Gospel of John (14) — What is Your Lazarus?

            We continue this morning in our study of the gospel of John.  And in just a little bit, we’ll be in John chapter 11.

            But first, I want to ask something.  For the past few months, we’ve been looking at different stories from the life of Christ.  So, here’s my question — what do all these Bible stories have to do with us?  And I would imagine that’s something we all want to know.  It’s a question that I think about a lot, a question that I wrestle with just about every week.  

  • So that I can have something valuable to share with you on Sunday mornings.
  • Or when you call me or text me or email me with a question or a problem or some hurt that you’ve experienced in your life.
  • Or when I’m sitting by someone’s hospital bed or in a funeral home.

            I’m always trying to figure out — how do I communicate to you that these ancient texts are still relevant to people’s lives and our world today?

            And perhaps some of you are wondering the same thing.  What do all these old stories have to do with me?  With my life, and my world?  If you’re here this morning and you’ve ever thought about that, I’m glad.  Because that means you and I are struggling with it together.

            And this week, it’s a real struggle.  This morning, our lesson comes from John chapter 11, the story of the resurrection of Lazarus from the dead.  It’s a story that celebrates resurrection and life.  Jesus shows up to this family that has just experienced a tremendous loss and he saves the day, restoring the dead man Lazarus to his family who loves him.  It’s a beautiful story, a story full of joy and surprise and wonder.

            Which all seem to be emotions that are very fitting for a sermon right before Christmas, which is another story that is full of joy and surprise and wonder.  But I probably don’t need to tell you that Christmas is not a happy time for everyone.

            A few days ago, Sherri Broglin told me about one of her neighbors who died of colon cancer this past week.  A young man, around 40 years old, leaving behind a wife and children.  And I commented to her that a death like that is always difficult, but it’s got to be especially difficult right before Christmas.

            I thought about Hunter and Amy and Sammie having to celebrate Christmas with an empty chair in front of the Christmas tree where Ida used to sit.

            I thought about Abigail and the young man in her unit who was killed recently in an auto accident.  It’s going to be a tough Christmas for that family.

            And then my thoughts turned to all the tragedies around the country this past year.  The massive Camp fire with 88 people dead and hundreds more without a home.  And then, all the mass murders.  Twelve people killed in a bar in California last month, 11 killed in a synagogue the month before, and then two school shootings this year – 10 killed in a high school in Texas, and, of course, we remember the 17 killed at Douglas High School in Florida.

            It’s going to be a tough Christmas for a lot of people.  And so, as I prepared this lesson, I struggled with the question:  What does this Bible story have to do with us?   And, specifically, how can I preach this story about a resurrection miracle when the reality of our lives is that we are surrounded by so many people who have died.

            In John 11, after four days in the grave, Lazarus was restored back to life and he was given back to his sisters.  But four days after the Douglas High School shooting, 17 families were burying their dead.

            And it makes me wonder — Is Jesus weeping for them, just like he wept over Lazarus?

            And then there’s my gut reaction which is not very much different from Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha.  Both of them were upset at Jesus at first, when he arrived four days too late to save Lazarus.  Both of them confronted Jesus with the exact same words – “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 

            AndI often find myself saying the same thing they did — God, why do these things keep happening?  Why don’t you stop it?  Why don’t you do something about it?

            But Mary and Martha got their brother back.  That very same day.  Those families in Florida and Texas and Pittsburgh and California didn’t get their brothers and sisters and husbands and children back this year.  And we don’t get our loved ones back days after we lose them, either.

            And so, here I am preparing this sermon about a day that was full of joy and wonder that happened 2,000 years ago.  But I’m preaching it in a world that is filled with the darkness of our loss.  The story John tells seems to be overshadowed by the people we know and the stories the headlines tell us about.

            And so, as we listen to this story from John 11, I ask the question (and maybe you do, too):  What does this story have to do with us?

            And that’s when I need to listen to John’s voice reminding me of the reason he wrote these stories down in the first place.  According to John 1:5, it was to reassure us that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

            These stories in the gospel of John don’t promise us that all the darkness in our world will magically disappear in an instant.  But they do give us hope that the darkness won’t last forever.  And they provide us with enough light to help us to find our way through the darkness.

            And so, with rest of our time this morning — as we take a closer look at this story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead — I want us to refocus our sights on the light of hope it gives us.  And try to see how it can help us to find our way through the darkness of this world.

            Because I think that’s what we really want to know.  What is God saying, through this story, to help us deal with the kind of world we see all around us?  What light can this story give to us when the darkness sometimes seems to be winning?

            Let’s watch the video and then we’ll talk about it some more.  If you’d like to follow along in your Bibles, we’ll be in John chapter 11, beginning with verse 1.


            On the surface, this is a historical account of Jesus raising a man from the dead some 2,000 years ago.  So, this is a story about a miracle that happened way-back-when.  And we know that this story was recorded to help us to understand the truth that Jesus was and is the Son of God.  But how does that help us today?

            Bible scholars often call John 2–11 the “Book of Signs” because these ten chapters focus on seven stories of major miracles — miracles that John calls signs.  And these sign-miracles are intended to fill us with awe and wonder.  And the story of Jesus raising Lazarus after four days in the grave is the final and most spectacular, jaw-dropping sign of all.

            But, why does John call these miracles signs?  Think about what a sign does.  A sign points somewhere.  It points away from itself, toward something or somewhere or someone else.  When you think about it, the sign isn’t the really important thing.  The sign’s job is to tell you what the really important thing is and how to get there.

            So, John wants us to be wowed by the signs Jesus does, but he doesn’t want us just to stand there staring at the miracle.  The signs are meant to show us who Jesus is, and, more than that, to show what God is doing for this world through Jesus.  They’re pointing out God’s ongoing work.  A work which God began in Jesus Christ, but he still continues until now.  God continues to work for us.  With us.  In us.  And among us.

            You see, John 11 isn’t just a story about Jesus raising a dead man a long time ago. It’s a sign that points us toward the ongoing work of God in our lives and in our world.  It’s not just about something that happened a long time ago.  It’s about what can happen and what does happen.  And it calls us to re-orient our lives and our faith in the direction the sign is pointing.

            And once we begin to see this story as a sign, a sign that is pointing toward God’s ongoing work for us and with us and in us and among us, once we begin to see that, we can then begin to answer the question:  What does this story have to do with us? 

            Now, we believe the story that we just read really did happen.  We believe Jesus really did raise a man named Lazarus, who had been dead for four days, and Lazarus really did have two sisters named Mary and Martha.  But this story is intended to point us beyond the town of Bethany, beyond the first century — to some really big truths about what breaks God’s heart, about where God does his work, and about what God is calling us to do.

            I think it’s fitting that the man Jesus raised from the dead was named Lazarus, because the Greek word Lazarus literally means, “God has helped.”  In our story this morning, Lazarus was dead, and you can’t get more helpless than that.   And there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that Lazarus could do to change his condition.  For that matter, there was nothing Mary or Martha or any of his other family members could do.  God truly was the only one who could help Lazarus.

            And so, I think Lazarus stands for everything in our lives and everything in our world that causes us to feel helpless, all of those things that we can’t do anything about.  One of my mottos is life is, “Change what you can and accept what you can’t.”  There are some things that we can change.  We can work to make our marriages better.  We can work to be better parents.  We can study harder and improve our grades in school. 

            But we all acknowledge that there are many, many things in life that we can’t change.  Things that we have no control over.  Things that make us feel helpless.  And those are the kinds of things that we just need to turn over to God, because those are the things that only God can heal and make right.

            And so, for the next few moments, I’d like for you to think about something in your life or something in our world that makes you feel helpless.  Something that you know you can’t change, something that only God can fix.

            Maybe it’s a hurt you’ve been carrying or a struggle you’ve been going through.  Maybe it’s something or someone that’s hurting you or someone you love.  And I’m sure that most of you can think of more than one thing that’s so messed up only God can help.  But for right now, I just want you to pick one thing.  And for the next few seconds, I want you to close your eyes and visualize that one person or place or situation that makes you feel helpless.

            Whatever it was you just visualized — that’s your Lazarus.  That’s the thing that makes you feel helpless.

            And now we’re ready to bring your Lazarus into this story.  I want to suggest three very important truths that this miracle, this sign in our story, is pointing us toward. The first is something you need to know.  The second is something you need to accept.  And the third is something you need to do

1.         Something you need to know

            Whatever your Lazarus is — whatever is breaking your heart, whatever is making you feel helpless, whatever is keeping you awake at night and turning your pillow into a river of tears —you need to know that God is grieving with you.  Our story this morning is a sign that points out this truth, in big, bold letters.

            The shortest verse in most English Bibles comes from our story today. It’s John 11:35, “Jesus wept.”  And we all pretty much know that verse.  But look at verses 33 and 38.  Your Bible probably says that Jesus was “deeply moved” or “greatly troubled”, when he saw Mary crying; and then again when he came to Lazarus’ tomb.

            In its margin, the NET Bible tell us that this word “indicates a strong display of emotion, somewhat difficult to translate – ‘shuddered, moved with the deepest emotions.’”  The New Living Translation translates verse 33, “a deep anger welled up within him, and he was deeply troubled.”

            Which all seems to suggest that Jesus wasn’t just shedding quiet tears. He was angry crying.  He was sobbing. And when Lazarus’ friends and neighbors saw Jesus weeping for his friend, they said: “See how much he loved him!” They could see how deep Jesus’ love was because of the intensity of his weeping.

            And I think that’s one of the reasons that, as John 1:14 puts it, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” So God could show us how much he loves us, when we see him weep through Jesus’ eyes.

            I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time imagining God crying.  And I think it can be hard for us to really believe that God loves us if we don’t see him weeping with us and for us.  Because, when someone we love is hurting, we just naturally hurt along with them.

            And so, I think this story is important because it shows us that God really does grieve with us and for us.  If anything, God’s heart is so much larger than ours that he actually has greater capacity for grief than we do.  And God gives us a glimpse into his broken heart through Jesus’ tears in our story.  Jesus shows us that God’s heart is not just broken — God is upset and angry at the death and decay and despair that continues to affect our lives.

            Earlier in the lesson, I asked if Jesus wept over the 17 students and teachers who were slaughtered in Florida earlier this year.  I believe that he did, and that he still does.  I believe he wept along with their parents and neighbors.  And I also believe that God sheds tears with you and with me for whatever our Lazarus is.  Our story this morning is a sign that points that out.

            So, the first thing is something you need to know.  The second is…

2.         Something you need to accept

            You need to accept the fact that God’s most awesome work in this world isn’t done in the safe, secure, happy places of our lives.  God’s most awesome work is done in and through the people, places, and situations that are hurting the most.

            The story of Jesus raising Lazarus is a sign that points us in that direction.  Jesus didn’t heal Lazarus from a distance.  He didn’t raise Lazarus with thoughts and prayers from somewhere way up the road.  Now, he could have done that.  There are other times when he did do that.  But when it came to helping Lazarus, Jesus walked right up to the cave where Lazarus was buried, and he ordered them to roll away the stone that sealed it.

            When I was a child, I first heard this story in the old King James Version, and I love how it puts Martha’s reaction when Jesus told them to remove the stone:  “Lord, by this time he stinketh:  for he hath been dead four days.”  Jesus went right up to the place of greatest damage — the place of death and decay and despair. And he said: “Open that grave!”  And that’s when he called Lazarus to get up and come out.

            I don’t know what it is that you have identified as your Lazarus, that thing in your life that you are helpless to change.  But, whatever your Lazarus is, I’m pretty sure that’s your place of greatest damage.  That’s where you’re wounded.  It’s where all this hurt and anxiety and depression festers.  And that’s exactly where God wants to work in your life.

            And that also means that God’s most awesome work is probably not going to happen in our church buildings.  Now, it can happen inside a church building.  Like if we invite addiction or grief or divorce recovery groups to meet in our buildings, maybe.  But we probably need to be looking for what God is doing outside these walls, to bring healing and new life.

            When Jesus called for that stone to be rolled away, that was a sign that we need to be looking for God at work in the most damaged people and places and situations. We need to accept that God’s most jaw-dropping, wonderful work will be done among the ruins and the rubble and the wreckage.

            So, there’s something you need to know, there’s something you need to accept, and thirdly…

3.         There’s something you need to do

            A couple of things, actually.  It’s the same two things that Jesus told the people gathered at Lazarus’ tomb that day to be doing.

            First, Jesus told them to roll away the stone that was in front of the tomb.  So, what does that mean for us, and whatever we’re visualizing as our Lazarus — in our life, or in the world? Whatever it is, it’s something that only God can heal or redeem or make right.  Like in our story this morning.  Jesus is the one who shouts, “Lazarus, come out!”  But he did rely on the people around him to roll away the stone, so that Lazarus could come out.  So, what does it mean for us to roll away the stone?

            It may mean rolling away the stone from our own hearts.  Maybe that stone is resentment.  Or fear.  Or cynicism.  Maybe it’s a lack of patience.  Or faith.  Maybe it’s prejudice.  Maybe it’s being unwilling to admit you might be wrong about something or someone.  I don’t know what your Lazarus is.  Only you do.  And so only you —through prayer and meditation, and under the influence of the Holy Spirit — only you can know what the stone is that needs to be rolled away in your life.  And what it will take to make that happen.

            The other thing Jesus told them to do for Lazarus was: Untie him and let him go.  Again, I don’t know what your Lazarus is.  We know it’s God who’s going to bring the new life, the healing, the restoration.  But maybe it will involve helping someone we love to develop new, healthier habits.  Or working to bring some peace and prosperity to a family or a neighborhood here in Spring Lake.  

            The idea is, we do whatever we can and God does those things that we are helpless to do.  But when we do what we can to open doors for God in this world, that gives God the room to accomplish those amazing, jaw-dropping moments.

            As I think about all the tragedies of this past year, I still wrestle with this question: What does this old story have to do with us?   But I think what this story does is to remind us that God has not left us alone in this world.  And God has not left the world to suffer alone.

            One way God is present in this world is through us — his church. And the story we’ve looked at this morning is a story God has given us to live by.  So let this story be a sign.

            A sign that there’s a Lazarus story waiting to unfold most everywhere we look.  Maybe even within our own lives, and in our own hearts.

            And whenever we find ourselves grieving and feeling helpless — or even full of anger — let this story be a sign to us that God weeps with those who weep.

            And may it be a sign to us that God does his most powerful work in the most damaged places of our lives and our world.  So, instead of avoiding them and running from them or trying to look the other way — let’s look and listen and even wait for God to work in the midst of them.

            And may it be a sign that directs us to roll away the stones that harden our hearts and block our vision, so we can see and feel what God is doing.  May it be a sign that calls us to untie each other, and set each other free as we see God calling us into healing and new life.

            And may we live by this sign until that day when Jesus comes back for us all, and he calls every Lazarus from their tomb.


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