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Sermon, August 22, 2021 | Grace Reformed Church

The Resurrection and the Life
Sermon Series: 
1 Kings 18:17-24
John 11:17-44
Date: 
Sunday, August 22, 2021

I’ll have to beg your forgiveness, since I said last week that we would be looking at the actual raising of Lazarus in two weeks, but then early this week I decided to go ahead and preach all the way through verse 44 this week, which does end with Lazarus walking out of the tomb. So if that messes up your plans, I am very sorry.

One of the reasons I did that is that verses 17-44 really do comprise a single lengthy scene in the narrative. It’s all narrative, there are some important comments and sayings from Jesus here, but no division between the narrative of a miracle or other happening, and then an accompanying discourse from Jesus, which has been a common structure earlier in the book. No, this story comes to us without any accompanying discourse, and I think one of the possible reasons for that is that the greatness of this miracle, more than any other that we’ve encountered so far, testifies so completely, so powerfully, so undeniably to the fact that Jesus is in fact God, that he is the Messiah, it does that so well, that it really needs no explanation. J.C. Ryle said of it, “There is a grand simplicity about this passage, which is almost spoiled by any human exposition,” and I think he is in many ways correct. Actually, if he is right, that would give me license to just read the story and let it be and we can all go home early! No, of course not, we will try some human exposition of it, and try our very best not to get in its way.

So, without further pre-comment, let’s read together this account of Jesus, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, as it comes to us from John chapter 11, beginning in verse 17. Listen, this is God’s Holy Word:

17 Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. 20 So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

28 When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 Now 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.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. 34 And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus wept. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”

38 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39 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.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” 44 The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Well, there it is, this story, in all its glory. We spent a good deal last week talking about how carefully Jesus set up this miracle so that the timing of it would have the most profound effect on the faith of the people who would witness it. And it was incredible. There are, in case you were wondering, 10 resurrections recorded in the bible, not including Easter morning. We read the first of them for the Old Testament reading today, with the prophet Elijah. Most of the others take place in the new testament and have Jesus and the apostles involved, but this one, Lazarus, is the most miraculous of them all.

We looked at why—Lazarus had been dead four days, stinking in his tomb. He was dead beyond even the common superstitious assumptions about death. He wasn’t lying in a bed having just died, like many of the others, no, he was wrapped up and sealed in a tomb. He was all dead. And Jesus made sure that he was nowhere near Bethany when Lazarus died, so that there was no way for him to swoop in and be expected to heal him. No, he patiently waited for the timing that was the will of the Father.

So, at its most basic level, when we ask “Why is this story here?,” well, it is because it proves John’s point of the book, that Jesus really is the Christ, and proves it more convincingly and powerfully than even all of the other miracles. The other ones showed Jesus having power over water, wine, and food, over broken body parts like legs and eyes, over the wind and the waves. But this one, this one showed that he had the power even over life and death, even life and death were under Jesus’s direct control. And who but the Son of God could have that power. So that’s why this story is here, but of course there is much more to this account, is there not? And in it, especially in the conversation that Jesus has with Mary and Martha, we find lessons for ourselves and the faith we should have as Christians, but also about Jesus himself and who he really is.

Let’s look at three of those big lessons to draw out of this story. The first is the faith of these two sisters. We read in this story, as we do in other stories about them, that Mary and Martha are real people, real sisters with clearly different temperaments. And in this story, we hear them make some truly beautiful testaments of faith, and also hear them say things that reveal a wavering of faith. That is something we all do, is it not, don’t always respond with the faith that we should.

First we have a conversation between Jesus and Martha. Mary and Martha are at their house in Bethany, about two miles from Jerusalem, and they are surrounded by Jews from Jerusalem who are mourning with them. Because it says there were “many” Jews had come from Jerusalem to console them suggests that they were a prominent family, one that would be known to people in Jerusalem, adding to the witness all the more. And we remember what the general feeling about Jesus was among the Jews in Jerusalem—they were very divided. Certainly among this group from the city would be people who had heard of this Jesus fellow but didn’t really know what to think of him, but there were very likely many that were hostile to him, towing the company line about this Jesus, this Sabbath breaker and blasphemer. Remember, the last “Jews” we saw in John had stones in their hands to stone Jesus to death. Some of these same people, or at least people who felt similarly were here in the house at Bethany with Mary and Martha.

For whatever reason, Martha hears that Jesus is approaching, perhaps she doesn’t want any drama with the mixed company in the house, but she goes to Jesus before he gets there. In fact, nowhere in this story do we see Jesus making it to the house, so perhaps the tomb was between where Jesus and Martha met and the house itself. Those details aren’t ultimately of great importance, but we do want to humanize this story in our minds a bit to understand it.

So, here is Martha, her brother died four days ago, and before that she and Mary had sent a messenger to Jesus in the hopes, certainly, that Jesus would have come quickly and perhaps healed him, but he didn’t. These sisters would have to be a little confused, because it’s very likely that the messenger made it back to them two days earlier, and what would he have had to report? Jesus said, “this sickness does not lead to death.” That would have been the message brought back. Along with all of the grief of Lazarus dying, Martha would have been understandably confused by this report. And they have this private conversation:

Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

Some beautiful statements of faith here. We talked two weeks ago at length about having the faith to rest in the plans of God and not trouble ourselves with them. Humanly, Martha probably wanted to say, “Why didn’t you come sooner? Why did you say this was not a deadly disease, but he still died?” All this must have been swirling in her head. But instead, she simply comes to Jesus in faith, as we should, and says, “I know you could have healed him had you been here, but I know that must not have been the plan, because you receive whatever you ask of God.” And by saying that, difficult as it must be, humanly, she is saying, “I rest in the plans of God.” Great humility, and we should learn from that.

How often do we question God on his purposes? All these years, we hope that sermons will stick with us, but often it is specific moments that stand out. I remember one sermon I heard about 12 years ago, at the church we attended in Lincoln, Nebraska, when a member of the church had died rather suddenly. I didn’t know the person, but he had been a very important member of the congregation for quite some time. And of all the sermons I’ve forgotten, I remember part of that one, because the pastor said, “how do we respond to this? Because it was my will that this man remain with us for a long, long time.” But it was God’s will that his time was over on earth. And no matter how disappointing, we must quiet our souls and say that God doesn’t make mistakes, and my will is broken, and his is perfect. So we may grieve, but be angry with sin, don’t dare be angry with the will of God.

And that’s what we see here in Martha, she is beyond disappointed and confused, but she rests in the knowledge that since Jesus did not rescue her brother, it was part of the plan. The next time you have a terrible disappointment, or even a death of someone close to you, remember Martha and her faith here, the posture of a Christian to the hidden purposes of God.

And then Jesus assures her that Lazarus will rise again. Unsurprisingly, she believes Jesus to be referring to the final resurrection when he says that. And then to assure her even more that that is actually true, he delivers the next of his “I am” statements

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

Jesus is the resurrection and the life, and we’ll really see that in a few minutes. But a beautiful confession from Martha, telling Jesus that she truly does believe him to be the Christ.

How about our other sister, Mary? During this conversation between Jesus and Martha, Mary has been in the house with the mourners. You can imagine the scene as described. It says that Martha went to go get her sister from the house to come back to see Jesus. It says she did so privately, it was not her intention that the house full of people would join in, even though we read that they did follow once they saw Mary get up hurriedly and leave.

When Mary comes, the more emotional and less guarded of the two sisters, she doesn’t simply speak to Jesus with deferential calm. No, she falls down and Jesus’s feet weeping and says through the tears very much the same thing as Martha, that if Jesus had been here, Lazarus would not now be dead. Then the emotions start heating up:

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. 34 And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus wept. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”

So the scene is now built, the people who are going to witness Lazarus being raised are all gathered—the faithful sisters Mary and Martha, who were very close to Jesus, and additional people from Jerusalem, who clearly have knowledge of Jesus, and perhaps some mixed emotions about him. We see those mixed emotions in that last verse—some of them say, “Look at how much Jesus loved him,” but others, clearly aware of his last miracle performed in Jerusalem, say, “He can heal a blind man, why didn’t he keep this man from dying?” There’s an air of haughtiness there that we’ll hear on Good Friday—“if you are the Son of God, save yourself, or do you not really have the power?”

So that’s the scene. But this next part of the story brings us to our second point. The first was the faith of the sisters and what we can learn from that. The second is the depth of the agony that Jesus feels with sin, the trouble that he has with it. It has to do with how we read about Jesus’s emotional state in this passage.

I think that some of our translators have done us a disservice with how this passage reads, because how it is phrased encourages us to infer that Jesus was simply grieved, overcome with grief, just like everyone else there. Jesus wept, right? The shortest verse in the bible, as it is often said. But what was Jesus weeping about? Twice, in verse 33 and 38 it says that Jesus was “troubled.” Now I am sadly not versed on the original languages, so I have to trust the commentators who are, but they all say that a more accurate translation of that word is that Jesus was “irate.” He was angry. This is why I say that word is a bit of a disservice if we want our story straight, because “troubled” can have many different connotations based on context, but “irate” is pretty clear all the time. Jesus was grieved, yes, but he was also angry.

Why was he angry? Because he was standing here at the tomb of his close friend, and there is no clearer picture of the horrible nature of sin than to watch one of your loved ones dead. That is the ultimate end of sin, all the time: death. Yes, sin causes pain, harms relationships, leads to all sorts of troubles in this life, but ultimately it is death that is the most egregious, the most terrible of the results.

So Jesus is giving us a really clear picture of how much, how deeply we should be troubled, how greatly we should be angered by sin. Do we hate it as much as Jesus does? Because how much Jesus hates sin is how much we should hate sin.

I’ll tell you I’ve been angry, hopefully righteously so, this week. Watching all kinds of people being stranded in the nation of Afghanistan, which went from safe to full of marauding bands of murderous thugs in only a week. I see that and I’m mad. I hear reports of missionaries and converted Christians hiding for their lives, see videos of parents throwing babies and toddlers over razor wire fences, hoping that a soldier on the other side will catch them, because what’s on their side of the wall is just too terrible to face, it’s worth the risk. I need to check myself when I feel that anger, because I need to know what I’m being angry about, and be sure that what I’m really angry about is sin.

We are called to hate sin. We are called to look at all sin and hate it. Every once in a while I am struck by the unbelievable restraint of Jesus. We’ve seen him get in the faces of the Jews and the Pharisees and be quite confrontational as we’ve read through this book. But when they are lashing out at him, he would be justified in striking them down right then and there for their unbelief, but he doesn’t.

Jesus was more than just pained by the loss of his friend, he was angry with the fact that the sin in the world had led to his death. He was greatly moved and troubled when he encountered the travesty that is death, in the death of his friend. So Jesus wept, yes, but he was also righteously angry.

So application number 2, how much do you hate sin? How seriously do you feel how terrible it is? Do you hate all of the things that Jesus calls sin, or do some of them not seem that bad? Because I’ll let you know, they’re all that bad, because they all lead to death, each and every one. We should be troubled by the travesty that is death.

But there’s good news, point 3, the story doesn’t end there. The third point is what is so gorgeously illustrated by the remainder of the story, that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. He is. He is the opposite of death, he is resurrection, he is the life, not just a life or some life, the life. Hear again, it’s worth hearing more than once for sure:

38 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39 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.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” 44 The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Jesus is the resurrection and the life. I’ll make point 3 very easily by asking a question, a question that should give you hope? How much power does the Devil really have? How much? Jesus just took someone who was dead and made them alive. Was there a huge cosmic power battle like you might see at the climax of a superhero movie or something? Was there this great struggle between good and evil as if they are almost evenly matched but the good comes out on top? (That’s how it always is in the movies.)

Here’s the Devil, laughing maybe, that he has Jesus’s friend, he has him in death. What does it take for Jesus to get him back? He shouts three words into the tomb, and the dead awakens. This is your Savior, the one who with three words can pluck a dead person out of the clutches of the Devil and make them alive again.

There are more points that could be made about the lapse in faith in the comment from Martha about the stench, or the fact that Jesus didn’t need anyone to roll the stone away, but he worked through people to do that anyway, sure we could make more excellent points. But this is the big one that I want us to leave with, because it is so vital. Believe this about your Savior, about Jesus, not just with your head but with the depths of your soul.

He, and he alone has dominion. He has the power over life and death, and no one else. Those of us who die in Christ, who have “fallen asleep,” the Devil doesn’t own us in death. Jesus doesn’t need to raise us all miraculously back to life here on earth like he did with Lazarus. That was for a specific purpose, to prove who he was and to show the glory of the Father, that’s what he said. And by doing it he proves to us that he is the resurrection and the life, he has the power, and that means none of us need to worry. When we die, in Christ, we are merely asleep, waiting for the time that he will raise us up again, and it’s a raising up to glory.

I wonder, with a chuckle, if Lazarus was a little disappointed to be brought back. He died in faith, so did he not proceed to glory? And then to be yanked back to this world? What a let-down. I jest, but think for a second what awaits us. Jesus, in his glorious resurrection, his conquering of death, has completely taken away death for us. The Apostle Paul sums it up and says, almost mockingly in 1 Corinthians, “Death, where is your sting? Death, where is your victory?” It’s kind of a taunt—where is it?

The truth is in Christ we have nothing to fear because he has already conquered death for us. Lazarus is his proof, his own resurrection is proof. Death has no victory over us. Lazarus was raised again here on earth, but we can take it as a beautiful picture of what Christ will one day do for us all. We will be raised, and raised unto life. And there’s more good news, that life is not something you just will sometime receive, if you are united to Christ, that victory is already yours and it cannot be taken away.

So hear this story, read it, dwell on it, this is your story too. Take comfort in knowing that your Savior, Jesus Christ has shown his power over all of this, even death. Our takeaways then are these: Like Mary and Martha, trust in his plan, even when you don’t understand it or your humanity is disappointed by it. As you are sanctified, grow in your contempt for sin and its consequences. And lastly, let that hatred of sin make you cling ever more to your Savior, who is the Resurrection and the Life, your only hope. Amen. Let’s pray.

Dear Heavenly Father,

To call this story of Jesus an encouragement would be an understatement. We stand in awe of the fact that in raising Lazarus Jesus testified to your power and your glory, and gives us greater and greater faith that that is his plan for us as well. We cherish the time you’ve given to us on earth working your plan, but we also eagerly await the time when our work is done and you will raise us up on the last day. Through the power of Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray, amen.

 

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