We are continuing our Lenten series looking at the ways we are prone to wander away from God, and how Jesus points us back in the right direction. Last week we heard how we are prone to fixate on what we think is “normal” and think that God can only be present in the “normal” ways. But Jesus showed us that God can be present, doing good things, in every situation – even in the midst of undeserved suffering.
This week we are following along with one of the most famous, most powerful, and – dare I say it – most confusing of Jesus’ miracles. It’s a bit of a long reading, so stay with me, but the story is gripping.
For a little context, this is later in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus already had a reputation as a teacher, as a miracle worker, and as someone who bucked the normal conventions. His confrontations with the religious leaders led them to start plotting his death.
Jesus was very close friends with a family who lived in Bethany, which was kind of like a suburb of Jerusalem. The two sisters in this family were Mary and Martha. You might remember them from the Gospel of Luke. When Jesus visited their house, Martha was busy making food and getting everything ready while Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to him. Mary and Martha’s brother was Lazarus.
So when our text today starts off by saying, “a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany,” know that Lazarus wasn’t just a “certain man.” He was a dear friend of Jesus. And his sisters were dear friends of Jesus.
So listen in this text for the emotional drama of Jesus interacting with this family who were his dear friends. Listen for the fear of Jesus’ disciples, knowing that going to Bethany would place them in mortal peril from the religious leaders in Jerusalem. Listen for the drama within Jesus. Here he was, the Son of God, about to demonstrate his power, attempting to show people the very nature of God – and he was misunderstood even by those closest to him. Listen to the drama dripping from this story.
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 7Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
17When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” 28When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus 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 four days.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I 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.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The 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.”
45Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
George Archer had a successful career as a golfer, winning thirteen tournaments including the 1969 Masters. Near the end of his career, a reporter asked him what he was planning to do with his time during his retirement. Archer replied, “Baseball players quit playing and take up golf. Basketball players quit and take up golf. Football players quit and take up golf. What are we supposed to do when we quit?”
But isn’t that such a common question? What are planning to do with your time? We tend to ask high school students if they’re involved in any sports or other extracurriculars. In college, we wonder if people are using their newfound freedom and time studying or partying. I spent my free time in college writing and animating for a humor website, so I was neither studying nor partying. For adults we wonder, “What do you do?” For those about to retire like George Archer we wonder, “How will you spend your time in retirement?” From there we might ask how much time you’re getting to spend with the grandkids. Later in life we wonder about the right timing for life changing decisions.
How do you spend your time? We care about that question quite a bit. It’s a bit of a funny question right now, since most of us are completely out of our normal routines. But maybe it’s a good time to reflect on your time as well. It’s hard for a fish to see the water it’s swimming in, so what does it look like now that you’re swimming in a different bowl at the moment?
God cares about time as well. If you read the creation story in Genesis 1 and 2, there’s a peculiar turning point after day six. Each day of Creation, God created something and called it “good.” After people were created on day six, God said it was “very good.” And then on day seven, what happened? God rested, blessed the seventh day, and called it “holy.” There is not a holy place, there is a holy day. The days of activity were not holy, the day of rest was holy. Even when we get to a place – the Garden of Eden – it’s location is never specified. But the seventh day? We know that’s “holy.” God cares about time.
And Jesus cares about timing. I think this text troubles people when they see Jesus waiting around for two days while his friend is dying. Does that mean Jesus dilly dallies when we’re sick or in trouble? Is Jesus a dilly dallier, to use a technical, theological term?
Well hold onto your seats, because we’re going to do some math together. Trust me, even if you’re worn out from having to home school your kids right now, you can do this level of math. So, how many days does Jesus delay? Verse six says, “after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” So Jesus delayed two days.
And when Jesus arrived, how many days had Lazarus been dead? Verse seventeen says, “When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.” So Lazarus had been dead four days.
These are numbers that fit on one hand, we can do this. So if Jesus had left immediately instead of delaying two days, would he have arrived before Lazarus died? No! Four days since death minus two days of delay equals…two days since death. In fact, Jesus tells his disciples in verse fourteen, “Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead.’” Not Lazarus will die. Lazarus is dead. Right now. So by the time the messenger arrived, Lazarus was already dead.
Jesus delayed two days to change the timing of his arrival after Lazarus’ death. In the ancient world, they didn’t have the same tools we have today to know that someone was really dead. It’s like in the Princess Bride where they debate between mostly dead and all dead. Miracle Max says that when someone is all dead, there’s only one thing you can do: turn them upside down and check their pockets for loose change. But mostly dead? Someone might only be injured and appear dead. But after three days, they were believed to be all dead. Not even Miracle Max could help you then.
So instead of arriving when it was rare but possible for someone to wake up, Jesus delayed and arrived when Lazarus was all dead. No doubts. No waking up. Not mostly dead. All dead. That way there would be no other explanation for Lazarus’ resurrection than the power of God.
Jesus knew that timing matters. It’s kind of like in stand up comedy. My brother was a stand up comic for a while, and sometimes the difference between a joke being hilarious and flat is waiting a half second more or less before delivering the punch line. Or for a simpler example, Knock knock! Who’s there? Interrupting cow! Interrupting cow – MOO! If you wait too long for the punch line, it’s no longer an interrupting cow! Timing matters. And my fourth grade self would be very proud to know I worked that joke into a sermon as an adult.
Change God’s Timing
So God cares about time. Time is the only thing that is called “holy” in the Creation story. And Jesus cares about timing. He knows that it’s not just about what he does or says, when he does it matters, too.
But what’s fascinating to me in this text is how many people were trying to change Jesus’ timing. Apparently they thought Jesus needed their input. The disciples at first were cautioning Jesus against going to Bethany because they were afraid.
When Jesus finally got close to Bethany, Mary and Martha had different ideas as well. Martha rushed out to meet Jesus before he arrived, and she told him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” She wished Jesus had been faster, though she would settle for now over never. And she couldn’t wait for him to arrive on his own timing – she rushed out to meet him on her own.
Mary waited until she was summoned, but she, too, proclaimed, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Hurry on up, Jesus.
Have you ever wished that Jesus would hurry on up? Have you ever wished that Jesus would just do something already?!? We are prone to want to speed up Jesus’ timetable.
But sometimes we are also prone to want to slow Jesus down. Martha did this twice in our text. She wanted Jesus to hurry up at first, but then she wants Jesus to slow down. When Jesus asked her about the resurrection, she replied, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Slow down, Jesus! Resurrection is something for the future, not today!
And then later when Jesus said to roll the stone covering the tomb away, Martha reminded him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Slow down, Jesus! We don’t want to make a scene here!
Have you ever wished that Jesus would wait? When I was younger, I used to hope that Jesus’ return would wait at least until I had lived most of my life. I wanted to do things! To see things! To experience things! Slow down, Jesus! From my current perspective, I’d take Jesus’ return any time! No need to wait.
But Jesus works at his own pace, with his own sense of perfect timing. I have yet to figure out how to hurry him up or slow him down. And I’ve also learned that Jesus’ timing is always the right timing.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy to trust Jesus’ timing. I mean, we’re a couple of weeks away from Easter. That’s the biggest Sunday of the Christian year. That’s the whole of the Gospel wrapped up in one day. That’s the cornerstone of our faith. And yet we won’t be able to gather together. Jesus, why did you let the timing of this virus coincide with Easter?
I don’t know how it’s all going to play out. But I believe we will look back on this Easter and hear the same thing that Jesus told Martha: “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” I believe we will see the glory of God in this very different Lent, in this very different Easter. I don’t know what Jesus is going to do, but I am very confident that he will do something new for this new day.
And here’s something for all of us to consider. If Jesus’ timing is always perfect, when would Jesus want you to call that person who’s been on your heart lately? When would Jesus want you to write that letter of encouragement or thanks? When would Jesus want you to do something special for someone in your life? When would Jesus want you to speak the hard truth from a place of deep love? When would Jesus want you to start living the new life he has called you to?
Jesus might tell you that today is the right time to do one of those things. Jesus might tell you to wait. But you won’t know the right timing unless you ask and listen and follow faithfully wherever and whenever Jesus leads.
Sisters and brothers, God cares about time. Time can be holy. Jesus cares about time and timing. The right thing done at the right time is holy. How might Jesus call you to use your time…at the right time…to show that someone else is worth your time? That would be holy. Amen.