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Lazarus: A Matter of Life and Death (John 11:1-45)

It was a matter of life and death! Lazarus was very ill, and Martha and I had done everything we knew to help but to no avail. So, we sent for Jesus. We knew that if Jesus laid His hand upon our brother, he would be made well. We knew because Jesus had healed others in miraculous ways. Lepers were made clean; the blind were made to see. He was a wonderful healer! And He loved Lazarus. He loved all of us really. And we loved Him. Sometimes, He would come to our home to share a meal with us and to teach us. He revealed the meaning of the law and the prophets to us. I could sit at His feet for hours and listen. My sister, Martha, would grow impatient with me and complain because I was so engrossed in listening to Jesus that I wouldn’t help her to get the food prepared and on the table! So when Lazarus grew ill, we called upon Jesus, certain that help was on the way.
But our certainty soon turned to despair. Lazarus died, and we laid him in his tomb--and there was still no sign of Jesus. I was so sure that Jesus would come. Confusion mixed with disappointment. Why had He ignored our need? Wasn’t He the one who said, “Ask and you shall receive?” Well, we had asked! I didn’t understand then what I’ve come to know since. Jesus does hear and answer, but the answer may not always be what we expect, when we expect it! He did come eventually. By then, Lazarus had been entombed for four days. Everyone knew that after three days the soul departed from the body.  There would be no bringing Lazarus back. Why had Jesus waited so long?
In a way, I suppose I was being selfish in expecting Him to come. After all, it was a dangerous thing for Jesus to return to Judea. Only a short time before Lazarus became ill, there were those who had tried to stone Jesus to death because He had told them that He and the Father were one. But, despite the danger, Jesus did come, and many of His followers came with Him. It was brave of them all to make the journey, especially since Jesus told them that Lazarus was already dead. But Jesus had said that Lazarus’ illness was to bring God glory, and Jesus always did what He knew would give glory to God and taught His followers to do the same. Once Jesus had made it clear that He was, indeed, coming to Judea despite the threats, I’m told that one of the disciples, Thomas, said to the others, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Those who truly loved the Lord were willing to die in order to follow Him. There are some even today I’m told, who take such risks.
By the time Jesus arrived, we were deep in mourning. Friends and members of the community in Jerusalem had come to the house to comfort Martha and me and to share our grief. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet Him. She went to Him and said what was in both our hearts, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Those words were an affront in some ways but also a statement of faith. And Martha continued to have faith, even though Jesus had disappointed us by not saving Lazarus from death. She said to Jesus, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of Him.” Sometimes, it’s hard to remain faithful when you’re hurt and angry, but Martha held on to her belief in the Lord.
And her faith was answered. Jesus said, “Your brother will rise again.” Well, we all knew that. Most Jews believed that we would be resurrected on the last day, and Martha told Him she knew that. But then Jesus told her something she didn’t yet know. He said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” And then, He asked Martha, “Do you believe this?” I don’t know how I would have answered Him. How do those who die live and how could a person never die? I think I would have been stumped, but Martha answered by telling Jesus what she did know about Him. She said, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” I think for her, it was enough to know that Jesus was the One God had promised to send. Even if some of what Jesus said was a mystery, she knew that she could trust what He said because she knew who He was and who had sent Him.
After that, she came back to the house and told me that Jesus had come and that He was looking for me. I hurried out to meet Him. Many of the people saw me dash out. They assumed I was going to my brother’s tomb to mourn there, and they followed after me. When I came to the place where Jesus was, I knelt at His feet, overcome by emotion; and, like my sister, I said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Jesus looked at me and at those who had followed me; and when He saw how we were crying out in our distress, He became very disturbed. He was moved by our pain and asked where we had laid Lazarus’ body. We told Him, “Lord, come and see.” And then, Jesus began to weep. Some of the crowd assumed that He was mourning Lazarus, and they said, “See how he loved him!" But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of a blind man have kept this man from dying?” But, I think Jesus’ weeping was different. We cried aloud for our loss. It was the way we were taught. Some said that the more a person was loved the louder was the mourning people did for him. Some people even hired folks to come and moan and wail over the deceased to show that the person was loved. But Jesus’ tears were different. He cried softly, almost to Himself. I don’t think He was crying for Lazarus alone; I think He was crying for all of us, for the terrible pain of death itself. God’s children were not created for death but for life, that we might give glory to God. The terrible power of death disturbed Him, and He wept.
When we got to the tomb, Jesus asked that the stone that secured the tomb be pushed out of the way. Martha was quick to protest. “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.” Martha, Martha, always worried and distracted by many things (Luke 10:41)…the Lord is about to answer her prayers, and give glory to God, and she’s worried that things won’t have that clean, fresh scent. Can you believe it?!
Well, OK, maybe it’s not so hard to believe. Actually, maybe we all are a little like Martha sometimes. I mean, how many times have I asked God to do something and then tried to take back control because there might be something unpleasant I don’t want to have to deal with in the process? How often do we feel the panic that comes with realizing that the fulfillment of our prayers may mean having to face what just plain stinks? People pray for peace of mind for those who struggle with addiction and then say, “I don’t want a halfway house in my back yard.” Folks complain about how the environment is being ruined but don’t want to deal with the smell, the discomfort, or the inconvenience of public transportation. We declare that something should be done for the homeless, but we pretend we don’t see them when we pass them on the way into our places of work each day. Like my sister, we want Jesus to work miracles as long as there’s nothing to offend our senses or sensibilities.
But Jesus knew that sometimes we have to believe beyond the fear, and He reminded Martha of His promise that her faith would be rewarded…that she would see the glory of God. So, they moved the stone away. Jesus prayed aloud for the benefit of those who had gathered. He said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me.” And He added that He knew the Father always heard Him but that He wanted those present to believe that the Father had sent Him. And then, He shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” And my brother walked out of the tomb, still covered by the cloth strips with which they’d bound him before placing him in the tomb. Jesus said, “Unbind him and let him go.” It was a miracle! Jesus had brought life to Lazarus. As others witnessed the new life in Lazarus, they came to believe in Jesus!
Now, I don’t know where you’re at today, but I’m willing to believe that there’s something in my story for you. Maybe like Martha or me, you’ve asked Jesus to help you, and you’re sure He hasn’t heard. Remember, Jesus won’t always answer when or how we expect, but that doesn’t mean our requests are unheard. Jesus will find a way to use even the most painful of situations to bring glory to God.
Or maybe you’re at a place like Martha where you feel confused by something Jesus said; perhaps you’re struggling with the Word of God. Remember that though there are some lessons we may not fully understand, we may still trust in Jesus because we know who He is and we know who sent Him; and sometimes if we just keep faith and continue to walk with Jesus, He will take us to a place where all becomes clear.
Or maybe, like Martha, you have turned to Christ for help but fear that the answer will be messy in some way. Jesus knows your doubt but wants you to keep faith so that you, too, will see the glory of God.
Or maybe you’re like my brother Lazarus, and you feel as though the life has gone out of you or perhaps that life has passed you by. Maybe you’re feeling soul-less and wrapped up in things that won’t let you go. Jesus offers you new life. He will call you by your name and loose that which binds you. And then, as others witness the change that Jesus makes in you, they, too, will come to believe and will find new life in Christ. That is how it has always been. Those who answer Christ’s call to new life find a teacher and a friend for whom they are willing to die. But, of course, it is Jesus who died for us that we might have eternal life.
Funny…I started my story telling you, “It was a matter of life and death.” But the truth is that, with Jesus, “It’s really a matter of life, and life, and life.” Amen.

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