On 24th November I preached at Becontree Avenue Baptist Church. It was an “all age” service so our children and young people stayed with teh adults for the entire service.
Therefore the talk had to be pitched at the wider age range that were present.
The story of Lazarus is a very familiar story and as the passage I used is quite lengthy you can find it here: John 11:17 – 44 .
Most of us have or have had friends.
Some we have known for years and years, others we have only met recently.
There are friends we see often and some infrequently.
For some people our friends are better than family: “Friends you chose, relatives you are born with” as the old saying goes.
Dave and I met on our first day at Grammar school back in 1966. Nowadays we may not see each other for months, but we know if needed we are only a phone call away. Dave was there to help me when I was 20 and my father died so suddenly and unexpectedly. And I was there for him when he had difficult times.
So today we are looking at a story concerning friends.
But before we get to our story I want to ask you a question:
I wonder how many of us would own up to finding God frustrating particularly when he appears not to answer our prayers?
Do we even sometimes think that he has n’t heard us?
I know that when we either don’t get answers to our prayers or we don’t get the answer we expect, there are all sorts of excuses given by well meaning people as to why God hasn’t answered our prayers. We might be told that you are lacking in faith, or your spouse is a non-believer so God can’t possible answer your prayers, or any of the many other platitudes I’m sure you’ve heard. However, the truth is more complex. Though of course, sometimes we are the problem because of our own wilfulness or our hardness of heart or our own embittered attitude or even the fact that in reality we don’t want to be healed.
In Isaiah 55 God says “ As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. ”
Put it another way God knows far more than we do and seeing things from an eternal perspective he knows what we really need. That being so, his timing is perfect and inevitably his answer comes right on cue. Often he has something far better in mind than we can ever imagine.
Up until about a year ago our Tom was a delivery driver for an organic food wholesaler based in North London. He would be driving his Mercedes Sprinter van around London and further a field in all weathers. Every time a job came up in the office he applied for it, knowing that with a bit of training he could do it. However he was far too useful to the company as a driver so he never got the better paid jobs in the office. So eventually he left and went to work elsewhere. About a month ago there was a big fire at the company’s warehouse which, with all the stock in it, was burnt to the ground. Had Tom stayed working at the company he would along with everyone else have been made redundant.
Even though he may not admit it, God made sure that Tom was saved from being jobless.
Faith is about trusting God even when we can’t see what he is doing; and things appear, from our point of view, to be hopeless.
So what was happening in this story about Lazarus?
Lazarus, a good friend of Jesus, was ill and his sisters Mary and Martha sent a message to Jesus, no doubt in the hope that either he would come in person or would heal Lazarus at a distance. After all they knew that Jesus could and did heal people who were sick.
Even though it is clear that Lazarus was a very special friend of Jesus, he didn’t rush to Bethany to be at his friend’s bedside. I suspect that most of us would have gone as quickly as possible to Bethany. Yet Jesus listened to his Heavenly Father rather than to his friends and stayed where he was. Is there a message for us? Do we react to events and situations emotionally rather than prayerfully and thoughtfully?
Can you imagine what Mary and Martha must have thought? You can picture them looking anxiously up the road to see if Jesus was coming. Hours drag into days and still Jesus hasn’t come. Why? Doesn’t he care? Doesn’t he realise how serious this illness is? Then the awful moment arrives and Lazarus breathes his last, and the sisters were grief stricken and probably angry with Jesus who had let them down. You may have said to God in the midst of your troubles “Don’t you care?”
So they prepare Lazarus and have him buried, no doubt in accordance with Jewish custom by sunset of the day he died. Jesus isn’t even there to comfort them as they bury him. If he came now, it would in their opinion, be too late. But then they only have a human perspective.
Jesus does come but four days after Lazarus has died. Why the delay? Jesus says in John 11 v 4 “The final result of this illness will not be the death of Lazarus; this has happened in order to bring glory to God, and it will be the means by which the Son of God will receive glory.” That just makes it sound as if the illness is not as serious as the messenger has said. But do note that the illness is being allowed so that God’s healing when it happens will cause Jesus to be glorified and indeed it will bring others to faith, as we shall see. It is rather as Paul stated in that famous verse from Romans 8 “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.”
As Jesus and the disciples prepare to go to Bethany, Jesus tells them “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I will go and wake him up.” Initially, the disciples think that Lazarus is actually asleep, but Jesus is using a euphemism and has to explain, “Lazarus is dead, but for your sake I am glad I was not with him, so that you will believe.”
Jewish tradition said that the soul stayed near the body for three days after death, in the hope that it may be brought back to life. So by delaying for four days, it will be absolutely obvious that Lazarus is dead and beyond human hope of coming back to life. When Jesus goes to Bethany to wake up Lazarus there will be no mistake that this is a miracle, bringing Lazarus to life after he has been in the tomb for four days.
I don’t know what you would have said if you were in Martha’s place when Jesus arrived in Bethany? Well, Martha firstly brings out her criticism but then shows her faith in Jesus. She says, ” If you had been here, Lord, my brother would not have died! But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” Perhaps she is beginning to see the answer to the question posed to Abraham in Genesis 18 v14 “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” Can you answer that question truthfully? Can you say with Martha “I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask“?
I think it worth hearing again the rest of this conversation between Jesus and Martha as he encourages her in her faith.
“Your brother will rise to life,” Jesus told her. “I know” she replied, ”that he will rise to life on the last day.” Jesus said to her “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” “Yes Lord,” she answered, “I do believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world“.
How about us? In the midst of all our own sufferings and disappointments and let downs can we make a statement of faith like this? Do we really believe that Jesus is the resurrection? That new life is possible not only after physical death but also here and now for us who have been spiritually dead through our sins?
What about Mary who from the story in Luke 10 appears to be the more spiritual and thoughtful of the two sisters? We can’t tell whether her comment to Jesus is made out of disappointment or anger or despair. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!”
Many people have thought that when Jesus saw the grief of Mary and the others he was moved to tears out of sympathy and this could well be true. Clearly the Jewish onlookers thought so because they were quoted as saying “See how he loved him!”. But there is also the thought that it was the people’s lack of faith in him that brought him to tears. Some of the Jews were heard to doubt him “He gave sight to the blind man, didn’t he? Could he not have kept Lazarus from dying?”
So we now follow Jesus to the root of the problem; Lazarus dead and buried and decomposing in the tomb.
Jesus knows what he is about to do, but look at the excuses and the reticence of people to let him deal with the problem.
“Take the stone away!” Jesus ordered. “But Lord” Martha, the dead man’s sister, answered, “There will be a bad smell, Lord. He has been buried four days!” Jesus said to her, “Didn’t I tell you that you would see God’s glory if you believed?”
Fortunately for Lazarus and indeed for us, Jesus takes no notice of the excuses and once the stone is out of the way, he calls in a loud voice “Lazarus, come out!”
“He came out, his hands and feet wrapped in grave clothes, and with a cloth round his face. “Untie him,” Jesus told them “and let him go.”
How amazing; the dead coming back to life at Jesus’ command. Lazarus must have been a frightening sight wrapped in his grave clothes rather like a character from a Hollywood horror film. But he is no zombie! And removing the grave clothes completed the miracle.
When Jesus touches people’s lives and brings healing and new life, there are quite often the trappings of their former lives and problems to be taken care of. These are our responsibility to help remove. We are not to leave the person in the grave clothes with the excuse that they have been like that for sometime so its alright and we don’t want to upset them. Jesus tells us to untie the person and let him or her go. In other words help them to be free of the trappings of whatever their problem was.
It isn’t always pleasant, but we are doing the Lord’s work in this matter so we have to obey when he tells us to remove the grave clothes from someone he has brought to life. The Lord once sent me an ex male witch to counsel and pray with. Removing his grave clothes and untying him was not easy or pleasant but that was the Lord’s command to me for that man’s healing.
What was the reaction of those who saw what happened at the tomb in Bethany? Some saw and believed and put their faith in him. But for others, even the raising of the dead did nothing for their faith. Many of the religious people were outraged because Jesus was a threat to them and their established view of God.
Isn’t that the same in this day? Some see God at work through the power of the Holy Spirit and believe; yet others, sadly reject him and disbelieve the evidence particularly if it threatens their view of how God should be. Perhaps they like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day don’t realise that they are actually opposing and rejecting God by their actions.
Jesus was a good friend to Lazarus and his sisters. But he put his relationship with God above his relationship with his friends. God came first his life. Even so, as the onlookers observed Jesus really did love Lazarus and healed him in a most miraculous way.
And Jesus wants to be our friend. A friend who will never let you down. A friend you can rely on and a friend who truly loves you no matter what you have done. A friend who wants the best for you.
As the old hymn tells us “What a friend we have in Jesus”.