Lazarus is ill
11 A certain man, Lazarus, was ill. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (2 This was the Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped his feet with her hair. Her brother Lazarus was ill.) 3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, saying, “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.”
4 When he heard this, Jesus said, “This illness isn’t fatal. It’s for the glory of God so that God’s Son can be glorified through it.” 5 Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus. 6 When he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed where he was. After two days, 7 he said to his disciples, “Let’s return to Judea again.”
8 The disciples replied, “Rabbi, the Jewish opposition wants to stone you, but you want to go back?”
9 Jesus answered, “Aren’t there twelve hours in the day? Whoever walks in the day doesn’t stumble because they see the light of the world. 10 But whoever walks in the night does stumble because the light isn’t in them.”
11 He continued, “Our friend Lazarus is sleeping, but I am going in order to wake him up.”
12 The disciples said, “Lord, if he’s sleeping, he will get well.” 13 They thought Jesus meant that Lazarus was in a deep sleep, but Jesus had spoken about Lazarus’ death.
14 Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died. 15 For your sakes, I’m glad I wasn’t there so that you can believe. Let’s go to him.”
16 Then Thomas (the one called Didymus) said to the other disciples, “Let us go too so that we may die with Jesus.”
Jesus with Martha and Mary
17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Bethany was a little less than two miles from Jerusalem. 19 Many Jews had come to comfort Martha and Mary after their brother’s death.20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him, while Mary remained in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. 22 Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.”
23 Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha replied, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die.26 Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
27 She replied, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world.”
28 After she said this, she went and spoke privately to her sister Mary, “The teacher is here and he’s calling for you.”29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to Jesus. 30 He hadn’t entered the village but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who were comforting Mary in the house saw her get up quickly and leave, they followed her. They assumed she was going to mourn at the tomb.
32 When Mary arrived where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”
33 When Jesus saw her crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled.34 He asked, “Where have you laid him?”
They replied, “Lord, come and see.”
35 Jesus began to cry. 36 The Jews said, “See how much he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “He healed the eyes of the man born blind. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?”
Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb
38 Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone covered the entrance. 39 Jesus said, “Remove the stone.”
Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “Lord, the smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.”
40 Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?” 41 So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. 42 I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.” 43 Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”
45 Therefore, many of the Jews who came with Mary and saw what Jesus did believed in him.
Thoughts on the passage:
Can God create a rock so heavy that God cannot lift it? This is something known as the omnipotence paradox. It tries to examine the tension around the limits of God’s power. It is a question that theologians and philosophers have wrestled with for centuries and come up with a variety of different answers. Some believe the logical fallacies in the statement exclude it from being meaningful, while others believe it is a misunderstanding of God’s omnipotence. At its heart the question remains. How powerful is God?
Our story today tells of other people struggling with the limits of God’s power. With the death of Lazarus, there is a great deal of grief. With that grief comes blame, and one of the targets of the blame is Jesus. People keep asking why Jesus was not able to be there at Lazarus’ bedside to heal him. Over and over we hear the refrain, “If you had been there.” With the death of Lazarus, people know that the limits of God’s power have been reached. Before, they believed that Christ could do something to save Lazarus, but now it is too late.
The people in the story have a great deal of faith in Christ’s power. They know that he can heal the blind. They believe that he can heal the sick and save people from dying. At the same time, they clearly understand the limits of death. Their grief turns to frustration because they wonder where Christ was when they needed him and whether he could really have made a difference for them. It is hard to say the primary source of their disappointment, is it in Lazarus’ death or in Christ’s failure to do something.
John 11:35 is the shortest verse of the Bible in many translations. In the King James Version, it simply reads, “Jesus wept.” Beyond this interesting fact about it, the verse also raises interesting questions for us. Why is it that Jesus wept? What does this tell us about God? Is Jesus mourning the loss of a friend? Is he weeping at the lack of faith people have in him? Is he hurt by the blame that is placed on him?
The grief of Christ is powerful to me. It is a reminder that God has chosen to be vulnerable and to feel the pain that we do in a relationship. God is not a remote and distant, uncaring being, but instead is deeply involved in the world and feels the same hurt that we do at the brokenness. In choosing to be born a human like us, Jesus placed limits on what he could do. Those limits have consequences and God feels the pain of those consequences just like us.
Unfortunately, God is not the only who has placed limits on Christ’s power. We also do it. The crowds in our story believe that Jesus has no power over death. They will ask for his help to heal the living, but they know he can do nothing when a person has been dead. Instead, they wonder why he did not do more when he could. They have placed limits around his power.
Backseat quarterback of God is an inevitable part of our relationship with God. It is hard to understand why God does what God does and why God does not do other things. After WWII, many people wondered where God was in the midst of the slaughter of the Holocaust and the violence of the war. They struggled to reconcile a powerful God with the suffering and dying that God seemed powerless to stop. While large-scale events can cause us to question God’s power, so to can the individual suffering of people we care about. When people die from cancer, heart-attacks, and other diseases, we have to wonder how it is that God allows these things to happen. Right now, thousands are dying in Somalia because of a lack of rain. Where is God there?
Is it enough to say that Jesus is there, weeping alongside us in our grief? Is it enough to believe that Jesus was there, in the gas chambers of Germany and the parched wilderness of Somalia with those who were dying? Is it enough to know that Jesus is there at the bedside of a cancer patient as they pass away, and that Jesus is crying for them too?
I do not have easy answers to these questions, but I do think we can find some hope in the story of Lazarus. First, Jesus does care for our suffering and does feel our pain and our loss. Our God is not an unsympathetic God. Second, our God is not powerless. Even over death, Jesus is still Lord of All. Where we see a sealed tomb and an ending, Jesus sees the potential of a new beginning.
I believe that one choice God has made is to be in a relationship with us. Rather than rule alone over the world, God has invited us to be a part of creation. God has given us duties (to be stewards of creation) and God has given us the freedom to make mistakes in the midst of our duties. God wants us to join in taking responsibility for the world.
What can we learn from Lazarus? There is not a limit to Jesus’ power if we have the courage to ask. We have trapped ourselves in our own tombs of negativity, believing that God does not have the power to do something for us. Jesus is calling for us to come out. We need to reject the idea that there is not something that can be done, because with God, we can do anything.
We have the power to fight disease, end wars, and alleviate suffering. We believe in a God who has power even over death. We follow a risen Savior. Brokenness, pain, and loss are not to be seen as signs of the limits of God’s power, they are challenges for us to step in, to weep alongside God and to work with Christ to heal a broken world. Let us leave our tombs and answer his call.
Questions to Ponder:
How do you understand God’s power?
What do you do when you struggle with whatGod is doing or not doing?
How is God calling you to step out of your tomb?
God of resurrection and new life, it is easy to doubt your power. All around us we see signs of brokenness and we wonder why. Help us to remember that you are with us in the brokenness and help us to know that you are working through us to heal that brokenness. Give us the courage to trust you. Help us set aside our negativity and believe that in you, all things are possible and that even death is powerless before you. Amen