A reflection on John 11:1-44 for Sunday, November 6, 2022 at Mosaic Baptist Church.
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
John 11:1-44 (NRSVA)
The story of the restoration of Lazarus is a story of the ‘glory of God’.
From the outset it is this that is behind Jesus’ deliberate delay in responding to Mary and Martha’s request: ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ Their message is anything but demanding. Rather, it is open ended, lacking in detail, and brimming with the presumption that Jesus will reconsider his plans, travel to Bethany, and soon be at the side of of his friend.
Jesus, however, does not move to the agenda of others. In fact, he always seems to have has his own – infinitely larger – agenda. Jesus, echoing the reason given previously for a life of blindness, explains to baffled disciples, that this ‘…does not lead to death’. It is for ‘God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’
Accordingly, Jesus simply remains where he is for two unremarkable days.
Our author goes out of his way to assure the reader that this is not a response motivated by lack of affection for Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. The sisters refer to Jesus’ ‘love’ for their brother. John uses the same word to describe the same relationship. Later we see Jesus ‘weep’ and John twice describe Jesus as ‘greatly disturbed’ and once as ‘deeply moved’ at the scene of this grieving family. Jesus loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus so much that this show of affection results in a third affirmation of his ‘love’. Even the Jews are compelled to say: ‘See how he loved him!’
Love motivates this risky delay and journey.
Thomas, however, is convinced Bethany is simply the wrong direction. This town is simply too near to ‘Jerusalem’ and Jesus has not been popular there of late. No wonder Thomas objects. By the time they all set out, Lazarus is already dead and buried. A dangerous and pointless journey.
Yet, Jesus goes and his disciples follow.
And so the scene is set. ‘Many of the Jews’ have arrived before Jesus. The burial has already taken place. Martha’s disappointed rebuke of Jesus is only slightly tempered with faith: ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ A hope beyond hope.
And Martha is not disappointed.
Jesus begins by assuring her that, as a direct result of her belief, she will ‘see the glory of God’. (There’s that phrase again!). It produces faith curious – or at least obedient – enough to remove the stone. His dead-raising prayer emphasises that this is not about him.
This is about the future faith of those who watch.
So Jesus cried: ‘Lazarus, come out!’, and the ‘dead man came out’.
Perhaps, as Jesus said, all this really did not lead to death. It – painfully – led through death. But certainly not to it.
A glimpse of the ‘glory of God’.
How do you interpret ‘delay’ in God’s answer to your prayers, desires and hopes? Are you prone to question God’s love at this point?
Irenaeus famously claimed: ‘The glory of God is a human-being fully alive’. How does this story inform such a view?
How do you respond to the thought that God leads us ’through’ death? What is comforting about this? What is unsettling?