Walking out of Our Tombs - the Raising of Lazarus
[At the Grave]
This is one of the most familiar passages from the New Testament. We find it in John 11; this is a passage you most often hear read at funerals. On such occasions, this story is one of the most solemn and hopeful passages in the Bible.
A. This story from the life of Jesus comes as a witness that what Jesus did for Lazarus, his friend, what Jesus stands ready to do for everyone who walks with him in faith. This is one of the great stories we read at the grave. This is one of the great stories we read when we have reached our wits' end.
When you stand at the grave, or whenever you consider the limits of your own life, you want to hear this story again. It reminds us of the power of Jesus to meet us there with hope and a promise. It reminds us that when the world is finished with us and those who love us can go no further, Jesus Christ is able. Jesus Christ has demonstrated his power over death and the grave. Jesus Christ is the resurrection and he is life.
Imagine Lazarus’ thoughts as he laid on his second deathbed some years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Normal feelings of worry and fear were there in the corners of his soul, no doubt. But he had to have confidence. He knew that Jesus had a power over death like no other. Jesus was “resurrection and life,” and so Lazarus could be sure that he was not going to the grave alone.
B. The danger of reading this great story only at funerals is that it has become for us only a funeral passage. But it is so much more.
By the time we reach the middle of the book, John's Gospel reads like a fast-paced novel.
+In chapter 9, he tells how Jesus healed the man born blind and compounded the offense by doing it on the Sabbath. This led to an investigation by the Pharisees and Jesus' counter-charge that they were spiritually blind.
+In chapter 10, Jesus reveals himself as the Good Shepherd, and uses the image of the Good Shepherd to charge the Jewish leaders with failing to be good shepherds of Israel. This did not sit well with them, of course.
+By the end of chapter 10, matters are so bad between Jesus and the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem that they were actively trying to arrest him.
+To stay out of their hands, Jesus has to withdraw from Jerusalem all the way across the Jordan River to the place where John had been baptizing. Notice the symmetry in Jesus' choice of retreats:
a. Jesus puts himself in the great line of those called by God by going where John was calling people to return in faithfulness to God.
b. This place at the end of his ministry is also the place where Jesus began his ministry when he was baptized by John.
+Now, at the beginning of John 11, Jesus learns that his dear friend, Lazarus, is near death. For the sake of his friend, he must return to the region around Jerusalem. The town where he will visit is called Bethany.
+By the end of chapter 11, the Temple authorities are again planning to arrest him, and more than this, by the end of this chapter they will be planning to put him to death.
We must not read this story in isolation. The lethal tension between Jesus and the Temple authorities shapes the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. The way Jesus responds to this tension teaches us what it means for Jesus to go to the cross.
Two hard-to-explain places in the story can be explained by this tension:
1. When Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus that Lazarus was sick and should come, Jesus waited a few more days. Clearly, the sisters expected Jesus to come quickly; why did he wait? Well, he waited according to the story so that the glory of God could be shown through the miracle of raising him from the dead. Still, Jesus' delay was very disappointing to them – and to us.
The tension between Jesus and the Temple authorities shapes the story, too. Because the home of Lazarus and his sisters is only an hour's walk from Jerusalem, Jesus had to deal with the threat of arrest. Several times in the gospels, Jesus demonstrates a certain discretion when dealing with hostile authorities; this is consistent with that pattern. In the end, Jesus is caught between the threat of arrest by the authorities and his love for his friends.
2. The whole matter comes to a head in one of the other difficult moments in this story when Jesus finally arrives at the tomb where Lazarus is buried. John tells us:
33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping,
he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.
Every commentary on the Gospel of John asks: If Jesus knows what he is going to do for Lazarus, why is he distressed? He should confident and calm, but he is not. There he weeps – confirming his love for Lazarus. But, more than demonstrating his love for his friend, I see in this weeping an indication of the toll this visit takes on Jesus. To visit Lazarus' family at such a public time is to tell the authorities that he is close by and could be easily apprehended. POINT: It is a reminder to Jesus that the price of loving those who love him may be his own life. The act of coming to Lazarus shows us the love which took Jesus to the cross – the politics and the hostility of the Jewish leaders or the Romans. It was love for those who loved him that took Jesus to the cross.
3. The question every life-long follower of Jesus must surely ask is whether Jesus makes as much commitment to us as he asks us to make to him. Did Jesus do the "Son of God thing" and count himself finished, with no further responsibility to his followers? Or does he love his own with a love that is willing to be inconvenienced and to be put at risk for others?
• Jesus coming, even though the authorities have promised to arrest him,
• Jesus consoling Martha and Mary,
• and the picture of Jesus weeping at the tomb of his friend, Lazarus,
are vivid assurance of Jesus' willing love for those who follow him. That he is willing to love Lazarus and his sisters even at the cost of his own life is strong assurance for every Christian family.
Where did we get the idea that love is for sissies or only for those with the leisure to enjoy it? I see in Jesus' tears at the tomb of Lazarus the same agony that we will see when Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. At that moment it is clear that he holds all the power in heaven and on earth, but exercising that power is not what he has come to do. His purpose is to blind himself in love to those who will love him, hoping that we will see in his love the great love of God. That he has come to raise Lazarus from the grave shows that he is willing to risk absolutely everything to make this one point real.
II. Think back over the conversations Jesus has with Martha and Mary again. When Jesus arrived, Martha came out to him and dealt him a gentle rebuke: "If you had been here, my brother would not have died." She plainly had great faith in Jesus' power and his willingness to heal her brother. Now, Jesus turns the conversation to the faith she has in him:
23 Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." 24 Martha said to him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day."
In saying this, she has said nothing more than the Pharisees have been teaching for a long time: there will be a resurrection, and Lazarus will rise on that day. She sees God's promise, but it is not personal and it is not connected to Jesus in any special way. So, Jesus presses the point further:
25 Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"
Jesus is telling her about himself. And, I guess he is wanting us to listen in on the conversation, too. Of course, faith needs to know Jesus. But, it is not enough that we are basically religious people who hold loving thoughts about needy people. The Christian faith presses us to deal with Jesus of Nazareth.
1. It goes further: it is a reminder that Jesus is both totally God and totally human. For most us, it is easy to believe that Jesus is one or the other.
A. For most of the people who followed Jesus, it was easy for them to believe that Jesus was human. They saw him human every day. They had a harder time believing that he was God.
B. We, on the other hand, have no problem seeing Jesus as God. The problem we have is believing the other side of the fullness -- that Jesus was fully human. The miracles and even the words he spoke have been disconnected from the person Jesus.
He was a historical person who lived and breathed, who ate and slept, who suffered in the full sense of the word on the cross.
2. Too many of us, like Martha, hold the resurrection only as a concept. She understands resurrection as a concept that is long ago and far away. But, resurrection is standing right in front of her in Jesus, whom she can see. He is the resurrection; he is life. This hope now stands so close that she can look into his eyes. This is also Jesus who says, “I and the Father are one.”
You have to understand that this is the great scandal of the Christian faith: We proclaim a God who cannot be captured, a God who has captured the entire universe. God is the Creator. So far so good. But the scandal of the Christian claim is that this great God, whose reach is more vast than the universe took flesh in one particular person -- Jesus Christ
III. Now, there is more. The story of Lazarus is not reserved for the day we die. It is hope in the present-tense for everyone of us who are caught in the patterns and habits of death.
Recently, I was talking with friends about the modern application of this passage. Does it only speak to us at funerals? Does it have any further message for us? Their quick response was: "Yes, have you watched the television series, "Hoarders"? I have heard others talk about the series but I have never sat down to watch even one episode. Their urging: "You have to watch it. It is all about Lazarus being called out of the tomb."
Well, I went home and set the TIVO. Then, because I was in a hurry, I got online and found a website where I could download any episode from whole series. In a few minutes, I was ready to watch.
"Hoarders" is a series about people who hoard everything in their homes or their yards until they create an unhealthy situation for themselves and their families. The program describes hoarding as a psychological disorder – an genuine inability to separate junk from treasure. Or more correctly: the inability to separate themselves from junk.
The episode began with the identification of two hoarders: one a man; the other a woman. Perhaps the city codes enforcement officers helped the TV show to identify these likely subjects. With the camera we go inside the homes and see the piles and piles of rubbish – at least, that is what it looked like to me. In one home, we could not even see the dining table for the rubbish piled up on top of it and under it; it just looked like a pile of trash in the center of the room.
Next a psychologist is brought in to work with the hoarder. They talk about the problem and the personal difficulty in letting go of all this trash. The psychologist makes this a very person-centered problem. It will not be handled with a bulldozer – which would have been my solution.
Now, the cleaning crew arrives. The job is both physical and emotional for everyone involved. They work against the clock; the city codes enforcement officer is coming. They work against the deep resistance of the hoarders to keep what they have.
Now, connect the story of the raising of Lazarus with the story of the Hoarders. Symbolically, the houses on the show have become tombs. They are filled with dead dreams and dead possessions of these hoarders. The filth in the house has created an unsafe living environment for the people living there. The houses were not places of safety and promise; they were places of death.
The sad ending for each of the hoarders came when the result of all this effort was announced. In both cases, the cleanup crews did enough that their homes were not condemned. But, in both cases their lives were not really changed by the cleanup they had done.
This is the place where Jesus' work is more effective. The TV crew and the cleanup crew they hired brought nothing more than a Band Aid to the problem. When Jesus called Lazarus from his tomb, Lazarus was raised to life again.
The promise of Lazarus is that through Jesus we can be raised from all the dead places in our lives. We can be set free from the wrappings of death that surround us. We can be set free for new life by the power of God through Jesus Christ.
Let's take a few minutes to think about the places where death wraps around us like a tomb. Then, remember the promise that, just as Lazarus was called from his tomb, we will also be called from our tombs by the voice of the Master. His voice calls us to new life!
1. Buechner, Frederick, Now and Then