Sparkford, Weston Bampfylde, Lent 5, 6 April 2014
‘If only you had been here, my brother would not have died.’
In John’s gospel, the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead prefigures Jesus’ own resurrection, it reveals his identity as The Resurrection and the Life. And this gives us believers great confidence that in Christ we will ourselves overcome death. It is a tremendous theological statement about the power of the divine Jesus. But if you strip away John’s running commentary on the story you get to another great truth about Jesus. The basic events of those two days stand alone to reveal Jesus the man, and how he dealt with a situation which each of us faces quite often - what we should do when presented with two equally positive and pressing choices. And what we can do later when it looks like the choice we made was the wrong one.
‘If only you had been here, my brother would not have died.’
The gospel story shows us a Jesus conflicted - between continuing in his ministry at a time when his mission to preach the good news of God’s kingdom was gaining momentum, and interrupting his ministry to go to his friend Lazarus who he has been told was ill.
The story tells us that when Jesus heard the news about Lazarus' illness he stayed where he was for two days. Now, to me, that sounds like the actions of someone like me or you, who are inclined to put things off, say we'll get round to them tomorrow, tell ourselves it can wait, and then regret it when two days later we discover that we can't make that visit any more because the person we thought was just a bit ill turns out to have passed away. I like that it makes Jesus sound like me or you, because I firmly believe that he was just like me or you, that's how we can relate to him, that's how he can relate to us.
On the other hand Jesus staying where he was for two days might have been a decision he took after spending time in prayer - asking the Father what he should do now. And it was the Father who told him to stay where he was awhile. To me, this makes Jesus sound like Ezekiel, a man desiring to go where God wanted him to go, and learned to wait on God for his next step.
The hand of the Lord was upon me, [Ezekiel said]
and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord
and set me down in the middle of the valley;
and it was full of bones.
Here is the testimony of a man who in one sense doesn't know what he is doing. He knows that he is following God - very closely. He feels that it is the Spirit of God who is leading him - very consciously. He senses that he is where he is because that is where God wants him to be at that particular time - very clearly. Because Ezekiel has opened his heart to the promptings of God's Spirit we might assume that he is prepared for anything. But he doesn't know what will come next in that very strange place of dry bones.
And I suggest that in John’s story we see Jesus doing what Ezekiel did all those years before him: walking in the Spirit, following God by instinct; trusting his Father by faith; opening his heart to the promptings of God's Spirit. And me or you, when we're walking with God quite closely, that's what we do too. We don't know what's around the corner. But we know where God wants us now, and for now, that is enough.
John suggests that Jesus knew Lazarus was dying - and wanted him to die, so he could perform a miracle to persuade his disciples that he was divine. I suggest that that portrays Jesus as something he was not - a superhuman who knew precisely what was coming, and who could make cold, calculating, heartless decisions about what to do next.
I suggest that Jesus didn't know Lazarus was dying - not just then, anyway, not at first, not till two days later when things had become much clearer to him. I would rather underline this very strong concern I have - to be clear how fully human Jesus was.
No-one in scripture makes it clearer to Jesus how fully human he was than those two sisters, his close friends Martha and Mary, as one after the other, in tones of voice we can only imagine, they each say, ‘If only you had been here, my brother would not have died.’
It was when Jesus was on the way to the village, with Martha, and Mary ran out from the house to meet him, followed by the others who were in the house, and Mary fell at his feet, and said, "Lord, if you had been here, Lazarus would not have died!", and she wept, and all the people who were with her started weeping too.
Why didn’t you Man Up, the sisters seemed to be saying, why didn’t you put your ambitions for mission to one side for a while and do the right thing for Lazarus and us, your closest friends?
It was at that moment that Jesus broke down and shed the tears of a man who realised he had lost his dearest friend. And the tears of a man who realised that a choice he made two days ago may have been the wrong one.
Jesus’ response to the sisters’ cries is summed up in two simple, deeply moving words, the shortest verse in the bible: Jesus wept. Jesus wept: the most human reaction a God could ever make to a human catastrophe.
I value that small scene so much because there, again, Jesus did what we would do in a similar position. If you are superhuman and you know precisely what is coming and you can calculate everything in this situation so clearly that you have no doubt about it, then you do not weep. If you are absolutely clear that each choice you make is undoubtedly the right one, and never have any regrets, then you do not weep. If you are like that then you're not human at all. You haven't got a heart.
Jesus wept; which showed he had a heart. I'm so grateful to him that he did, because, again, that makes Jesus sound like me or you, and I firmly believe that he was just like me or you, that's how we can relate to him, that's how he can relate to us.
So, am I saying that Jesus was not divine? Not at all - there's no doubt he performed this great miracle and there's no doubt that persuades us he was divine. But I think that the most wonderful thing about Jesus is that he was fully divine and fully human. Indeed, to make it more wonderful still - Jesus, now, is fully human and fully divine. He can't be less than either of them. And he can't be more. The tears of a man who had lost his friend, were the tears of a God who would conquer death. The tears of a man who regretted a difficult choice he made, were the tears of a God who now has history in the palm of his hand.
The next thing that Jesus did - between weeping and raising Lazarus from the dead - was to pray to his father. It's the sort of thing which you or I would do when in a conflicted situation: realise that we need the advice, the wisdom of a beloved and trusted elder. It's the first stage of him Manning Up. It's the sort of thing which we believers do daily, turn to God for guidance through the twists and turns of each hour. Jesus' devotion to God in this moment shows up his humanness again; that he prayed to God as his Father, underlines his divinity.
I understand where John was coming from when he highlighted Jesus' divinity. He was writing in the first century when there were still a lot of doubts about who Jesus really was; and it was a lot easier for his detractors to see him as a wayward preacher, a quack miracle-worker, than as the Son of God. John had to tell his story to underline what the believers knew to be true - Jesus was the Son of God.
Today the world sees God, Jesus, faith differently. And maybe today people find it easy to dismiss Jesus if our only argument is to prove he is God, because they're not that sure about God anyway. But they may be more interested in a Jesus who we talk about as the God who is fully human, who knows what it means to live by faith day-to-day, who maybe gets his timing wrong occasionally, who cries at the terrible loss of a friend. Who regrets a choice that he made. And who conquers death.
Man Up, said Martha and Mary to Jesus. And once he had finished weeping, he did.
 A reworking of the sermon John 11 - Lazarus & Jesus - and an argument with John, preached at Christ Church Norris Green, 13/3/2005