“Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus has died…”
There was a time when there was no such thing as death. “In the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:17) We wonder if Adam understood what God meant since he had no experience with death. But it’s clear that he at least understood that ‘death’ was something that WAS NOT included in God’s declaration – ‘it was very good’ which He himself had heard His Creator declare over all God had made. Why else would God warn him AGAINST it? Why else would Adam tell his wife to not even touch that tree?
These days, who DOESN’T know what death is – these days in particular when the media is broadcasting a daily ‘death count’ which keeps rising.
And one day, a man named Lazarus was added to the count. It started out as just a sickness – cough, fever, tiredness, difficulty breathing. And long before testing kits were available, “the sisters sent to Jesus, saying ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’”
Before we go any further with this, we need to stop right here and make sure we hear exactly the message that these sisters send to their dear friend Jesus – which is a blatant attempt to persuade Him to come quickly. “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
I get stuck on that every time I read it because that’s not the way we typically appeal to our Lord for His help is it? “Lord, he who LOVES YOU is ill” sounds much more like it. “Lord, I love you,” as though that’s the trigger that fires the spark in Jesus’ heart to come and help.
How many funeral services have we been to where the main focus has been on how much the deceased ‘loved the Lord,’ as though that was supposed to assure us that everything is okay. But these sisters appeal to Jesus on the basis of HIS LOVE for Lazarus and not their brother’s love for Jesus.
I don’t think St. John ever got past this either. In his gospel, we do not hear that ‘the world so loved God that He sent His Son…” but just the opposite. “For God so loved the world, that He sent His Son…” (John 3:16). In his first epistle to the church, John writes, ‘This is love, not that we have loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son…” (1 John 4:10).
This is the essence of the Christian faith. Our hope and confidence that God will come to help us, even save us, is NOT based on OUR LOVE FOR HIM, but on His unfailing, unwavering, undying love for us. St. Paul declares, “Nothing will be able to separate us from the LOVE OF GOD that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:26).
This is the Christian doctrine that Anna Warner wants to inscribe on the hearts and minds of the little children. “JESUS LOVES ME! This I know, for the Bible tells me so… JESUS LOVE ME! He who died, heaven’s gates to open wide… YES, JESUS LOVE ME. The bible tells me so.” (LSB 588)
“They sent to him saying, ‘Lord, he whom YOU LOVE is ill.’
“But when Jesus heard it he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death. If is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Just as we saw last week with the man born blind, Jesus is going to use Lazarus’ sickness and death to “display the works of God.”
Once again, John reminds us of what is most true and important. “Now JESUS LOVED Martha and her sister and Lazarus…”
Now the real drama in this account begins. “When he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, let us go to Judea again…”
The disciples warn Him against doing this. “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” They question the wisdom of God, if you can believe it.
“After saying these things, He said to them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” The disciples do their best to put a positive spin on this and want to believe that Lazarus is just sleeping and will wake up on his own. “But Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
Jesus is actually GLAD that Lazarus died BEFORE he got there – “so that you may believe.” The delay and lateness of His arrival on the scene is purposeful. It is meant to work faith in the disciples. It’s the same for us.
How often have we questioned the Lord’s timing? “Lord, why is it taking you so long to come and rescue us from the peril of this disease and this fallen world.” “Come Lord Jesus!” But how often have we stopped to consider that God’s ‘SLOWNESS’ or ‘LATENESS’ is actually purposeful, meant for THE STRENGTHENING OF OUR FAITH. Peter writes to the church, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)
After waiting two days from when He received word about Lazarus, it would take another two days to travel to Bethany which is on the outskirts of Jerusalem. “Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.”
Once in Bethany, the sisters struggle to hide their disappointment with Jesus. “Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Then, “Mary said to Him, ‘Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Then, “some of the Jews who were there said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”
EVERYONE BELIEVED that Jesus could have prevented Lazarus’ death if only He had gotten there in time. But NO ONE BELIEVED that He could do much for Lazarus now that death had beat him to it.
They had ‘faith’ in Jesus. But their faith was limited to what Jesus is capable of doing BEFORE TIME RUNS OUT. Their faith was immature – a ‘child’s faith.’ But Jesus has delayed for the sake of their faith – and ours – that it may grow up to maturity. Just wait until you see what He can do AFTER TIME HAS RUN OUT.
Jesus said to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” By her response, Martha proves to be quite the theologian. “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Martha expresses the Christian hope as clearly and succinctly as it can be said. We know what WILL happen when times runs out. Death will not have the final say. God will.
I suspect Luther had Martha’s confession of faith in mind when he has us say, “On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ. This is most certainly true.” (Small Catechism – 3rd Article.)
But now on this particular occasion, our Lord is going to demonstrate before THEIR very eyes and before OUR ears THE EXTENT TO WHICH WE MAY HAVE CONFIDENCE IN THIS CHRISTIAN FAITH.
“Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus said ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha thinks that Jesus wants to see the body and pay His respects. He must feel bad that He had delayed and arrived too late. But by four days, decomposition has already begun. And if you can believe it, she wants to protect Jesus from the stench of death. “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” Martha questions the wisdom of God, if you can believe it.
Earlier, He had told her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who believes in me shall never die. DO YOU BELIEVE ME?” And Martha had replied, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
Now here, outside her brother’s tomb, “Jesus said to her, ‘did I not tell you that IF YOU BELIEVED you would see the glory of God?’” This is all so that Martha may BELIEVE – and that His disciples may believe – and that we may believe.
“So they took away the stone.” And after praying to His Father that He would work faith in the hearts of all who were present, “THAT THEY MIGHT BELIEVE that You sent me…” “He cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out.’”
One early church father said that Jesus had to call Lazarus by name or every dead body in Bethany would have come leaping out of their tombs.
“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.’”
Let’s conclude simply by thinking about the amazing thing that has happened here. Yes, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. And yes, this is amazing. And yes, great for Lazarus. But frankly, Lazarus will die again. This is not the resurrection from the dead that we are all hopeful for.
Here’s what I think is amazing and that does pertain to our death and resurrection. Think about it. Lazarus is dead! In fact, he has been dead long enough that his body has begun to decay. And yet, and yet, HE HEARS THE VOICE OF HIS LORD CALLING HIM – by name.
You’ve got to hear that a couple of times before the amazing absurdity of it sinks in. He who is dead, whose body is in the state of decay, hears the word of His Lord calling Him – by name. “Lazarus, come out.”
What kind of Word is this that is heard EVEN BY THE DEAD, such that they not only hear the word, but are also enlivened by that same word to respond in perfect obedience? “The man who had died came out…”
And what kind of Man is this from whom a Word like this comes? Who says, “O dry bones, hear the Word of the Lord.” And their fully decomposed bodies ‘HEAR THE WORD OF THE LORD!’ “And behold, the bones came together, bone to its bone… sinew and flesh and skin…” And then ‘breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army”?
And now consider that we are all born ‘DEAD’ in our sin. But our Lord would have us ‘believe.’ And St. Paul writes, ‘faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Rom.10:17)
What the word of Christ did for Lazarus has already been done for you who were once dead but who are now alive. Even in death, His word got through to you and you heard your Savior call you – by name in your baptism. And you rose from the dead to live the life of faith in God.
So go ahead and substitute your name for the name of Lazarus, and your bones for those in Ezekiel’s valley. One day when YOUR body is nothing but dust and ashes, the Word of YOUR Lord will reach you in your grave. He will call you by name. “Come out!”
And you will ‘HEAR HIS VOICE.’ And in that day you will say, “O Lord, we have waited for you. More than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning, have we waited for you.” (Psalm 130:6)