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He stayed two days longer

He stayed two days longer

Ser­mon preached at Enmore, 5th Sunday in Lent, 2nd. April 2017

Read­ing: John 11. 1–45.

“After hav­ing heard that Laz­arus was ill, Jesus stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” That is one of the hard­est verses in the New Test­a­ment. Martha, Mary and Laz­arus were all friends of Jesus. We know that he often vis­ited their home and enjoyed their hos­pit­al­ity. Luke tells us of the mem­or­able vis­it when Martha became upset with her little sis­ter Mary because she left her to do all the food pre­par­a­tion while she, Mary sat at Jesus’ feet adopt­ing the pos­i­tion of a stu­dent learn­ing from a Rabbi- a role reserved for males only. Jesus was an hon­oured guest in this home, so when Laz­arus became ill the two sis­ters had no hes­it­a­tion in send­ing a mes­sage to Jesus. They didn’t need to beg for his help. They knew he cared for them so they simply said, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” They expec­ted a quick response. For two single women to lose their broth­er would be a ter­rible loss. Women without a hus­band or fath­er were very vul­ner­able in their soci­ety-the death of Laz­arus would rad­ic­ally alter their cir­cum­stances. But against all expect­a­tions Jesus delayed his com­ing to them. Why was that?

Vari­ous explan­a­tions have been offered- most of which are unhelp­ful. Some have sug­ges­ted that Jesus stayed longer so that Laz­arus would be dead by the time he arrived and he would then be able to per­form a far more spec­tac­u­lar mir­acle than a mere heal­ing of a dis­ease. Such a view flies in the face of all the evid­ence that Jesus gen­er­ally tried hard to avoid big pub­lic dis­plays of his power. His heal­ings were in response to human need and often done quietly with as little show as pos­sible. Fur­ther­more he often coun­selled those healed to keep quiet about it and not advert­ise it around. Oth­ers have claimed that Jesus delayed his arrival in order to ‘test the faith’ of Mary and Martha. This is a com­monly held view in some circles but one with which I am uncom­fort­able. It makes God into a kind of divine pup­pet mas­ter manip­u­lat­ing events to achieve some great­er purpose.

I remem­ber some years ago receiv­ing a card at Christ­mas time from friends we see infre­quently. They told us what a hard year it had been because their daugh­ter in law had a baby still born. They spoke of this event as a being part of ‘God’s dis­cip­lin­ing’ of them. They are a fine Chris­ti­an fam­ily yet they appar­ently believed that God sent this exper­i­ence to be a kind of teach­ing exer­cise for them all. Now it is undoubtedly true that we can grow through dif­fi­cult exper­i­ences and it is also true that the Bible some­times uses the lan­guage of test­ing but to sug­gest that God delib­er­ately sends evil things – like the death of a broth­er or the death of a baby — to test and dis­cip­line us, I believe is unhelp­ful and a mis­read­ing of Scripture.

So, again we ask, why did Jesus delay? New Test­a­ment schol­ar, Tom Wright, makes the sug­ges­tion that Jesus delayed because he needed time to pray about the future. He was wrest­ling with the will of his Fath­er. The dis­ciples were alarmed when Jesus announced that he was going to Judea again. They knew the dangers ahead because the reli­gious author­it­ies in Jer­u­s­alem were los­ing patience with him. To go to Beth­any was to take Jesus and his dis­ciples deep into enemy ter­rit­ory where they would all be vul­ner­able. Hence, Thomas’ rather des­pair­ing com­ment, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” As in the garden of Geth­se­mane Jesus shrank from the task ahead of him. The way for­ward meant suf­fer­ing and death and in those two silent days in the com­par­at­ive safety of the oth­er side of the Jordan, Jesus prayed for Laz­arus but also prayed for wis­dom and dir­ec­tion about his own future. In a strange way the two of them were bound up togeth­er. The rais­ing of Laz­arus would be the most power­ful sign yet in this Gos­pel of signs and this last sign would be the one that pro­voked Jesus’ enemies into their final and most deadly assault. In verse 42 of this chapter when Jesus stands in front of the tomb of Laz­arus, ready to sum­mon the dead back to life, he thanks his Fath­er ‘for hav­ing heard his pray­er’. Per­haps the pray­er referred to here is the one Jesus had prayed before his jour­ney to Bethany.

When Jesus finally returns to Beth­any before he actu­ally gets to the house he is met on the road by Martha. Such is the depth of her grief she loses the inhib­i­tions her soci­ety imposed on a woman alone talk­ing to a man alone and says to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here my broth­er would not have died.” It was a word of faith – she had no doubt that Jesus had the power to heal her broth­er- but it was also a word of accus­a­tion. “Why have you allowed this to hap­pen?” That ques­tion has been asked down through the cen­tur­ies and there can be few of us who have nev­er asked that ques­tion of God. Thank­fully God is big enough to let us ask the ques­tion and nev­er rejects us no mat­ter how angrily we may ask it. But we also learn that God has his own time and we can­not dic­tate to him when or how he should act. Jesus’ response to Martha is to tell her that her broth­er will rise again. Martha accepts the truth of that state­ment think­ing that Jesus is refer­ring to the future resur­rec­tion at the end of the age when the new heav­ens and new earth envis­aged by Isai­ah would be brought into real­ity. But her response also sug­gests that this is rather cold com­fort. When the grief is raw and someone is mourn­ing the loss of a loved friend or part­ner we should be cau­tious in the words of com­fort we offer. Martha is not pre­pared for Jesus’ next response: ‘I am the resur­rec­tion and the life’ he says. Resur­rec­tion is not just a doc­trine, not just a line we recite in the creed Sunday by Sunday, more than just a future hope, resur­rec­tion is expressed and revealed in a per­son. Jesus declares that the per­son who trusts in him, is in a rela­tion­ship with the one who is the very source of life and there­fore can­not be held by death. Martha replies with a won­der­ful affirm­a­tion of faith when she says, “I believe that you are the Mes­si­ah, the Son of God, the one com­ing into the world.”

At that point Martha goes off to find her sis­ter and Mary soon appears greet­ing Jesus with the identic­al words her sis­ter had used, “Lord, if you had been here my broth­er would not have died.” The reac­tion of Jesus to this repeated ques­tion is dif­fer­ent this time and the text presents us with anoth­er ques­tion. It arises in verse 33 where John tells us, “When Jesus saw Mary weep­ing and the Jews who came with her also weep­ing he was greatly dis­turbed in spir­it and deeply moved.” The usu­al Eng­lish trans­la­tions use words sug­gest­ing that this is a response of grief and com­pas­sion but the Greek verbs used in this verse are words nor­mally asso­ci­ated with anger. In the few instances of these words in the Gos­pels the con­text is always one of anger or indig­na­tion. Mar­tin Luth­er who was a very good Greek schol­ar trans­lated this verse, ‘He became angry in the spir­it and was furi­ous’ and many mod­ern schol­ars think he got this right. What is the cause of this anger? Only rarely do the evan­gel­ists give us a win­dow into Jesus’ true feel­ings but we have a few. We know that Jesus respon­ded in anger to the com­mer­cial­isa­tion of the temple pre­cincts because greedy temple offi­cials were exploit­ing ordin­ary wor­ship­pers and mak­ing the house of pray­er, a house of unjust profit. We know that Jesus also expressed anger on the Sab­bath day in the syn­agogue when his oppon­ents used a man with a withered hand as a bait to trap him into break­ing their Sab­bath rules.

But where was anger dir­ec­ted on this day of mourn­ing stand­ing by the grave of his friend? Per­haps it was anger at the con­tinu­ing reign of sin and death in the world and the suf­fer­ing exper­i­enced by so many. Per­haps also there was anger at the fail­ure of his closest fol­low­ers to under­stand him even though he had spent so much time with them. They grieved as people without hope. Stand­ing in front of the tomb of his friend, no doubt he was also aware of the near­ness of his own time of tri­al when he would bear our griefs and carry our sor­rows. We can nev­er fully under­stand the depth of emo­tions felt by Jesus on that mem­or­able day but we do know that our God has exper­i­enced every pain and every sor­row that can touch the human heart. And per­haps that loud cry, ‘Laz­arus come out’ was a fore­taste of the new day that would dawn when hav­ing passed through the agony of the cross he would be raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. The resur­rec­tion of Laz­arus was tem­por­ary- he lived to die again. But it was a point­er to that great­er event on East­er Day. Resur­rec­tion life, etern­al life, begins on the day we recog­nise with Martha that “Jesus is the Mes­si­ah, the Son of God, the one com­ing into the world.”

Philip Brad­ford