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Sermon: Rise up!

January 15, 2015

  John 11:1-45

Jesus had his followers. He had plenty of enemies too. When we think of followers we think of his 12 apprentices, or disciples as we call them. We know too that he drew crowds. Dozens, hundreds, even thousands. It was often when he just wanted to be with his disciples, or even on his own, that he found himself surrounded.

Many came to watch, to be spectators. What was Jesus going to do next? What would he say next? Jesus challenged people not to be spectators but to look beyond the spectacular things they saw, to be pointed towards the truth about Jesus. Truth that should have been clear to them through the things he said and did.

But Jesus had time for individuals. He had time for friends and here we are introduced to a small family who could call themselves friends of Jesus. A man and two sisters living in a small village called Bethany. Lazarus, Mary and Martha. Names that we are very familiar with.

Lazarus is the one we are told the least about. The gospels do not record one word spoken by him. We are not told what he does for a living or any significant thing that he did. The greatest thing about Lazarus is what Jesus did for him. Something which in every sense Lazarus did nothing to contribute to.

We are aware that the chief priests and other leaders wanted Jesus dead. As far as they were concerned he was trouble. The worst kind of trouble. Perhaps we forget that they wanted to kill Lazarus too. A man who has not said or done anything considered worth recording in the gospels is considered someone who needs to be got rid of. How did that come to be? All because of Jesus.

The sisters. Martha and Mary. Martha was a worker. She was Miss Hospitable. We are told that when the family gathered for a party, Lazarus was at the table with other guests, Jesus the guest of honour. Martha was in the kitchen. Martha served the food. She was great. We need people like Martha who are prepared to work in practical ways, showing their love for and commitment to Jesus. In his biography of Jesus, Luke tells us of an earlier occasion when Martha opened her home to Jesus. That is what she did. Martha is described as being distracted by all the preparations. The things that needed to be done. Martha is busy.

And then there is Mary. Where is she when Jesus comes to visit? What is she doing? What help is she giving to Martha? Is she pulling her weight? Not a bit. She is seated at Jesus’ feet hanging onto every word he spoke. At the party is she giving out the drinks? Is she looking after the guests? Not a bit. Mary’s focus is on one person and one person only. Jesus. She seems to be totally unaware of the gathered friends and neighbours as she pours expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet. She shows no sense of shame as she loosens her hair and uses it to wipe Jesus’ feet. The smell of Martha’s sumptuous cooking is overpowered by the fragrance of this expensive perfume.

Mary loves Jesus. That is what marks her out. It is a love that doesn’t care what other people think. She knows how important it is to sit at Jesus’ feet. She knows what it is to worship him. Costly worship. Is our worship like that? Gripped by Jesus? Focussed on him alone? Sacrificial? That was Mary’s worship. It wasn’t a worship that came out of duty. It was worship born out of love.

And that love annoyed people. At the earlier meeting in their home, Martha had protested “Jesus, I’m doing all the work here. What’s Mary doing? Tell her to help me.”

At the party it was the disciple Judas who protested. “Jesus look at all this waste of money. If she’d sold it at least we could have done something about feeding the poor”. Actually we’re told Judas was more interested in the money for himself.

But each time as Mary expresses her love and worship she is branded as lazy, a waster of time. And money.

But each time it is Jesus who leaps to her defence. “Martha, you’re so busy and that’s great but actually just at this moment Mary has realised what is more important. You need to sit down and listen as well”.

“Judas, leave her alone! Mary is focussed on me. She is recognising my death in what she does”.

The party ends as I said with Lazarus, having said or done nothing, facing the threat of death. Something amazing had taken place between these 2 meetings and this is what we read about today of course.

So now let’s turn to the beginning of our passage today. It’s all about Lazarus. As we have already said we know nothing about him. He is not mentioned at all on the first occasion when Jesus is in the home of Mary and Martha and now we are told he is ill. I don’t know what it is about Lazarus but John never makes any attempt to paint any kind of  picture. He is ill. That’s it. That’s all you get. The man who we know nothing about is ill and we are not even told at any stage what is wrong with him. Somehow none of that matters. What matters in all this is what Jesus is going to do.

But there is actually one very important thing about Lazarus. He is Jesus’ friend. When the sisters send message to Jesus, they can be very clear with him, “the one you love is sick”. They relied upon that relationship, that friendship. Jesus could be depended upon.

What are you famous for? What famous quotes are attributed to you? When they’re in need of a comment do the papers always come to you? What great acts have you done? When have you hit the headlines? Maybe you have but perhaps for most of us we are not famous. We are unknown to all but a few. But here’s the important thing. You are a friend of Jesus. He loves you. He cares about what you are going through. To him you are valued. You are important. Don’t we need to be encouraged by that as Christians?

The message is passed to Jesus and it sounds as though he has everything under control. You see Jesus seems to know things. Things that no normal human being can know. About what is in people’s minds. About the future. He knows. So when he announces that “this illness will not end in death”, that’s what those close to Lazarus want to hear. He’s going to get better. It’s going to be alright Jesus is coming and he’s got it all under control. Jesus is a healer. Blind eyes have been opened. Lame legs are walking. He’ll have no trouble with this one. Lazarus will be healed. “God is going to be glorified” is Jesus’ announcement.

Jesus loves Mary Martha and Lazarus. There will be a happy ending. And so Jesus rushes off to Lazarus’s bedside, says a prayer of faith, and Lazarus is instantly better while Mary looks on and Martha cooks lunch.

Actually.

No.

Jesus stays where he is. For two days. “It’s all going to be fine he has said. Lazarus will live. God is in control.”

Mary and Martha stand at the gate looking out for Jesus. He’s not coming. No sign. We can’t even be sure that they have heard his reassuring words. What us going on?

Meanwhile Jesus and his disciples are discussing where to go next. The disciples are keen to avoid a stoning in Judea. Jesus is ready to go there. He is talking mysteriously about darkness and light. Jesus though is saying that he has nothing to fear. And besides, he’s going there for Lazarus. I wonder if the disciples have even forgotten about Lazarus and his illness over the past two days. “Jesus said Lazarus would be fine, perhaps this is one of those occasions where he doesn’t even need to visit the person to heal them. He has done that before.”

“I’m going to see our friend Lazarus. I’m going to wake him up.”

His meaning is lost on the disciples. “Lord it’s not worth risking a stoning just to go and wake someone up! Sleep will do him good anyway if he’s ill. He’s got two sisters who can wake him up”.

Jesus spells it out. “You know what I mean. Lazarus is dead”. And amazingly “I’m glad I didn’t go to see him when his sisters called me to go and heal him”!

“This whole episode is going to strengthen your faith”.

Did anyone say “Jesus you said he wasn’t going to die”?

Got a favourite disciple? Peter, James and John, Andrew. What about Thomas?

Doubting Thomas we call him. He gets a bad press. Mainly because he failed to believe, at the end of the John’s gospel, that Jesus had risen from the dead. When all the other disciples had had the benefit of seeing him. I mean let’s be fair wouldn’t most of us be with Thomas on that one?

On another occasion as Jesus talks about his coming death and resurrection but discusses the fact that he will come back to take his disciples to a place he was preparing for them, Thomas pipes up “But how can we know the way if we don’t know where you are going?” Did this show Thomas was a doubter? I suspect he was not alone in wondering what Jesus was saying. At least Thomas was the one who had the courage to ask the question. Without that question we would not have one of Jesus’ greatest claims “I am the way the truth and the life”.

So this is the first time that Thomas is heard to speak in John’s account. “Let’s go with Jesus. Let’s die with him.” It’s not the best motivational speech you will ever hear. It is bordering on the pessimistic shall we say. But whereas the disciples generally are keen to avoid somewhere where there is likely to be trouble, Thomas is prepared to go with Jesus wherever he goes, even if, as he sees it, his own life could be at risk. That takes some commitment.

So I am going to start a campaign for Thomas to get a better deal. Can we stop calling him “doubting Thomas” and can we now call him brave and honest Thomas. Not the greatest optimist, but a realist, a man who will follow his Lord.

Off they go. A lot more time has it seems been wasted, By the time Jesus and his disciples arrive at Bethany the news that greets them is that Lazarus has been in the tomb for 4 days. Just as Jesus said. Dead.

Many mourners had got there already. Jesus had just completely missed the moment. Mary and Martha were comforted by their friends but all they had wanted was for their greatest friend to come and care for Lazarus.

Martha heard he was coming. She went out to meet him leaving Mary at home.

What could she say? What would anyone say?

“Lord if you had come when we called you my brother wouldn’t be dead.”

“Lord if only”.

Have you ever said that prayer? “Lord what are you doing? Why haven’t you answered my prayer? Why are you making me wait? Why have you allowed this to happen?”

Life rarely goes as we would plan it. Jesus often does not respond to our prayers as we would like. Like Thomas too we find it hard to understand. What is going on? We are allowed to ask. The Psalms are full of questions. “God why are you letting me go through all this? Where are you?” There is never anything wrong with those questions. Who wouldn’t respond as Martha did?

And yet there is a glimmer. What is Martha thinking? What does she mean? We don’t know. “But even now I know God will give you whatever you want”.

Jesus reassures her “Lazarus is going to rise again.”

Martha believes. She believes in life after death. One day. One day Lazarus will rise.

Jesus continues “I am the resurrection and the life”. We all die. But Jesus promises to those who believe in him. He is the source of resurrection and life. In his opening chapter John has announced that “in him was life”. And somehow that life can be experienced even where there is death. Jesus asks “do you believe this?”

We love Peter. He is the one who said “You are the Christ the son of the living God”. Actually there are others who made great claims about Jesus, Philip and Nathaniel and Andrew among them. And then there’s Martha.

In the midst of her grief, will she be remembered for this?:

“I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God who has come into the world.”

Even with all her pain she is a woman of great faith. She trusts in Jesus though at this moment she probably has no idea what Jesus can do to help. Maybe it is just the comfort of knowing that one day she will meet her brother again in eternity.

Martha calls Mary. Mary rushed to meet him, the people thinking that she was going to the tomb. Jesus is still not in the village.

Mary has exactly the same to say as her sister:

“Lord if you had come when we called you my brother wouldn’t be dead.”

There is so much pain so much confusion. These are friends who are so hurt. We are told that Jesus is deeply moved and troubled. He asks to be taken to the tomb. He stands.

John 11:35.

The shortest verse in the 66 books of the Bible. Two words. Nine letters.

Jesus wept. Oh yes Jesus cares! Do you believe that? When you come to him with your questions. “Lord where were you? Why have you let this happen?” When he sees your pain and anguish do you think he doesn’t care? 2 words tell us that he does. The tears of Jesus tell us that he loves. He feels he cares. He feels our sadness. We are not alone even in the darkest times. And those tears remind us that a time came when Jesus would hang on a cross saying “Where are you God?” because not only does he share in our pain but he shares in our sin. Taking it upon himself. So that we can know the resurrection that he brings.

But what of Lazarus. This is very moving. But some believe they see right through this. “If this man can make the blind see, how is it he couldn’t stop this good friend of his from dying?”

Jesus is deeply moved. But Jesus can do more than just empathise with his friends. He has not finished.

It is time to roll the stone away from the grave. That is not a great thing to do when someone has been dead for four days. The smell will be awful. Martha believes Jesus is the resurrection, but what is he doing now? It seems the answer has still not crossed her mind.

“Keep believing in me Martha”.

In whatever struggle or sadness you face at this moment keep believing in Jesus. God can still be glorified.

“God will be glorified Martha”.

The stone is rolled away. This is such a crazy thing to be doing.

Jesus prays “Lord you always hear my prayer. I want these people here to see and believe”.

And so Jesus calls out to a dead man.

“Lazarus come out!” From the darkness of the tomb a mummified man steps out into the light of day. He’s alive. He needs further help to remove those grave clothes, but after 4 days Lazarus is alive. Jesus has demonstrated in power that he is the resurrection and the life. One day he would demonstrate it in the greatest way of all by rising from the dead, conquering death. Opening the way for you and me to know life in all its fullness. Life without end.

Many people are amazed by what they see and trust in Jesus. The Pharisees are furious and want to kill Jesus. And Lazarus! He’s already been dead once!

And so what does Lazarus do? He calls his friends to a party with Jesus as guest of honour.

What does Martha do? She serves him with her practical skills.

And what does Mary do? She worships Jesus. Expensively. Extravagantly.

So what do you do now, today? For the one who is the resurrection and the life. Once you were dead but now you are alive because he died on the cross in your place. As now in heaven he intercedes on your behalf.

What will you do?

Like Lazarus will you honour Jesus? Will you tell others “Come and meet my friend”?

Like Martha will you serve him? Will you give your gifts into his hands and allow him to use you?

Like Mary, will you worship him? Will you pour your love out before him, not caring what others say?

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