Thursday, October 2, 2014

Lazarus, Come Forth

Life of Christ 131

The Raising of Lazarus, Jan Muller, 1600
        In today's story we are just weeks away from the crucifixion (John 11.1-45). Jesus and His Apostles are ministering in Perea when He receives word that His dear friend, Lazarus, is very sick. For some time now, Jesus had maintained a close relationship with this family, and they were obviously reaching out to their beloved Messiah in order that He might come and heal Lazarus. 'Therefore his sisters sent unto him, saying, Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest is sick. Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus' (John 11.3, 5).
          Jesus' response seems to be completely out of character. For two days, after He received the message in Perea, He sat still (John 11.6). This is the same Jesus who poured out His compassion on widows, lepers, blind men, and beggars. Why did He sit still and wait for two days? Couldn't He have rearranged His schedule and left immediately? For that matter, couldn't He have healed Lazarus from a distance, like He did in one of His very first miracles (see Life of Christ 32)?
          To answer that question we must examine the purpose of Jesus' miracles. Originally, they were designed to authenticate His claims in the eyes of the Jewish people (see Life of Christ 26). After the rejection He experienced in Matthew 12 the purpose of these miracles largely shifted as well. He did fewer miracles publicly. Instead, though He still did them, they were largely aimed at individuals in need whom He could thus minister to as He had compassion on them, or at His own Apostles to increase their faith in Him.
          At the moment, traveling through Perea, He is giving His all to prepare the Apostles for His absence. In that vein, He provided them not only teaching, but experiences that greatly strengthened their faith. The Transfiguration is a wonderful example of this (see Life of Christ 87). It is for this reason, in order to increase the faith of His Apostles in Himself, that He delayed leaving Perea until Lazarus had died. 'Lazarus is dead. And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent that ye may believe' (John 11.14-15).
          In just a few short weeks, He Himself will lie cold in a grave, and then walk away from that grave in the ultimate proof of His claims. Lazarus' resurrection was a sign to the Apostles pointing them to His own resurrection, and to His proven ability to resurrect those who trust in Him. 'I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?' (John 11.25-26).
          This is, at its heart, not a story of death and resurrection, but a story of belief. Let us look, for example, at the reaction of Mary and Martha. Four days after Lazarus' death Jesus finally arrived. Martha heard the news first and hastened to meet Him. Here is the conversation which ensued:

John 11.21  Then said Martha unto Jesus, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.
22  But I know, that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee.
23  Jesus saith unto her, Thy brother shall rise again.
24  Martha saith unto him, I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day.
25  Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live:
26  And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?
27  She saith unto him, Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world.

          Mary, who heard the news a bit later, likewise left the mourners at the house and rushed to meet Jesus. Her reaction was very similar to Martha's. 'Then when Mary was come where Jesus was, and saw him, she fell down at his feet, saying unto him, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died' (John 11.32).
          As we have seen, Martha explicitly expresses great faith in Christ, but it is relatively easy to profess faith in Christ. I meet people who do it all the time. The hard part is putting feet to those words, yet that is the proof, is it not? The mark of our faith in God is not found in our words, but in our actions. Martha explicitly and Mary implicitly expressed faith in Christ. Will we find that their action match their words? Absolutely.
          'Jesus said, Take ye away the stone. Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days. Jesus said unto her, Said I not unto thee, that, if thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God? Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead was laid' (John 11.39-41).
          In Israel in Jesus' day it was common for the dead to be buried in underground chambers hollowed out of soft rock. The dead body would be carefully washed and wrapped, and then laid carefully on an underground shelf in the tomb. Over time, as the flesh decayed, the bones would be gathered up and placed into a box called an ossuary, thus making room for entire families to be buried in the same tomb.
          These underground burial chambers were accessed via an opening that was barred not with a door, but with a large rounded stone. It sat in a carved channel so it could be rolled away from the opening when necessary, but would not move in the normal course of events. In fact, it was designed to be rather difficult to move for obvious reasons.
          Put yourself, for a moment, in the sandals of Mary and Martha. Their brother has been dead for four days. The funeral and burial has already taken place. The mourners are gathered at their house for the customary observances. Jesus shows up, way late, and mumbles something about a resurrection. They respond with words of belief, but then He asks them to roll the stone away from the tomb.
          Now, beloved, the rubber has met the proverbial road. Are they going to match their words with actions? They could not do it inconspicuously either, for it was too heavy, and many friends were gathered there with them. They would need find some men that they could convince to do their bidding. They would need to offer a reason for this request, and no reason they could honestly give would sound credible.
          Can you imagine the response of the assembled mourners when Mary and Martha returned and asked for the necessary help in opening up the tomb?
          'Come now, you two are not thinking straight. Clearly you are overcome with grief. Silas, get a wet washcloth for Mary's head. Cleopas, quick, bring a chair for Martha. We must get them off their feet. They are overwrought with grief.'
          'You want to do what? Well, now, that is just completely disrespectful. Who ever heard of such a thing? And your own brother, for shame!'
          'Oh, Jesus wants you to do this. Well, if Jesus cared so much about Lazarus he should have showed up while he was still alive. And isn't he supposed to be some kind of healer? Hmpphhh. What a coward.'
          'Sisters, we cannot do this. It is unseemly. What will the village think?'
          'I'm warning you, right now, you aren't going to like what you find when that stone gets rolled away. It is going to stink to high heaven. His body will be bloated. The maggots will be crawling around in there. I'm not trying to be gruesome, but you aren't thinking straight here. The last time you saw him needs to be what you remember. You don't want this nightmare scene to haunt your memory for the rest of your life.'
          'Impossible. You must be crazy. Roll the stone away? C'mon now, don't joke at a time like this.'
          It is relatively easy to profess faith in God; it is an entirely different matter to place your life in His hands. So often, we look at how things seem to be working out at the moment, in ways that are visible to us, and we doubt the promises of God. Just believe Him. And prove out that belief by your actions. Does He want you to stop doing something? Trust Him. Does He want you to start doing something? Trust Him. Does He want you to keep doing something? Trust Him. And the proof will be found, not in your words, but in your actions.

          Faith is the proper response to everything God does. So go ahead. Roll that stone away. And watch Him work.

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