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Sunday, February 24, 2013

A Risky Waste of Time (John 11.1-16)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - February 24, 2013

:: Some Music Used
Prelude: "How Firm a Foundation" (Liszt/arr. Bean)
Hymn of Praise: "Sing Praise to God" (MIT FREUDEN ZART)
Hymn of Praise: "How Firm a Foundation" (arr. Austell)

Offering of Music: "The Silence of God" sung by Katie Meeks (Andrew Peterson)
Song of Sending: "How Great is Our God/How Great Thou Art" (Tomlin, Reeves, Cash)
Postlude: "Cortege" (Malcom Archer)

"A Risky Waste of Time"
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Text: John 11:1-16

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Today we are beginning the story of Lazarus, which will take us all the way up to Easter.  For the most part, the story of Lazarus is told over two chapters (11-12) of the Gospel of John.  We’ll look at a portion of that story each week for the next five weeks or so.

Today the story opens and we learn about the close friendship Jesus had with Lazarus and his family.  We also learn a little about the context and setting of the story, which is not insignificant.  If I had to name one main idea for this portion of the story, it is the glory of God, and particularly how a certain kind of waiting and a certain kind of risk-taking relate to the glory of God. 

We’ll look first at waiting on God’s timing, then at risking through godly obedience, and then consider how we might participate in bringing glory to God (and why that is important).

Now a Certain Man Was Sick… (vv. 1-2)

So even if you’ve never heard of Mary, Martha, or Lazarus, the first two verses explain the closeness they had with Jesus.  We read here that this is the Mary who anointed Jesus with oil and wiped his feet with her hair, an act of extreme love and devotion.  In verse 3 we hear Lazarus described as “he whom you love.”  Down in verse 5 we read that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” You may also know the story at the end of Luke 10 of the time Jesus visited the sisters and Martha was cooking in the kitchen while Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet listening intently.  We don’t normally read or think about Jesus having personal friends, but if anyone qualified for that description, surely it was this family.

And so the chapter begins by telling us that a man was sick, not just any man, but a certain man – Lazarus of Bethany, who was this close friend of Jesus.  We aren’t really told how sick or what kind of sick, and if anything, we and the disciples may be put at ease at first, for Jesus’ first response is to say, “This sickness is not to end in death.” 

The other piece of context I want to mention is Jesus location, which comes with a backstory.  You realize as the story unfolds that Jesus is not in Bethany, where Mary, Martha, and Lazarus live; rather, he is somewhere else, described only mysteriously at the end of verse 6 as “the place where He was.”  To find out where that is you have to back up to the preceding chapter (10:40), where you find that he had been in Jerusalem, which is near Bethany, but after some trouble there he and the disciples withdrew beyond the Jordan to the place where John the Baptist had carried on his ministry.  

Here’s a map to help you visualize these places.  The asterisk marks the approximate area “beyond the Jordan” and you can see that Bethany is right outside Jerusalem, only a mile or two and easy walking distance.  The location beyond the Jordan was more like 20 miles away.

That’s the setting and context – Lazarus was sick in Bethany, Jesus loved him and his family, and Jesus was some 20 miles away because of trouble in Jerusalem.  The other piece I want you to hear is that Jesus was doing something with purpose in all this.  Whether a miracle or a teachable moment, these aren’t just events passing by, but something more that had to do both with the glory of God and Jesus being glorified. (v. 4)

Ultimately, that’s what we want to keep our eye on as we move through the events and the emotion and the reactions, not just today, but in the weeks to come.  Let’s take a moment to look more closely at the dynamics of godly waiting and risk and then we will return to the topic of the glory of God.

Waiting and God’s Timing (vv. 3-6)

One of the surprising twists this story takes comes in verse 6.  We’ve just heard how close Jesus is to this family: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.”  And then abruptly we read verse six: “So when He heard that [Lazarus] was sick, He then stayed two days longer in the place where He was.”  What in the world?!

On the one hand, Jesus had said the sickness wouldn’t end in death, but if you were a disciple you’d probably assume that Lazarus was sick and would get better or was sick and Jesus would heal him when he got there.  Either way, from their perspective, death was not in the picture.  We will see over the next two weeks that Mary and Martha struggled greatly with the delay, because Lazarus did die in the meantime.  But we will take that up the next two Sundays.  Today let’s stick with the immediate context and perspective.  There is really no hint given that Lazarus will die, particularly when Jesus doesn’t rush right off.

At this point, there are several things to observe.  For one, neither the disciples nor Mary and Martha had the full picture.  The disciples probably believed the delay signaled that things were not serious; Mary and Martha were very grieved when Jesus didn’t show up in time.  Neither actually lined up with the reality of Jesus’ plans for Lazarus. 

In those observation, hear several things as you find yourself waiting on God.  First, we probably never have the full picture, even after things have unfolded.  Second, it is appropriate and right to pour out grief and even question God.  We’ll see Martha and Mary both do that in the coming weeks.  In a way, we are let off the hook emotionally in this story because Lazarus lives.  But have I seen God be glorified in sickness?  Absolutely!  Have I seen God be glorified even when the sickness resulted in death?  Yes, I have.  I’ve seen it in this church and in the wait and struggle many of you have endured.

Did God make Lazarus sick?  No.  But was God’s timing a factor in Jesus delaying?  Apparently so.  What I do know is that God can be glorified, even when we have to wait.  And it is possible for us to SEEK God’s glory in that difficult time.

Risking and Godly Obedience (vv. 7-10)
There is another significant and unexpected element to this story, and that is the risk involved.  I mentioned chapter 10 and the trouble that took Jesus and the disciples some 20 miles away to the other side of the Jordan river.  What had happened is that Jesus was teaching in the Temple court in Jerusalem and enraged the religious leaders.  They asked him to say plainly whether he was the Messiah and in his answer he said, “I and the Father are one.” (10:30)  They picked up stones to kill him but he slipped away and went beyond the Jordan to the area I showed you on the map.

So you can understand the context when Jesus suddenly announces after two days, “Let us go to Judea again.” (v. 7)  What the disciples know is that Jesus said Lazarus would not die and that he had not rushed off to heal him.  Now, two days later, Jesus announces plans to go see him and the disciples are incredulous: “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?”  Not “are we going there again?” but “are you going there again?”  It was a fool’s errand.  The disciples knew he (and they with him) were among Jerusalem’s Most Wanted.

Jesus responds with what probably seemed like one of his usual mysterious sayings.  It was not, “yes we are” or “I’ll go by myself.”  Rather, they got this: “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”  I don’t know if they understood that or not.  I sure didn’t the first (or second or third) time I read it.  But here’s what I think he meant.  This is the Gospel of John.  John records lots of language about light and dark.  And John calls Jesus the “Light of the World.”  I think Jesus is making a point about godly obedience.  There is only so much time left to follow the Light God sent into the world.  If they are following him, whatever the outcome, then they will not stumble, because they will be following the path God has set before them.  They must make the most of the daylight – their time with Jesus.  To do otherwise – to walk without the light – is true foolishness, for that person will stumble and fall.  If he says they are going to Jerusalem, that is the path of godly obedience, whatever the risk might be.

It is at this point that he tells them what is really going on with Lazarus.  And you have to chuckle at this exchange.  He first uses a figure of speech, “Lazarus has fallen asleep.”  That was a gentle way to say someone had died, like we might say someone has “passed on” or “is no longer with us.”  Whether just not understanding or still dumbfounded that he wants to return into such danger, the disciples don’t hear him.  So he tells them outright, “Lazarus is dead.”  And then we get a little deeper glimpse into the dynamic of waiting on God’s timing: “I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe.” (v. 15)  Clearly, the glory of God is still in view and Jesus intends for the disciples to witness whatever he has in mind.

Finally, you get a real sense of the disciples’ perspective with the last quip from Thomas, who says to the others, “Let’s go then, and we’ll all die together.” (v. 16)  We’ll see that God not only uses godly obedience, but will even take begrudging obedience, though surely the former is better. 

We will also see that this risk pales in comparison with the one that immediately follows, when Jesus is arrested, tried, and crucified.  But the glory of what God does with Lazarus similarly pales in comparison with the glory of Easter morning.  So keep your eye on God’s glory as we move toward Easter!

The Glory of God (vv. 11-16)

Finally, having explored the context of waiting and risk, we get back to the purpose of all this from verse 4, which is twofold: the glory of God and the Son of God being glorified.   What is the glory of God? 

Glory is hard to wrap our minds and even our hearts around; it is not an intellectual or philosophical category.  Perhaps one of the words that best gets at it is that glory is BEAUTY.  The expansive view over the Blue Ridge mountains is breathtakingly beautiful; it is glorious.  The thunderous power of ocean waves crashing on a pristine beach is awe-inspiring; it is glorious.  God is said to be glorious because God’s goodness, love, wisdom, justice, power, and all of God’s character, being, and actions are glorious.  Something is glorious if it is more radiant, more weighty, more true, more real than anything else; and God is the most glorious of all. 
I won’t rush ahead to the sickness and death of Lazarus.  We have several weeks ahead to ponder that whole story.  What I will tell you is that in order for the disciples to experience God’s glory through Lazarus, they had to WAIT (along with Mary and Martha) and they had to RISK.

I was at a conference recently and heard Gary Haugen speak.  Gary is the President and CEO of International Justice Mission, which “seeks to make public justice systems work for victims of abuse and oppression who urgently need the protection of the law.” (ijm.org)  Of particular note, IJM works to help women and children who are victims of human trafficking in the U.S. and around the world.  Mr. Haugen was speaking to a group of American pastors and elders and challenging us to take godly risks.  He reminded us that we know little of persecution in the church in the U.S.  He went further to say two things that have stuck with me: “The church does not thrive in safety” and “If your work [as a Church] can be handled without desperate and dependent prayer, maybe you need a new work.” 

Ponder those things in light of today’s text.  If the disciples had remained in relative safety beyond the Jordan, they would not have seen God’s glory in what Jesus was about to do.  That’s a bit of the dynamic underlying our lighthouse/searchlight challenge.  If we simply meet week after week, safe and secure from scrutiny to study scripture and if we isolate our spiritual lives from the outside world, will we thrive?  I don’t think so.  Getting out means taking a risk, interacting with the world, engaging with those who are struggling apart from God.  It’s risky, but it’s a godly risk worth taking.  Gary Haugen certainly is walking that walk, going into place far more risky than South Charlotte to engage the darkness of the world.  Are there risks we need to take for Jesus?

And what about that second statement?  If we are cruising along doing our thing and don’t need desperate and dependent prayer, does that not also mean we don’t really need God?  Are we just “handling things?”  Is there a challenge or a vision or a mission big enough for us to be drawn to our knees in desperate and dependent prayer?  I’d like to think so.  I’m pretty sure the disciples thought the risk of going back toward Jerusalem, much less doing anything with a dead Lazarus, were beyond serious contemplation.  And yet, they followed Jesus toward both those things. 

What are we willing to trust to God’s leading?  What risks are we willing to take?  What risks are you willing to take for God?  Where might God lead us?  I’d like to find out!  Amen.

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