Summary: This is the 7th of 7 signs where John shows his readers who Jesus was in acted parables. This sign is the climax revealing that Jesus is the "LIFE".
BRINGING OUT THE DEAD
The Monty Python troupe touched on a very real issue of the Middle Ages in their movie about the quest for the Holy Grail: Death! So many people were dying 800 years ago at so fast a rate that there was no time to bury them. Carts were brought around to villages to pile on the corpses and haul them away. Black plague, bubonic plague, had ravaged Europe so severely that a third of the continent died of the disease.
In the Python movie, a comedy of unique tastes, a man comes by yelling, “Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead!” One man responds by bringing out a very old man, but he’s not dead yet. The cart owner says it’s against the rules to take a body if it’s still alive. “He’ll be dead soon,” the man replies. Meanwhile, the old man gets up and says, “I’m not dead yet, I feel fine, I feel like dancing!” With some prompting the cart owner hits the old man on the head and moves on. Death is inevitable, the story teaches – it comes to all, ready or not.
Black plague is a note in history books. Today we are the conquerors of bubonic plague, polio, diphtheria, and smallpox. We are getting better at exercise and looking and feeling younger. We have this impression that we are conquering death itself. And yet the death rate remains the same: 100 %. The truth is, we have conquered certain diseases and new ones have sprung up. Our newest plague is HIV. And it’s been joined by Bird Flu and Asian Flu. Need we mention that heart disease is still a factor alongside cancer? Death is inevitable.
We may try to avoid it with pre-planned funerals but the shock of death still gets you every time. Dealing with death is something our culture doesn’t do very well. Death is our greatest enemy.
In the story of Lazarus we have the seventh sign telling us one more important fact about who Jesus is. This Jesus is able to reverse the iron grip of death, to take the sting out of death. The story unfolds in three movements where Jesus interacts with Martha, Mary and then Lazarus. Now we’ll see how Jesus brings out the dead.
1. Resurrecting an ailing Faith
Dreams can die quick deaths. Relationships have a way of dying if they are not nurtured. Even faith can find itself dying in the face of overwhelming trials.
Jesus got word that his good friend Lazarus was dying. When we hear of a friend who is near death we naturally drop everything and go see them. Not Jesus, not in this case – he waits two more days. When Jesus arrives, Lazarus has been dead for four days.
Scholars say Rabbis in the 2nd century taught that a soul would linger around its body for three days looking for a way back in. On the fourth day, when the soul sees the color of his face has changed, it realizes its dead and goes away.
Another tradition concerning hospitality in the East might also shed some light. A guest was welcome to stay for 3 days – one to rest, one to visit, and to prepare to leave. If he stayed a fourth day it was a breech of etiquette. You could also tell a false prophet by how long he overstayed his welcome.
The point is, Jesus made sure Lazarus was as dead as local customs perceived death. Jesus had a purpose for this death.
Martha comes out to meet him with the words, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” If only, if only…how many times have we said words like that? Martha knew that Jesus could heal people. She knew that he had given sight to the blind, and made the lame to walk. If only Jesus had been here while Lazarus was sick, he would not have died. If only…these are words of despair. It’s too late now. Are these words of rebuke for Jesus? Probably not. Martha simply resigned the situation to hopelessness.
What about her confession that God would give Jesus whatever he asked? Isn’t this faith? Was there a glimmer of hope that Jesus could raise the dead? Not if you consider v. 39 where Jesus wants the tomb opened and Martha’s concern is only for the stench. There is no clue in her that Jesus would raise her dead brother.
Martha’s faith in Jesus has not matured to the point of boundless possibility. And when faced with death our faith takes a beating, especially a premature death. We wonder why God would take our loved ones when they had so much life to live. Sometimes we go down into despair and come up in faith, growing through the experience. Some stay down, faith in God having died in the heartache.