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"Learning from Lazarus"

Easter SonRise Service, R&S Howson’s

April 1 2018, 7:00 a.m. John 11:1-8,21-27,32-37


That first Easter morning, at sunrise, Jesus’ disciples went to the tomb and made an amazing discovery. The heavenly messengers told the women, “He is not here; He has risen!” (Mt 28:6) Today in our few moments together I’d like us to stand in our minds outside another tomb, that of Lazarus in John 11.

             Why Lazarus? It was triggered partly by my wife’s neuroncologist saying out of the blue that some people with brain tumours causing internal swelling like hers experience temporary relief to a degree that is almost, in his words, “Lazarus-like”. And we are thankful for some at least temporary improvement and relief she’s experienced after starting the steroids. It just seemed a bit odd to be sitting there at the London Regional Cancer Program and have our doctor pull up a Biblical reference to describe possibilities! Quite unexpected and startling.

             Lazarus the word means “God a help” – and Easter is the time of year when God’s help for us was most dramatically expressed. Believing in the Risen Lord Jesus, we are saved from our sins, and death, and eternal condemnation. As a result of Easter, the Good News is as Mark 16:16 puts it, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” God is our Help at the tomb.

             There’s also a slightly different emphasis in John 11 with Lazarus’ story than in the account of Christ’s resurrection. Jesus’ tomb is kind of “out there”, remote, it happened once 2000 years ago, over in some Middle Eastern country. Easter focuses on the empty tomb of Jesus the supernatural Son of God: Lazarus’ story though connects it with you and me, brings it home, makes it personal. Mary, Martha, & Lazarus are everyday people; we can relate. Jesus’ teaching here bridges the gap and applies the message of Easter directly to us if we will receive it. “I AM the resurrection and the life,” Jesus declares (v25)…Suddenly it’s no longer about some remote event in history, but instead, the status of our nearness or resistance to Jesus. Christ has the very power of new life in Himself. He presses the point home with Martha when He continues, “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?” (vv25f)

So, that’s WHY LAZARUS.


Another big point about the Lazarus account is Jesus’ delay. V6, “Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.” Even if Jesus had started heading to Bethany immediately when He heard the news, He likely would have been too late. It seems Lazarus likely died soon after the messengers left, because by the time Jesus arrives, he’s already been dead 4 days. Yet God could have shown Jesus Lazarus was near death. Jesus could have healed Lazarus right on the spot from where He stood, as He did with the Canaanite woman’s daughter (Mt 15:22). But God let Lazarus die. And then Jesus lingered two days longer. Why?

             Three things here. First: just because things don’t turn out the way we want – even when God says “no” (as in Yvonne’s case, if palliative, that seems to be a “no” to continuing this life) – even when God says “no”, that doesn’t mean God doesn’t love us! Note carefully the connection between verses 5&6: “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.” God can still love you AND say “no” or “not now”.

             Second, the delay accentuates the power of Jesus to overcome even the most hopeless problems.

             We know Jesus had power to raise the dead: this was amply demonstrated when he brought back to life Jairus’ daughter, and son of the widow at Nain, who was already being carried in the funeral procession! (Lk 8:41f,49-56; 7:11-15) The question is NOT whether Jesus had wonder-working power. Even his critics comment in v37, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

             The delay though makes this an EXTRA tough case. I love the practicality of Martha who in v39 can’t help objecting to Jesus’ order to take away the stone that covered the tomb’s entrance: “But Lord, by this time there is a bad odour, for he has been there four days.” In the subtropical heat. Getting really decayed, really ‘ripe’… This cadaver is beyond recovery. There’s no possibility of it being a fluke recovery from some passing ‘swoon’. The NIV Study Bible notes, “Many Jews believed that the soul remained near the body for 3 days after death in the hope of returning to it.If this idea was in the minds of these people, they obviously thought all hope was gone – Lazarus was irrevocably dead.” Irrevocably – no calling him back, unrecoverable. Yet, SOMEHOW Jesus managed it, through divine power!

             Third, this delay not only accentuates the greatness of the miracle: it also imperils Jesus and forms a direct link to His redemptive death for us, which is what the Good Friday / Easter Sunday combination of historical events is really all about. It’s understandable Jesus might delay and not want to hop right into action because it’s the trigger that sets off the chain of events leading inexorably to His own agonizing death. When the miracle is reported to the Jewish leaders, a meeting of the Sanhedrin (ruling council) is called. V47, “What are we accomplishing?" they asked."Here is this man performing many miraculous signs.” So – even Jesus’ arch-enemies acknowledge His power! But rather than rejoice in His healings and deliverances, they view Him as a threat. High Priest Caiaphas concludes there is only one solution. If it’s either them or Jesus, it’s not going to be THEM that has to go! V50 “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” Caiaphas himself declares Jesus’ substitutionary sacrificial role – “one man die FOR the people” – and as John goes on to point out, not just for the Jewish nation, but Jesus would die “also for the scattered children of God.” V53 SO – “from that day on they plotted to take His life.” If Lazarus lives – Jesus must die! And, He dies FOR you and me – so WE can live.


We’ve asked, Why Lazarus? Why the delay? And now finally, “Why the TEARS?” V33 When Jesus sees Mary weeping along with the friends who’d come to comfort the sisters, John records v33, “He was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” Shortly after we have the shortest verse in the Bible, but one of the most profound: Jn 11:35, (just 2 words!) “Jesus wept.” Then again v38, “Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb.” The Greek word used here can also mean “to groan”. Why is Jesus moved to tears, to perhaps even groan and be so troubled, when He must have known all along what He was going to do? Right back in v4 He predicted to the disciples when they heard the news of Lazarus’ terminal condition, “This sickness will not end in death.No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” So, why is Jesus so visibly affected by Mary and Martha’s grief and all the other mourners?

             Because – God is not unaffected by our woes. Do you have a category in your concept of God that’s big enough to include this? Or does your picture of God seem distant, removed, unfalteringly serene and impassionate like a stained glass window? Does your God care enough to have emotions? The heavenly Father Jesus knows and portrays “gets it”, He relates to our heartaches and disappointments. Even when He fully knows the glorious purposes He’s going to ultimately bring about. Hebrews 4:15, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are— yet was without sin.” Our High Priest can SYMPATHIZE with us! He CONNECTS with us on that deepest level, where we hurt the most, in our moments where we feel our keenest grief and loss. THAT is Good News, too!

             Knowing such a Saviour prompts us to love Him even more dearly. The prior verse, Heb 4:14 “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.”

             Let’s bring it home right here. When you come to the tomb – Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus’ tomb, and yes, even your own tomb looming in the distance: can you hold firmly to your faith? Do you really know this man Jesus? His power, and also His passion, His caring for you?

             After all, the whole purpose of the Lazarus incident seems to have been to build faith in the disciples. Jesus said in v15, “and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” At perhaps her most vulnerable moment Jesus looks Martha squarely in her misty eyes and challenges in v26, “…And whoever lives and believes in me will never die.Do you believe this?” (Could He BE any more direct?!)

             Finally, as they’re debating about opening up the tomb, He underlines what’s at stake for them all, v40: “Then Jesus said, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

             You may not be facing a terminal diagnosis in your life right now. Things may even be going relatively well. But the mortality rate is still 100%... And though God is good, life is hard, and you WILL face terrible situations that threaten you to your core. Take a good look today at the tomb of Lazarus. It’s Easter, and we see the stone rolled away from the tomb of our Saviour. Recommit your life today to Him who alone can deliver you from sin’s snare and take you home with Him forever! Let’s pray.