27 February 2011 : John 11: 1-20 [p. 1077]
It’s been four months since we last looked at John’s gospel and at that time we began our study of one of the most remarkable of all the miracles, even by Jesus’ own very high standards. We noted from the opening verses of John 11 that Jesus described what was happening to Lazarus as being for the glory of God – not in the fact that he was seriously ill, as illness is the domain of the devil and God can never be glorified by the devil’s work, but rather in what Jesus was about to do to change that situation.
We noted that disease was part of the curse attached to human disobedience, and that the purpose of Jesus coming into the world in the flesh was to shatter that curse forever and release upon the human race the blessing God had always wanted for His people. We saw that when Adam and Eve blew it in the Garden of Eden, they opened the door for the devil to march into the life of every human being, stick his muddy feet up on our sofa, and unpack his suitcase of horrors, including illness.
In this passage, Lazarus is the latest in a long line of people who has fallen foul of the curse, the unpleasant side-effect of human sin. And how Jesus ministered to Lazarus would be an immensely powerful sign of how His ministry was to affect the entire world. Jesus, as we noted already, takes His time over it. He appears to be in no rush to get back and sort things out for his pal Lazarus, and we might think that was unkind.
But it wasn’t. The clue to his thinking is seen in the snippet of conversation we find in vs.7-8. A couple of days have passed, then Jesus announces they’re going back to Judea where Lazarus was. The disciples instantly panic : Hang on, Jesus, have you forgotten you narrowly escaped being stoned to death back there? [reference John 10.31]. The disciples didn’t want to go anywhere near Jerusalem for a long time. Understandably, they weren’t keen to face the lynch mob the Pharisees had got stirred up against Jesus.
Jesus Himself wasn’t worried about going back. He knew that His Father’s hand was upon Him, that there was still unfinished business, and the Pharisees and their spiritual father the devil could huff and puff, and paw the ground and snort, and throw their toys out of the pram, till the white of their eyes turned green, but not one hair on Jesus’ head would be harmed until He was able to cry out with absolute certainty : it is finished.
It was for the sake of His disciples that Jesus took this time out. It was for their benefit. Jesus was spending this time with them in the country, out of the pressure cooker that was Jerusalem, so they could calm down and not crack up under the strain they would undoubtedly face. These guys still had a lot to learn, and not much time to learn it, and Jesus had to be sensitive to their limited ability to handle the pressure.
But still we must address the plight of poor old Lazarus. Was it not a bit harsh on him for Jesus to stay away in his hour of desperate need? Actually no. Consider, first, the timetable of events, and second, the fact that communications then were very different from today. In v.17 we see that when Jesus did turn up, Lazarus had been dead 4 days.
The place where John had baptising was at least a full day’s journey from Jerusalem. That’s how long it would have taken the messengers to bring Jesus the bad news about Lazarus – no phone, no fax, no e-mail – and how long it would have taken Jesus to get back there. In addition to the two days Jesus stayed put, that means, by my calculations, that Lazarus was already dead by the time Jesus was informed of the situation.
This was never going to be just another routine run-of-the-mill healing, if indeed we may describe any such outpouring of God’s love and grace in such understated terms. It was always going to have to be a much more spectacular miracle, even if Jesus had been able to take a Learjet back to Bethany. I don’t know if you’d ever thought of it in such practical terms, but does show that Jesus wasn’t just being mean and callous.
And Jesus makes good use of the journey time to do a bit of teaching. He told them : those who walk in the daylight will not stumble. And I’m sure he watched their eyes cloud over with total incomprehension, yet only a short time ago, at the time in John 9 when Jesus healed the man born blind, Jesus had said : As long as it is day, we must do the work of Him who sent me. Night is coming, when no-one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world. What is Jesus trying to tell them?
Just this. As long as He was around, and they stuck by Him, they were safe. No-one could touch them. The time was coming, faster than they dared imagine, when Jesus would be taken away from them, and they would experience a devastating darkness the likes of which they could not even begin to contemplate. But it would be a very short time of darkness until He would rise again, and even when the time came for Jesus to go back to the Father, He would send His Holy Spirit to encourage and guide them.
And I think we who follow Jesus today need to know that the same promise, and the same power, that was made available to the original disciples is offered in its entirety to the disciples of the third millennium. Jesus is still around, on the presence of His Holy Spirit. We’ll learn in later chapters exactly what that means, but in essence everything that the Father is, came into the world in the person of Jesus, and everything that Jesus is, comes to us through the Holy Spirit. I am with you always, to the very end, He said.
You and I, therefore, if we truly believe that Jesus is who He says He is, have nothing to fear. We are one with Jesus, and as long as we stay bound close to Jesus, sheltered in His strong arms, in the secret place of Most High God, then if the devil and his stinking minions want to have a go at us, they have to tackle Jesus first. And as I said to the folk at Ancrum and Lilliesleaf a couple of weeks ago, the devil’s thick, but not that thick!!
As long as you and I choose to live by the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ ; as long as we decide to put all our faith and trust in His promises and not in our circumstances ; as long as we remain confident in who and what we are in Jesus, and let Him take care of us in His supernatural strength, as He delights to do, rather than try to fight our own battles in our own puny natural weakness, we’re fine, we’re sorted.
As long as we stay in the presence of Jesus, whenever the devil looks in our direction he sees Jesus looking back at him, and so he slinks away to pick on someone else his own size, like a rat or a cockroach or a midge! But if we make the mistake of NOT casting all our cares upon him ; if we insult His grace by indulging in worry and fear and stress ; we’ re effectively driving without insurance. Not a smart move.
What is it about human beings, especially us Scots, that we’ve got this stubborn streak, this thrawn attitude that hates to be dependent on anyone else? But the whole essence of faith is precisely to recognise our total 100% dependence upon what Jesus has done for us, and the 100% irrelevance of what we think we have done to earn his favour? Little wonder Jesus said, probably shaking his head ruefully, that unless we come to Him like little children, we just can’t receive revelation of what His Kingdom is about.
Moving on to vs.11-12, we see another textbook case of Jesus grasping what’s going on, and the 12 not having a clue. Jesus is only too well aware that Lazarus has died, but in giving a wee trailer for what’s about to happen, He does try to act with a bit of tact and diplomacy – Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I’m going to wake him up. His friends pipe up : Don’t do that, Jesus, a good sleep will help him shake that nasty bug off.
The subtlety being wasted on them, Jesus then just lets it go. Read my lips. Lazarus is dead, ok? Sound of 12 jaws hitting the ground in unison. And it’s just as well I wasn’t there, because now I’m going to use this opportunity to build up your faith, so let’s get this show on the road. The ever-tactful giant of the Reformation, John Calvin, observes Christ’s kindness in putting up with such stupidity in the disciples was remarkable.
It is also very encouraging for us, because let’s face it, you and I have missed it time and time again, in so many different ways – some just plain stupid, but some downright malicious – and yet Jesus never ever gives up on us, never stops rebuilding the bridges of grace that our crazy actions, words and thoughts have torn down.
However slow we might think the disciples were at times, the fact remains that Jesus hand-picked these guys, saw the potential in their hearts rather than their qualifications, invested three precious years of His life in them, did the work of His Father in their presence, taught them such marvellous things which such authority that no human ear had ever heard before … and you know what? 11 of the 12 did pretty well in spite of what we – spiritual giants of such high repute as we are, aye right – might think of them
And that gives me hope, I can tell you. When I see Peter bluster under pressure, James and John bicker for attention, Philip pass the buck, and Thomas make an art-form out of negativity – as we see in his almost comically bleak statement in v.16 : oh well, we may as well go back to Jerusalem and get bumped off with Lazarus – whenever I see these guys, and the other great heroes of scripture, in their honest human frailty, I am just so grateful that it is Christ in me that’s the hope of glory, and not my performance. None of us – NONE of us – is too late to receive grace and start again. There is time to walk in the light of Jesus, and live long, and finish strong. Today’s the day to go for it.