Encounter: Lazarus

HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
April 2, 2017

John 11: 1-45 (CEB)
A certain man, Lazarus, was ill. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (2This was the Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped his feet with her hair. Her brother Lazarus was ill.) 3So the sisters sent word to Jesus, saying, “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.”
4When he heard this, Jesus said, “This illness isn’t fatal. It’s for the glory of God so that God’s Son can be glorified through it.” 5Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus. 6When he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed where he was. After two days, 7he said to his disciples, “Let’s return to Judea again.”
17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days…20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him, while Mary remained in the house. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. 22Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.”
23Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24Martha replied, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.”
25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die.26Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
27She replied, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world.”
33When Jesus saw her crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled.34He asked, “Where have you laid him?”
They replied, “Lord, come and see.”
35Jesus began to cry. 36The Jews said, “See how much he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “He healed the eyes of the man born blind. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?”
38Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone covered the entrance. 39Jesus said, “Remove the stone.”
Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “Lord, the smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.”
40Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?” 41So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. 42I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.” 43Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”
45Therefore, many of the Jews who came with Mary and saw what Jesus did believed in him. 46But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.

We all carry these heavy burdens with us; sometimes they are heavier than others, but there are these experiences we all have at different points in our lives that leave us with a feeling of defeat, or regret, or guilt, or wonder at what might have been. Sometimes the burdens stay with us for a short time, and sometimes they haunt us for a lifetime.

This morning, we continue our look at the stories of life-changing encounters with Jesus. The focus of this story is the raising of Lazarus after he had been dead for four days. But as much as this story is about how Lazarus’ life was changed as a result of his encounter with Christ, it is also about his sisters, Mary and Martha, and how their lives were changed by their interactions with Jesus through this ordeal. Through Lazarus’ illness, his death, and eventual revival, they were carrying one of these great burdens of life.

A few years ago when I was living in Washington, DC, and working part-time at a church in Alexandria, Virginia, I did a ride-along with an Alexandria police officer on an early morning shift one Saturday. Most of the morning was uneventful. We drove through the parking lots at the cheap hotels while he ran license plate numbers looking for stolen or missing vehicles. We did the same thing sitting near a busy traffic light in North Alexandria, just across the river from DC. We went to a busy back road, where the cop sat with his radar gun, checking for speeders coming around an especially tight corner. But soon after lunch, things changed. As we sat at that busy corner with the radar gun, a call came through that a baby in an apartment complex just across the street was not breathing. The cop rushed me back into the car, and we drove into the complex. He invited me to follow him as we rushed up the stairs to a second floor apartment. As we made our way up, we passed the paramedics on their way down, a baby in their arms.

We went into the apartment and found stunned, confused children and an hysteric father. The mother had gone to work early in the morning, the father had woken up, fed the baby a bottle of formula, then he put the baby in his seat next to the couch as he sat himself down on the couch to watch cartoons with the children. The father fell asleep, and when we woke up, he discovered the baby was not responsive, not breathing.

We waited a long time with the family as the police officer tried to find out what had happened and I tried to keep the children distracted. After a while, the officer got a call over the radio — the baby had not made it. At that point, he sent me away with another cop for the remainder of the shift, while he finished up the questioning and investigation that needed to be done at the apartment. I found out when I got back to the police station that the doctors believed the baby had somehow choked on the formula, which had perhaps been too thick. I don’t think I have to tell you how sad I was; and I wouldn’t be telling you this story if it didn’t still haunt me today. And there are so many questions: we wonder why? How could this have happened? Why would a little baby die? Perhaps the situations are different, but at times we all ask such questions.

And then we begin to think: “If only…” If only the formula hadn’t been mixed too thick. If only the father hadn’t fallen asleep. If only the baby had somehow cried when it was in distress. If only the other children had noticed that something wasn’t right. We face the cruel realities of despair and death, and hope fades. We carry these terrible burdens.

Martha, known for her practical approach to life, is dealing with the death of her brother, and she’s questioning what got them to this point where their good friend Jesus is in a different town and her brother is in the tomb. Mary and Martha knew when their brother took ill that Jesus could heal him. So they sent for Jesus with full confidence that he would arrive in plenty of time to cure Lazarus. But Jesus didn’t come that day, or the next, or the next, or the next. When Jesus finally arrived, Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days, and Mary and Martha are grieving deeply. When word reached their home that Jesus was coming, Martha ran to meet him. We can imagine the grief, and hurt, and maybe even anger she was feeling as she said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Mary said the same thing later when she came out to meet Jesus.

The lessons of Lazarus’ death are tough, but they are also life-changing. In the midst of the chaos and turmoil of life, even the most beloved of disciples cannot snap their fingers expectantly and have their wish fulfilled exactly as they desire. Sometimes following Christ means surrendering our own will, our hopes. And sometimes following Christ means waiting, but never waiting in despair. Four days after Lazarus died, Mary and Martha had not given up hope that even yet Christ might be able to change tragedy into triumph. Martha told Jesus, “Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.” Even when faced with the worst possible scenario, Lazarus’ death, Martha continued to believe that God could accomplish that for which she prayed. In the midst of our despair, weighted under the burdens of our lives, can we do the same? Can we have such faith?

Martha was a woman of faith. As a devout Jewish woman, she believed in “the resurrection on the last day,” as she told Jesus when he told her that Lazarus would rise again. But what is so life-changing about the story of this family is that Christ calls Martha, and Mary, and Lazarus, and all of his disciples—including each of us—to an even higher level of faith. In one of the most beautiful statements in all the Gospels, Jesus tells Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” What Jesus is telling Martha is that the abundant life of the resurrection isn’t just some future thing, it is here now, right when we need it. Real life, resurrected life begins in the here and now—as we put our faith and trust in Jesus Christ as our Savior and our Lord. For when we accept Christ’s offer of relationship through Christ’s death on the cross—we too pass from death to life. And it is true—we will never die.

The key, though, is that one question Jesus asks Martha, “Do you believe this?” This is my most favorite line in all of Scripture because it keeps me focused on Jesus and Jesus’ intentions for my life. This is the question I ask myself each morning; it is the question that is before each of us today; and in essence, it is the underlying question of the Christian faith. “Do you believe this?” Do you believe that Jesus is the resurrection and the life? Do you believe that in Christ, you will never die? Answering this question means more than just assenting to the words Jesus has said, it means shaping our lives according to the affirmation that Jesus has made. It means living into this resurrection reality, this new, abundant life even now. This is faith.

The life that Christ offers is not easy. Christ himself knew the sorrow of this life; he could not contain himself when he stood before the tomb of his friend, Lazarus. “He wept.” It was true for Christ, and it is true for those who follow him. We will experience ups and downs. We will wonder, “what if…” We will face trials that will send us to the brink. We will experience setbacks, and sorrows, and loss. We all carry these burdens, but we never carry them alone.

Lazarus died. As is so often the case with death, it was not what his family wanted. And for four days, they sat in their grief. Meanwhile, a short distance away, Jesus prayed. And when Jesus arrived at the home of his friends, he was confronted with the depth of their pain and grief. But with Christ, the pain and the grief—they might stay with us a while, but they are never the end. Jesus beckons us to a new faith and a new life. His question, “Do you believe this?” it is not so much a test as an invitation: Christ’s hand stretched out to us, summoning us from the tombs of grief into the light of life. As we answer, may we be able to reach for that enduring hope: “Yes Lord, I believe—I trust—I put my confidence in you.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s