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John 11:1-17 Trusting Christ on a Whole New Level

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Looking forward to Sunday, March 30, 2008

Trusting Christ on a whole new level

John 11:1-17

11 After 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.”            John 11:11 NIV


In preparation for Easter, we spent some time in the Gospel of John, chapters 17 and 18, taking particular note of Christ’s prayer for the fulfillment of His ministry assignment. In essence, Christ was to become united with a band of men who would believe in Him and then become an extension of His ministry in the world so that every person could place their hope and trust in Christ. That was the assignment God the Father gave to His Son, Jesus Christ.

Now, for our sermon texts, we are dropping back to chapter 11 of John’s Gospel and the plan is to work our way back up to chapter 17. The advantage we have now in this is that we better understand the purpose and mission of Christ and the events leading up to His crucifixion and resurrection.

I know for me personally, the study of Christ’s life from the perspective of the Apostle John has been both encouraging and challenging. I have seen Christ move forward in obedience with His Father with intention and focus. And, as a result, I am having to re-evaluate my own life and ministry in this context.

So, may God bless His word as we again dig into the Gospel of John.

Have you ever set for yourself a great plan and schedule for your day, only to have someone else’s emergency break in and destroy that plan?

Well, that’s a rather silly question, isn’t it, since all of us have experienced those disruptive moments. Parents are given that opportunity routinely by their children – children who have developed the habit of procrastinating on assignments. In these cases, a wise parent communicates to his or her child that “a lack of planning on your part, does not constitute an emergency on mine.”

In our story today from John 11, we do wonder if this was the response of Jesus to His dear friends, Mary and Martha, when they had an emergency but it didn’t translate into an emergency for Jesus.

Let’s get right into the text. John, chapter 11.

Now, the best that I can tell, these events, centering in the town of Bethany, are happening in the range of 2 to 3 months prior to crucifixion of our Lord. And that impending reality is really the primary context of chapter 11. The story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead is a sub-plot in the larger story of the growing opposition to Jesus that will lead to His death.

Seldom do events that we are engaged in happen in isolation. We all live with multiple currents of circumstances and pressures that constantly test our resolve to live by priorities. This is no less true for Jesus as He seeks to fulfill His mission assignment from His Father.

John indicates that Jesus was having a successful ministry on the east side of the Jordan in Perea. The last verse of chapter 10 says: John 10:42 (NIV) 42 And in that place many believed in Jesus.

So, what we read in the opening verses of chapter 11, is indeed an interruption to a good thing – it interrupts a momentum of evangelism.

Picture, if you would, that on a certain Sunday morning we’re nearing the end of the service and an altar call has just been given and several people are responding, coming forward to pray to confess sins and receive God’s forgiveness. Others are coming to place their trust in Christ for the very first time. And, while this is going on, someone bursts into the sanctuary and shouts, “You’ve got to come now. My friend’s brother is deathly ill and may not make it another hour. Will you come right now, please?”

O.K., should we take a vote? O, not on what the majority of us would do in such a case, but, rather on what would Jesus do? And realize, we all know the person who is ill. He’s a close friend of ours. He’s like a brother to several of us. So, what would Jesus do in such a case?

O, I fully realize that there may be some very significant details that we are unaware of that would impact the decision that Jesus makes. But, this isn’t the first time we are surprised by Jesus’ response to an emergency.

Here’s what we know.

John 11:1-17 (NIV)

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

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

If you just followed that, I can’t imagine that you are not asking, “what’s with this two day delay?” So, let’s try to answer that, first by looking at the relationship Jesus had with this family in Bethany.

Well, there’s very little data from which we can draw our conclusions about the relationship that Jesus had with Mary and Martha and Lazarus. But there is little doubt that their home was a fine example of hospitality; a home where Jesus felt very comfortable hanging out for a time of rest and relaxation; and for a time of great conversations around food and good friends. We don’t know how often this happened, but for such a special relationship to have developed, it likely happened often.

John, the writer of this book, who frequently spoke of himself as “the one whom Jesus loved,” shared that designation with this household of siblings. And that could be a clue to the intimacy of friendship that Jesus had with them.

John leaves no doubt in our minds that this foursome, Jesus, Mary, Martha and Lazarus, were bonded in love for each other. In both cases where the word love is used in this paragraph, the word used for love is agape, the most selfless of all loves. Though there is no direct indication in the Biblical text that these sisters were among the women who traveled with Jesus and the disciples, it would not be hard to imagine that they were included and were at the cross when Jesus died.

And this only heightens the perplexity of Jesus’ response in verse 6. And please note, a more accurate translation of the first word of verse 6 is “so” or “therefore” and not the word “yet,” as the NIV has it. The word communicates purpose and intention. This was a decision Jesus made to delay. It was not a case of being hindered or distracted or uninterested. He made a deliberate decision to delay. And, it was done in love.

From a child’s perspective, delay does not equate with love. Am I right? In fact, what we hear from children when we don’t give them what they want when they want it is that we don’t love them.

I suggest to you that we have an indication of the maturity level of Mary and Martha in how they respond to this delay. And, I’d like for you to look for that as the story continues, particularly into next week’s text.

So, why do you suppose Jesus delayed two days in going to Bethany? Well, I’ve already hinted at one possibility in my introduction. Jesus was in the midst of an evangelistic crusade, people were coming to Him for salvation and He deemed it to be a higher priority to save people from eternal death than to save one man from physical death.

A second possibility is that He had been given a word of knowledge from His Father that Lazarus was already dead or would be dead before He would get there, even if He left immediately. If this is true, and I believe it is, then we have to deal with His camouflaged statement to His disciples that Lazarus’ sickness would not end in death. I mean, how is that not a direct contradiction to what He knew to be the case? Lazarus’ sickness would indeed end in death. Is He playing with the word “end” to say, look, what you call and mean by “the end” is not what I mean by “the end”?

And I don’t know that I can give a satisfactory answer to this. We do know that Jesus had made a practice of speaking in parables so that His truth would only be understood by those who really wanted to believe.

That’s a bit of a corollary to my point from last week that those who want to believe in Christ will be given sufficient evidence in order to believe. You see, belief requires desire. And, without it, all the evidence in the world does no good.

Clearly, the disciples understood Jesus to be saying that Lazarus was not going to die; that he would get well. And, they also heard Christ correctly when He said that He would be glorified through Lazarus’ sickness.

There are other possible reasons for the delay. It is possible that Jesus wanted certain persons to be in Bethany to witness the resurrection of Lazarus so that the plans to execute Him would be firmly set. Recall that I said that the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead is a mere sub-plot in the larger story of the growing opposition to Jesus that will lead to His death. So, it was important that Lazarus die and that mourners from Jerusalem come to Bethany to pay their respects and then witness the powerful miracle of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. So as this story unfolds, look for who is among those mourners in Bethany.

You may have other suggestions about why Jesus deliberately delayed two more days in going to Bethany, but I’ve given you my top three.

So, what happened when those two days were over?

7 Then 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?”

9 Jesus 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. 10 It is when he walks by night that he stumbles, for he has no light.”

Do you notice that the uppermost concern among the disciples is not Lazarus, but Jesus’ safety – and probably their own safety? Granted, Jesus had relieved the disciples of the danger that Lazarus was in. They were figuring that he was going to get well and survive.

Also, Jesus says they are going to Judea, not Bethany. But, Bethany is in Judea and within 2 miles of Jerusalem and was on the way to Jerusalem, so Bethany was certainly implied in His comment.

Whether or not the disciples were thinking about Lazarus, John wants us to realize that the real story line is about how Christ was going to fulfill His calling to be the Lamb of God. So, not only do we see Jesus deliberately delay in responding to an emergency, we see Jesus deliberately walk into danger. And, by use of a parable, He tells His disciples that His walk into danger will be without stumbling, for He is walking in the light of day, for He is the light.

Twice earlier in this gospel, Jesus has declared to the people in the presence of His disciples, “I AM the light of the world.”

John 8:12 (NIV) 12 When Jesus spoke again to the people, He said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows Me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

John 9:5 (NIV) 5 “While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

Folks, anyone who spends a great deal of time with Jesus will recognize that He takes His disciples on adventures that demand that they trust Him. Anyone who speaks of following Jesus as a boring life hasn’t come close to Jesus. He leads His followers into danger but promises safety as long as we stay with Him. But, as we have seen in other instances, when He speaks of safety, it’s not necessarily physical safety.

So, here are His disciples, debating with Him about the wisdom of going into Judea. What I like about this is the signal Jesus sends to us that it’s OK to debate with Him. O, we all know who will win the debate, but, Jesus welcomes the arguments and most often responds to them.

As I stated last week, we all need help in our believing. Every disciple of Christ faces a crisis of belief. And especially in our darkest hour when we are having a crisis of belief, it is all the more important to move in the direction of belief, position ourselves where God can meet us and provide us with evidence to believe; to walk in the light.

Though the Lazarus story is a sub-plot to the larger story of the crucifixion and resurrection, it is still important that John tells us the story of Lazarus.

So, Jesus now informs His disciples that Lazarus has died and that He is going to bring him back to life. But, He uses language that disguises that frank reality. He speaks of death like even we do many times when we say our friend “passed away,” or “crossed over,” or “went to his resting place.”

11 After 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.”

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

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

Here Jesus reaffirms His deliberate decision to delay in going to Bethany. Jesus says that His delay and Lazarus’ death are going to work together to build faith in His disciples. They are going to learn that trusting Jesus pays off, especially at times when things don’t make sense.

Here in is a major lesson from this text that we will do well to heed. When we face delay or danger, the most important thing we can do is to make certain we are walking in the light that Jesus provides; that we stay close to Him; that we keep our focus on Him.

Then John gives us a side of Thomas that we don’t usually attach to him. He’s often labeled as “the doubter”. But, what we see here next is an interesting twist to the doubting Thomas.

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

17 On His arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days.

Verse 17 is necessary for us in this lesson to get the fact that by the time Jesus and the disciples arrive in Bethany, Lazarus has been dead four days. Such information adds support to the suggestion that by the time that word got to Jesus that there was a crisis in Bethany, the crisis was already over. Lazarus was dead. If the trip from east of the Jordan to Bethany was a two day journey and Jesus delayed two days, that makes four. That’s how long Lazarus has been in the tomb.

So, had Jesus come immediately, it would have been too soon to make an outstandingly powerful statement by raising Lazarus. By the fourth day, all hope was gone. His body would be fully into decay. A resurrection of a body 4 days dead would be a powerful display of the glory of God in Christ.

But, verse 16 records a very thought provoking statement by Thomas. “Let us also go (to Judea), that we may die with Him.” I believe that Thomas was certain that going to Judea would mean the death of Jesus. And he was resigned to that reality. But, was his statement only one of fatalism, or, was there also a measure of faith in it as well?

If Thomas was certain that death was awaiting Jesus in Judea, why would he lobby the other disciples that they all should go with Jesus, certain that they too would meet the same demise? Could this be a refusal to forsake the one they loved? Could it be that they so identified themselves with Jesus by now that by faith they were going to stay with Jesus, even if it meant their own deaths?

This is not mere fatalism, but faith and loyalty, though they had not the power to back it up when push came to shove.

So, here in the first part of chapter 11, John has created for us much anticipation for a grand display of God’s glory. The death of Lazarus would provide a unique opportunity to display the power of God to raise the dead and reveal the evil intentions of wicked men who would on this occasion set themselves on an irreversable track to murder Jesus of Nazareth.

As a foretaste of the fork in the road that Jesus Christ creates when He goes to the cross to die for our sins, so the resurrection of Lazarus serves to divide true followers of Christ from Christ’s enemies.

And the question that faced the disciples that day when Jesus said He was going into Judea is the question we, too, must face. Will delay and danger cause you to run away from Christ or will they draw you closer to Him? The choice is yours.

I would like to offer you an opportunity to make a choice today that will move you in the direction of drawing closer to Christ and that will position you where Christ can give you evidence to answer your doubts.

The shape of this opportunity has been developing for some time and is still in process. But, I believe it is time to at least do a trial run.

I chose to preach from the Gospel of John this year in order to given greater attention to prayer. John 17 certainly did that. But, I believe we all want to be better at praying, to do more of it, do pray effectively.

Referring to Isaiah 56:7, Jesus rebuked the irreligiously religious people of His day who had turned the temple into a den of robbers with these words found in . . .

Mark 11:17 (NIV) 17 And as He taught them, He said, “Is it not written: “ ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”

I believe we need to do more praying. Honestly, having the Hispanic church meeting here has served as a gentle rebuke in this matter. Upon entrance into the sanctuary, a great portion of their congregation go first to find a chair where they kneel and pray. O, it could just be an outward display of false piety. But, I’ve watched them now for 9 months and what I see is a strong desire to seek the Lord and hear His voice and they have chosen to do it on bended knee before their service begins.

I want to invite you to do something similar. I’m asking that you engage in a four week experiment; the four Sundays in April. Will you give 10 minutes to prayer before the worship service? My personal preference would be that you enter the sanctuary no later than 10 minutes before the start of worship and spend that time in prayer. I have enclosed a little prayer guide in the chair pockets in front of you and also in your bulletins. I’ll have more available next Sunday.

If you prefer praying somewhere else, the large room on the second floor of the north annex would be an option. Another option would be to spend those 10 minutes at home in prayer.

But honestly, I think it would be very good if we gathered right here in the sanctuary and turned this place into a house of prayer. Would you give this opportunity serious consideration and join in next Sunday morning?

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