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John 11:1-44

John Paterson

The nurse rings the family members – “We don’t think he is going to last the night,” she says.  “You had better come now.”  Regardless of what you are doing, or the plans you had, you drop everything and go to the hospital.

The message comes to Jesus:  “We don’t think your good friend Lazarus is going to last the week.  You had better come now.”  But, strangely, when he receives the message, he stays where he is, more than 100 kilometres away, for two more days (v6).

It is only when he says to his disciples, “Lazarus is dead” (v14),  (no one told him – he just knew) that he sets out for Bethany, the village where Lazarus and his two sisters lived.

11:17  “On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days.” 

The Jews of Jesus’ day had the idea that when someone died, the spirit of that person hung around for three days, in case there was a chance of its re-entering the body.  Only after that did it really depart.  Lazarus is way past that point.  If anyone is stone dead, Lazarus is.  Dead-dead.

His body is entombed in a cave, sealed with a large rock.  Jesus wants to go there.  To pay his respects?  To mourn with the others there?  No – something else. 

“Take away the stone”, he says (11:39a).  What?  The enzymes in the gut of Lazarus’ body will have begun already to eat away his flesh, and his bodily fluids will be leaking.  In that climate, the stink of it all will be overpowering.

But because it is Jesus who says it, the sisters give the orders to unseal the tomb.  Jesus prays to his Father, and then calls out “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’.”  (11:43,44)

The man who was dead dead, now lives.  The heart that had not beaten for 100 hours beats again.  The body that had begun to decay is now whole.  The arms and legs that should have been cold and stiff are now warm with life.

In 1990, following a heart attack while playing polo, Kerry Packer was resuscitated.  After six minutes.  He said later that he had gone, and learned that there was nothing there, the other side of death.  He hadn’t gone – he was resuscitated.  Lazarus had gone – he is resurrected.

How astounded and ecstatic do you reckon the two sisters, and the friends of Lazarus are?  They’d hardly be able to believe their eyes.

But hold on.  Don’t you think it’s strange that he’s put them through the agony of watching their brother die, and of the funeral, and of the four days of grief since?  Why didn’t he stop it all in the first place?  Especially when Lazarus was such a close friend?

He could have.  Martha had said to him when he first came:  11:21  “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Mary had had the same kind of question (11:32).  And so did many of the others who were there with them:  11:37 “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man, have kept this man from dying?” 

Of course he could have stopped him from dying.  The obvious question to ask is: "Why, then, didn’t he?"

The clue is in verses 5 & 6 … Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.  So (not “yet” as in the NIV) when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.”

He didn’t stay away, despite the fact that he loved him, or although he loved them.  He stayed away because he loved them.  It was going to be better for them for Lazarus to die.  Why?  Because, by raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus is going to show them something that they might otherwise not understand. 

If I were going to put what that is into one sentence, I would say they are going to learn that

We pull out all the stops to stay alive, and to keep people alive.  The best doctors, the best hospitals, the best medicines, the best life-saving equipment in ambulances … no matter what the cost, what the effort, what the inconvenience, we operate mostly on the basis that staying alive and keeping people alive is what matters most.

Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, aged 77, had a massive stroke on Wednesday.  Neurosurgeons have operated three times on his brain, and have him in a medically-induced coma.  The doctors say that while they were working “at the very edges of medicine's life-saving capacities”, they were doing everything they could to keep him alive.

Of course it is often best to stay alive, and to do what we can to make that happen.  And we are thankful for so many who work hard to serve and help us when death creeps close.

But staying alive isn’t what matters most because:

Firstly, you are only postponing the inevitable. 

The ultimate statistic is still that one out of one dies.  If Ariel Sharon recovers, he might live for five months, five years, 25 years.  The doctors might resuscitate him.  But they won’t make him immortal.

Though Lazarus is wonderfully resurrected, it is not to immortality.  Jesus has brought him back to a life in this world that will end.  Five years?  Fifty-five years?  We don’t know.  But what we do know is that he was resurrected only later to die again.

Secondly, there is a much more important life that you need.

What Lazarus needs – what Ariel Sharon needs – what you need and what I need, is what Jesus calls “eternal life”.  We need to be made new and alive in our hearts and minds.  That’s a lot more than a heart resuscitation – and even more than a bodily resurrection back into this world.

Jesus is telling Martha, and us, about a life that is so different, that it never dies in the first place.  Do you see it in what he 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.”  (v25)?

There is a life you can have which never dies.  It is what Jesus often calls “eternal life”,  and it is a lot more than life that simply goes on forever … or life that is only for some other world.  “Eternal Life” is a different kind of life, and that is why it goes on forever:

* It is being alive to Jesus, and knowing him, and being in love with him, and belonging to the King of everything.

* It is about knowing and experiencing things that take you past the stuff that is limited to this world.

* It is about a level of delight and joy and contentment that is impossible to find in anything or anyone here.

Sadly, we think that what we see and feel and do here, in this life in this world, is what life is all about.  Work, play, sex, eating, sleeping, learning.  But in our heart of hearts we know that it isn’t enough even to touch the “Who am ?”, “Why am I here?” questions, or to answer the bigger questions and the deep longings of our hearts.

Sadly, it is often not until life like that starts to fall apart – the kids go off the rails, your wife is diagnosed with terminal cancer, you lose your job – that we see that life here and now does not have the answers for people in whose hearts God has set eternity, as He puts it in the book of Ecclesiastes.

In our blindness we struggle with aches and longings, and sins and failures, guilts and regrets, anxieties and fears, and nothing here answers them.  We grow rich and fat and famous and popular – and the eternity that God has set in our hearts remains unanswered by it all.

We pretend that the pills fix it all – or the holidays, or getting married or getting unmarried.  In our blindness we fail to see that yoga, religion, new experiences and thrills don’t come even close.

All because we keep looking past Jesus, for eternal life which He alone can give.

Did you notice that Jesus does not say “I give life”, or “I do resurrections”, both of which are true.  But he says “I am” the resurrection, and “I am” the life.  He is telling us that you won’t find life in this life, or in any other life, apart from him.

The question is:  Is he telling the truth?  Can we really trust him for that?  Or is he a liar, and someone somewhere else raises the "dead" dead … and is he able to give a new life which is far and away better than just another life in this world?  If you find that someone, follow him or her.  If a religion will give you that, then grab it with both hands.

But if Jesus really does get Lazarus out of his grave – not by tricks, or "Packer whackers", but by his voice of royal and sovereign command – and if Jesus gives life, rather than just prolonging this one … then what will you do with a Jesus like this?

There are really only two choices.  Mary and Martha make one of them.  Martha says to Jesus “I believe you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” (v27)

That’s a mouthful – especially for a Jew.  “The Christ” means “the Messiah”.  He’s the one who is going to deliver on every promise God has ever made.  He’s the one who is at the centre of the whole creation, and every plan that God has ever made.  He’s the heart and soul of everything.

And “Son of God”?  We might say, "That young guy is so much his father’s son."  What we mean is that he looks or acts just the same as his father.  That is what Martha means – Jesus is the same as God the Father.  Messiah and God.  She’s got it in one.

If that’s the conclusion you come to, you could never say “He thinks this, but I’d rather think that, thankyou very much.”  You could never live on the basis that what you want is more important than what he wants.  You wouldn’t bother digging your own wells to satisfy the longings of your heart, when you know he’s got it all.  You’d trust him to change in you the things that you or your religion have never been able to change.

Martha and Mary opt for that choice.  That’s why they take the stone from the tomb of Lazarus even when it seems so unwise to them.  Once Jesus, Messiah and God, has said something, that’s enough.

I've indicatedthat there were two choices, when we come to Jesus’ promise of eternal life, and to such a magnificent display of his power.

The other choice we see in some of the Jews.  It is not that they refuse to believe that Lazarus has been resurrected.  They know he has been.  Everyone knows he has been.  The facts are beyond dispute.

No – they make the choice to try and ignore what is plainly true, in order to preserve their own beliefs and preferences.  They like being the big men: they matter in the eyes of others.  If Jesus becomes a big man, what will happen to the little kingdoms they are building for themselves? 

So in the verses that follow our passage this morning, we read that they make definite plans to get rid of Jesus.  But that’s going to be a problem while Lazarus is walking around as living proof of his power … “So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him.”  (12:10,11)

Are they noble men, interested in the facts?  Concerned for the truth?  Wanting to do what’s right?  If they were, they would change their prejudices and plans in the light of what they know is true.  If they were, they would ask Jesus to give them eternal life, which is even better than a maintained life in this world.

* Mary and Martha look and see, and bow before him as Messiah and God.  They look to him to give them life which is better than holding onto life here.

* These blind, dead, religious, self-righteous bigots look and see.  And they trample over the truth, rejecting and opposing it, in order to keep running their world and their lives the way they want.  And they do not have the eternal life which Jesus gives to all who come to him to receive it.

Where are you this morning?  In love with Jesus, and having all he gives … including being made alive, which is so much better than just being kept alive?

Or preferring to do it your way.  In your kingdom, with your agenda, and your death?  With any serious love for and trust in Jesus right off the agenda?

Jesus said to Martha:  “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?”  (v25)

May I ask you:  Do you believe this?  Have you come to Jesus as God, and received the life that he alone can give?

Doing that isn’t like catching the measles – you wake up one morning and it’s just there.  It’s more like getting married – saying to Jesus “I will”.  “I’m yours.”  It’s a commitment of your head and of your heart and of your will.

Our story ends with Lazarus very much alive – not only for this world, but also for the real world.  And with these other men deader in their hearts than Lazarus had even been in his body.

Where are you at the end of the story?  Is Jesus' voice saying “Geoff, come out”, “Sarah, come out”, “Tyler, come out.”?  Then come.  Come out of death into life.  Come right now.

John Paterson


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