Summary: God's love. The human side of Jesus. Relationship. Death and life eternal. Evil from even the well intentioned.
In May 1897, the great American humorist, novelist and social critic Samuel Clemens — best known by his pen name, Mark Twain — was in London. It was one of the stops on a round-the-world speaking tour he’d embarked on in 1895. He hoped to use the fees from speaking engagements to pay off the considerable debts he owed in the United States, due to a series of unsuccessful investments and publishing ventures. While Twain was in London, someone started a rumor that he was gravely ill. It was followed by a rumor that he had died. According to a widely-repeated legend, one major American newspaper actually printed his obituary and, when Twain was told about this by a reporter, he quipped: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated. ”
Our text today is infamously known for having the shortest verse in the Bible. But, when you look beyond the brevity of one verse, you find deeper meaning and insights. Death always brings about a myriad of emotions and reflection. And Scripture reminds us, “…everyone must die once and be judged” – Hebrews 9:27 NCV.
In our society, we have sanitized death. Funeral directors go to great length to make death pretty – with embalming, cosmetology and flowers – but death is never pretty. 1 Corinthians 15:26 states that, “The last enemy to be destroyed will be death.”
Our text today is one of the most important explorations on the subjects of life, death, and resurrection found anywhere in Scripture . The key figures in this encounter with Jesus are, Mary, Martha and their brother Lazarus. These three were very close friends of Jesus. Others even commented on how Jesus loved Lazarus. Their home in Bethany was often a getaway retreat for Jesus.
The story begins with Lazarus being very sick and the sisters sending word to Jesus to come quickly. Many of you have received one of those calls to come quickly to the bedside of one you love, so you know the intensity involved here. Despite sending word, Lazarus dies.
And we see that Jesus had other plans – plans that came from the Father in heaven rather than the plea from his friends. Jesus intentionally delayed going to Bethany in order to bring glory to God. The events that unfold is a marker event in the ministry of Jesus as well as the history of the world.
Jesus knows that there will be sorrow as the story unfolds, but he knows that God will use this painful life situation to reveal his glory to those who believe. After deliberately waiting, we find Jesus telling his disciples that it is time to go to Bethany after waiting two days.
So, on the fourth day after Lazarus has been dead, we find Martha rushing to Jesus when she sees him and expresses faith as well as scolding him for not coming sooner. And then just moments later we find Mary encountering Jesus and says exactly the same thing. Two sisters and exactly the same words. But, notice that Jesus’s response is remarkably different.
He almost argues with Martha as she presses the issue of his delay. “If” is the operable word here – how often has that word been used in modern times?
• If she would have just listened to the doctor.
• If I had insisted that he go to the ER.
How futile it is to imagine what might have been, if—! A word that is often used, but never affects the real outcome.
Martha chastises, “You came too late” and Jesus responds, “I am the resurrection and the life.” In other words, “With me it is never too late.” She sees nothing but despair and grief, but he pushes against these. He rebukes her doubt and gives her hope.
But with Mary, his response is different. Jesus shows true compassion and enters Mary’s grief. He asks where the body has been laid as he too weeps. In these encounters we see his wisdom, his humanness and his character and identity.
The place of his burial gives us a glimpse into the status of this family. The very poor would have taken a dead body almost immediately to an open area outside the city and dug a grave and buried the body. Those of middle or upper class had the means to afford a tomb carved out of soft sandstone or a cave for burial.
In the warm climate of Palestine, a dead body would decompose quickly, so a person's body was often buried the same day of death. Four days places Lazarus well beyond what anyone might call a "near death" experience. When Jesus and the disciples arrived in Bethany, many Jews from Jerusalem had gathered to console Lazarus's family, and some of those who had arrived were religious leaders.