When the Immovable Meets the Irresistible, John 11:33-44, 1/27/12

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Jan 272013

Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church

I hope you have been here these past two Sundays to hear Jim and Rick Hull preach on the first two sections of this marvelous account of Lazarus’ death and resurrection.  If you missed out, do what I did and go online and listen to what they shared.  You will be both encouraged and challenged by their insights on grief and hope and the power of God’s hand at work in our lives.


Today we will look at the climax of this story which began when friends of Jesus, Mary and Martha, sent word to him that their brother, Lazarus, was sick.  Jesus doesn’t come right away and Lazarus dies.  When Jesus finally does show up, as many of you remember, there are lots of questions and lots of emotion.  Why hadn’t he come earlier?  Would they ever see Lazarus again?  Jesus is calm, sympathizing with them in their grief and encouraging them to trust that even resurrection and life are under his authority.


In a moment we are going to read the last part of the story, the part everybody loves best, the part where a dead man actually gets up and walks out of his tomb.  If you can imagine!


This week I came across a 2003 news story of a 73-year-old Vietnamese man who was admitted to the hospital for chest pains.  In spite of the best efforts of the hospital staff, he experienced heart failure and was soon after declared dead.  When his body was placed in the hospital morgue, the only problem was that he wasn’t actually dead.


The next morning his daughter is led into the morgue to claim her father’s body for the funeral and – try and imagine this! – she notices that the blanket which covered her father’s body is moving.  News reports quoted her later saying, “I was shocked and frightened…When the morgue officials pulled back the blanket, my father’s eyes moved, brightening with joy.”


The newspaper quoted a morgue official as saying that only one of the two air conditioners in the morgue was running that night which was likely the reason this poor guy didn’t freeze to death.  The newspaper article also ended with these words: “The incident is being investigated.  Hospital officials declined comment.”[1]  I bet they did.


To me that is a truly remarkable story.  It is nothing, however, – nothing! – compared to what we are about to hear.  If John’s account here is actually true, then Lazarus wasn’t just mistaken for dead, he was truly dead.  For four days he was dead!  And if Jesus really did raise him from the dead, the implications of his restored life will be felt by far more people than just his two sisters.  If this story is true, it has eternal implications for every last one of us.



When Jesus saw Mary weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.  He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’


They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep.


So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’


Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’


Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’


Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’


So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me.  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.’  When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’  The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.  Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’ (John 11:33-44, NRSV)




Just this past weekend I sat with a group of friends and listened as one friend in the circle talked about the recent death of her father.  We all knew the love that she had for her dad and so we were not surprised to see her become emotional as she spoke about the end of his life.  As she began to cry at one point I looked around the group and noticed that she was not alone.  Our tears joined her tears.


Psychologists tell us that we are all carrying around grief of one kind or another deep inside and this grief often comes to the surface when we come across somebody else whose grief is immediate.[2]  This is a good thing, by the way.  It shows that we are human, that are hearts have not turned to stone and are alive within us.


Every once in a while I hear somebody apologize for their tears.  Even in church, sometimes people apologize.  And that’s crazy.  Listen to me, church is a wonderful place to cry.  The church is a place where we must, from time to time, cry.  If we are at all in tune with the pain of our world, with the pain of those around us, some of our prayers must be tears.


God cries in church.  Did you know that?  And not just in church.  God cries in all sorts of places.  A great surprise of this story is that a dead man is raised from the grave.  An even greater surprise in this story is the revelation that God himself sheds tears.[3]  John 11:35 may be the shortest verse in the Bible, but good things come in small packages.  The text simply reads, “Jesus began to weep.”  What does it mean that the very Creator of the universe can be so moved by the pain of his creation that he is led to tears?


From John’s account it seems that it’s Mary’s tears which push Jesus over the edge.  John tells us that when Jesus sees Mary weeping, he is greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.  But Jesus cannot be upset for the same reason Mary is upset.  She weeps because her brother is gone.  But since Jesus knows Lazarus is about to come back, that can’t be what troubles him.


So why is Jesus troubled?  Could it be that he is troubled by the fact that those he loves are in such pain.  Even though he knows that their pain is momentarily going to turn to joy, it still causes him deep sadness that they have to go through pain at all.


Every parent knows what this is like.  Let’s say your little girl is the only one not invited to a birthday party.  When you’re 7 years old, that can be devastating.  The tears will flow.  The pain is real.  As a parent, of course, you see the bigger picture.  You know that time will quickly heal the tears.  You know that the next birthday invitation that does come will quickly erase the memory of the one that didn’t come.  Even so, because the heart of the little girl you so deeply love is broken, your heart breaks as well.  Your heart breaks for the fact that she has to grow up in a world where people get left off birthday guest lists in the first place.


Speaking about the Messiah who would one day come, Isaiah 53:4 reads, “Surely he took up our pain, [surely] he bore our suffering.”[4]  When God came into the world in the person of Jesus Christ, he came into a world full of pain, suffering and death, all the result of human sin.  But he did not come to condemn the sin.  Instead, Christ came to take the sin, and its consequences, upon himself.  Christ came to bear the great burdens of humanity, sin and death, upon himself on the cross.  Christ came to weep for and with the world.  Our God is a Father whose heart breaks for the fact that his children are growing up in world where even one of them suffers at all.


Mary’s outward display of sorrow brings to the surface the deep sorrow that Jesus carries inside.  Jesus’ sorrow was noticeable.  Mary and the others cannot help but see that Jesus shares in their pain over the fact that her brother lies four days dead in a tomb not far away.  And so they say to Jesus, “Lord, come and see.  Master, come and look for yourself.”


There is something about these simple words that is supremely beautiful.  They are an acknowledgement and an invitation all at the same time.  First, they acknowledge Jesus as Lord.  He is their Master.  Even though they don’t yet know how much, they know he has great authority.  And so because he is their Master they invite him.  Come and see with us this thing which has left us desperate.  I don’t think they have any idea what Jesus can or will do.  I do think they hope he can do something.


You know, it would do us well if we could learn to regularly use these words ourselves.  Because even though I don’t know exactly what it is for you, I’m sure that there are places of deep pain and loss in your life today.  There is something, or someone, you hoped would be alive today but which is now dead.  Some trouble you cannot shake.  Some dead end you cannot escape.


I believe that the only way forward begins first with this recognition that God does, in fact, share in our pain, and then second includes a humble acknowledgement and a simple invitation.  “Lord Jesus, the One who suffers with me, you are my only hope.  Lord Jesus, will you come?  Will you come and see what you can do?”  All miracles begin with these words, or something quite like them.  When we are willing to invite Jesus to a place of bitter tears, there opens up the possibility that light and joy are waiting not far away.[5]


The great challenge here, of course, is faith.  Do we believe that Jesus is Master in the first place and do we believe that if he comes he will be Master enough to actually do some good in even the most hopeless of circumstances?  We, like the people that day, have a hard time with faith.  John tells us that even though many of them are impressed by Jesus’ compassion, they doubt his power.  “See how he loved him!” they say.  But then, “He opened the eyes of the blind man.  Why couldn’t he have kept this man from dying?”  It’s the age old question.  If a loving, compassionate, all-powerful God really does exist, why does he allow such suffering in the world?


Jesus, we’re told, is “greatly disturbed” by the question.  If there is anything that pains Jesus more than the suffering of his people it is when his people fail to have faith that he is able to deliver them from such suffering.  Nonetheless, Jesus goes to the tomb.


As was typical in those days, the tomb was likely a simple hollow in a rock, the entrance of which was blocked by a large stone which stopped up the opening much like a cork in a bottle.[6]  Tombs like this were all overPalestine in those days.  It would not be long before a one of them would contain the lifeless body of Jesus himself.


When Jesus comes to this place of death he does what God always does when invited into the dead places of our world.  He comes to bring life.  Immediately, he commands what nobody that day would ever have dreamed he would command.  “Take away the stone,” he orders.  And with these words, the curse of death was about to meet the author of life.  As one writer put it, an immovable object was about to meet an irresistible voice.[7]


My hunch is that when John first recorded this story in his Gospel his hope was that the church after him, right down to today, would always have this story as a reminder that Jesus has come into our world to bring resurrection, to bring life into the dead places of our world.  And that doesn’t only mean that those who trust him will one day go to heaven when they die.  It does mean that, of course, but it means much more than that.  There are all sorts of dead places in our life that are desperate for resurrection, all sorts of places where things cannot move forward unless God comes and does something miraculous today.


I think of the marriage which long ago lost all its passion.  Are those two people destined for divorce or fated to live out their together as polite but distant roommates?  Or, if invited to do so, can Jesus come into that marriage and resurrect what long ago died?


I think of the financial situation that seems hopeless, the hole of debt dug deep by so many bad decisions and unfortunate circumstances.  It’s so deep you don’t know if you can ever climb out again.  I think of the man ravaged by an addiction that has its claws sunk in so deeply that all hope for freedom has long been abandoned.  I think of the woman weighed down so heavily by discouragement that it almost feels like it would be a relief never to wake up some mornings.


If invited into these dead places, or other ones you know more personally, is it possible that Jesus can resurrect what long ago died?  Because that is, you know, the promise of this story.  The claim here is that Jesus did it once and, if invited to do so, he can do it again, and again, and again.


The thing we must remember is that when we do invite Jesus to come and see these dead places in our lives, when he comes he may ask us to do something that makes absolutely no sense.  This is because Jesus does not come to offer us advice, or give us conventional wisdom.   He doesn’t bring secret knowledge or some step-by-step guide to freedom.  What he brings is himself because it’s only himself that he wants us to trust.  He wants us to trust him.  And that means he will likely ask us to do something that does not make much sense.  We’ll be asked to do something that we will only do if we completely trust the One who tells us to do it.


For instance, even though you feel no love at all for your husband, Jesus may ask you nevertheless to go ahead and begin treating him as if you did love him.  He may ask you to do this which makes no sense and to pray for God’s help.  Even though your financial debt is about to sink you, Jesus may ask you to go and find somebody who is in even worse financial shape than you are and give generously to them.  He may ask you to this thing which makes sense and to pray for God’s help.


Even though Martha and Mary were consumed with grief over the fact that the body of their brother was dead and rotting in the tomb, Jesus asks them to roll away the stone.   Jesus asks them to do this thing which makes no sense and then he prays for God’s help.


On the surface it was a ridiculous command which made no sense and required these people to place their faith in Jesus.  It was such a step of faith, in fact, that Martha, understandably, hesitates.  “Lord,” she protests, “by brother has been in their for four days already.  If we open up this tomb the stench is going to be unbearable.”


But Jesus is quick to remind her.  His words don’t scold but encourage.  “Martha, didn’t I tell you that if you believed, you would see the Glory of God?  If you trust me here, Martha, you will see the wonder of resurrection!”


Listen to me.  Understand something.  Faith is not the power that makes resurrection miracles happen in our lives, but it is the doorway through which they come.  Faith alone cannot restore a dead marriage, break a cycle of addiction, provide escape from impossible financial bondage, or raise a dead man from the grave.  Only God can do those things.  But for whatever reason, God will not do them unless there is faith.  If we believe, then we will see the power of God.


So give Mary and Martha credit.  They have faith.  Maybe not a lot of faith, but enough faith.  They do what many people would not do.  Would you?  If Jesus asked you to go to the graveyard on Monday and dig up the dead relative you buried last Thursday, would you do it?  The fact that they even were willing to roll away this stone demonstrated the remarkable trust they had in Jesus.  And because they took this step of faith – and a step of faith is always required – they did, in fact, see the glory of God.


As they go to open the tomb, Jesus immediately prays.  Aloud he prays, “Father, I thank you for having heard me.  I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.”  Jesus does not want anybody to get the wrong impression here.  What he is about to do is only possible because he is God.  God alone must receive the glory for what is about to take place.


Jesus prays and then, in a loud voice he shouts, “Lazarus, come out!”  Jesus doesn’t ask.  Jesus doesn’t beg.  Jesus doesn’t speak any mystical words or cast some magic spell.  He doesn’t go into the tomb and perform some procedure on Lazarus.  He doesn’t even go in and lead Lazarus out.  Jesus simply does what God always does.  Jesus speaks and his will is immediately realized.


“Let there be light.”  And there was light.  “Come follow me.”  And they followed him.  “Be still.”  And the wind and the waves were quiet at once.  “Open your eyes.”  And the blind man could see.  “Get up and walk.”  And the paralyzed man began to dance.  “Pass out the food.”  And the five loaves of bread and the two fish fed thousands.  “Your sins are forgiven.”  And immediately they are forgiven.


Jesus’ voice is irresistible.  No immovable object, not even death, can resist its sovereign authority.


Lazarus, come out!  And the dead man came out, still draped from head to toe like a mummy, a cloth wrapped around his face.  As Lazarus emerged Mary and Martha and the others standing around were, I’m sure, struck with wonder and fear.  Apparently they couldn’t even speak or move.  Jesus, in fact, has to tell them, “Go ahead.  Go and unbind him, and let him go.”  And they do.  And we can only imagine the party that must have immediately ensued.[8]


You know, there are many words I would love to hear Jesus speak to me, or about me.  It struck me this week that these final words of Jesus in this story would be among that number.  For just like you, the sin and the brokenness of my life and of this world have left me all bound up and weighed down.  Just like you, there are parts of my life which are more dead than alive, ways that I speak and act and think which are from what I know God has intended for me.  There is so much in me, and in you, and in this world that is not as God has intended.


Don’t you feel the weight of it, the restriction of it, the sorrow of it?  Don’t you also long to hear Jesus speak these words in reference to you, “Go and unbind him, and let him go.  Go and unbind her, and let her go.”  The promise of the Christian Gospel is that one day Jesus will say those words and we will, all at once, find ourselves free from the grave forever, free from the bondage of sin and death forever.


But the promise of the Gospel goes further than that.  The promise of the Gospel is not only someday, but also today.  For even now, even today, as we recognize his authority, as we invite him to come and see, as we trust him and do what he tells us to do, Jesus will work the wonder of resurrection in our lives and in our world even today.


We can hear Christ speak these words to us today.  Resurrection, promised fully one day, can begin to break into our lives this day.








The Next Step

A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application


Read John 11:33-44 again.  What do you notice first in this part of the story?


We’re told here that Jesus wept.  Why?  If Jesus knows Lazarus is about to be raised from the dead, what do you think he was crying about?


Could God do something like this today?  Why or why not?


Have you ever experienced God’s miraculous hand at work in your life in a similar way?


Can you identify a place of “deadness” in your life where you need Christ to come and work a miracle of resurrection?


Jesus asked these people to open the tomb of a dead man.  Has Jesus ever asked you to do something that made absolutely no sense?  Did you do it?  What happened?


Imagine that the people had refused to roll away the stone in front of the tomb.  Do you think Lazarus would have stayed dead?


What, if anything, do you think raising Lazarus had to do with Jesus’ eventual resurrection?  How are these two events connected?



Further ScriptureReadingsfor the Week:


Monday:               Psalm 25 ~ Matthew 5:13-16

Tuesday:               Psalm  26 ~ Matthew 5:17-20

Wednesday:         Psalm 27 ~ Matthew 5:21-24

Thursday:             Psalm 28 ~ Matthew 5:27-32

Friday:                   Psalm 29 ~ Matthew 5:33-42

Saturday:              Psalm 30 ~ Matthew 5:43-48

Sunday:                 Psalm 31 ~ Matthew 6:1-8




[2] Noted by N.T. Wright in John for Everyone, Part 2, (Louisville:Westminster John Knox, 2002), p. 9

[3] It is difficult to doubt the historical truth of this fact, that Jesus wept.  Commentator N.T. Wright points out that the Gospel writers, wanting to venerate Jesus, would never have included this humbling fact unless it had actually happened.  They wanted to show Jesus victory over death and would, therefore, never have invented the idea that Jesus cried.

[4] NIV.

[5] Words borrowed from N.T. Wright, p. 12.

[6] F.F. Bruce, The Gospel of John, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), p. 247.

[7] I owe these words, and the title to this sermon, to Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), p. 681.

[8] Like in this story, God may have us help one another get untangled from the grave clothes.  That is, in fact, one of the most critical jobs of the church.