John 11:1-53, I Corinthians 15:12-22

A pastor’s son and his friends were playing in the backyard when they found a dead robin. They decided that the bird should be given a proper burial, so they put him in a Kleenex box, dug a hole and solemnly placed their feathered friend in the ground. Naturally, the minister’s son was chosen to say something appropriate. Remembering what his father often said at times like this, the young boy sang, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son…and into the hole he goooooes!”

On Feb. 27, 1991, at the height of Desert Storm, Ruth Dillow’s worst fears were realized as she opened her front door to see two army officers standing there with grim looks on their faces. She knew why they were there. It was their job to inform her that her son, Pvt. 1st Class, Clayton Dillow, had stepped on a landmine in Kuwait and was now dead. She later said, “I can’t begin to describe my grief and shock. It was almost more than I could bear. For 3 days I wept, for 3 days I expressed my anger toward God, for 3 days people tried to comfort me, but to no avail, because the loss was too great.”

Then, three days after she received that dreaded message the telephone rang. The voice on the other end said, “Mom, it’s me, I’m alive.” Ruth Dillow said, “I couldn’t believe it at first. But then I recognized his voice, and he really was alive. The army had made an identification mistake! I laughed, I cried, I felt like turning cartwheels because my son whom I had thought was dead . . . was really alive. I’m sure none of you can even begin to understand how I felt.”

It’s probably true that none of us can, but two sisters who made their home in a place called Bethany could and did.

As we join Mary and Martha, we come to a very heavy scene of mourning with all the reality of grief, heartache, and tears. The Bible doesn’t gloss over what we are so afraid to talk or even think about.

We live in an age that does its best to deny death. People rarely die at home surrounded by loved ones anymore. Their bodies are no longer dressed and prepared for burial by the family as they were not too many decades ago. Today this process has been sanitized and taken over by hospitals, hospices and funeral home directors. We build coffins that look like plush oversized jewelry boxes and bury them in cemeteries that evoke all the peace and serenity of a botanical garden. As a result, few of us has actually seen anyone die, when indeed before the advent of the 20th century, there were few who hadn’t. We use phrases like ‘so and so passed’ or ‘passed away’ or ‘went home’ to gloss over what we dare not say . . . someone DIED.

But John 11 brings us face to face with that which we all fear the most as Jesus plainly told His disciples and us Lazarus DIED. His grave is a reminder of every grave we have ever visited and bespeaks the grave we all one day will visit . . . our own.

Yet that’s not all this story has to say. For even though man has not conquered death we are introduced here to the One who has! And we hear the sweetest words that have ever fallen on anyone’s ears: ‘I am the resurrection and the life, anyone who believes in Me will live even after dying; everyone who lives in Me and believes in Me will never ever die’ (John 11:25).

But wait a minute; I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we get to those amazing words, we must grapple with something in this story that bothers most, if not all of us. As you heard me read the story you wondered what Mary and Martha wondered. Why did Jesus delay in coming to their assistance? Everywhere else in the gospel stories, Jesus is eager to help those who are sick. No one is turned away. He even heals from a distance, but not so in this story.

Why did Jesus delay? The answer is two-fold.

Verse 4 provides part of the answer:

But when Jesus heard about it, He said, ‘Lazarus’s sickness will not end in death. No, it happened for the glory of God so that the Son of God will receive glory from this.’

The Son of God will receive glory from this? We have already seen in this gospel the sharing of glory between the Father and the Son is a major theme. And from whom do they receive glory? People like you and I who have faith in God’s ability to act on our behalf, especially when we face our greatest enemy.

One night while conducting services in the Salvation Army Citadel in Chicago, Captain Booth Tucker was preaching about how trusting Christ brings comfort even when walking through the valley of the shadow of death. After his message, a man approached him and said, “If your wife had just died, like mine has, and your children were crying for their mother who would never come back; you wouldn’t be saying what you’re saying. Ten days later, Rev. Tucker’s wife was killed in a train wreck. As her funeral began, the bereaved preacher stood in front of her casket to gaze one last time upon the face of his wife. Then he stood in the pulpit, faced the congregation and said, “The other day a man told me I wouldn’t speak of the comfort of Christ in the face of death . . . if my wife had just died. If that man is here, I want to tell him that Christ’s promise is sufficient. That yes, my heart is broken. But I do not grieve as those who have no hope for I know that my wife trusted in the Resurrection and the Life. I want that man to know that there is no other place for me to turn for a sense of peace and comfort and blessed hope and that therefore I give Christ all the glory!”

Jesus delayed so that He would have the opportunity to perform His greatest miracle and to, therefore, give a chance to offer glory to His Father in heaven.

The way that two of our beloved, Marty McMahon and Bob Taylor, faced their impending deaths brought glory to Christ. Both of them displayed great faith in Christ to grant them eternal life and like Captain Tucker were filled with peace and comfort and blessed hope right up to the moment when God called them to be with Him.

The second reason Jesus delayed in coming to Bethany is found in verse 14.

So he told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. And for your sakes, I’m glad I wasn’t there, for now, you will really believe.

He delayed so that their faith might be strengthened.

Before he died, David Weatherford, Ph.D. in child psychology and free-lance writer who endured 30 years of chronic health problems, that included 15 years on dialysis, said:

I used to live in perpetual fear of losing things I had: What if I lose my hair, what if I become overweight, or unattractive? What if I lose my job? What if I become disabled and cannot play ball with my child? What if I get old and frail and have nothing to offer to those around me? But now I have traversed enough valleys with the Savior to know If I lose my hair, I will be the best bald guy I can be. If I am physically unable to throw my child a curve ball, I will have more time to teach him how to handle the curves thrown by life. If aging robs my strength, I will offer those around me the spiritual stamina of a soul that has been carefully shaped by the hard edges of life. And so, when I can no longer dance, I will sing joyfully. When I haven’t the strength to sing, I will whistle with contentment. When the bright light approaches, I will pray silently until I cannot pray. Then it will be time to go to the Lord and what then shall I fear?

The practical result of this delay on the part of Jesus was so that belief in Christ might germinate in those it had yet to and strengthen the faith of those who already believed and thereby bring glory to Christ.

Jesus waited two more days . . . it was all a prelude to a wonderful miracle.

Jesus finally comes to Bethany; to the scene of grief. Mary and Martha are weeping, the friends are weeping, Jesus is weeping.

Martha is the first to greet Him, “Lord, if only You had been here, my brother would not have died.” She doesn’t waste time dumping that on Him.

He doesn’t try to defend Himself but assures her He has power over life and death with His most stupendous ‘I am’ saying: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in Me will live even after dying.’

And then with eyes locked on her, He asks the question of the ages: “Do you believe this Martha?” (11:26). Something told her she’d never get closer to the truth than she was right there. So she gave Jesus her hand and allowed Him to lead her to her brother’s tomb.

Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ And He who claimed to be the resurrection and the life proved it as the man who was dead walked out of that tomb alive again, amen! Jesus said, ‘Unwrap him and let him go!’

By the way, the name Lazarus means ‘God is my help.’ You better believe it!

Do you?

Some of us may be walking around wrapped in grave clothes because we have never accepted the only cure for death and hope for eternal life that is faith in Christ. If that’s the case, Henry D. Thoreau was right: ‘we live lives of quiet desperation.’ ‘Glory be to Father and to the Son and into the hole we go’ that’s it . . . that’s all . . . game over.

But this story is designed to encourage us to follow Martha’s lead, to put our hand in the hand of the Savior and trust Him to grant us eternal life. This same author, John, in his first letter can’t make it any clearer: ‘He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son does not have life’ (I John 5:12).

The truth of today’s story, if we let it sweep over us, is stunning. Death . . . that is eternal death . . . can be eliminated in our lives! It has been conquered in the person of Jesus.
And as long as people want to live rather than die, they will come to Christ with open hearts!

‘Anyone who believes in Me will live . . . even after dying.’ What a promise! No wonder they call it a precious hope! Yes, this body may die. Check that; this body will die! But the person who lives in this shell will not because I trust in Christ. And if you trust in Christ, your body will die; but you won’t, you’ll live forever!

Like leaves that blow in the wind, the rustlings of the resurrection are all around us.

A man named Bob was spending as much time in the nursing home with his mother as he possibly could, knowing full well each visit could be his last. One day when he returned home, he found that his 17-year-old son, Robbie, was sick with a headache and high fever and was eventually diagnosed with spinal meningitis. The next few days Bob spent his time between the hospital and nursing home. He didn’t tell his mother of Robbie’s illness as he really didn’t want to upset her. Then suddenly, Robbie died. As soon as the funeral was over, Bob rushed to the nursing home, only to be told that his mother had slipped into a coma or a deep sleep. His heart was heavy with grief as he sat beside her bed as evening came. He turned on the night light next to her bed, she opened her eyes, smiled at him, then with a far-off look as if she were seeing beyond the room whispered, ‘I see Jesus. And . . . why there’s mother and father. And oh my, there’s Robbie. I didn’t know Robbie had died.’

‘Poor Bob,’ she said softly . . . and then she was gone.

Dr. David Seamands tells of a Muslim who became a Christian in Africa. Some of his friends asked him, “Why have you become a Christian?”

He replied, “Well, it’s like this; suppose you were going down a road and suddenly the road forked in two directions. And you weren’t sure which way to go. And there at the fork in the road were two men, one dead and the other alive. Which one would you ask for directions?”