John 11: Symbolic and Bodily Resurrection
Morning worship service, February 25, 2018
When I was child a favorite Saturday morning cartoon was “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends.” It aired from November of 1959 to June of 1964. One of the “Friends” on the show was a segment in which a beagle named Mr. Peabody would take a boy named Sherman back in time to visit important events in human history. They used a device called the Wayback Machine to transport them. Mr. Peabody would then end each cartoon with a pun. I just realized 1959-1964 takes me from age 4 to age 9, my formative years, especially formative for my personality. I guess I watched too many of these cartoons….. (video).
If you are still willing, let’s set Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine to the events surrounding Lazarus’ death and take a journey of our own. I promise not to end with a pun of my own. We arrive just as the news of Lazarus’ grave illness (sorry, couldn’t help myself!) reached Jesus. Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha who sent the urgent request for Jesus to come and heal Lazarus, were especially close to Jesus. John writes, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (v5). Jesus and His apostles would stay at their home at times. On one of those occasions, Mary poured perfume on Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair, an act which Jesus described as “a beautiful thing…she did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial” (Mark 14:6-8). I love that line: “She did what she could.”
But instead of going immediately, John writes that Jesus purposely “stayed where he was two more days” before telling His disciples they were going to Judea. Jesus waited those two days to make sure everyone knew Lazarus was dead before He arrived, even though Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it” (v4). “A death that doesn’t end in death that Jesus may be glorified.” That’s an interesting concept. Before they all leave for Judea, Jesus tells His followers, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him” (vv14-15). I wonder how Jesus’ disciples computed “This sickness will not end in death” with “Lazarus is dead.” Jesus and His apostles have been swimming in a sea of death threats for months now. In John 7, Jesus was teaching at the Festival of Tabernacles. This Festival lasts 8 days and covers the end of September on into October. Jesus publicly asked the crowds listening to Him speak, “Why are you trying to kill me?” (7:19). Lazarus’ death occurred in the weeks before the Passover and Unleavened Bread festivals which together last 8 days and occur at the end of March and on into April.1 So we are roughly talking about a six-month period. Thomas’ mind puts all these details together and announces, together with “the rest of the disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him” (v16). That same bravado will soon resurface in Peter’s mouth, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death” (Luke 22:33). Thomas became ‘doubting Thomas’ when he refused to believe Jesus had been resurrected (John 20:24-29) and Peter would betray Jesus three times, afraid of the observation powers of a servant girl (John 18:16-17). It’s often hard to see ourselves for who we really are. The image of ourselves we maintain to keep us moving forward doesn’t always surface when we face life’s most difficult moments. But that’s another sermon.
When Jesus and we arrive in Bethany, “Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days” (v17). Martha is the first sister to meet Jesus: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v21). I often wonder if that is a statement of faith or an accusation. It’s kind of like us praying, “God, I know You are able to heal me… save my… fix…” while at the same time wondering, “but will You?” It sounds like Jesus’ words, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42), but it isn’t because we don’t know what God’s will is. Jesus knew what He had to do. Jesus was bending the desires of His human flesh and His desire not to become sin and separated from God to the necessary will of His Father that He die on our behalf. We all too often pray that prayer in hopelessness, or as a tag line. “God, this is what I really want. Please do this. I don’t really care what Your will is, but I really don’t have any other choice because You are God. So, ok, I’ll be a good boy and pray for Your will to be done even though I really want my way.” Martha doesn’t stop. “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask” (v22). Martha never asks for anything. This is obvious to me because as a pastor I often get asked by people who don’t believe in the power of their own prayers to pray on their behalf. It reminds me of grade school when we liked a person of the opposite sex but were afraid to ask them if they liked us so we sent a friend to do a little work on our behalf. If the response seemed encouraging, then we might follow up. But to ask without some hint of reciprocity was too big of a risk. Martha won’t ask. Jesus won’t let her off the hook. He wants her to ask, to say what is on her heart. Jesus says bluntly, “Your brother will rise again” (v23). Martha misses Jesus’ point; she doesn’t believe His obvious meaning: “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (v24). Jesus forces the issue: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (vv25-26). Martha ignores Jesus’ question or maybe she can’t cross the bridge to asking for herself. She adds one and one and gets zero. “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is come into the world” (v27). But what is missing from her words? “Who has come into my heart and life and mind and spirit. I’m a doer, not a thinker. There are so many people here, I’ve got to get back to my comfort zone.” Martha leaves and tells Mary Jesus wants to see her.
When Mary reaches Jesus, “she fell at his feet” (v32). Mary is a disciple, one who “sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what He said” whereas Martha was “distracted by all the preparations that had to be made (Luke 10:39).” Mary’s words to Jesus are identical to Martha’s: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v32). But Mary was weeping and her weeping “deeply moved [Jesus] in spirit” and left Jesus “troubled” (v33). Then “Jesus wept” (v35). The crowds interpret Jesus’ weeping as great love for Lazarus (v36), but others are judgmental: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (v37). I think Jesus was deeply troubled, moved in His spirit, and wept because He knew what Lazarus was giving up to return to earth. Jesus knew that every day that Lazarus lived again before he died again would be incredibly difficult. Difficult because Lazarus knew what he now knew and difficult because people would hate him for what Lazarus symbolized. Lazarus’ return from the dead was a false hope. Lazarus would die again; none of us can go and talk to him right now. He’s not 2000 years old. When Jesus came back from the dead, Jesus would never face death again. Lazarus’ resurrection symbolized the futile attempts of mankind to defeat death in sinful flesh. All of our ‘flat lining’ efforts and our ‘resuscitation’ stories have been nothing but futile attempts to gain ‘insider information’ about the world to come. Lazarus was there. Our Bibles have already told us all the legitimate information about what is to come that we need.
Lazarus was indeed dead. Mary never left like Martha. The returned Martha tells Jesus not to have the men take away the stone that guards the tomb because “by this time there is a bad odor” (v39). Jesus challenges her once again, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” (v40). Jesus knows what is about to happen. But Jesus prays publicly “for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me” (v42). What was Jesus’ real prayer? It was a prayer of thanksgiving: “Father, I thank you that you have heard me” (v41). Jesus knew before He left for Judea what would happen. He had already prayed. His prayer had been answered: “This sickness will not end in death” (v4). Jesus speaks. The Word of God speaks the word of God, the creative, powerful Word by which mankind first lived, “Lazarus, come out!” (v43). And now we know where all of Hollywood’s “Egyptian Mummy” movies got their inspiration: “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’” (v44). Oops! Hollywood didn’t get it right! The mummy wasn’t a mummy! The mummy was a man. The grave clothes came off and Lazarus was there, alive, speaking and eating; Lazarus was recognizable and without decay. “Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. ‘What are we accomplishing?’ they asked. ‘Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation’” (vv47-48). What did the leaders of Israel care about? Giving up what they possessed! They didn’t care about God or the people or anything but what they had to lose! So why did Jesus weep? “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 believing in him” (John 12:10-11). Now they hated Lazarus like they hated Jesus.
We are back in 2018. Mr. Peabody is gone. We are left with our questions. Our only real answer is this: “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (14:18). That’s the only real answer any of us ever get—Jesus’ presence in our life. We have a friend we can talk to, a Father to protect us, a comforter when we hurt, an advocate to plead our case when we fail, a counselor to help us understand, a companion to walk with us each day. All of those words are used to describe the Holy Spirit Jesus sent us when He left us. It’s like trading one Jesus who can only be at one place at one time for a Jesus who can be everywhere with everyone at all times. That’s the promise. We’re never alone when we give our life to Christ. We’re never powerless or without hope. We’re never without someone to show us the way or how, we just have to work on the relationship a little so we get the messages clearly. It’s worth the time and effort. Make the investment.