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Lazarus Sermon

The Raising of Lazarus. John Chapter 11

Sermon preached by The Reverend Charles Royden Lent 5 Year A 2011

It is quite important to set the scene for the passage today. Jesus has escaped being killed in Jerusalem. They had tried to stone him to death for blasphemy, because they said he claimed to be God. (10:33). Somehow we are told he managed get away. Now in a place safety across the Jordan river, news arrives that a man named Lazarus was sick. Lazarus was somebody Jesus cared about deeply, the brother of Mary and Martha. He was in Bethany which was only two miles from Jerusalem. 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 this is a cry for help to Jesus from the sisters and Lazarus is still alive. The response of Jesus has caused some considerable debate.

“This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God's glory
so that God's Son may be glorified through it.”

Jesus sees that an important event is about to take place. In John’s Gospel there are seven signs. When he tells us about them, the writer always has a message at the beginning that they are to give glory to God, and at the end we are told that they cause people to have faith. The first was the wedding in Cana with the turning of water into wine. So the scene is set for the greatest miracle or sign which Jesus ever performed.

If we do our maths we can work out that even if Jesus had rushed back to Bethany immediately, Lazarus would still have died, because it was a two day journey and when he eventually arrived Lazarus had been dead for four days. Nevertheless, Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus and he still hung around for two days before going to comfort them. This has puzzled everybody, why does he wait ?

I suppose it is no different to any of us, we want God to do certain things, we appeal to God for action and it doesn’t come. So it was with Mary and Martha, but there was a purpose in it which to them was not clear. We want action and expect God to intervene, yet sadly God does not work according to our timetables.

The waiting is perhaps to do with the intention that God will be glorified. Jesus waits before returning because the longer Lazarus lies dead, the more credible will be the bringing back to life. It seems heartless and cruel, but there is an important belief behind it . When Jesus eventually reaches Bethany the body of Lazarus had been in the tomb for 4 days. Lazarus had been buried on the day of his death, as was common.

In Sem 8 it is said that one should visit the place of one newly buries for three days to be sure that they were dead. Why three days, Ge. Rab 100(64a) ?
Bar Qappra taught that


‘the whole strength of the mourning is not till the third day, for three days long the soul returns to the grave, thinking that it will return (into the body); when however it sees that the colour of the face has changed then it goes away and leaves it’ (Str-B 2:544-45)

So according to rabbinical tradition, the soul of a deceased person hovers around the body for three days in hope of a reunion, but it takes its final departure when it notices that the body has entered a state of decomposition.  The four days of Lazarus in the tomb were therefore very significant. Jesus removed from his enemies any possible explanation of the resurrection of his friend Lazarus which they would have resorted to if it had not been removed.

Jesus says that Lazarus has only fallen asleep. We often use the phrase ‘fallen asleep’ when we actually mean ‘dead’. Sometimes we speak of putting animals to sleep, and it is a euphemism, but here we see Jesus using the phrase and it is helpful for us to know that Jesus regards death as sleep, in other words, something temporary, from which we will awake.

Eventually Jesus does say 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.”

The reaction of Thomas is interesting

“Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Jesus has only just recently escaped a threat to his life, he has managed to get to away from Jerusalem and the idea of returning does not go down well with the disciples. They had escaped by the skin of their teeth, and now Jesus is being asked to deliberately go back into danger.

We should perhaps be surprised to hear that it is Thomas, the one who throughout the history of the church is to be called “doubting,” who turns out to be the courageous and believing one.

On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Note the four days - no doubt now after three days that Lazarus was really dead. Note also that Martha goes out to Jesus, perhaps to protect him from those who would kill him.

Martha greets Jesus with these words of regret,

"Lord, I wish you could have been here, because if you had, my brother would not have died."

She knew that Lazarus was dead before Jesus could have done anything, but she has faith that Jesus could have made him well. Martha is expressing what everybody feels after a death - regrets, ‘if only’

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” “Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”
And it is this statement upon which everything hangs. Jesus is about to show that he is capable of raising the dead.

When confronted with the weeping gathering we read that he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. There has been much discussion of this. We know that in this passage are used the two words which form the shortest verse in the Bible ‘Jesus wept’. Sorrow is a part of human existence. In response to the grief and sorrow he sees, Jesus is overcome by grief and sorrow himself. Out of love and compassion, he shares fully in the sufferings of life. But this does not nearly capture all of what we are told about Jesus. Surrounded by death and mourning we are also told he was "deeply moved in spirit and emotionally agitated." The Greek word Enebrimesato has its root in the sound of a horse snorting, and expresses great anger. Etaraxen relates to fear and dread. Jesus was enraged in spirit and agitated with fear. Jesus is angry in the presence of death, this is not what he wants.

“Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied.

Bodies were laid in tombs, shafts cut into hillsides. They were laid out and in the early days there would be rapid decomposition with the flesh giving off a stench which would overcome the perfumed spices. Perhaps the whole body bound up there they decayed and eventually the bones were collected and placed into boxes.

But not in this case. Jesus calls for Lazarus to come out. This was clearly an astonishing miracle and a sign which led many to faith. The sight of the dead Lazarus shuffling out of the tomb must have caused fear, delight and wonder. Yet as much as many were driven to faith, Jewish leaders recognised that Jesus now represented a threat to their own positions of power. A few verses further on and we read that they decided now that Jesus must die. Jesus raises Lazarus to life and in so doing brings about the decision that his own life must be ended.

The writer of John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus performed his miracles for the purpose of helping people to believe that Jesus was ‘the Christ the Son of God’. (20:30) The passage today helps us to see how Jesus - as God - reacts to death and grief. We see clearly the compassion of Jesus for those bereaved. The response of Jesus is to call himself ‘the resurrection and the life’, and he gives an amazing visual demonstration of this in the raising to life of Lazarus. Jesus calls for trust in God because with that belief comes life. Through faith in Jesus we Christians find that God raises us to know his risen life. Today is a call for us to put our trust in him as one who holds the key to everlasting life and who has triumphed over death.