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"Lazarus"

July 17, 2022 Speaker: Pastor Bob Davis

Passage: John 11:1-44, Psalm 139:1-18

"Lazarus"

“The Resurrection and the Life”

John 11:1-44

July 17, 2022

Read John 11:1-44

This is the Word of the LORD

Today, we jump back into the gospel of John.  Chapter 11 is one long episode, and we are going to spend most of our time there, but there is one more piece of the context that is important to remember: at this point in Jesus’ ministry, the Jews – basically, those who did not believe – had sought to kill Jesus multiple times.  The most recent was at the end of Chapter 10, where they picked up stones for a second time, and he asked them, “For which good work are you going to stone me?”  And they responded, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.”  The point is this: whether people believed or did not believe, there was no confusion about what Jesus was saying.  He was saying openly that he was the Messiah, the Son of God.

That was a big deal, both theologically and politically.  The ramifications of a declared messiah were understood to be a revolution against Rome like Moses had led in Egypt. It was January 6 in Jesus’ Day.  At the end of Chapter 10, Jesus went again across the Jordan to where John had been baptizing earlier – away from the threatening crowds.” And that’s what gets us into the Lazarus story.

My Grandma Davis was quite a character.  When I was in seventh grade, my dad and I traveled from West Chester to Aliquippa (outside Pittsburgh) to move her into a smaller apartment in Beaver.  A few years later, when she was not as independent as she thought she was, my parents had to make some decisions.  The final straw was when she drove to a local open-air farmer’s market, decided that she was too tired to walk, so she drove through – “slowly,” as she would report indignantly later.  My parents moved her into an assisted living facility closer to where we lived.

Even there she was quite a character.  She could not get around very quickly.  One reason why I was among her favorites is because I had given her as a present a walking stick with a removable top.  The top was attached to a test-tube size container sufficient to hold about a shot of whiskey; you know, for medicinal purposes.  Even when she was somewhat frail, she preferred that walking stick to a walker.

During her years at the assisted living facility, she began to suffer dementia and lose track of where she was.  She would talk to me as if I were my Uncle Ralph and go over details of the day as if it were 1940.  Many of the people there were in similar situations.  One time, toward the end of her life, she wanted to go to the activity room where other people were sitting, watching television, or playing table games.  She wanted to go because one of the men there was named Bill Bailey, and she enjoyed tormenting him by insisting that he must be the “Bill Bailey” of “Won’t you come home Bill Bailey” fame.

We got to the activity room and there were a number of people at tables all around.  To her great disappointment, Bill Bailey was not there.  Some who were there talked – more at each other than with each other.  Most were sitting quietly by themselves.  Over on one side of the room was an old upright piano like we use in the Family Life Center.

As my grandmother and I sat, I could see the wheels turning as she tried to think like a detective to figure out where Bill Bailey could be.  I noticed an attendant go over and begin talking with a man on the other side of the room.  The attendant left and, after a few moments, the man got up slowly walked over, and sat down on the piano bench. He got his bearings on the keys, and he began to play, “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”  He played the intro and then, as if they had been waiting for the conductor to cue them, almost everyone in the room began to sing.  They all knew the words.  They all sang together.  Then, the “Old Rugged Cross.”  Then, “Amazing Grace.”

It was unbelievable.  Their eyes lit up.  The looked at one another directly, with recognition, and they shared joy.  They were connected with each other.  It was an impromptu choir.

For me, it was kind of an epiphany – a divine light suddenly shining.  This was beyond rational; it was not something that could be measured.  It was like the passage in Ezekiel where dry bones suddenly come back to life.  When the music of the church – music written to praise God – was played, the people came to life.  It was as if people had been brought back from their solitude, their dementia, their loneliness to a place of community, hope and life.  The room was alive.  It is remarkable the power of the word, set in music, to draw people to life. 

Since then, I have seen this happen a few other times, and perhaps you have, too. After the man stopped playing, slowly the normal scene returned.

The story of Lazarus is the story of life.  It is a story of the demonstration of Christ’s power – his power as the author of life.  Throughout Chapter 11, Jesus exudes the confidence of one who knows what he is going to do, what he as the Son of God, Son of Man, Word of God is able to do.  We read a part of this Scripture text at many memorial services because it is a message of power and hope.

I want to stop quickly at four points in the story. 

  1. The First Stop: Where is Jesus in hard times?

The first stop is during the introduction of the story.  Jesus received the message that Lazarus was gravely ill and did not rush out.  “This illness does not lead to death;” Jesus said, “rather, it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”  What does that mean?  The disciples probably thought that Lazarus’ condition was not all that serious because Jesus did not react all that seriously.  Little did they know.

Lazarus’ condition was serious, and Jesus knew it.  It was serious enough for the sisters to send a message asking him to come.  Jesus’ reaction seems odd when we know how much he cared for this family.  They wanted him there – now.

When tough times come, we want Jesus right there – now.  We want him to make things better – now.  It is difficult for us to imagine that God would leave us in pain, leave us struggling, leave us lonely.  How can God love us and not keep bad things from happening to us?  Where is Jesus when we need him?  Why do we have to go through hard times?

There is an old story told of a man who found a cocoon of the emperor moth and took it home to watch it emerge.  One day a small opening appeared, and for several hours the moth struggled but couldn't seem to force its body past a certain point.

Deciding something was wrong, the man took scissors and snipped the remaining bit of cocoon.  The moth emerged easily, its body large and swollen, the wings small and shriveled.  He expected that in a few hours the wings would spread out in their natural beauty, but they did not.  Instead of developing into a creature free to fly, the moth spent its life dragging around a swollen body and shriveled wings.

The constricting cocoon and the struggle necessary to pass through the tiny opening are God's way of forcing fluid from the body into the wings.  The "merciful" snip was, in reality, cruel.  Sometimes the struggle is exactly what we need.

And the truth is that we all experience trouble and strife in our lives.  Whether it is anxiety over finances, whether it is illness, whether it is broken relationships or the feelings of failure, whatever it is, we all experience that sense of being in the midst of a great struggle.  Things should be easier, we think.  Yet, the glory of God often is revealed in things that are hard for us to understand.

Often, friends will tell us, “These things happen for a reason.”  There is an assumption that we will be able to make sense of things somewhere down the road.  Although I believe that is sometimes true, it is not always the case.  The reason for my struggle may have nothing to do with me – it is personal to me, but God may be using it for someone else entirely.  I do not know – nor do you – all the people who are paying attention to how I handle hardship or pain or struggles.  Are we Christians impervious to pain?  No.  How do we handle adversity?  Can we ask for help?  Do we?  Can we receive grace?  Are we able to forgive those who have hurt us so deeply and powerfully?  People watch.  We have no idea whose lives are being transformed – the revelation of the glory of God – because they saw something in us during our times of trial.

We look at natural disasters like the flooding in the Midwest or the fires in Northern California.  We think back to Hurricane Katrina, the devastating tsunami, and other catastrophes.  How can anything good come out of any of those situations?  Where was God?  Listen to the testimonies.  Watch.  Tell me if you do not hear amazing stories; how God met people in their time of disaster and their lowest point.

A few months ago, I told the story of Allyson Roach, who was so badly burned in the 2003 wildfires in San Diego.  Four and a half years after her doctors said she would not survive the burns she had received, she was engaged to be married.  At the time, I posted a note on my website about her engagement.  I received emails from people all around the country – people whom Allyson will never know or meet – about how their faith has been renewed and encouraged by her witness.  I have heard several other people whose homes were destroyed in the 2003 fires say that, in retrospect, it was a blessing in disguise because it helped them remember what was truly important.

In times of trouble and hardship, we want Jesus here – now.  Can we trust him when he delays?  Can we trust that he is in control and that he will be faithful to his promises, even when it looks really bad?  Is he who he says he is?  Do you believe he has power over life and power over death?

  1. The Second Stop: Who does Jesus think he is?

The second stop is when Jesus tells the disciples that they are going to Judea again.  They are concerned because there is a known plot to kill Jesus.  “If he’s only sleeping, let’s not worry about it.”  Jesus had to clarify with them, “Lazarus is dead.”   Oh, he’s dead.  Oh.

You know at least one of them was thinking, “Well, let’s not get us killed if he’s already dead.”  But that was not what Jesus was thinking.  After explaining clearly that Lazarus was dead, Jesus told the disciples, “For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.”

Jesus said some pretty strange things; but this may be in the top ten.  Lazarus – a friend whom Jesus loved – was dead and Jesus was saying it was a good thing? Further still, he said it was for their sake he had waited?  Huh?!

Actually, Jesus was demonstrating his divine authority as described in Psalm 139.

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.  You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.  You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.  Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.  You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.    I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.  Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.

Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.  In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.

Jesus knew what he was going to do when he got to Bethany.  He knew that Lazarus had been pronounced dead and that the town would be in mourning.  Here is the remarkable thing about this passage and here is the message for us today: Jesus is not intimidated by death.  It holds no power over him.  It never did.  It never will. Before his own resurrection, Jesus knew he had the power to call Lazarus out of that tomb.  Friends, this is the demeanor of the sovereign one.

These accounts in John are not fables.  They are not myths.  They are not nice bed-time stories we tell our children with great morals we hope they understand.  No, these are testimonies to Jesus’ power.  They are accounts of his authority over all creation – including life and death.

  1. The Third Stop: the clear declaration

The third stop is the discussion between Jesus and Martha about the resurrection. Here, Jesus lays it out directly.  Facing the grief and pain caused by death, Jesus responds to Martha’s “he will arise in the resurrection on the last day,” by saying, “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 poses the question to her as he does to us, “Do you believe this?”

Do you believe this?  Do YOU believe this?  Martha said yes.  Scripture says yes.  The church historic says yes.  I say yes.  You, Jesus, are the Christ, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”  How do you answer?

  1. Finally: victory over the tomb.

The final stop is at the tomb.  Jesus faced death directly.  After talking the talk, Jesus then walked the walk.  “Take away the stone.”  Martha has my favorite one liner in this chapter, “Uh, Jesus, I wouldn’t do that; he’s been in there for four days and it stinks with the lid on.”

This did not stop Jesus.  You can almost imagine his chuckle before he commanded, “Lazarus, come out.”

And here is the promise and the hope.  At Jesus’ command Lazarus rose from the dead.  At Jesus command, he was taken from death and brought to life.  At Jesus’ command, he walked out of the tomb.  He was alive.

Later, Jesus would himself rise from the dead, victorious over the grave, victorious over death.  “Where, O Death, is thy victory?  Where, O Death, is thy sting?”  Paul would quote in 1 Corinthians 15, “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Friends, when we confess Jesus as Lord and Savior, when we believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead, we are guaranteed, sealed, confirmed, assured that we will hear that same command. “Bob, come out.”  “Carolyn, come out.”  “Karen, come out.”  “Charles, come out.”  And when he commands, we obey.  “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.  Do you believe this?”  Jesus is sovereign over death.  He is the giver of life. He is our hope, he is our salvation, he is our resurrection, and he is our life.  Do you believe this?

            Conclusion

As you go from this sanctuary today, share the good news with someone else.  It is a word of power and hope.

You see, we can trust Jesus when he says he is the Resurrection and the Life.  And when we hear him command us by name, “Come out,” we know that we will raised in the eternal kingdom of heaven – where the music that brought my grandmother’s community to life will never stop, and the choir will sing of God’s glory forever.  The author of life gives us eternal life.

Amen.