Sermon for 10th April

Jesus Comes First


Jesus knew Mary, Martha and Lazarus very well and he loved to spend time with them, as we know from Luke’s gospel. They were a happy household and lived at Bethany, just a couple of miles from Jerusalem. When Lazarus fell seriously ill, his sisters sent a message to Jesus – “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.” They simply told Jesus of the problem, of their worry, they didn’t ask him to come or give any other instructions; rather like his Mother who simply told him “they have no wine” at the wedding in Cana; his first sign, or miracle.


When we pray, it is not easy to simply lay our troubles and worries in Jesus’ hands; it is so easy for us to carry on and to tell God what needs to be done, or, more accurately, what we want to have done!


Jesus’ reaction to the sister’s message is surprising; he states that Lazarus’ illness is not fatal, but, “for God’s glory.” Jesus’ words signify that Lazarus’ illness will not end with his death but be a catalyst for Jesus’ death. John then states that Jesus loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus, but that despite that, and their message, he stayed where he was for another two days.


If we receive a message telling us that somebody that we loved was ill, by implication very ill, most of us would rush straight to them, and yet Jesus delays. Perhaps this was to foreshadow his own three days in the tomb, or that he could not change the situation by returning so soon. He would have known that he would raise Lazarus. Jesus was taking his own initiative, in his own time and acts when he is ready, however hard it is for us to understand this. When someone we love is ill, can we find the courage to tell God about them, and then to be patient when nothing seems to happen.


After that time he told the disciples that they were going to return to Judea, the disciples were very unhappy about this because that was where the Jews had tried to stone Jesus to death; they had only just escaped from there. Now Jesus was going to take them all back into danger again.


Jesus told the disciples why they were going back, why they had to go back. He said –  “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” Just as we use different euphemisms such as ‘passed on’ or ‘no longer with us’, to talk about death; to avoid the harsh words of death; Jesus too uses such language with the disciples. The disciples take his words literally and still did not grasp why they needed to go back to Bethany. Jesus then told them that Lazarus was dead and that they had to go to him. Thomas then displayed his strength of faith and courage; he took the lead and said that all the disciples had to go “that we may die with him.” We too easily forget this aspect of Thomas; the Thomas prepared to die with Jesus. We remember Thomas as the man who asked Jesus to show him his wounds, known for all time as ‘doubting’ Thomas.


Perhaps we remember Thomas in his remembered role more easily because he identifies with what we may well have done in his shoes. His role as a leader, immediately prepared to die with Jesus, does not sit easily with what we might have done.


The role of Martha in this miracle story should not be overlooked or undervalued. Martha is such a very close representation of what we can easily be like, she has things sorted out very clearly; she knows that God will do anything for Jesus. She believes that Lazarus, and everybody else, will rise again in the resurrection at the last day. She believes that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.


Yet when she stood outside Lazarus’ tomb, and Jesus said “Take away the stone” that seals the tomb, what did Martha say? “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days”.


Martha found it easy to put her faith in Jesus for what he would eventually do on the final day, when he came again in glory. She found it much harder to put her faith in Jesus face to face. She found it much harder to believe that Jesus would do anything miraculous in front of her.


Martha told Mary the news of Jesus’ arrival and, together with many other Jews; they took Jesus to the tomb of Lazarus at his request. Jesus had wept for and with the sisters at their deep sorrow. At the tomb, Jesus commanded that the stone closing the tomb should be taken away. Jesus’ words to God – “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.” – indicate that he knew it was time to reveal his divinity publicly.


Jesus commanded Lazarus to come out, and so he did, wrapped in his grave clothes, the strips of cloth.


We learn a lot about Thomas, Martha and Mary in this seventh ‘sign’ or miracle in John’s Gospel. Thomas’ words and actions reveal a man of purpose and courage, prepared to put himself in the front line. Where do we stand when push comes to shove for the sake of Jesus?


The busy Martha who rushed out to meet Jesus in Bethany confessed her faith in Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah but found it hard to accept that he was able to carry out miracles during her life. We profess our faith in Christ Jesus in our worship every week, but do we expect miracles from the Jesus who is with us every day, or are miracles from history or the future?


The spiritual Mary had waited in the family home, and when she saw Jesus, she rebuked Jesus in the same words that her sister had used – “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But she knelt at Jesus feet in respect and love as she spoke, and wept. In her shoes, would we have been able to stem our anger in the way that it seems that Mary did?


In this miracle Jesus revealed himself completely as Human and Divine. As human he wept with sorrow with his friends and as divine he raised Lazarus from the dead. He also talks to God as Father. Jesus’ ministry on earth was drawing to an end and this miracle foretells his own Passion.


Jesus’ actions throughout this longest narrative of a miracle are unexpected and difficult to us to grasp. In particular, his delay in returning to Bethany must have tested his loving friendship with Martha and Mary to the very edge but Jesus had (and has) a different relationship with time to them (or us). His purpose is broader than ours. He will respond to our prayers, but not always in the way we expect or in the time that we hope for.


Let us look beyond the miracle of Lazarus to the humanity of Thomas, Martha, Mary and Jesus. Let us learn to expect, and accept, the unexpected during our journey of faith.



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