say that this world is not my home. We say that we are only passing through. And there is something to these statements. The Bible says that our life on earth is just a mist, here one moment and gone the next. But none of these things should take away from the fact that what we do with our bodies and our 85(ish) trips around the sun does matter. Time and time again the Bible affirms that life matters.
When Lazarus dies and Martha comes out and meets Jesus, she seems to know very well that one day she will see her brother again. They will be reunited at the resurrection at the end of time as we know it. Jesus knows this as well. But Jesus brings Lazarus back to life. He doesn’t just say, “Wait a few years, Martha. Your days here on earth are numbered; your life is just a mist, and you will be with Lazarus soon.” No, Jesus knows that this life matters, too.
This is a theme that is repeated throughout the Bible. Our life here on earth is not just a stepping stone into the great beyond. When God created the world and everything in it, he called it good. And the resurrection of Lazarus, the resurrection of Jairus’s daughter, the resurrection of the widow of Nain’s son, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ himself shows us that there is a lot of good to be done and a lot of goodness to be enjoyed here on earth. When Jesus meets a blind person, a leper, or a sick woman, he doesn’t simply tell them to wait a few years because they are going to die anyway. The healing that Jesus preforms and the resurrections that take place are God’s way of affirming life on this earth. He is saying, “Don’t just pass through. Live the abundant life that I have had in store for you since the beginning of time.” God has not given up on this world, and neither should we! When we find things in this world that stinketh and we can do something about it, we should! We as followers of Jesus Christ are called to partner with God in the reconciliation of all things, in making that things that stinketh good once again.
But that doesn’t help with the things that stinketh that we can’t do anything about. There are so many questions that I am left with as I become more and more aware of the things that go on in the world outside of my nice, safe little bubble. We are still hearing stories of aftershocks in Japan that continue to kill people weeks after the initial quake. We hear stories coming out of Libya of lives that are sacrificed for seemingly no reason at all. We all know stories of people who have passed away from accidents, sickness, or even murder. And we all know people who have been hurt by bad theology, by well-meaning people quoting Romans 8:28 in the middle of their suffering, saying “All good things work together for good for those who love God.” Where is God in that hurt, pain, and suffering?
The answer that we get from today’s scripture is that God is right there with us, weeping. In the middle of all that stinketh, we turn back to that short little verse that we all can memorize and recite as needed, John 11:35, “Jesus wept.”
The Jewish people knew the value of mourning together with one another. We in the west hold funerals, but in Jesus’s day, mourning was a 30-day-long process. The immediate family had a set of rituals that they went through and they were surrounded by other people who would mourn with them. Our text for today speaks of people coming from Jerusalem just to spend time mourning with Martha and Mary. And if you didn’t have enough family and friends, it was a common practice to hire people to mourn with you. This shared grief is the way that people of Jesus’s day got through a difficult situation. Today we just go back to work and pretend like nothing ever happened. But Jesus, the image of the invisible God, wept. When we mourn, he mourns with us. Even with all that he already knew, he wept.
Did Jesus know that he was going to bring Lazarus back from the dead? Yes, he did. Did Martha know that she would one day be reunited with Lazarus at the resurrection? Yes, she did. Did Jesus love Lazarus, Martha, and Mary? Yes, and he loves us too. Even though Jesus knew that in only a few moments he would bring Lazarus back to life again, when he saw the pain and suffering that Martha and Mary were experiencing, he wept.
I don’t know why bad things happen to good people. Sometimes this world just stinketh. What I do know is that God doesn’t cause these things to happen, but he will use them if we allow him to. There will always be questions as long as there is suffering in this world. So while I don’t know why God allows some things to happen, I do know where God is when we suffer. He is right beside us, weeping.
God created the world and he said It is good. But sometimes this world stinketh. Let us not contribute to the stench, but help to take away that stink any time we can. May we join with Jesus in his prayer, Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.