Ezekiel 37:1-14 • Psalm 130:1-8 • Romans 8:6-11 • John 11:1-45
This week’s theme is Rising from the Depths. In Ezekiel we join the prophet in the valley to discover that God can restore life even when dry bones are all that remains. Psalm 130 articulates a prayer where one can cry to the Lord out of the depths of sin while waiting on him in hope. In Romans, the mind set on the Spirit is raised to righteousness life from the death of sinful flesh. The sermon from John 11 points us to Jesus during our grief over great loss. We find comfort in the depths of sorrow with renewed hope in Jesus who comes to us, calling us into his raised life with the Father in the Spirit.
Waiting & Weeping
John 11:1-45 (NRSV)
Read, or have someone read, the text prior to the sermon.
This story in John begins by letting us know the close relationship Jesus had with Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha. Lazarus is seriously ill, so his sisters send a message to Jesus counting on their relationship with Jesus to bring the miracle worker to their aid. “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
Have you ever sent a message to Jesus like that? You have known the Lord for some time and have developed a close relationship. You know Jesus loves you and you have had experiences in the past that tell you that he will be faithful to you in the future. Then something awful happens. Your company talks of downsizing. You or a loved one gets cancer. Or maybe there are pregnancy complications. I’m sure you have your own list of adversities that have turned your world upside down. Maybe you are in the middle of one now! During these times, we may send a message to Jesus. We may add to our prayers the reminder to Jesus that, “I know you love me… so, please come quickly.” Can you identify with how Mary and Martha must have felt after sending that message only to get no reply day after day? I don’t think it’s too hard to put ourselves in their sandals. There are times we pray sincere, heartfelt prayers to Jesus, knowing he loves us, knowing he’s aware of what’s going on, only to be answered with silence. You pray… nothing changes.
We may also react to Jesus’ response to receiving the message. Jesus said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” At first, we may think, “Oh good! Everything is going to turn out just fine.” But then we discover, as Mary and Martha did, that it doesn’t turn out just fine—at least from our perspective. In fact, it turns very much to the worse. Your company decides to let you go. The cancer turns terminal. The baby is lost. Lazarus dies. Then we are left alone with our thoughts and agonizing questions. Is Jesus out of touch? Did he not know the situation was serious? How does this add one whit to God’s glory? Maybe he doesn’t love me after all. We find ourselves alone with our tears.
It may be good at this point to let you in on how John is using this story. John in his Gospel account has a keen interest in showing us how Jesus, as the Son of God, reveals the Father and provides eternal life. This story of Lazarus is John’s last stop in a series of miraculous stories that serve as “signs” for his readers. There are seven signs in all, and each serves in filling out Jesus’ self-revelation. Each sign reveals a little more of who Jesus is and what his mission is in the world. As we encounter these “signs” in John’s Gospel we come to know who Jesus is and who his Father is. In this way, we are called to grow in our faith and once again place our trust in him. John uses the story of Jesus raising Lazarus as the 7th and final “sign” that ultimately culminates in the religious authorities crucifying him. So, John has paradoxically told the story of Jesus bringing life to Lazarus which will end up leading to Jesus’ death. There’s more going on in the story than Jesus restoring one man to his family.
When Jesus hears that Lazarus is sick, we are reminded that Jesus “loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” The next verse surprises us as Jesus intentionally decides to wait for “two more days.” Our trust in the Father’s love for us is often challenged when we feel he has left us waiting and weeping. But it is always his love that governs his actions. When Jesus decides to “go back to Judea” the disciples try to discourage him for fear of the religious authorities. But Jesus knows he is walking in the light of his Father’s will and he will not be deterred. He tells them “Lazarus has fallen asleep.” His disciples think he is talking about natural sleep but Jesus tells them “plainly” that Lazarus has died.
When receiving Jesus’ words, we also need Jesus to inform us of the meaning behind those words. Relying on our natural, plausible and logical thinking may lead us to misinterpret what Jesus is saying to us. This can be an important reminder for us as we study Scripture. How often do we come to Scripture looking for answers to our problems? We read the Bible and then interpret it according to our own way of thinking. But when we come to Scripture, like the passage we are looking at today, we are not reading it to confirm what we think we already know. We want to hear what Jesus is saying to us in his written word. As we listen to him, we may have to rethink the way we once understood things.
When Jesus finally arrives, he finds that Lazarus has been dead four days. Ancient Jewish belief held that the spirit of a dead person would hover around the body for three days. During that time it is still possible for resuscitation. After four days all hope is lost.
Jesus arrives and finds Lazarus four days dead and beyond help, just as he finds all humanity. We may find ourselves identifying with Lazarus’ state in our own lives. Job losses, broken relationships, moral failures, humiliating circumstances and other experiences can leave us feeling four days dead, beyond all hope. Ever been there? It’s hard to get up in the morning when you feel four days dead. Maybe you feel you have failed just one time too many and are now beyond the reach of God’s mercy and forgiveness. Perhaps you have shut down and tuned out because you don’t have anything left in you. You are done. You gave it your best. But at the end of the day, you are four days dead and flat on your back. Is John trying to tell us that Jesus can show up late and work a miracle even when we are four days dead? Well, that would be some glorious news for sure.
Martha meets Jesus on his arrival, and she is struggling with her belief in Jesus. Jesus works to move her beyond placing her comfort in theological presuppositions to placing her comfort and trust in him by telling her, “I am the resurrection and the life.” As she expresses a deeper belief in him, she “went back and called her sister Mary.” She lets Mary know that Jesus has arrived and is looking for her.
Notice how Martha learns a little more about Jesus through this ordeal. Jesus has moved her further in her relationship with him to where she does not find her hope in a far distant day of “the resurrection on the last day” but has found hope in the present knowing that Jesus is “the resurrection and the life” who is present with her today. She makes a profound statement of faith when she says, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” It’s after she comes to this depth of knowing Jesus that she runs off to tell her sister Mary. The more we come to know Jesus for who he is, the more we will want to tell others. Also, the better we see Jesus, the better our witness of him will be. Martha doesn’t tell Mary that she needs to “find Jesus.” What does Mary need to hear? She needs to hear that Jesus “is here and is calling for [her].”
Perhaps you need to hear that today. If you are feeling four days dead or buried under a weight of grief, the Lord is not waiting for you to track him down. He is already here, and he is calling for you. Have you ever experienced the lift of hearing that someone is calling for you? (Unless, of course, the person calling you is a parent and they use your full name. Then you know you are in trouble.) It feels good to be wanted and searched out. How many in our broken world would respond as Mary did if they heard that Jesus was calling for them? Mary responds by immediately going to him.
In the interchange between Mary and Jesus, we witness Jesus being “deeply moved in spirit.” This deep agony is summed up in the two simple words, “Jesus wept.” These two words, which are the shortest scripture in our English translations, have garnered much contemplation over why Jesus was sorrowful. It may seem odd that he would mourn over a dead man that he was about to raise to life. But taking John’s aim of revelation into account, I think we can see that Jesus’ tears stream from his solidarity with humanity. Jesus didn’t come to be distant and detached from us. He enters our very suffering. The tears he cries are our tears.
Jesus in this story is Jesus comforting his friends. He did not protect himself from experiencing the great losses we experience in life. He did not let himself be spared of the deep grief that comes from losing close friends and family. Every tear we cry we can know that Jesus cries with us. He is our great comforter. Jesus cries our tears for the purpose of wiping those tears away. He doesn’t feel sorry for us but rather he joins our sorrow in order to heal us and bring us into his joy. In our moments of great loss, we still may have to wait for the arrival of the Lord who seems to have stayed away a little too long. But this story can remind us that Jesus is with us. The Father is with us. The Spirit is here to comfort us. We do not weep alone. When we mourn and weep, we are expressing a love for something lost. We are saying that what has happened is wrong and it shouldn’t be. Grieving death is affirming life. Then surely, the one who is Life, would be the one who grieves the most deeply. In fact, he grieves deep enough to get under all that is lost, to plunge to the utter depths of all death and decay so he can lift it up in his resurrection life.
Jesus moved beyond the tears to the tomb. Unlike the Jews who thought they were going with Mary to the tomb to mourn, Jesus goes to the tomb to restore. John gives us a picture of the events that will take place after this story. Jesus will again go to the tomb, but it will be his own. On Easter he wipes away every tear.
John records Jesus raising Lazarus as a sign of Easter morning when Jesus is resurrected. Did you catch how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead? He calls him. “Lazarus, come out!” Jesus is the Word from the Father that calls us to new life in him. Just as he called for Mary and just as he called forth Lazarus, Jesus is still calling today. He is calling to you right now. Can you hear him? Lazarus, even four days dead, was able to hear his name from the lips of Jesus and responds by coming out of the tomb.
As Lazarus comes from the tomb still in burial clothes, Jesus tells the onlookers to “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” As we see that our brothers and sisters are alive in Christ, we can then participate in setting them free in that reality. Lazarus had indeed been raised from the dead, but remaining in grave clothes would prevent him from living it out.
As we approach Holy Week and the upcoming Easter celebration, may we embrace the reality that Jesus, in his death and resurrection, has set us free to live in him. Many may need a brother or sister to help see this reality and walk in it. As we live in our broken world, we can join Jesus in his tears for his lost creation. We can share the good news that Jesus has come and he is calling us to himself. May we go tell others who are still waiting and weeping.
Small Group Discussion Questions
- The Speaking of Life video equated the shortest verse, “Jesus wept” as that “one wee drop” that contain great wealth. What treasures do you see in the tears of Jesus?
- Can you relate to how Martha and Mary must have felt when Jesus was “late” in answering their message for help? Can you think of times when you felt Jesus had left you “waiting and weeping”? What do you think about Jesus “lingering” during these times of urgency?
- Do you have any stories where you felt you were “four-days dead” yet God raised you? How does Jesus waiting “two more days” in the story help us live in hope when we feel we are beyond hope?
- What are your thoughts on why Jesus “wept” even though he knew he was about to raise Lazarus back to life?
- Discuss your thoughts on how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead by saying “Lazarus, come out!”
- Can you think of ways a person who has been raised in Christ may need some brothers and sisters to help remove the burial clothes? What might this look like in your church? What implications does this image tell you about discipling new believers?