The raising of Lazarus

N.B. this sermon uses a pop quiz as a scene setter - the answers are given during the sermon itself.


John 11:1-12:11

The story so far

To cut a long story short - Spandau Ballet

John's gospel divides into four main sections: a Prologue (1:1-18), Jesus' disclosure in word and deed (1:19-12:36), Jesus' disclosure of His cross and exultation (13;1-20:31) and Epilogue (21:1-25).

As we arrive at chapter 11, we've seen John the Baptist and Jesus' first disciples. his early ministry and the first miracle-changing water into wine. Jesus has cleared the temple, talked about destroying the temple and inadequate faith, had a dialogue with Nicodemus and heard John the Baptist's final testimony. Jesus has had a dialogue with the Samaritan woman, healed the official's son, demonstrated signs, works and words in the context of rising opposition, healed the paralytic and described Christ's sonship to the father. We've heard of witness concerning Jesus, seen the feeding of the 5,000 and walking on the water and heard the bread of life discourse along with true discipleship. There's been scepticism amongst family members, a dialogue at the feast of tabernacles, the first organized opposition from Jewish authorities and we met the woman caught in adultery. we then saw signs, works and words in the context of radical confrontation and continued the dialogue at the feast of tabernacles including the healing of the blind man. then we heard of Jesus as the good shepherd, opposition at the feast of dedication and belief in Jesus.

All this brings us to Lazarus, Mary and Martha.


Introduction and Allegro for Strings - Elgar

If you take nothing else away from this sermon, remember this: If you've been coming to VDC for a few years then you've heard me speak on two of those things before. As is often the case, this sermon's on my website, should you want to re-read any of it later.


What are you waiting for? - Gwen Stefani

One of the interesting questions of the whole Lazarus story is this: why didn't Jesus go straight away to Bethany? Why did he wait? It's pretty much the question that Martha greets Him with as he arrives. Some suggest that it was so that everyone would acknowledge that Lazarus really was dead. There was a belief at the time that the spirit didn't really leave the body for three days. Hence, by making sure that Lazarus was entombed for four days, Jesus knew that everyone would believe that he really was dead.

Tom Wright, in "John for Everyone part II" - yes, we are officially half-way through the Gospel, suggests otherwise. He suggests that Jesus waited because he was praying about the course of action to take. Furthermore, he suggests that Jesus was praying that Lazarus' body wouldn't see decay (in order to offset Martha's concern in 11:39), so that he wouldn't be re-animating a decaying body, but bringing back to life a whole person.

Personally, I go with Tom - it fits much better with the way I see the theology of faith and prayer.

Raising the dead

You Raise Me Up - Westlife

I've mentioned before that Lazarus isn't the first person Jesus raises from the dead. There's also Jairus' daughter (Lk 8:40-56, Mk 5:22-43) - dead for a few hours and the son of the widow of Nain (Lk 7:11-17) - dead for a bit (possibly a day). I've heard it said that in raising these three, God was growing Jesus' faith, growing His belief that he, too, would be raised. One step of faith was proved, so faith grows to attempt the next step of faith. This in turn feeds faith so the next step can be bigger, and so on. Point 2 of my 3: God grows faith. He's a master gardener and His favourite plant is faith. He nurtures it, watches over it, keeps it growing, until it blossoms magnificently. God grows faith. Our faith. One step at a time, always moving forwards.

Again, it's an incremental thing: one step at a time, not a huge leap. Neil Armstrong's "giant leap for mankind" was a giant leap - but for him it was a small step for a man - the culmination of lots of steps that got him to the point where he was able to take that one, final, all-important, step onto the surface of the moon.

Faith then Proof

Faith - George Michael

I've said it many times before (and have just done so again). Proof follows faith, not the other way round. Saying "I'll believe when I have proof" is meaningless. I can't have faith that Lazarus will be raised from the dead if I'm having tea with him, can I? He has to be dead when I believe, not alive. I must believe first - then I see proof. Faith then proof, then the proof grows the faith and so on - and suddenly my points 1 and 2 are merging a bit. To me, the fact that these overlap so strongly strengthens my belief that they're right.

Prayers in public

I Say a Little Prayer - Aretha Franklin

When I was a young Christian, I went to see the film "the cross and the switchblade", starring Pat Boone. Many of you have probably also seen it. It's a bit twee now, but the idea of a country bumpkin walking into street gangs and knife culture is very relevant to us today. The film tells of how David Wilkerson (played by Boone) went to do something because he believed he should - because he believed God wanted him too. There he met Nicky Cruz, the leader of one of the gangs, the Mau Maus, who Wilkerson befriended and converted. I've heard Cruz speak and he's very impressive - but without the faith of Wilkerson, he'd have been dead long ago.

The film was OK, but the book (written in 1963) on which it's based is so much better, if only for the beginning. It's a long time since I read it, and I don't have a copy, so I can't quote it exactly, but the idea has stuck with me ever since I read it in the late 1970's. Wilkerson is told by his father that his prayers will never amount to anything until they are public. He then tells a story about how he goes and hides in a coalshed to pray and thinks he's praying in private, but actually, thanks to plumbing, the whole house can hear him. But the point was made -clearly, as I remember it still.

We also see this principle in the raisings that Jesus performs. Jairus' daughter was raised after all had been sent away but for a few chosen ones. These were told not to tell anyone about it. At Lazarus' tomb, everyone's there.

Of course, it takes faith to pray specifically in public. One of the quotes I've assembled for next week's Café Church is from David Jeremiah and says: "How often have we prayed something like, "O Lord, be with cousin Billy now in a special way"? Have we stopped to consider what it is we're requesting? Imagine that you are a parent who is preparing to leave your children with a babysitter. Would you dream of saying, "O Betsy, I ask you now that you would be with my children in a special way?" No way. You would say, "Betsy, the kids need to be in bed by 9 pm. They can have one snack before their baths, and please make sure they finish their homework. You can reach us at this number if there's any problem. Any questions before we go?" We are very specific with our requests and instructions for our babysitters. We want them to know specifics. It should be no different with prayer." If it takes faith to pray in public, it takes more to pray specific things in public, and more still to pray them in front of non-believers, like Jesus did outside Lazarus' tomb. That's why I think Tom Wright is correct in why Jesus waited before going to Bethany - He needed to be sure of what He was to pray when he got there.

It takes faith- but God grows that. The proof that follows faith grows it. Maybe I only have one point after all?


Three steps to heaven - Eddie Cochran

Faith leads to prayer, prayer leads to proof, proof grows faith. Each one is a step forward. Faith is a journey - and journeys are done a bit at a time, one step at a time, moving gradually from A to B not instantaneously. I've not mentioned Mary and the ointment at all, but I'm sure you can see where they fit into this picture. Three steps to heaven, then:
If you take nothing else away from this sermon, remember this: The challenge though is this: what will be your next step in faith? Wherever you may be in your journey of faith, what will be the next step?

Back to the Sermons page