Charles Dickens begins A Christmas Carol, his well known story about Ebenezer Scrooge with these words: “Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner.” Later on Dickens says, “There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.”
We might use similar words to describe the scene in today’s Gospel as Jesus approached the town of His friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Lazarus was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. This was the fourth day of mourning for him. Mary and Martha, his sisters knew he was dead. The people who prepared his body and laid it in the tomb knew he was dead. There is no doubt that Lazarus was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story in today’s Gospel.
Death is a universal experience. Different cultures have different ways of coping with death, but all cultures must deal with death in some way. Human experience teaches us that dead is dead. Once you are dead, there is nothing that can be done.
There can be any number of reasons that death comes. The immediate cause of death can be anything from accidental trauma to the failures of old age. In spite of the many different causes of death listed on death certificates, there is only one ultimate cause of death. The Holy Spirit inspired the Apostle Paul to write, “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” (Romans 5:12)
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” (John 11:1–3) Lazarus, Mary, and Martha were best friends with Jesus. Now Lazarus was sick. So the sisters sent word to Jesus. Note the faith that Mary and Martha exhibit in this message. They simply inform Jesus of the circumstances. They do not ask Him to do anything. They trust Him to do the right thing. The assumption is that Jesus will find the best way to bring Lazarus back to health.
Jesus responded to this information in a very confusing way. Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. (John 11:5–6) Wait! What! If Jesus loved Martha and Mary, wouldn’t the appropriate response be to get to Lazarus as quickly as possible? We would expect the text to read: Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he immediately departed for Bethany. That is what we would expect. But the text clearly says, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. This teaches us that God does not always express His love the way we want. It also teaches us that what we think is best and what God knows is best can often be very different things. As strange as it sounds to our ears, the text makes it clear that the best way for Jesus to love Lazarus, Mary, and Martha was to allow Lazarus to die before He came to him.
By the time that Jesus arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had been dead for a few days. The Holy Spirit inspired John to make this very clear. Jesus told [the disciples] plainly, “Lazarus has died.” John himself records: When Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Then Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” [Some of the Jews] said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” The Holy Spirit inspired John to make sure that there was no way that anyone could say that Lazarus was just mostly dead. If there would have been a Munchkin coroner available, he would have said, “As coroner I must affirm, I thoroughly examined him, and he's not only merely dead, he's really most sincerely dead.” There was no chance whatsoever that Lazarus could have revived under his own power. Lazarus was dead and decaying.
Now it is one thing to bring someone back to health when that person is ill, but it is something entirely different when that person is dead. We have a medical community that can deal with a wide variety of health issues. Never the less, when a person has been dead for a few days and the body begins to decompose so that there is an odor, even the best of medical science can do nothing.
So it is not surprising that those who attended Mary and Martha in their time of grief had lost hope. John recorded many comments indicating that the mourners believed that Jesus could do nothing about Lazarus. All of them believe that Jesus could have averted death. They may even have believed that if Jesus had arrived shortly after death, He could have done something as He did with the daughter of Jairus and the widow’s son at Nain. But four days is four days. After four days, the decay has set in. Could Jesus still do something after four days? Today’s Gospel seems to indicate that everyone thought that Lazarus was beyond even Jesus and His substantial power. This limited faith is disappointed that Jesus had not come sooner because now there is no hope.
The common experience of death brings us all into this story. We too have lost loved ones. We too know the grief that death brings as it parts us from the company of those we love. 25Jesus said … “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” (John 11:25–26) This is the main teaching of the Gospel for this day. This is the teaching for Mary, Martha, those who mourned, and for us gathered here on this day.
Jesus taught these words and then He demonstrated them. Jesus made His way to the tomb and had them remove the stone from the entrance. Then he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” 44The man who had died came out. (John 11:43–44) Jesus is Lord, even over death.
Death is an ever-present reminder of sin as the Holy Spirit inspired the Apostle Paul to write, “The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23) Even as Jesus demonstrated His power over death, He also demonstrated the means by which He would conquer sin itself.
Sadly, there were those who rejected the teachings of Jesus. How stubborn does someone have to be in order to be angry and frustrated over the fact that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead? We saw that attitude last week when Jesus healed the blind man. Some people are so stubborn that they reject the gifts of Jesus even though Jesus gave sight to the blind and raised people from the dead.
Today’s Gospel ends as the Pharisees call a meeting of the council. In this council they decide that Jesus must die. A little later on in the Gospel according to John, they also decide that they must put even Lazarus to death. It is their intention to get rid of Jesus once and for all. Little do they know that this is all according to a plan much greater than theirs.
It was not long after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead that Jesus Himself experienced death. The plans of the council came together with the help of Judas and they were able to capture Jesus. They subjected Jesus to an illegal trial and then took Him to Pontius Pilate and applied political pressure to Pilate until He agreed to put Jesus to death.
It was not long after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead that Jesus allowed a Roman execution squad to nail Him to a cross. There He would endure not only the physical pain of the cross, but also the eternal pain of our sin. He would endure a punishment that we cannot even understand as He cried out, “My God, my God! Why have You forsaken Me?”
No mere human being can even understand what it means that God the Father forsook God the Son. All we can know is that it is very, very bad for Jesus and very, very good for us. It is bad for Jesus in that He suffered all the punishment of eternity in hell. It is good for us in that we can now look forward to the eternal joy of God’s presence with us and our presence with Him.
Three days after Jesus died on the cross, He once again demonstrated that He is Lord over death. He rose from the dead. That resurrection assures us that our death is not the end. Whether we are dead for four days, four years, or four thousand years, Jesus will raise us from the dead.
There is one great difference between the resurrection in today’s Gospel and the resurrection of the Last Day. Lazarus is no longer with us. He had to die again. When Jesus calls our bodies back to life on the Last Day, we shall never die again. On that day, all people shall rise with eternal bodies. Those who reject the gifts of Jesus Christ will rise to an eternity of punishment. Those who have the Holy Spirit’s gift of faith will rise to live with Christ in eternal joy.
When Jesus arrived on the scene, Mary and Martha’s faith was theoretical. Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” (John 11:24) If Jesus would have arrived and healed Lazarus before he died, her faith would have stayed that way. After the events of this day, she had a constant concrete reminder of the great lesson in today’s Gospel. The resurrection of Lazarus demonstrates the words of Christ: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. (John 11:25–26) Because Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, He gave them this teaching. This teaching is also for us for it gives us confidence in times of life and a very real comfort in times of death. Amen
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