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“Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha… So the sisters sent to him saying, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’”
The village of Bethany was just outside of Jerusalem. John tells us, “about two miles off.” When Jesus was in Jerusalem, he would often go there to visit. Seems there was a family there that had opened their home to him – the two sisters Mary and Martha.
You’ll remember that on one of those visits, Martha complained that although she didn’t mind having company, she didn’t like having to do all the work of preparing meals while her sister Mary sat at Jesus’ feet. And then those wonderful words that turn the storm into calm, “Martha, Martha…”
They had a brother named Lazarus. Whether he actually lived in the same house with his sisters or not is unclear. But what is clear is this, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.”
“So the sisters sent to him saying, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
Of all times for him NOT to be in Bethany. Where was he? Earlier in his gospel, John reported that when Jesus was in Jerusalem, He made the preposterous statement, Truly, truly I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” “So they picked up stones to throw at him…” (John 8:52) And then during another visit, He said, “I and the Father are one.” “The Jews picked up stone AGAIN to stone him.” (10:31).
Jerusalem, the center of Jewish religion and the Temple, proves to be a dangerous place for the One who is what the entire religion and the Temple pointed to. So “he went away across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing and there he remained.” (John 10:40).
“So the sisters SENT TO HIM saying, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
I can’t seem to get past this. They stay with their dying brother. But they send a message to Jesus. And it’s the message that they send that I can’t seem to get past. “Lord, he whom YOU LOVE is ill.”
I expected them to say, “Lord, he who LOVES YOU is ill.” Isn’t that the way we’re programmed to appeal to God? “Lord, I love you. Therefore, you should come and help me.” How many funeral services have we been to where the sole focus that is supposed to comfort the grieving is that the deceased loved the Lord.
I remember a time long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, in another church, how we loved those “Praise Songs.” One that still sticks in my head:
“I love you Lord, and I lift my voice, to worship you, O my soul rejoice.
Take joy my King in what you hear, let it be a sweet, sweet sound in your ear.”
(And now repeat that 10 times.)
Jesus must not have taught the sisters that song. “They sent to him saying, ‘Lord, he whom YOU LOVE is ill.’” They’re appealing to Jesus, not on the basis of Lazarus’ love for Jesus but on the basis of the Lord’s for Lazarus.
I don’t think John ever got past this either. It’s not that “the world SO LOVED GOD that He sent His only Son.” But “God so loved the world…” (John 3:16). John writes to the church, “This is love, not that we have loved God, but that he loved us…” (1 John 4:10).
This is the essence of the Christian faith and the faith that we want to grow into. We do not confess that we love the Lord, but that the Lord loves us, and with the greatest love that there is… He laid down His life for us.
Our hope and confidence before God, is “not that we have loved God, but that he loved us…” I know that the Scriptures say that we should “love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind.” But who does? But God’s love for me, is full and unfailing. “Nothing will be to separate us from the LOVE OF GOD that is in Christ Jesus.” (Rom.8:26).
If you like to sing simple songs that repeat themselves, but that get it right, I’d suggest you try this one. You know it, sing it with me.
“JESUS LOVES ME this I know, for the bible tells me so,
Little ones to him belong, we are weak but He is strong.
Yes, JESUS LOVES ME. Yes, JESUS LOVES ME.
Yes, JESUS LOVES ME. The bible tells me so.”
That may be a children’s song, but no adult has ever mastered it. “Jesus loves ME.” Wretched sinner, who does NOT LOVE HIM as I should. It’s a child’s song because only little children get it.
If you insist on a more adult version, I’d recommend the hymn we sang last Sunday. “My song is love unknown, MY SAVIOR’S LOVE TO ME. Love for the LOVELESS shown that they might lovely be. O who am I that for my sake my Lord should take frail flesh and die?” (LSB #430).
“They sent to him saying, ‘Lord, he whom YOU LOVE is ill.’”
“When Jesus heard it he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death but to the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Jesus intends to make the same thing out of Lazarus’ death as we saw Him do last Sunday in the man born blind. “That the works of God may be displayed in him.” (John 9:3).
In his gospel, John has laid out a growing crescendo of THE WORKS OF GOD ON DISPLAY. He calls them ‘signs.’ Water turned to wine; feeding 5000 with food for 5; and walking on the water; calming the stormy sea; healing those who were ILL. Each one “so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
We come now to the 7th and final sign. THE WORKS OF GOD ON DISPLAY in one who is dead.
That’s why He delayed for two days.
This is not about filling what is ALMOST empty, but filling what is COMPLETELY empty;
This is not about rescuing a life before time runs out, but rescuing a life in which time has COMPLETELY expired.
This is not about saving someone for whom there is little hope of being saved, but one in which ALL HOPE IS GONE.
“After this, He said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” “It’s dangerous. Consider the risks. Count the cost. Play it safe.”
Thomas speaks for all the rest. ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.” And they all sang (singing): “I love you Lord, and I lift my voice…”
So, why did He go? He was perfectly safe at the RIGHT HAND OF THE FATHER IN HEAVEN. Why did He go? He knew the danger. He knew what was in the heart of man and how men react when the light comes into their darkness. He knew He would be “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” (Is.53). So, why did He go?
Because THE ONES HE LOVES WERE DYING. Because “The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of destruction assailed me.” (Ps.18:4-5). Because “one man brought sin into the world” and only one man can take away the sin of the world. Because the “wages of sin” must be paid and HE IS THE ONLY ONE WHO CAN PAY THEM. “I am the resurrection and the life.”
“Lord, he whom you love is ill.” He had to go to Bethany. He had to come to us. His love compelled Him.
“’Where have you laid him?’ They said, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus wept.”
That’s what you do at a cemetery isn’t it? It may be the shortest verse in the bible but you’ll never be able to get to the bottom of it.
Why did He weep?
Was it because he took our humanity onto Himself and “bares our grief and carries our sorrows…” – Or –
Was it because so many who “grieve as those who have no hope…” because they don’t know that He is the resurrection and the life and whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die? – Or –
Was it because He sees what sin has done to His precious creation, the man whom He formed out of the dust of the ground and to whom He gave His own breath, so perfect, so innocent; this woman whom crafted from the man’s side, so beautiful, so right?
Or was it something else? Something more along the order of weeping that He will do later, in a garden called Gethsemane. Is He thinking of another tomb, about 2 miles from Bethany, and the body that will be laid to rest inside it, and the strips of linen and burial cloth, and the stone over the entrance?
It was all of the above times a thousand?
“And Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ And Martha protested just enough to remind us that Lazarus has been dead now for four days. I’ve always like the King James version on this. Martha said, “By now the body STINKTH.”
Time has run out; all hope is long gone, the body is completely empty of life. There is nothing. Only Jesus.
“And Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out.’” One early church father said that He had to call Lazarus by name or every dead body in the graveyard would have come marching out of its tomb.
But isn’t this incredible! The man has been dead for four days. There is no life in him. And yet he HEARS THE WORD OF HIS LORD. The sound of this voice, penetrating through solid rock. The dead man hears the ONE WHO LOVES HIM, call Him by name.
What kind of WORD is this? What kind of WORD is this that speaks into NOTHING, in the EMPTY and VOID, and THERE WAS LIGHT? What kind of WORD speaks to one who is dead and the dead come to life through Holy Baptism?
“And the man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth.” “And Jesus said to them, ‘unbind him, and let him go.’”
Cemeteries may be for weeping, but on this day, this cemetery was for LAUGHING and DANCING and CELEBRATION and TEARS OF PURE JOY? “God has turned our mourning into dancing; He has loosed our sackcloth clothed us with gladness, that we may sing His praise and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever.” (Ps.30:11-12).
But as amazing as this is, it’s still just a ‘SIGN.’ The 7th sign, but a ‘SIGN’ nonetheless. And SIGNS are not the destination. Signs always point to something beyond themselves. “This illness leads to the glory of God that the Son of God may be glorified in it.” And we haven’t gotten to that yet. “The man who had died came out…” But to THIS life again, and only to die again, and be wrapped and buried again.
No, here is what the sign of Lazarus points to. It points to the one who loved Lazarus and who loves you.
Jesus wasn’t ILL! But our ILLNESS made Him sick. He took our ILLNESS upon Himself. He took our SIN upon Himself. He took our DEATH upon Himself. And He went to Jerusalem, about 2 miles from Bethany. And He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.
“And Joseph… wrapped him in a linen shroud, and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of a rock. And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb.” (Mark 15:46).
Why? “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.”
“So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they went to the tomb… The stone was already rolled away. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there… and the face cloth… folded up in a place by itself…” (John 20:5-7)
We will hold off on the celebration. The time for singing and dancing has not yet come. Holy Week is still a week away. It is still a time of weeping. But know this, it “leads to the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified in it.”