A little boy walked into the living room, “Mom, Pastor said that before you’re born you’re just dust and after you die you go back to being dust. Is that true?” “Yes, it is. Now, run upstairs and wash your hands- lunch is almost ready.” A few minutes later, the boy came running back down the stairs, “Mom, are you SURE that’s true- that we came from dust and we go back to dust?” “Yes. Why” What’s wrong?” “Well, you better get up to my room pretty quick, because I just looked under my bed and apparently someone is either coming or going!!”
Today, we begin a new, and rather short, sermon series that will take us to Easter. The series, appropriately enough, is called In the Shadow of the Cross. We will spend the next five weeks in that exact spot- the shadow of the cross. We will look at 5 events- 4 that preceded the cross and one that followed- and see how they tie to the larger story- the Upper Story. We’ll focus on how Jesus orchestrated the final few days of His life to lead to both the ultimate sacrifice…and the ultimate victory.
When I perform a funeral, I talk about the fact that, in the midst of a world so full of change, there are a few things that remain constant- people are born, people grow up and people die. That’s the normal order of things- birth, life, death. But Jesus tends to turn “normal” on its head on a regular basis. And today’s story is a prime example of that.
It is just a few days before Passover- the events of what we know as Holy Week are about to unfold. Jesus is marching headlong to the cross. But along the way, He pauses to bring new life, even on the threshold of death. Today’s story is a fairly well-known one. Jesus and His disciples have been pulling a “Bob Hope and Bing Crosby” kind of thing- they have been “on the road”. And along the way, they get word that their good friend Lazarus is sick. And so Jesus immediately goes to his side…right? Nope. He handles some other things first, assuring the disciples that Lazarus will not die- he’s “sleeping”. Then, they head out…four days late.
John 11:17-44 On His arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet Him, but Mary stayed at home.
Jesus and the boys had been in the vicinity of Jerusalem. Lazarus and his sisters were from Bethany- only about 2 miles away. Mary and Martha assumed that Jesus’ love for their brother Lazarus would cause Him to drop everything He was doing and immediately come to the rescue. But He didn’t. He waited. And when He got there, he found several mourners “sitting shiva”- a 7-day period of mourning. The Jewish people believed that the soul remained near the body for three days after death in the hope of returning to it. But this was Day 4- all hope was gone- Lazarus was dead.
“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if You had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give You whatever You ask.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” “Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, Who was to come into the world.”
Martha comes out to meet Him. And her first words could be interpreted as being a little accusatory. “If You had been here…” But she then falls back on what she know. “God will do whatever you ask Him to do.” The inference is obvious- “Despite the fact that he’s been dead 4 days, despite the fact that his body is decaying in a tomb, despite the fact that death seems so…final…You can still change all this. It’s not too late.” Jesus assures Martha that Lazarus will rise again. And even though she JUST said that she knew Jesus could do the impossible, she immediately defaults to, “Yeah, yeah, yeah- he’ll rise again on the day of resurrection.” But Jesus brings her back to reality, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anybody who believes in Me will never die.” And then He challenges her, “Do YOU believe that?” And she affirms that she does, even naming Him as the Christ.
And after she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to Him. 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.”
Mary comes out of her house to meet Jesus. In reverence and helplessness, she falls at His feet and repeats her sister’s lament. “If only YOU had been here, he would still be alive.” Mary and Martha are deeply grieved by their loss.
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?”
Jesus is deeply troubled. “Where did you bury him?” They head out to the tomb and, the passage says…Jesus wept. Jesus wept. This is a very unique passage. It’s the shortest verse in the Bible. And based on the humanity and love it demonstrates, I also wonder- is it the most significant? Notice this- the people were weeping. The Greek word is klaio- which means “to lament or wail”. But Jesus wept. The Greek word is dakruo- which means to shed tears. And that particular word doesn’t appear ANYWHERE else in the New Testament. It’s significant- the people wailed and gnashed their teeth- Jesus wept. And did you also notice that the crowd saw Jesus’ tears as both proof of His affection…and evidence of His limitations? “Sure, He gave sight to the blind, but overcoming death? Well, that’s simply too much.” Nobody present really expected the kind of miracle they were about to witness.
Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “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 come to the tomb and Jesus commands that the stone be rolled away from the mouth. You have to understand- culturally, ritually- this is a HUGE deal. To come into contact with a dead body was to risk defilement AND break the law. So try and picture this highly dramatic scene; the crowd is holding their breath- watching and waiting. Mary is weeping. And Martha is objecting- “Jesus, You can’t do that! Me thinketh he stinketh!” (That is NOT, by the way, the King James version!) But Jesus looks at Martha and says, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you would see the glory of God? Move the stone away.”
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.”
So the stone is rolled away and the tension mounts. WWJD- what will Jesus do? And then…what DOES He do? He stops and thanks His Father! Right there, on the threshold of the absolute biggest miracle He had performed, the greatest miracle any of those gathered would see, He stops and thanks His Dad. And I love what He says here, “I KNOW You’re always there, but I want all of these folks gathered here to know it, too. I want them to KNOW 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. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
Jesus shouts out 3 simple words, “Lazarus come out!” 3 simple words that, in their own way, changed forever our understanding of Jesus…of God. The great theologian St. Augustine said that, at the moment Jesus called out, if Lazarus HADN’T come forth…all the dead that had gone before WOULD have! But Lazarus DOES come out, still wrapped in the burial clothes. The same Word that brought life in the beginning now breathes life into the inanimate body of Lazarus.
Jesus says, “Take the grave clothes off and let him go.” Jesus shows up. Jesus speaks. It is so. Right before their very eyes, death’s hold is broken by nothing more than the Voice of authority. And those who came to Bethany as mourners now return to Jerusalem as informers. With this climactic miracle, Jesus offers definitive proof to His greatest claim, the claim He had reiterated to Martha mere moments before, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” He moves the resurrection- new life- from a future, nebulous “then” to a very real and tangible “here and now”. Jesus’ claim as the resurrection and the life doesn’t get any more “in your face” than it does here.
Actor/director Woody Allen feels that we have this whole “life” thing backwards. He suggests that we should start out dead- get that out of the way. Then, wake up in a nursing home, where you feel a little better every day. Eventually, you get kicked out for being too healthy. You start to collect your pension. Then, when you start working, you get a gold watch and a party on your first day. You work for 40 years, until you’re young enough to enjoy your retirement. You then go through school, you become a kid- you play, you have no responsibilities. You become a baby until you’re born. And then you spend your last 9 months floating in luxurious spa-like conditions with central heating and room service!
Mary and Martha thought Lazarus died too soon. Do you ever feel that way? “Lord, if only You’d been here sooner…my brother would still be alive, or my kids would be OK, or my marriage would be sound…my life would be better. If only You’d showed up on time!” Are you in need of prayer? Does your life need a major change? Do you know someone who is danger of dying…spiritually? Is it…you? Do you know you’re loved, with an unconditional, unwavering, unforgettable love? Are you willing to accept the help of such a Man- a Savior? The truth is that only Jesus can raise the dead. We can participate in the process…but our obedience is necessary. We have to be willing to LET Him roll away the stone. If you do, you will feel more alive than you’ve ever felt before.
God didn’t rescue Daniel OUT of the lion’s den. He didn’t turn OFF the fiery furnace to save Rack, Shack and Benny. He didn’t kill Pharaoh to save the Israelites from the Red Sea. No- He worked His wondrous purposes IN the lion’s den, IN the furnace, IN the Red Sea.
Physical death separates us from each other. But spiritual death separates us from God. When you’re sick, you want a doctor…not a medical book. When you’re being sued, you want a lawyer…not a law book. And when you’re facing hard times, you want a Savior…not a book on church discipline. On His way to the cross…on the way to death…Jesus pauses to bring new life. He stops to call the spiritually dead back to life. Jesus came so that people…us…might live life, new life, life abundantly. Death has no sting in the shadow of the Light of the world.