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.”