Lazarus

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : John 11:32-44

Jesus’ encounter with his dead friend Lazarus offers us an amazing preview of an encounter each of us can look forward to having with him someday.

On the island of Cyprus, in the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea, stands the ancient church of St. Lazarus. Tradition says that this church was built above the grave of Lazarus, the friend of Jesus – that is, his second grave. The church is ornately decorated with many icons. Huge brass chandeliers hang down from the stone vaulting, and the light of votive candles flickers in front of numerous altars. But the real point of interest is underneath the building. If you descend a narrow stone staircase into the low-ceilinged crypt, you can peek into the empty stone coffin that according to tradition once held the body of Jesus’ friend Lazarus.

Lazarus’ grave in Cyprus is empty because during the Middle Ages Crusaders stole his body and carried it back to France to be enshrined in a church there. But his first grave was emptied in a far more dramatic fashion, in one of the most amazing encounters anyone ever had with the Lord Jesus Christ.

JESUS WEPT

Lazarus lived with his sisters Mary and Martha in the little village of Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem. The family knew Jesus well; these two sisters and their brother were among Jesus’ closest friends, and he often stayed with them in their home when he visited the city. So when word was sent one day to Jesus that Lazarus was seriously ill, you might have expected Jesus to rush to his bedside in order to heal him. But Jesus seemed to be in no hurry at all to come to the aid of his sick friend, and by the time he finally reached Bethany, Lazarus was already dead and buried.

As Jesus approached the home of his friends he had an emotional meeting with the two grieving sisters.

When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.

“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.

Jesus wept.

Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

John 11:32-37, NIV

Jesus’ dramatic encounter with Lazarus began with one of the commonest and most painful of human experiences. When he reached the grave of his close friend in the company of Lazarus’ sisters, Jesus himself was overcome with grief. In the presence of death and affected by the pain of their common loss, these friends all wept together.

It’s the most understandable of reactions. Jesus wept because he loved. His tears flowed out of deep affection for Mary and Martha and sympathy with their grief; he wept with those who wept. Christ was no stoic, untouched by human pain, cold, indifferent and unfeeling. As he stood and thought of his friends, both living and dead, he grieved with genuine tears. This is how the crowd of onlookers saw it: “See how he loved him!” they remarked to each other. Love is God’s primary emotion. He not only loves us, he sympathizes with us. He even grieves with us. Our sorrows are not meaningless, nor do our cries simply echo in the emptiness of space; they touch the very heart of God.

But if it’s true that Jesus loves Lazarus and Mary and Martha, we have to admit he shows it in a strange way. Yes, he’s going to raise Lazarus from death, but then we wonder why the Lord allowed him to die in the first place. We ask the same question the bystanders at the grave did: “Couldn’t one who opened the eyes of the blind have kept this man from dying?” And why didn’t Jesus respond immediately to the sisters’ desperate cries for help? Why wasn’t he with them in their hour of crisis? “Lord,” they said, “if you had been here our brother would not have died.” How often haven’t we thought the same?

Though the fact of his love is undeniable, Jesus’ actions do not seem loving to those who are his friends. Indeed, his ways are often baffling. We, of course, know that everything is going to turn out well because we know how the story ends. But that doesn’t help Mary and Martha during those days when they had to sit by their brother’s bedside and watch him die, then bury him, all the while wondering, “Where’s Jesus? Why doesn’t he come? Why doesn’t he answer our prayer?” It strikes me that Mary and Martha’s experience during those few days – their anxiety, questioning, pain and loss – offers a sort of capsule version of our lives here in the valley of tears that is our world. And just as they couldn’t understand their whole story until they had experienced its end, neither can we.

JESUS SHUDDERED

Grieving love wasn’t the only emotion which Jesus felt at the grave of his friend Lazarus. He experienced a second strong emotional response as well, one that we could miss if we don’t attend carefully to the story and read it closely.

Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. v. 38a

Now the cue that points to Jesus’ second emotional reaction is that phrase, “Jesus, once more deeply moved.” Earlier John said that Jesus “was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” The question is: How was he moved? What was it exactly that troubled him? What emotion is being described here? English translations of the Bible don’t quite express the strength or nature of Jesus’ response to Lazarus’ death. They speak of him being “deeply moved” (New International Version) or “greatly disturbed” (New Revised Standard Version). But the original language of the story is stronger and more specific. In describing Jesus’ emotions John chose a word that refers not just to a feeling but to an actual physical reaction. The word he used for Jesus’ reaction was sometimes used in Greek to describe the snorting of horses in battle. It means that Jesus’ body was seized with a sort of convulsion. He made an audible noise. His feelings in the presence of death were so strong that they actually caused a physical response, a kind of shuddering or groaning.

Jesus’ response to death combined feelings of indignation and anger along with revulsion and disgust. What a contrast Jesus offers here to the philosophers of the ancient world. They tried to cultivate an attitude of detachment and indifference in the face of death, a sort of cool, rational acceptance of the inevitable. That is often the secular person’s response to the fact of death. You simply have to accept it, learn to live with it, not be too upset by it. Well, there is no acceptance in Jesus’ reaction. He hated death, he loathed it with an intensity that made him shake and tremble and groan. Death is the enemy, the last enemy. Death is the consequence of sin, and all the hatred which God feels toward sin he also feels toward this bitter fruit of sin. The great Princeton theologian B.B. Warfield, in a classic essay entitled “The Emotional Life of Our Lord,” explains the significance of Jesus’ reaction at the tomb of Lazarus:

It is death that is the object of [Jesus’] wrath, and behind death him who has the power of death, and whom he has come into the world to destroy. Tears of sympathy may fill his eyes, but this is incidental. His soul is held by rage, and he advances to the tomb as a champion who prepares for conflict. The raising of Lazarus thus becomes not an isolated marvel, but . . . a decisive instance and open symbol of Jesus’ conquest of death and hell . . . Not in cold unconcern, but in flaming wrath against the foe, Jesus smites in our behalf. He has not only saved us from the evils which oppress us; he has felt for and with us in our oppression, and under the impulse of these feelings has wrought redemption.

(Warfield, The Person and Work of Christ, p. 117)

JESUS SPOKE

So this is how Jesus – how God – responds to death. Jesus’ encounter with Lazarus, the friend who was four days dead and buried, is a revelation of the feelings of God in the face of human suffering. Some religious teachers champion the idea of a God who is immutable and impassive: unfeeling, uncaring, untouched by any of the pain that marks our world, unmoved by any emotion, a God who floats high above it all in serene, isolated perfection. That is not our God. That is not the God of the Bible, the God who is most fully revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. Our God feels for us and with us. He weeps with grief over loss, he shudders with rage at the attacks of the enemy, he trembles with anger when he sees the devastation sin and death have worked in his good creation and in the lives of his children.

But he does more than that.

After Jesus weeps, after he shudders, he speaks.

“Take away the stone,” he said.

“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”

Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”

When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”

The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.

John 11:39-44a, NIV

This is the greatest of all Jesus’ miracles, or signs, to use the Gospel of John’s word for them. Jesus began by praying, though it is a rather unusual prayer. He does not ask God to restore Lazarus to life. He doesn’t ask even that God help him restore Lazarus to life; in fact, he doesn’t ask God for anything. There is no request in this prayer. It is rather a celebration of the unity Jesus enjoys with God, a thanksgiving for the perfect communion and understanding between the Father and the Son, offered – as Jesus himself remarked – for the benefit of the onlooking crowd so that they might begin to understand who Jesus really is.

Then comes the word of command: “Lazarus, come out!” And the dead man walked out of his grave. Jesus speaks, and the tyrant death trembles and gives up his prey. The voice that commanded the wind and waves to be still and the bread and fish to multiply, the blind eyes to see and the deaf ears to hear, now commands dead flesh to live. And it obeys. It must obey. Someone has remarked that the reason Jesus said “Lazarus come forth” is that if he had not been specific, all the graves within the sound of his voice would have emptied in obedience to his summons. Someday that is exactly what will happen. “The hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear [the Son of Man’s] voice and will come out” (John 5:28-29).

Jesus’ encounter with his dead friend Lazarus is more than just a revelation of God’s heart, an expression of his sympathy and love for grieving people. It is also a demonstration of his power over evil and over our final enemy death itself. It is a preview of what we can look forward to ourselves, if we are friends of Jesus too. Someday he’s going to have just the same encounter with each one of us.

“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus said to Lazarus’ sister Martha; “whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” And then he added a final question: “Do you believe this?”

Really, it all comes down to that.