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Raising Lazarus: The Sorrow of Mary and Martha and the Glory of God (John 11:1-45)

April 6, 2014

The author John introduces the story of Jesus raising Lazarus by identifying Lazarus as the brother of Mary “who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair.”  John has not yet given his readers the account of the anointing of Jesus by Mary; it actually follows in the next chapter.  However, John wants his readers to know that this is “the Mary.”  Perhaps they had heard of her devotion to Jesus.  The early church may have already had its heroes of the faith. 

Upon the illness of their brother, the sisters Martha and Mary send a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love it ill.” This phrase is similar to the way John describes himself as “the disciple Jesus whom Jesus loved.” (John 21:20) By this time in their relationship with Jesus, the women know that Jesus loves them and their brother.  They also know that he is the healer and miracle worker, and they place their hopes in his response.  They may have even calculated the time at which the healing would occur… “Let’s see; it should take a day for the message to get to Jesus and then about a minute for him to send the healing to Lazarus.”  They waited.

John’s audience sees the reaction of Jesus.  He waits, too, but he knows.  He walks by the light of God, and God is orchestrating the events for his glory and so that people would believe.  John’s entire gospel is written, so that people might believe and have life in his name. (John 20:30-31) Through his historical narrative, John will illustrate to his audience the passion, power and purpose of Jesus.

These four days of Lazarus being dead and in the grave were surely times of torment for Mary and Martha.  As Jesus arrives in Bethany, we see their woe is fresh and fervent.  How many questions would have entered their minds beginning with “Why…?” and “What if…?” or “If only…”  They must have wondered what had been going on in Jesus’ mind.  This is a topic that theologians continually debate:  “What did Jesus know?”  “When did he know it?” And “Why did he do what he did?”

Jesus’ disciples with him don’t know either.  They warn him that he is entering an area of opposition that may even lead to his death.  Thomas speaks up and says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  We cannot determine whether this is inspired by courage or surrender.

What we see in this historical event narrated by John is that nobody knows what Jesus is doing—not his disciples, not his friends, not the villagers.  Each person has his or her image of Jesus, who he is and what he is doing, and some are nearer the truth than others.  Knowing Jesus begins and ends with clinging to him, trusting him and loving him.  We cling to Jesus, so that we can keep our eyes on him and learn of him.  We trust him because he is the Good Shepherd leading us to abundant life.  We love him because he has first loved us and continues to lavish his love upon us and others.  We cannot, however, figure him out.

Martha runs to Jesus first, as he approaches their village.  Jesus assures her that her hopes have not been dashed but will be fulfilled, even now.  How similar his conversations with Martha and Mary sound to his discussion with the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus following his resurrection.  Jesus’ ministry restores hope of life in the face of death and the grave.  Surely, Martha’s heart began to burn within her at Jesus’ words of hopefulness, “Your brother will rise again…I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. ”

In the midst of the story, Jesus gets to the point with Martha, “Do you believe this?” Do you, today, believe this? In the midst of your story, do you believe that by faith in Jesus you have eternal life and shall never spiritually die?

Martha is then sent to Mary. Listen to her message to Mary, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.”  Jesus calls for Mary.  While she has been wondering where Jesus is and calling for him, he comes and calls for her.  Mary is on Jesus’ mind.  We, his children, are on Jesus’ mind. Jesus doesn’t act according to our dictates or egos’ desires, but we are on his mind.  He is working, so that we might believe and receive life to his Father’s glory.  What a wonder?!  This is Jesus’ purpose.

Mary goes to Jesus quickly and immediately.  How do you respond when Jesus calls?  How do you respond to knowing that you are on his mind.  Mary comes to Jesus and falls at his feet.  This is a posture of worship and possibly exasperation.  At the feet of Jesus is an appropriate place for either.  He is worthy of our worship and competent to handle our exasperation.

Through tears, Mary expresses her faith in Jesus and her unfulfilled expectations, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Can Jesus handle our disappointment in him? Should we hide it or confess it?  Does he get angry at our doubt and unfulfilled desires of him?  John makes sure that his audience sees Jesus’ passionate emotional and gut reaction,

“When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled,” and, “He wept.”  Jesus loves this woman weeping at his feet pouring out her heart to him.  He becomes deeply moved by her.  He is deeply troubled by the presence of sin, death and sorrow in this world that was made through him for his Father’s glory.  He has come to overcome these evils.  It has not been in stoicism or with a robotic response that Jesus has come from heaven.  Jesus loves deeply and hurts deeply.  He has come for an eternal purpose.  His passion and power are demonstrated in fulfilling his purpose.

When Jesus comes to the tomb, he is “deeply moved again.”  This is the passion of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords who will come with earthquakes, thunder and lightning.  He is the one whose passion will cause the stars to fall from the sky and the entire old order of things to pass away to make room for the new heavens and new earth.  He has come to conquer sin, Satan and death for the glory of God and to give eternal life to all who believe.

Martha’s protests are firmly rebuked by Jesus, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”  Sometimes rather than follow Jesus up a mountain to see the glory of God we are asked by God to merely wait in faith.  We wait in faith by staying close to him and his promises.  We keep our eyes on him looking for him to come.  We keep our ears open to his words listening for his voice.  We continue in the fellowship of the saints surrounded by the “cloud of witnesses” and worshipping God with our fellow servants the angels.

And we wait for the door of heaven to be opened into our lives.  God hears us, as he heard Jesus offering prayers while he was on the earth.  God answers our prayers, so that we and those around us may believe in Jesus.

After commanding people to take the stone away, Jesus calls Lazarus forth from death back to life, restores his body to health and returns him to his family and the world.  The one whom Jesus loves is with Jesus again.  Jesus, the resurrection and the life, has come and all is well. 

We cannot minimize or dismiss the anguish that Mary and Martha endured for the four days of their brother’s death.  In his sovereignty and love, God not only allowed it but brought it about for a higher and better, eternal purpose.  Jesus did not exempt himself from their anguish; he entered it and experienced their pain and sorrow himself.  If Jesus does not seem to be present or acting according to your expectations, do not fear, doubt or become angry.  He is present, and he has taken in your pain, sorrow and fervent pleas.  He sees the victory and will bring the revelation of God’s glorious workings.  Mary and Martha learned that with Jesus their mourning may last a period of time but rejoicing is sure to come.  Faith in Jesus leads to rejoicing and life.

All of Scripture prophetically proclaims the coming glory of God.  If we believe, we can rejoice now at the assurance of Jesus’ coming.  The message of Revelation encourages readers to have “patient endurance” in light of their trials and the certain coming of their Savior and King to make “all things new.”  The strength, faith, patience, endurance and assurance comes only from Jesus and our intimacy with him.  The story of Lazarus, if it teaches us anything, teaches us to keep the faith in Jesus, even against all odds, even against the reality of the burial stone placed before the tomb.

We live in a fallen world in which even “the one Jesus loves” can suffer in pain or trouble, even to the point of an untimely death.  We may face severe anguish and mourning in our lives.  In all of these things, Jesus comes in passion, in power and with purpose.  He comes so that you might believe and have life.

If the Lazarus story shows what Jesus can do with a person dead four days and hidden away in a tomb, what can he do with you when you place your life in his hands? He is passionate for you.  He has demonstrated his willingness to use his power to fulfill God’s purpose in your life.  If you put your life in God’s hands, you are sure to see God’s hands in your life.

Pray, as the psalmist prays, “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.  Do not forsake the work of your hands.” (Psalm 138:8)

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