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08.05.12 Where is God in our Suffering, John 11 Sermon Summary

by on August 7, 2012

Building on the foundation of some biblical views of suffering, this week I offer some textual observations, then some conclusions about John’s account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.

Summary Points

  • Hidden clues in John’s gospel to help us understand this story
  • The way God views death, dying, and suffering
  • The point of John’s gospel, this story, and how it applies today

John’s is a masterfully crafted narrative, full of metaphor and symbolism, whose purpose is explicitly made clear at the first ending of the book. But that purpose is woven throughout the book, and the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is a prime example.

There’s much John has tried to convey to us through very subtle means. John makes it very clear that Jesus, despite knowing that Lazarus is sick, and being aware of the sisters Martha and Mary’s concern, intentionally delays his departure for Bethany for two days. Jesus times his arrival, according to John’s chronology, on the seventh day, the “day of rest,” a euphemism used by Jesus to refer to Lazarus’ death.

John heightens the suspense of Jesus’ delay by having both sisters convey the volatile mixture of disappointment, relief, hope, and anger that is grief when each says to Jesus, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

But the purpose of John’s writing, explicitly identified in John 20:31, is also emphasized in this story—it is the necessity of “belief.” Belief, for John, is dependent on information uniquely revealed in Christ. It is information that must be taught. Accordingly, this passage is one of several passages in John where Jesus is addressed as “Rabbi.” The other gospels also have Jesus so addressed, but not as often as John does. John’s gospel contains the longest sustained discourses of Jesus, recognizable immediately as the most philosophically and theologically sophisticated of all the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels. For John, Jesus is the teacher who reveals the content of belief.

To emphasize this role, John has Jesus rejoice in his absence upon Lazarus’ death in order that the disciples may believe. Later, he offers Martha a mini-lesson on the resurrection and concludes by asking her if she believes. She responds in the very words of John 20:31. Later, to drive the point home, he reminds her of her confession of faith.

This confession, that Jesus is the messiah, the Son of God, and that life is found in him, is a post-resurrection confession. It is placed on the lips of Martha for teaching’s sake—this is the point John wants to make with the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.

It is important to note something else that John repeats in this story. Jesus is “deeply moved” twice. The first time is in response to the grief he witnesses borne by Martha, Mary, and those who mourn with them. The second may be for his friend Lazarus, but is more likely another wave of compassion for those who grieve. The point, I think, is that once Jesus arrives, he is fully in the moment, completely immersed in the lives of those he is with. This, despite the fact that it isn’t the end of the story.

What conclusions might we draw from this passage and these observations? One is that death is not final to God. Jesus says early on that Lazarus’ sickness “will not end in death”—but obviously it does. Clearly Jesus is looking beyond Lazarus’ physical death. In his conversation with Martha, he says people who believe (ding!) “will live, even though they die.” Again, this makes sense only if one views death not as final, but as transitional.

To use a mnemonic, “Saturday gives way to Sunday,” the seventh day of “rest” (death) yields to the eighth day of re-creation (resurrection). And with regards to suffering in this life it is important to realize that if death is not final to God, then neither is dying. Our entire lives are spent suffering, dying, being sick—but not so sick that it ends in death, for death is only transitional to God. Since this is true, then our sickness, dying, and suffering are not final either.

From this divine perspective, the one Jesus himself holds, it is easy to understand why Jesus says his own presence is “resurrection.” He responds to Martha’s statement about the future resurrection of the dead (the commonly held view of a coming after life, see here), that he himself is “the resurrection and the life.” Again, this is a post-resurrection, post-Ascension, post-Pentecost confession of faith (remember, John was written 60 years after these events). The point? Jesus is present by virtue of his own resurrection and ascension and descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

What this means for us who suffer today is that Jesus’ physical absence is temporary. It was temporary in Bethany, and it is temporary in our lives. But his spiritual presence is perpetual. Jesus is aware of our suffering, just as he was aware of Lazarus’ sickness and the sisters’ concern. And Jesus is coming—this is the substance of the dogma of the “second coming” of Christ—just as he would make his way to Lazarus’ grave. But in the mean time, Jesus is with us in Spirit, and that is the point of this wonderful story from John 11.

The question John wants to ask is simply and always, “Do you believe?” And the answer the gospel is teaching is that with belief come life and hope in Jesus Christ. God, John wants us to remember, is with us in our suffering, even despite the appearance and experience that God is not. Belief will discern God’s spiritual presence to us in the resurrected and ascended Christ, and so believing, will have life, and comfort, and strength, and hope, in his name. Amen.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • In what ways are you “dying” metaphorically? That is to say, in what ways are you suffering? In terms of the story of John 11, what concerns do you have for a dying “Lazarus,” or even a dead one? How can you find comfort in Jesus’ delayed arrival, in his teaching to Martha, in his raising Lazarus from the dead, as it relates to your suffering?
  • Lazarus being raised from the dead is different than the resurrection we celebrate in relation to Christ. Christ’s Easter resurrection yielded a body that was similar yet different from his Good Friday body. Lazarus’ body in John 11 is the same—it will die again. Given this fact, what do you think about Jesus’ response to Martha’s confession of faith that Lazarus will rise again in the resurrection at the last day? What significance does it have for us today, for this life, for an after life?
  • It can difficult to wrap our heads around the fact that the Gospels were written by believers after the facts. This is evident in stories like John 11 that contain post-resurrection beliefs and statements within stories that occur prior to the resurrection. Can you think of other stories in the gospels whose meaning comes to light and are made easier to understand from this perspective?


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