February 25, 2006
First Sunday of Lent
"Saturday: The Week Of The Cross: Lazarus, Come Forth"
(John 11:1-7, 17-44)
Rev. Billy D. Strayhorn
There was a guy riding in a cab one day. He was new to the city and was looking for a good place to eat, so he leaned forward, tapped the cabby on the shoulder and said, "Hey, Buddy." The driver let out a blood curdling scream and lost control of the cab. He nearly hit a bus, jumped the curb and stopped just inches from going through a huge plate-glass window and into a crowded restaurant.
For a few minutes, there was dead silence in the cab. All you could hear was two hearts beating like bass drums pounding out a quick march. The driver finally turned around and said, "Man, you scared the living daylights out of me."
The passenger, who was white as a sheet and whose eyes were as big as dinner plates, said, "I'm sorry, I didn't realize tapping you on the shoulder would scare you so badly."
The cabby said, "Well, it's not your fault. This is my first day driving a cab. But for the last 25 years, I drove a hearse." (1)
If I'd driven a hearse for 25 years and somebody tapped me on the shoulder, you can bet I'd have screamed like a little girl. I'm kind of goosey anyway. Just ask Mary or the staff. If I'm concentrating on something it's not hard to startle me.
To say that Mary, Martha, the Disciples and the mourners gathered at the grave Lazarus were startled, would be putting it mildly.
Today is the First Sunday in Lent. And today we begin a look at the Last Week of Jesus and the events traditionally associated with each day of the week as Jesus made that willing walk to the cross for our sakes. And today begins with what some traditions call Holy Saturday, the celebration of the raising of Lazarus from the dead.
Let's look at the passage. John 11:1-7, 17-19, 30-44 (NRSV)
 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."
 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb 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.
 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 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 upward 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."
 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
Many believed in Jesus. But the raising of Lazarus was the first step in making every religious group in Israel mad at Jesus. So mad, that they would forget their differences and plot His death.
A. Jesus didn't intentionally set out to make every religious group in the world mad at him that week, it just sort of fell that way with all the stuff he was trying to get across.
Not only that but as long as he was preaching in Galilee, he wasn't too much of a threat to the establishment. But the last week he sort of invaded their territory and when he did he became a threat. And so they triangulated on him. Those folks who would have been opposed to each other, crossed the line and for the sake of a common enemy put their differences aside and struck up a deal to get rid of this upstart, life changing, revolutionary. And the straw that pushed them over the edge was the rasing of Lazarus.
Jesus couldn't have done anything more provocative to the Sadduccees who didn't believe in a resurrection. They believed when you're dead, you're dead, that's it. Dust and worm dirt. That's all there was to life. And then Jesus had to go and raise Lazarus from the dead.
Lazarus was not only dead, as Jerry Clower used to say, he was graveyard, cold in the ground dead. His sisters knew that. They had visited the tomb to pay their proper respects and to mourn. And they knew what we all know, they discovered what we all discover: Death Stinks. They even told that to Jesus when he told them to roll the stone aside. "Good, Lord, do you know what kind of smell there's gonna be? He's been dead four days. Are you sure you want to do that?"
Everybody held or covered their noses. And that must have been a sight. Four or five husky men all trying to hold their nose while pushing the heavy stone sealing the tomb out of the way. And I bet they ran stumbling over each other to get away first with eyes water and the gag reflex taking over. But not Jesus. Not the Son of God. I picture Jesus silently praying. Looking around before He looks up and says: "Father, I know you always hear my prayers. But I want THEM to know You hear me."
And then Jesus proceeded to raise Lazarus with a shout loud enough to wake the dead.
B. The underlying message, the in your face message, the slap which the Sadduccees and Pharisees felt and all of Israel heard was that God is in charge. No matter what happens, even death, God can reverse it if God chooses to do so. In the stark reality of the stench of death, life looked defeated. But through Christ, for whom and through whom everything that was and is and ever will be was created, death was defeated. Life was affirmed and the author of life, God, proved that God is ALWAYS and EVERYWHERE victorious and in charge.
And no matter what happens in the coming week, no matter what atrocity is visited upon His Son, God let it be known with a loud shout, loud enough to wake the dead, that God IS in Charge even over sin and death. Nothing and no one will stop God's Will and God's Redemption.
The only thing more powerful and provocative would have been Jesus' own death and Resurrection. Of course, they didn't know it yet, but that was just around the corner. You can almost hear Jesus thinking, "You think that was something, wait 'til you see what God's really got in store for you."
You see, Lazarus was raised from the dead to make a point. And the sad thing is that Lazarus would die once again. But we also know what happens in the final chapter. In dying, Lazarus would be raised from the dead and born into a new and more glorious life. Life eternal with Christ.
A. So what's the implication for us? I think there are about a billion things this passage teaches us but I want to lift two today. First, and I think this is hard for us to hear. First, just because you're a believer, just because you're a friend of Jesus doesn't mean you won't have trials and tribulations or get your heart broken from time to time.
I think it's important that we hear that because so much of pop culture Christianity leaves us with the notion that if you believe, I mean really believe, then nothing bad or horrible will ever happen to you. And if something bad happens it's because you didn't have enough faith. Well that's a crock. I have no idea how those who espouse this philosophy come up with it but Jesus very clearly states in John 16:33: "In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." NIV.
I think Jesus is pretty clear. We don't get a by, we don't get a pass, we don't get an exemption simply because we have faith and believe in Christ.
Life is hard. We tend to forget that because we have so many conveniences. We don't have to struggle for food or to cook the food. We have gas and electric stoves and microwaves. We don't have to cook over an open flame unless we want something grilled. In the midst of winter we have central heat and in the heat of summer we have air conditioning.
Traveling ten miles doesn't take half a day, unless you're stuck in rush hour traffic. Cross country mail gets there in three days, not three weeks. And email gets there in three minutes or less.
We tend to forget just how hard life really is until we face hard times. Until illness or loss of a job or loss of friends or family members suddenly invades our lives. When that happens, and they will, remember our faith doesn't exempt us from pain and sorrow. Our faith is what gets us through those hard times. Our faith is what heals our broken hearts and spirits.
B. It's then, in the midst of the heartache of the broken heart that we have to remember the Second point for us. Christ's message is still the same today as it was when He raised Lazarus from the dead. God is ALWAYS and EVERYWHERE victorious and in charge.
And when we trust Christ, when we fully put our trust in Him, then no matter what it is that entombs us, no matter what it is that has broken our heart, not matter how much heartache we have experienced, there is new life available for us. Like Lazarus, Jesus calls us to new life.
I ran across a very moving story. (Watch this) In 1871 a Christian lawyer from Chicago named Horatio Spafford lost his only son. A few months later he lost his entire life's saving when the Great Chicago Fire destroyed all of his real estate investments.
In 1873, he and his family decided to take a European vacation. But at the last minute he was delayed by business. He placed his wife and four daughters on the S.S. Ville de Havre sailing from New York to France. He fully expected to leave on another ship to join them in about three or four days.
On the evening of November 22, 1873, the Ville de Havre was suddenly struck by an iron sailing vessel, the Lochearn, and sank in twelve minutes. 226 people were killed.
Back in the United States Horatio Spafford was waiting for news of his family. After waiting for ten days, he received a six word telegram which read: "Saved alone. What shall I do?"
Filled with anguish, Spafford immediately left Chicago to bring his wife home. While sailing near the place where his daughters had died, he wrote the words to the hymn "It Is Well With My Soul."
In spite of the tragedy in their lives, neither Spafford or his wife, Anna, lost faith. Instead, it sustained them and it grew stronger. And in 1881, they moved to Jerusalem to meet the needs of the people there. And to become missionaries bringing the Good News of Christ's resurrection to the people in their care. (2)
Horatio Spafford was able to pen the words to that great hymn, "It Is Well With My Soul" and he and his wife were able to continue their lives of faith and serve in Jerusalme because they knew and believed that God is ALWAYS and EVERYWHERE victorious and in charge.
They heard the voice of Christ call them out of the tomb of their grief and into new life with Him.
Dr. James Moore tells the story about a young ministerial student who was working at his church as a summer intern a few years ago. It seems every Sunday in their Chapel they serve Holy Communion and it was this young man's turn to serve. He had never served Communion alone before and he was scared.
Back then they had the communion ritual printed on a laminated card. It started with the Invitation to Communion, followed by the Prayer of Confession and the Prayer of Consecration; and then just before the people would come forward to receive communion, the minister would stand, face the congregation and say, "Hear these words of comfort from the scriptures." They left a blank place on the communion card so the minister in charge could quote a favorite verse at that point.
When he got to this point in the service, the young ministerial student stood and said, "Hear these words of comfort from the scriptures..." And then he went absolutely blank. There was a long pause, and then he blurted out the only verse he could think of at the moment: "Jesus wept."
Later this ministerial student reported how awful he felt about it at first, but then how one of the members came down after the service and told him, "When you quoted that verse, 'Jesus wept,' that was so meaningful to me because it made me suddenly realize thatů the Healer of our pain is the feeler of our pain!" (3)
Not only does Christ feel our pain and enter into our pain with us but he calls us to move beyond that pain as well. You see, Jesus knows that sometimes, our pain of heartbreak and disappointment can bind us just as tightly as the burial wrappings which bound Lazarus. Our sin and rebellion can do the same. But like Lazarus, Jesus calls us out of that tomb and into new life.
Our challenge is to hear Jesus' cry, "Come Forth." Our challenge is to let Him roll away the stone. Our challenge is to let Him enter in to take our pain. The call might be a bit startling in the midst of our comfortableness with life. But our challenge is to hear His call and take that first step into new life with Him.
1. Patricia Ridpath, Laughter the Best Medicine, Reader's Digest.
2. Parables, Etc. (Saratoga Press, P.O. Box 8, Platteville, CO, 80651; 970-785-2990), Feb 1984
3. James Moore
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