Sermon, August 15, 2021 | Grace Reformed Church
We turn again this morning to the Gospel of John, moving on this week to chapter 11. Remember that John’s purpose in writing this book is to convince us that Jesus is in fact the Messiah, he has chosen everything that he relays in the gospel to drive toward and strengthen that point. And it’s all been building as we’ve gone through the book. A side note, that’s one of the great things about lectio continua, preaching straight through whole books in the bible, one of the strengths of that is that we don’t take any verses out of their context, we get to see how they fit in the broader flow of the story.
And as I said, the story has been building, everything we see is intensifying as we progress through the book. Jesus’s miracles get progressively more jaw-dropping as we go through the book, not just to be jaw-dropping but to more and more convincingly prove the fact that he is the Messiah, there is no doubt that he has powers that only God can have. And, like we saw last week, the sheep that are not of his flock, when presented with these intensifying signs, they grow increasingly angry and hostile, and we understand why. If you are one who will reject Jesus, the more convincingly Jesus proves himself to be the Messiah, the more angry you must become. That’s a call to take heart in persecution—if the world is angry and hostile to you and your message, you must be doing something right.
So in chapter 11, we come to the most decisive of the miracles, the raising of Lazarus from the dead. We’ve heard the story so many times, it’s easy to get a little complacent about it. We really need to step back and stand in awe of it. Though they aren’t common things, we see cases of miraculous healing even in our day, recoveries from injuries, disappearing cancers, things that baffle doctors. But we don’t see this. We don’t see someone who was dead, completely dead, raised to life. So part of this awe-inducing look at the story of Lazarus will be to examine closely not just the miracle itself, but all that leads up to it, because we forget about those things sometimes. So, we won’t look at the actual miracle until two weeks from now, but will look at the beginning of the story today. Read along with me now, John, chapter 11, the first 16 verses. Listen, this is God’s Holy Word.
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So, when he heard that Lazarus[a] was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. 10 But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” 11 After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 13 Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, 15 and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
The Word of the Lord.
I titled this sermon, “God’s Time is the Best Time,” and you may or may not know that that phrase is more well-known in German, “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit,” because it’s actually the title of a Bach cantata that we performed at the college a number of years ago now. That cantata, and the associated texts in it are intended for use at funerals, not surprisingly, because it reminds us that God’s timing for everything is the right one. We said that last week using many many words, that God is actually sovereign over everything and there are no accidents.
We’ve seen Jesus’s care for the Father’s timing again and again in this gospel. Instead of continuing to confront Pharisees and possibly being arrested, we see Jesus slip away, time and again. Several times he’s told his disciples that he is not doing something because it is not yet his time or his time has not yet come. And so, we should care for the Father’s timing as well.
That is reinforced strongly here in today’s passage. We can see at every step, Jesus is actually caring for all those involved, the disciples, Lazarus, his family, the other people who would witness it, Jesus chooses the timing of everything to bring the greatest glory to God. On the surface the choices that Jesus makes in this story are odd, but we can see how they work together. Let’s walk through it.
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill.
There are some details here so that we know precisely who John is talking about. Because there are several towns named “Bethany” the first detail is to indicate which Bethany it was, it was the one where this family lived. And just in case you don’t know which Mary he’s talking about (since that’s a pretty common name), it’s the one who anointed Jesus. We don’t actually hear about that event until the next chapter, so John is assuming that you’re going to read this book more than once. But clearly, as we see the story unfold, this is a family that Jesus knows well, people that are close friends of his. Which is why, when Lazarus falls ill, ill enough to worry them, they sent someone to tell Jesus that.
3 So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
Notice a couple of things about that – they call Jesus Lord, and they don’t even say Lazarus, they tell Jesus that the one he loves is ill. If that’s all they need to say to identify Lazarus, they must have been quite close. And another point that is a small lesson for us, is that they didn’t actually ask Jesus to do anything. They didn’t ask that he come, they didn’t ask that he be healed, they simply laid the fact that their brother was ill at the feet of Jesus, and in a sense said “not my will, but yours be done.” It’s a beautiful act of faith in their message, perhaps we can learn from that a little more about how to pray, how to bring our cares to God. But Jesus, knowing how this story was going to end, responds to the message, or messenger in a way you wouldn’t expect.
“This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
This phrase is reminiscent of what Jesus said about the man born blind, isn’t it? The disciples asked why is this man blind, who sinned for that to happen? And Jesus says, no one, he has been blind for exactly this moment, that God might be glorified. So he says the same here. We’ll come back to that.
5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill,
…he rushed to Bethany to be with him. No! What did Jesus do?
he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”
He stayed two days longer in the place where he was, and then left to Judea to Mary and Martha and Lazarus. His disciples were probably perplexed by this, as was whomever brought the message. There is some debate about where Jesus and the disciples were, how far the journey was from Bethany to them, and thus how long a messenger must need to travel, and then after they do go, how long it would take Jesus to get back to Bethany, and I won’t bore you with that discussion. But the point is, no matter those things, Jesus did not want to depart for Judea until after Lazarus had already died, and that, that waiting, was to bring more glory to God.
We hear later on that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days when Jesus finally arrived, and that timing, like all the others, was important. There was a common thought among the Jewish people that when someone died, their soul would hover around the body for three days before it actually left. It was kind of like that scene in the Princess Bride where the hero is just “mostly” dead. So four days dead was important, because by that point, no one could say that the soul just reentered the body and woke it up. He was not mostly dead, he was all dead. Jesus waited so that there would be no doubt in the disciples’ minds, Mary and Martha’s minds, or the witness of everyone else who was to see this, that Jesus actually called an all-dead person out of the grave and gave him life.
And that was for their benefit and to greater manifest his glory. Jesus made sure that the timing of this miracle that he was about to perform was going to bring the maximum amount of faith benefit to those who believed in him. And that must have been difficult for Jesus, the waiting, because we know how much he loved Lazarus and his sisters. We’ve been told so. Then the story takes a turn that seems off-topic, but is actually explaining that point.
8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. 10 But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”
The disciples tell him, “Don’t go to Judea, you’ll be killed! Maybe we’ll all be killed, they were trying to stone you there.” And when they finally do go, that sentiment is reiterated by Thomas, who says, “We might as well all just go and die there too alongside Jesus.” So little faith! It is true, there was danger there. There were people looking to stone Jesus in Judea. But Jesus just said, let us go to Judea. Can you get a clearer call from God than Jesus saying, “let’s go?” You had the advantage, Thomas, of having Jesus tell you to do something directly, who else gets that?
So how does Jesus respond? He starts talking about walking in the light versus walking in the dark. The practical nature of that symbol is clear—of course walking in the day is easier and better than the difficulty of walking in the dark, but what is Jesus saying here? He’s saying walk in the will of the Father, the story that he’s written, that is the light. Jesus is completely at ease with the timing of things, even though it means that Lazarus has died without Jesus being there, without him being there to comfort Mary and Martha, all things I’m sure his human self would have yearned for.
And after telling the disciples that Lazarus is not just sick but now dead, he tells us why Lazarus and him not being there is a good thing, he says
“Lazarus has died, 15 and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.
Jesus put aside his desire to be with Lazarus, in fact he says he was glad for it, because he knew by not being there, his disciples would see this miracle intensified, and that would bring them more faith. More self-sacrifice from Jesus in order to strengthen the faith of the disciples. Like I said, the timing of God’s plan in this story intensifies the miracle gives us more faith.
So, how do we bring these lessons to the present, into our own lives? What do these lessons instruct us about in our daily lives here and now? We’ll touch on three things.
First, work the plan. Jesus told his disciples to walk in the light and not the dark because he knows that’s where it is safest. Jesus knew, no matter how much they thought he was endangering his life, that no threat of stoning was going to thwart the plans of God. He was never going to accidentally come across some people who wanted to stone him while he was on the way to Lazarus, and it would all be lost. No, we can take comfort in knowing that our days are fixed and they cannot be altered by chance. We can say with the Psalmist in Psalm 139:
in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.
Nothing is going to change God’s plan, so why fight it? God’s time is the best time, always. This is an enormous comfort whenever we face the sadness of someone dying. We feel that pain most acutely when someone dies because of how final death is, the book is closed. But this walking in the light, is that not a message for every day? Is it not a call to treat every day as one that you get to live in God’s plan? Think of how different that mindset is. What if you woke up every morning and the first thing you did was say to yourself, maybe out loud, “Wow, another day that I get to work God’s plan!” We are encouraged by a colloquialism to “live each day as though it’s your last”—fine sentiment, to live authentically or something like that. But what if we “lived each day as though it was our last to be a part of this earthly drama.” That might change how we look at each day. Walk in the light, because your plans are darkness. God’s time is the best time, his plans the best plans, his purposes the best purposes whether we see it or not.
Second, which is an extension of that first point, is the point that Jesus is making when responding to the disciples being afraid of stoning. When Jesus calls, you do it, no matter the danger. This is more complicated than that phrase makes it sound, but the root is true, when Jesus says, “jump,” you don’t even say “how high?,” you just jump. It’s complicated because we have many callings in our lives, and many feelings, encouragements, relationships, and a myriad of other things that influence our sense of call in each of those callings, but that complication doesn’t nullify the point. When Jesus says go, you go. If you are absolutely convinced that God has called you to something, dive in head first.
We can focus on discerning callings in another sermon sometimes, but for now consider this one point. Whenever we consider calling, we often get caught up thinking only about the big things—vocation, where to live, having children, etc.—but there is a whole book of callings sitting right on your lap or right next to you in the Word of God.
I shared with you once and I will again that R.C. Sproul had a card on his desk to help him when he struggled with difficult passages, and it said: “I am responsible to (meaning he’s called to) to believe and to preach whatever the bible says, not what I want it to say.” That’s a call to preach this Word no matter what it says, no matter how much the culture hates it. No one’s going to stone you, but you could lose a friend, you may stand up for the Word and then be on bad terms with a close relative. Like I said, set aside the big ones for a second and think about the call to have a difficult conversation with someone you love, even if it might harm a friendship. All the time there are conversations that we know we have to have, that we shy away from because we are afraid, just like the disciples being afraid of returning to Judea. What have you been called to do that you have been too afraid to do?
Third, the last point that Jesus made to his disciples before they left for Judea—it’s all for our good. All of it, the whole story, everything that happens. We make this point often, but it’s such a good one to hear as we face daily pressure from the world. It’s all for our good. God’s time is the best time because it brings him the most glory. This whole drama of history is all to show the glory of God. That’s why the catechism starts the way it does—what is the chief end of man? To glorify God and enjoy him forever. That’s the chief end of man, but you can rephrase it to include the rest too—what is the chief end of the entire history of the world? To glorify God. To manifest his glory, not ours.
The point is sometimes made that if you boil down every sin, every one at its root can be sourced to one thing, and that is pride. Satan appealed to Eve’s pride in the garden that made her envious of being like God. It is pride that makes us think that we are wiser than God, which is what chasing after our own wills is. It’s stunning to me the arrogance of some of the views that reject God. “I can’t believe in God because he allowed this or that to happen.”
Think about that for a second. Over thousands of years, God has been moving billions of people on and off the stage in this great drama of history. Billions of stories interacting with one another, trillions of different purposes being played out, and one of those billions of actors in the great drama rejects God—the story maker—because he doesn’t understand two or three or even a hundred of those purposes? That’s an incredible arrogance, unspeakable pride.
No, we confess that God is God, and he is good, and his purposes are good. For we know that all things work for the good of those who love God, who have been called according to his purpose. And we’re seeing it again here in the story of Lazarus, even in the introduction that we might easily gloss over. God is working his purposes out, and they are for your glory as well as his. Like I said last week and I’ll say it again. Fall on your knees and thank God that he loves you so much that he left nothing to chance. Then do these things--pick up the torch he’s given you and work the plan, do it without fear, and rest in the knowledge that it is all for his glory and yours. Amen. Let’s pray.
Dear Heavenly Father,
Thank you for your Word this morning, we pray that it lodges deep in our hearts and we would hear it today, that it would give us confidence in all of our dealings with those around us. We pray that you would help us to always seek confidence not in ourselves but always in you and your purposes. Help us when we struggle, and teach us to be bold and fearless. In the name of Jesus Christ, we pray, amen.