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The Unexpected Jesus

John 11:1-32

The story is often preached. Here we shall examine its beginnings – the man called Lazarus.

The Holy Bible, New International Version

1Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair. 3So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”

4When he heard this, 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.” 5Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.

7Then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”

8“But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?”

9Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? A man who walks by day will not stumble, for he sees by this world’s light. 10It is when he walks by night that he stumbles, for he has no light.”

11After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”

12His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” 13Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.

14So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, 15and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

16Then Thomas (called Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

17On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18Bethany was less than two miles£ from Jerusalem, 19and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.

21“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”

23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

24Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

27“Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ,£ the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”

28And after she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” 29When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.

32When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.

John 11:1 through John 11:33 (NIV)

Jesus, doing the unexpected

In this passage we need to have an understanding of time and place. The time is simple: Jesus has just fled Jerusalem as the Jews tried to stone him. He has fled to the region on the other side of the Jordan, which would be about a two day walk. Bethany is a village within two miles of Jerusalem. With this in mind, then, let us examine the facts.

“Just the facts, ma’am”

Let us set out the obvious for the benefit of Sgt. Joe Friday:

  • Jesus loves Mary, Martha and Lazarus. From the context, it appears that Martha is the older sister to Mary, and that Lazarus is probably a kid brother. Losing a younger child like this is always painful.
  • Mary has anointed his feet, an act of great worship.
  • In a previous incident, Mary is praised for hearing Christ, while Martha is gently rebuked for putting the dishes ahead of Jesus.
  • Martha here makes the great confession. It is not clear in this translation, but in the NASB the verb is translated “I have believed…” – which shows that this faith is hers before this incident.
How we see it.

Most of us, I think, would reason things this way:

  • These people are personal friends of Jesus, and thus of God the Father.
  • God, who is love, would want to help his friends in their hour of tragedy.
  • God, who is all powerful, could save Lazarus from dying – even doing it remotely.
  • If you wait too long for Lazarus, he’s going to die. Four days ago, to be precise.
  • So then, Jesus will come quickly to their aid – unless he’s afraid.
  • But this cannot be – look how easily he’s handled those who want to stone him.

So, therefore, our expectation would have been that Jesus, upon hearing the news, would go quickly to Bethany.

What he did

So note what he did:

  • He delayed. For no apparent reason, he waits two more days.
  • He sends a message to Mary and Martha that sounds very much like, “Don’t worry – he’ll recover.”
  • He then lets Lazarus die.
  • Then, when things look absolutely most hopeless, he goes.

That last is important. If the fear of the Jews was a factor when Lazarus was alive, he certainly wouldn’t go just to attend the funeral. And he evidently missed that too.

The Disciples

It is a great comfort to know that the disciples, in daily contact with Jesus, had their problems with this too.

  • First, they simply didn’t get what he meant by Lazarus sleeping. It’s clear to us, but we have hindsight. So perhaps I’m not meant to understand everything that God is doing.
  • Next, they have a quite reasonable fear of the Jews doing the mob work for the Pharisees. Those people are dangerous – lethal, to be specific – and the disciples are reasonable men. They have no great wish to die.
  • For this reason, they give God some good advice – look, if the man is sleeping, that means he’s getting better. (We still think so today). So, if he’s getting better, there’s no reason to see him (and stick our necks out in the process).
  • And, like so many of us, they haven’t a clue as to what God will do.
Jesus prepares the disciples.

It is unusual for Jesus to tell his disciples of their destination. Chrysostom, in his commentary, states that this is the first time he tells them a destination. I cannot find a contrary example, but it is worth noting that Jesus is certainly not in the habit of pointing out tomorrow’s geography. He is much more concerned that he is your companion. “Follow me” needs no map.

He also deals with their fear of danger. His antidote here is the call of duty. Duty is the strong right arm of courage. Courage, as you should know by now, is the overcoming of fear. Duty helps by providing your motive. Jesus’ off hand statement that there are twelve hours of daylight sounds very much like the old sergeant’s call of, “Come on, you ***** - do you want to live forever?”

There is a great lesson in this. So often we complain that we don’t know where God is leading us. This is usually true. So what are we to do about it? The answer is given here: do the duty you know to be yours, and let God lead. Otherwise you will stumble around in a darkness of your own making.

The reason we often do not see the goal is that we like to think of ourselves as being the ones who do great things – when God sees us as the ones who need to be taught great things. Lazarus is going to be quite an education for the disciples.

Doubting Thomas

There has long been some doubt about Thomas here. Yes, this is doubting Thomas. Is his reaction here bravado? Courage? We don’t really know. We do know one thing: Thomas knew what he was supposed to do. In particular, stick close by his Lord! It shows us the great depth of personal love and loyalty that the man had. He is one capable of the depths of doubt and the heights of worship, and we see his despairing nature overcome by his love for his Lord. Better cold than lukewarm.

Mary and Martha

Somehow I have the feeling that Mary was the pretty kid sister, and Martha the plain older one. The cute girls get away with so much more; the plain ones know they must buckle down and do the work. The first incident produced rebuke for Martha, but now we see what the working Christian produces. We can only imagine Martha being one whose works of charity were well known. She has lived the life of service. It is natural, therefore, that she would be the one to take action – she goes to see Jesus as he is coming in. Mary waits at home.

Their actions receive appropriate reward. Mary must rest upon her faith; Martha receives the comfort of Christ. Mary reproaches Jesus with “if you had been here” – while also knowing that “even now, God will grant.” This is a life of faith, but of faith without great experience. Martha’s hard work now rises with her faith to the heights of the Great Confession.

Messengers to Jesus

We can see much of that life in the messengers sent to Jesus. As she is the older sister, we must presume that she instructed the messengers. See what this brings to us:

  • The sisters appeal to Jesus – but they do not presume to instruct him. How often in our prayers do we bring God our problems, and then present him with our own ideal solution!
  • How, then, do the sisters feel when they receive the returned message – only to have their brother Lazarus die before their eyes? Especially when it is clear that Jesus delayed in coming?

We often have this difficulty with God. He won’t take our advice and he won’t do the obvious right thing. But see verses five and six: He loves them – and still he delays. Perhaps the matter is simply this: we do not understand God’s timing, and therefore are tempted to doubt his love. But when we don’t understand his timing, we should use the faith we have to stay loyal to him.

In a sense we can see this faith in action here. When Lazarus is ill, what would be more natural than to have one of the sisters (probably Mary) run to Jesus while the other (guess who?) cared for Lazarus. Like the centurion, a man of authority, they knew that the messenger would be quite sufficient. How comforting the return message must have been – until Lazarus died.

Meeting Jesus

It is therefore a mark of great faith that Martha does not reproach her Lord. Nor does she tell him what to do. Why not? Perhaps she understands that he knows better than she does – what to do.

She does express her pain – but she does so in her faith. She knows that her brother will rise again on the last day – but that’s not much comfort for the loss she has suffered. Perhaps she has not thought it through completely.

She knows who Jesus is. Or at least she has the basic idea. She makes three cogent points:

  • He is the Christ – the Holy One of Israel.
  • He is the one who was prophesied.
  • He is the Son of God – God in the flesh.

She has not yet seen the rest of the matter. He explains it in simple language:

  • He is the Resurrection. She knows her brother will rise on the last day – and now she knows who will make it happen. This is the one with power over death. He will show that power in raising Lazarus; he will show it again on that first Easter morning.
  • He is the life – the word used here means biological life. From this alone we would proclaim the bodily resurrection.

Martha finds, as do we, that understanding the answer to the great question is not a discovery but an expedition of discover.

The Matter for Us

God often does what we do not expect. He expects us to do what the world does not expect – so that the world will see Him in us. A couple of examples spring to mind:

  • What is our attitude at funerals – our attitude towards death? The world fears it, the world hushes it up, the world wraps it in comfortable funeral ritual. A funeral is an ideal time to proclaim the Resurrection.
  • What is our attitude when God does not do what we think he should – or even when he delays doing it? Do we endure with courage? Do we do the duty at hand, even though we don’t see how God will redeem that?

Sometimes, faith is shown in being a follower of the man who said, “Follow me.” It’s easy to follow when the path is clear. The world can see that. What they can’t see is why we would do it when the path is not clear. It is then we can proclaim that the Word is a lamp for our feet, a light for our path.

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