John 11: 1 – 44
I think you know that you I’d rather be a teacher than a preacher. So let me begin with a little bit of teaching… I talk a lot about the seasons of the church. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, we celebrated Advent. A time of waiting. Then the season of Christmas which actually begins Christmas day and lasts for 12 more days.
And now we are in the church season of Lent. Lent is the 40 days before Easter. It starts with Ash Wednesday. But the tricky thing about counting these 40 days is that you don’t include Sundays. Because the wisdom of the early church declared that every Sunday is a mini Easter.
If Advent is a season of waiting, then Lent is a season of preparation. We have the privilege of knowing the end of the story. We know that after everything Jesus suffers, after prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, after being denied by Peter, after cruel death at the hands of the Romans, after all of this… there is a resurrection and new life and salvation for the world.
In the early church, these 40 days of Lent were used to prepare new believers for baptism. They would study the scriptures and learn the church creeds and traditions and then they would celebrate a huge baptism on Easter Sunday.
So during Lent we are also challenged to remember Jesus life, his teachings, his challenges and his suffering in preparation for our celebration of Easter. For how can we truly celebrate the new life without understanding the sacrifices it took to attain it? But during these 40 days, on Sundays, we celebrate new life and God’s saving grace.
The scripture today is about new life, about a different resurrection. You know this story well because Mr. Ntchafu just preached on it a few weeks ago. But it has so captured my imagination recently, that I want to look at it again.
For me the story is more about Mary and Martha and what it means to be a disciple. The story of Mary and Martha and the death of their brother shows a pattern of life and prayer and response to Jesus.
Mary and Martha’s brother, Lazarus, falls sick. So they do what we all do when a family member is sick… in verse 3 it says they sent a message to Jesus, “the one you love is sick”. Now they had the benefit of walking, talking, knowing Jesus in the flesh. But we continue to do the same now, in our own lives.
When a friend or family member is sick or suffering, we call to Jesus in prayer. We cry out, ‘one of your children is sick’.
But Jesus does not come. It doesn’t even say that he sent word to Mary and Martha. Mary and Martha had very specific ideas of what they wanted Jesus to do… come and heal their brother. But Jesus doesn’t come and doesn’t send word.
Haven’t we all experienced this as well? We call to God with our plans, with our solutions. “God, my child his sick. Heal him.” And sometimes we even give timeframes, “heal him by Wednesday so that I can go back to work.” Or “God, I need money. Please move the heart of my neighbor to hire me.” We offer our plans and solutions and ask Jesus to bless them.
And we are supposed to pray with specifics and with honesty and truth.
But what happens when God doesn’t answer our prayers in the time and way that we ask?
Because Lazarus dies. Jesus doesn’t come to Bethany until four days after Lazarus has died. Mary and Martha have been waiting with no word from their friend and then their brother dies and still no sign of Jesus.
They have not heard these mysterious conversations he has had with his disciples, telling them that Lazarus’ illness will not lead to death but to God’s glory. Jesus has received their message. He has heard their call. And Jesus is making plans. But they don’t know.
And so when the sisters hear that Jesus is finally on his way. Imagine how they must feel. And witness their decisions. In verse 20 it says that Martha went to meet Jesus while Mary stayed home. And then in verse 21 Martha says, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
This is why I love scripture… in this one story we see ourselves. We see how we act when we don’t get what we want from Jesus. Some of us run to Jesus, upset and accusing. ‘If you had done what I asked, I wouldn’t be so sad, angry, upset.’ ‘My life would be better if you would answer my prayers the way I want you to.’
But some of us turn away. Some of us stop going to Jesus. When life is difficult or Jesus seems silent, we stay behind, like Mary.
When we wait for our prayers to be answered we can become angry, we can turn away from God, or…
We can keep trusting. Keep believing that the God who created us will never let us go. Because after Martha yells at Jesus, her heart changes and she says, “Even now, I know that God will give you what you ask.” In the presence of Jesus she remembers her faith, and calls again on Jesus.
And even if our faith fails for a time, Jesus still will not let us go. In verse 28 is says that Martha went back to Mary and said, “Jesus is calling for you.” Have you had one of those moments? When you were sad, angry at God, you had given up on your faith – and a friend came to you to remind you of God’s love. Have you had someone kneel down and wipe away your tears and tell you that God loves you, God hears your prayers, and will answer you?
This reminder was enough for Mary. It brought her back to faith, and she went to Jesus. She still repeated Martha’s words, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”
But then they go to the tomb together. And there Jesus weeps.
This is the shortest verse in the Bible but so powerful, v. 35, Jesus wept. Friends, I believe in the times of our unanswered prayers Jesus is not ignoring us, not deaf. No, Jesus is weeping with us. Jesus feels our pain and our suffering, our loss and our sicknesses. And Jesus is making plans for our restoration.
The silence is our time of preparation. New life is coming. Easter and resurrection are coming. But while we wait in the silence, in our pain, we are tempted to accuse and to fear. But we can spend the time preparing for the joy of resurrection. We continue to pray. We listen for God calling to us, through our prayers, through our friends, through our family.
Because Resurrection is coming. Jesus stands at the tomb and he tells them to roll away the stone. He calls upon the power and faithfulness of God. He calls Lazarus out of the tomb. And he tells the people to unbind him and let him go.
Martha and Mary’s prayers were answered. But not in any way that they could have imagined. Not in the time that they would have liked.
But there’s one more thing to learn from this story, this witness to new life and resurrection. Jesus could not perform this miracle without people to assist him. Hear again verses 39 – 44…
Jesus gives directions but the people have to do the work. Someone had to roll away the stone. Lazarus had to walk out of that grave on his own. And others had to unbind him from the grave cloths.
The power of resurrection lies with God. The authority to bring new life where death reigns. The ability to bring hope in the midst of despair… all those are God’s. But we have to participate or it cannot happen.
We see this played out again and again through the scriptures. When God told Moses to free the people from Israel, God asked him, “what do you have in your hand?” And it was only a simple staff. But without Moses offering what he had, the people would not have been saved.
When the crowds followed Jesus to a deserted place and wanted to be fed. What did he do? He asked them what they had. He could not perform his miracle until a small boy offered a loaf of bread and two fish.
Friends, we are all waiting for Easter, for the joy and the power and the beauty of the Son of God resurrected from dead.
And as we wait for that miracle, we are each waiting for our own miracles. We wait for healing, we wait for jobs, we wait to be reconciled with husbands or wives, we wait for the salvation of our friends, we wait for answers… We are each waiting for new life in different ways.
And sometimes Jesus seems silent. Sometimes it seems that God is not going to come to our aid.
But if we believe the scriptures to be true. If we believe this witness of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, then take heart. Jesus weeps with you. Jesus knows your situation and your pain and your need. And God is planning and working for your new life, for your resurrection.
So listen carefully for God calling to you. Listen for Jesus wisdom and direction. And do all that you can in faithfulness. If it requires strength enough to roll away a great stone, do it. If it requires offering what little you have, offer it. If it requires a simple act of generosity, give it. If it requires working for the healing of others, do it.
Because Jesus cannot perform his miracles without your participation.
So let us continue our journey to cross. Some days we will dance and sing hallelujahs and some days we travel in silence and tears.
But we travel together, confident in the resurrection, life and power of Jesus Christ. Amen.
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