Today, we read one of the best known stories in the Bible, the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Just a bit of background for this story might be helpful. Lazarus lived in the town of Bethany with his sisters Martha and Mary. This family was known to Jesus. In Luke 10:38-42, you can read about a time when Jesus visited them. So, we can surmise from this that they were good friends.
From the part of the story that Kerry read this morning, we learned that Lazarus is sick. He is so sick, in fact, that his sisters start to worry about him. They know that Jesus is not far away, just over in Jerusalem which was two or three kilometers away. They also know that Jesus can heal people so they send word to him that Lazarus is sick. Their clear intent is that Jesus should make the short journey over the Bethany from Jerusalem and heal their ailing brother. It isn’t far. He can be there in half an hour and all will be well. But rather than going right away, Jesus tarries in Jerusalem for two more days, long enough for Lazarus to die. Upon arriving in Bethany, the news of Lazarus’ death reaches Jesus. And now we are into the part of the story that we want to focus on today. This is story of new life but it’s also a story of new faith. New life leads to new faith. Let’s find out how that happens.
Jesus arrives at the tomb. It says in John 11:38 that it was a cave with a stone rolled across the entrance. That was typical of burial practices in the Holy Land at the time which were much different from ours. What normally happened when someone died was that the body was anointed with spices and wrapped in clothes. Then it was placed on level stone slab in a cave and then the cave was temporarily sealed. Unlike our burial practices, nothing was done to preserve the body, no embalming and no placing the body in a sealed casket. Once the body was in the cave on the stone slab, nature would take its course and the body would decay rather rapidly in the hot humid weather of the area. And as far as they were concerned the sooner the better because the stone slab on which the body rested was only seen as a temporary resting place. After a certain length of time, after nature had stripped the bones of all soft tissue, the family would go back into the cave, collect the bones and place them in a stone or clay box called an ossuary. The person’s name was usually inscribed on the ossuary and it might then be placed in a small niche in the cave wall along with other ossuaries of other deceased family members.
JESUS & MARY
That brings us to John 11:38 where Jesus, deeply moved by the death of his friend, stands outside the tomb where a large stone has been rolled across the entrance. Around him are those who are mourning Lazarus. Mary, the sister, is one of them. She is devastated by her brother’s death and that Jesus had not come to heal him. But in John 11:39 (NIV) Jesus says, “Take away the stone.” And Mary replies, “But Lord, by this time there is a bad odour, for he has been there four days.”
Jesus asks them to do something that on the surface seems rather outrageous. Mary may be devastated but she has a valid concern. If the body had been in the tomb for four days, in the hot humid weather of the Middle East, the smell would have been most unpleasant. And so she hesitates and sort of asks Jesus if he really wants them to do what she think he wants them to do; “Jesus, are you sure?”
Now let’s listen at Jesus’ response to Mary which is found in John 11:40 (NIV) where he says, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” What Jesus is doing here is reminding Mary of something that she already knows. He’s not chastising her for not believing. He’s not giving her a hard time for doubting him. He is gently reminding her that at times like this, faith is important.
I was listening to a radio programme the other day in which they were talking about the reality of teens and young adults doubting their faith. Hey, it happens. In fact, it probably happens to most people at some time as young people begin to differentiate themselves from their parents. It’s particularly true when students graduate from high school and go off to university. This is where they often encounter professors, lecturers and other students who are brazenly anti-Christian and take great delight in doing their level best to destroy the faith of those students who have been trusted into their care. They have also had lots of practice and they are very good at it. And because students are in a new environment, they are often vulnerable. Sadly, sometimes the students come home, after being away at school for a semester and they really aren’t sure what they believe anymore. And they may say something like, “You know Mom and Dad, I respect what you believe but I just don’t believe that anymore. In fact, I’m not even sure that I believe in God.” And the Christian parents who have worked so hard at raising their child in the faith, who exposed them to church and took them to Sunday School and youth group, are devastated by this news. They wonder where they went wrong and how all those years of nurturing were so easily brushed aside by a couple of not so well-intentioned academics who rather than having the student’s best interest in mind were simply stroking their own egos.
Parents, when your children begin to doubt their faith, when they start to drift from what you have taught them remember three things. First, it’s normal for children to seek to differentiate themselves from their parents. It’s part of the process of growing up and moving away from home. So don’t be surprised when this happens. Second, understand that all the research tells us that while our children may have times of faith-drift in their lives – because you probably did too – they will almost inevitably return to their roots when they get older. So while they may struggle with belief at some point in their lives, the seeds that were sown in youth and may lay dormant for a while will eventually sprout again and faith will be restored. It may not look exactly like your faith but it will theirs and they will own it. And the third thing is maybe the most important; act like Jesus when Mary questioned him. Basically, what that means is don’t get bent all out of shape and fly off the handle. It does no good at that point to start an argument. All you will do is push your child further away and that is not what you want to do. Rather, listen to what they have to say. Pay attention to where their head is a that moment. Just let them know that they are still loved and accepted. You will want to talk with them about their faith at some point but that will come later, when things have settled down a bit. Then you can remind them of that which they already know but may have forgotten.
Jesus says to Mary, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”Mary is called to believe. She’s called to believe because when she believes, she will see the glory of God. Jesus is not berating her. He is not chastising her. He is simply reminding her of that which she already knows.
LAZARUS IS RAISED
What happens next? First, a group of men – because that is what it would take to roll away the heavy stone – hold their breaths and roll the stone away from the entrance. Then they step back about 20 feet waiting for reek to emerge from the cave. But we are never told if that in fact happens because what does happen is even more compelling. Jesus looks up to heaven and in John 11:41-42 (NIV), he prays to the Father:
Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.
Jesus prays which in and of itself is not unusual. He often prayers in the Bible. But I also want us to notice the form of his prayers. He starts off by thanking God for something. “Father, I thank you that you have heard me.” Jesus knows what he wants. He wants to raise Lazarus from the dead, to restore him to life. That’s pretty clear. But he doesn’t just blurt that out. He begins by thanking God.
I don’t remember everything my mother taught me when I was growing up but I have always remembered her one and only lesson on prayer. “Kim,” she said, “you can find a thousand things to ask for but, before you ask God for anything, first thank him for something,.” I’ve always remembered that. I’m not sure if she was trying intentionally to model what Jesus is doing in John 11 but she was. Good prayer begins with thanks.
I am always amazed that when Christians get together to pray that when prayer requests are heard, they are mostly requests to God. God do this. God bless this person. God fill this need. God heal this disease. We even do it here sometimes. In our small groups and Bible studies when we ask for prayer, we often start by expressing our needs. Even at presbytery where a good number of people are clergy and should know better, when we pray, almost all of the prayer requests are for people who are sick or situations that need help. We can go around a circle of faithful Christians in prayer and not a single person offers a prayer of thanks. That’s a problem because it’s not Jesus’ way. But it’s also a problem that is easily fixed and we should make an effort to do that. Think about that the next time you’re in your small groups or Bible studies. And then think about what my Mother taught me; before you ask God for something, make sure you thank God for something.
The next part of Jesus’ prayer is even more intriguing and insightful: “I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” What’s that all about? It’s like Jesus is cooking up a plan with the Father to accomplish a mission. What’s the mission? To get people to believe in Jesus, to encourage them to come to Christ.
It’s like they’re having a conversation: “Hey Father, I know that you’re with me here. I know that you hear me. I know that you know what needs to be done. I know that you’re going to do your part and I’m doing my part. And together, we are going to do something awesome.” That’s what this prayer is all about. It’s the Son and the Father cooking up a plan to get people saved, to get them to believe in Jesus.
And after hatching the plan, Jesus carries out his part in John 11:43 (NIV) by saying, “Lazarus. come out!” Most English translations have an exclamation point at the end of the sentence. That doesn’t appear in the original Greek because the Greeks didn’t write in exclamation marks. Punctuation was not invented until a few centuries after Jesus earthly life. But the English translation has punctuation and the exclamation mark here is, I think, appropriate. Jesus is not saying, (in a quite, mousy voice), “Lazarus, come out – if you want to, maybe.” No, that’s not the sense of this at all. It’s more like (in an exuberant voice), “Yo, Lazarus, get out of there and step out in the light of day! Lazarus, come on down!” And Lazarus does. In John 11:44 (NIV) it says, “The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen and a cloth around his head.” So it was mission accomplished.
THE ULTIMATE GOAL
What I want you to notice, however, is the ultimate goal of what just happened. I supposed that Mary and Martha just wanted their brother back. That was their goal. It was probably the same for their neighbours in Bethany. But the ultimate goal was not to raise Lazarus. That was a great by-product but the main objective was accomplished not in verse 44 but rather in John 11:45 (NIV) where we read, “Therefore many Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him.” Mission accomplished.
That was the main goal, to lead people Christ. That’s what Jesus pointed to in his prayer when he said, “… but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” He did not pray primarily for Lazarus. His primary audience was the friends and neighbours who were standing around the entrance to the tomb. The main goal was to lead those people to Christ, that they might believe in him. The raising of Lazarus was simply the means by which that goal was accomplished.
The lesson here for us is that we should be following Jesus’ example. Our primary goal too should be to lead people to Christ. Do we do other things? Of course we do. The Bible is very clear. We may not be raising people from the dead as Jesus did but we still offer new life. We offer new life whenever we feed the hungry and clothe the naked and comfort the broken hearted. We offer new life every time we volunteer at the food bank or at the Downtown Mission or at Gleaners. We even offer new life to our communities when we help to organize baseball or soccer or the Cottam Horse Show. Some of you offer new life by volunteering as a firefighter or police auxiliary or the army reserve. There are so many ways to offer new life to individuals and communities.
And along with that new life comes new faith. That is what Jesus showed us when he raised Lazarus from the dead. From Lazarus’ new life came new faith as more and more people began to believe in Jesus and follow him. But to make that happen, like Jesus, we need to let people know why we do what we do. We do it for Jesus.
You may not be overly comfortable talking about your faith. You may have trouble putting into words what you believe. Some people find it easy to do that but not everyone. But all of us can do it and all of us should do it. You don’t have to be obnoxious about it. Sometimes all you have to do is mention something about what happened at worship on Sunday when you’re with some unbelieving or skeptical friends. Or you can offer to pray for someone. Or you can even mention that you have meeting at the church this evening. People are smart enough. They catch on pretty quickly and they’ll figure out that you’re one of those Jesus people and that maybe that’s one of the reasons why you do what you do. And maybe the new life that you show to them will eventually bring them to new faith as well.
primary mission is still found in the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20
(NIV) where Jesus said, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I will be
with you always, to the very end of the age.” New life, new faith. It’s what
Jesus calls us to do.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
God of the heavens, you shine above us with your radiant love. God of the air, you move among us and draw us together as one in Christ. God of the earth, you live below us and hold us firmly on the rock solid ground of your foundations. Hear our prayers and the prayers or all those who seek you.
We bless you for the wonders of Creation, for woodpeckers and crocuses, for perch and pickerel, for squirrels and porcupines and raccoons. For all of these creatures we offer our thanks. God, hear our prayers.
We give you thanks for the birth yesterday of Paisley Grace, daughter of Megan and Andrew Gilliland and sister for Jasper. Bless them as they come together as a family in your name and may they give glory to you in all things.
We continue to pray for Canadian soldiers around the world as they continue to fight for justice and peace in various parts of the world. We also pray for the people who live in these areas as they struggle for a society in which children can be raise in peace and women are not oppressed by fundamentalist ideals. God of justice, hear our prayers.
Bless those who mourn, O God. Especially today, we remember the family and friends for Paul Mayville as they come to grips with his death. Thank you for his life and also that any pain or hardship that he faced is now over and he is at peace in your arms.
We lift up in prayer those who have been sick this week. Many people suffer from colds and coughs. Grant them your healing and you wholeness. We ask your special blessing upon Helen Upcott, Don Raymont, Millicent Wormald, Jacqui Sequin and Danyella McCrone. God, hear our prayers.
We would ask, O God of Love, that as we journey through Lent toward
Easter, you would open our eyes to the reality of your gift of life for us. It
is in Jesus that we are able to come to you as forgiven and whole people. Thank
you for this greatest of all gifts given to us in grace and compassion. God,
hear our prayers. Amen.
WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE
April 2, 2017 / Lent 5
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; John 11:1-45; Romans 8:6-11
CALL TO WORSHIP
Out of the depths we call to you;
Hear our prayer, O God.
We wait for you; in your word we find hope.
We worship you, O God of Life; for your love is everlasting.
PRAYER OF APPROACH
Out of the depths we call to you, O God. We acknowledge our need of your hand in our lives. You greatness fills the heavens. You strength upholds the earth. In your breath, there is life and hope. In your guidance there is wisdom. Speak to us on our Lenten journey. Remind us of your love and sacrifice which took Jesus to the cross of Calvary to give his life as a ransom and sacrifice for all people. We wait in hope for his coming again to bring peace and justice to the world. Amen.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
Out of the depths, we call to you, O God. Our sins weigh us down and our deception brings us sorrow. The load which we carry may seem too heavy for us. The injustices of the world are our mistake. The conflicts are our doing. As much as we try, we cannot rise to your level of holiness apart from the gift of your Spirit. Forgive us, God of Mercy, when we stray from your ways. Lead us back with compassion that we may taste the Kingdom as it unfolds in our lives. Amen.
ASSURANCE OF PARDON
The weight of sin may burden us. The shackles of evil may slow us down. But Jesus lifts us above our wrongdoing and breaks the chains that bind us. When we confess our sins, we are freed to be the people who God has created us to be in Jesus Christ.
DEDICATION OF OFFERING
We offer you our gifts, Great God of Creation, for your work in your Holy Kingdom. May no temptation deter us from using them to your glory, no cause become more important than the calling of Jesus Christ. Grant us your blessing. Amen.
May God the Father show us love and
compassion. May Jesus the Son enter our hearts in a new way, everyday. May the
Spirit move amongst us, giving light to our way.