By Dr. Philip W. McLarty The raising of Lazarus is the last of Jesus’ miracles. It’s also the clearest sign of who he is—the Son of God, the Promised Messiah, the Savior of the world.
It sets the stage for Jesus’ own death and resurrection. According to John, those who witnessed the miracle went back and told the temple leaders what happened. John writes:
“The chief priests therefore and the Pharisees gathered a council, and said, ‘What are we doing? For this man does many signs. If we leave him alone like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.’… So from that day forward they took counsel that they might put him to death.” (11:47-53)
What I hope you’ll get out of the sermon this morning is a promise: If Jesus can raise Lazarus from the dead, he can bring you to new life, if you’re willing. The story begins,
“Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus from Bethany, of the village of Mary and her sister, Martha.” (John 11:1)
John assumes you know the relationship. Mary and Martha and Lazarus were among Jesus’ closest friends. He stayed in their home when he came to Jerusalem. It was his spiritual hangout. He enjoyed their hospitality. He cherished their friendship. While he had many followers, Mary, Martha and Lazarus were three of his favorites.
This gives us a glimpse into the human nature of Jesus – that is, to feel a certain attraction to some, and not others. We all know what that’s like. Call it chemistry, if you like, or good vibes – something about another person awakens your spirit, and you feel drawn to them in a special way. Why should Jesus be any different?
John goes on to tell us that Lazarus was ill. That’s an understatement – he was near the point of death. Mary and Martha sent for him to come at once.
Jesus was laying low when he got the message. He’d had a run-in with the Pharisees in Jerusalem. They’d threatened to stone him or have him arrested. (John 10:31, 39-40) Nevertheless, he got the message: “He for whom you have great affection is sick.”
Can you hear the urgency? It’s a plea for help. Given that, you’d think Jesus would’ve dropped everything and rushed back to Bethany. But, no, John says,
“Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus. When therefore he heard that he was sick, he stayed two days in the place where he was.” (John 11:5-6)
This is our first clue. Who is Jesus? He’s the Lord of life. He’s not bound by time and space. Disease and death pose no threat to him. This comes out in what he told the disciples. He said,
“This sickness is not to death, but for the glory of God, that God’s Son may be glorified by it.” (John 11:4)
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If you’re paying attention that should raise a question: But didn’t Lazarus die? The answer is: Yes, he did. And that leads to a bigger question: What does it mean to live? What does it mean to die?
To live is to be at one with God and the whole of God’s creation. To die is to be separated from God and at odds with the world around you.
We put too much emphasis on this mortal life when we simply try to stay alive. We’re all going to die some day. The question is whether we’ll live in the fullness of God’s grace and love. Jesus said,
“But seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)
Put the Lord first, and he’ll give you all the strength and vitality you need to experience life in abundance, however long you live.
Jesus stayed where he was two more days, then he told his disciples, “Let’s go into Judea again.” (John 11:7) The disciples tried to stop him. They said,
“Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” (John 11:8)
In a sense, they were right: It’d be suicide for Jesus to go back to Jerusalem. But again, Jesus was on a different plain. All that mattered was for him to complete his mission. He said,
“Aren’t there twelve hours of daylight? If a man walks in the day, he doesn’t stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if a man walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light isn’t in him.” (John 11:9-10)
It’s easy to get caught up in what others would have you think, say and do. To be faithful is to seek God’s will for your life and follow the leading of the Holy Spirit … and let the chips fall where they may.
Jesus would go back to Jerusalem. If it cost him his life, so be it. He told his disciples,
“Lazarus is dead. I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe. Nevertheless, let’s go to him.” (John 11:14-15)
Just as a man’s blindness gave Jesus an opportunity to demonstrate the power of God to give sight to the blind (John 9:1-41), so Lazarus’ death will give Jesus an opportunity to demonstrate the power of God to raise the dead to new life.
God doesn’t cause bad things to happen to innocent people, but God can use misfortune to bless us in unexpected ways, if we turn to him. In this way we have an opportunity to be a witness of faith to others.
One of my elders in Odessa was diagnosed with cancer and given only a few months to live. Friends and family gathered to console him. I’ll never forget what his best friend said, “All these years you’ve shown your boys how a man of faith lives out his life; now you have a chance to show them how a man of faith goes about the business of dying.”
When Jesus got to the home, Martha rushed out to greet him. She said, “Lord, if you would have been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” (John 11:21)
Hear the anger? “If only you’d gotten here sooner … What took you so long?!”
Don’t be too hard on Martha. When tragedy strikes … when a loved one dies … when you experience disappointment and loss first-hand, it’s only natural to lash out. Jesus told Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” (John 11:23)
Martha took this to mean that Lazarus would rise again at the resurrection on the last day. This was a standard belief among the Jews. But that’s not what Jesus meant. He said,
“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will still live, even if he dies. Whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26)
Then he asked Martha, point blank: “Do you believe this?”
Martha said, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, he who comes into the world.” (John 11:27)
Martha went back to the house and got Mary, and Mary came out to greet Jesus. She said the same thing, “Lord, if you would have been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” This time, Jesus reacted differently. John says,
“When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews weeping who came with her, he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled, and said, ‘Where have you laid him?'” (John 11:34)
They took him to the tomb where Lazarus was buried, and, in the shortest verse of the Bible, John says, “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35)
Consider the significance of these two words: Jesus wept. If ever you need permission to grieve, here it is. The verb used here literally means “to quake.” The sense of it is this: Jesus didn’t simply get teary-eyed; he shook with emotion from the depth of his soul. If you’ve ever wept uncontrollably and in anguish, you know what I mean. Faith in God and the pain of separation and loss often go hand-in-hand.
In his book, Don’t Take My Grief Away, Doug Manning tells of a young couple whose 18-month-old daughter developed a croup and was taken to the hospital. She was put under an oxygen tent and given antibiotics. In spite of everything the doctors did, she died less than an hour later.
When Doug got there, the mother was crying hysterically. He was a young pastor, and he tried to console her. He said, “There, there, you must get hold of yourself.” He said the young woman looked at him straight in the eye and said with fire in her voice, “Don’t take my grief away from me. I deserve it, and I’m going to have it.” (61)
He said he learned from that experience how important grief is to the healing process. He writes,
“Grieving is as natural as crying when you are hurt, sleeping when you are tired, eating when you are hungry, or sneezing when your nose itches. It’s nature’s way of healing a broken heart.” (P. 60)
When Jesus was confronted with the death of a close friend, he wept, and so must we.
John goes on to say that Jesus went to the tomb. When he got there, he asked that the stone be taken away. Martha objected. She said, “Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days.” (John 11:39)
Jesus said, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed, you would see God’s glory?” (John 11:40)
They rolled the stone away. Jesus looked to God and prayed. Then he called out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43) Lazarus came out. His body was still wrapped in burial cloths. Jesus said, “Free him, and let him go.” (John 11:44)
It was a miracle and a clear display of God’s power. It was also an unmistakable sign that Jesus was the Christ. The question was how to respond. John says,
“Therefore many of the Jews, who came to Mary and saw what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went away to the Pharisees, and told them the things which Jesus had done (John 11:45-46)
For the Pharisees and their henchmen, it was the beginning of the end of this man, Jesus. For those of faith, it was the beginning of new life.
The question is: Which will it be for you? Will you open up your heart and honor Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior? Will you walk in his footsteps and follow his example? Only you can say who or what will be the Lord of your life.
At the outset, I said the raising of Lazarus contains a promise, and it does: If Jesus can raise Lazarus from the dead he can bring you to new life, as well.
But it depends on you and your willingness to profess faith in Jesus Christ. If you’ve already made a profession of faith, are you willing to reaffirm it? Either way, I don’t know of a better way than to profess faith in Jesus Christ than to offer the prayer of John Wesley.
Here’s what I suggest: I’ll give you the words. If you’re willing, repeat them after me. Let them speak of your faith and of your commitment to Jesus Christ. Let us pray:
I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal. Amen.
Live each day in the spirit of this prayer. Surrender each day to the lordship of Jesus Christ. In time, you’ll experience a dimension of life you could’ve never, ever imagined.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.