Thursday, October 21, 2010


Editor's Note: I decided to run this sermon out of context in honor of my dad this week. Sunday will mark five years since we've been without him. From the time we first heard his diagnosis until the night before he died we prayed for healing and knew our God was big enough. Unfortunately for us, God's plan was different than ours and even though I don't understand why things happen the way they do, I know I serve a God with resurrection power. To quote my dad, " the ultimate issue of the sickness was not the death of the friend, but the glory of God." John was his favorite book and he wrote the body of this Lazarus sermon during seminary (it seems the opening illustration was added later). The professor, who was the district superintendent at the time, was so impressed that he asked permission to use it for an Easter weekend series he was guest speaking at.
circa early 1980s

Franklin and Beatrice Forest spent the first two weeks of December, 1987 getting ready for their daughter, Page, to come home from college.  Page was a freshman and their only child.  Shawnee, Oklahoma seemed like a very long way from Pomona, California.  They prayed for her daily, and they spoke often with her by phone.  She wrote to them just about every week, but the thought of having her home for the holidays made every moment special with anticipation.  Their little house sparkled as they prepared for her visit.

Frank and Bet, as they were called, tended to some last minute details, and then headed for the Ontario airport.  They couldn’t help but laugh when they entered the terminal and realized they were a full hour early.  They were so excited they could hardly keep from giggling as they waited for her plane.  

About thirty minutes before her plane was due to arrive, a voice announced, “Will persons waiting to meet flight...” the rest of the announcement was a blur.  They made their way to a special conference room fearing the worst.  A visibly shaken representative from the airline began, “We are sorry to have to tell you, but there has been an accident...”  Their daughter’s plane had crashed on takeoff from the Denver airport.

For almost an hour they listened to sketchy details, and then official statements.  Then finally, they received the news that all passengers were believed killed in the crash.  News cameras and noisy crowds were everywhere.  Frank said to Bet, “Let’s go home.”  They made their way out to their car and drove away.  They said little all the way home.  Standing in their living room, they didn’t know what to do next, so they just stood there hugging and crying.  They had been in the house only a few minutes when the phone rang.  Franklin slowly picked it up.  “Hello,” he said.  

“Mr. Forest,” the voice said, “this is Mrs. Hastings with the airline.  Your daughter missed the plane.  She’s all right.”

This is a true story.  One family could celebrate life because of a missed connecting flight.  But there is another true story that is even better.  It is too long to tell you all of it this morning.  In fact, it is still going on and you have an opportunity to be one of the characters in its very happy ending.  Of course you also could end up as one of the other characters.  Perhaps one of the people who were proud of  themselves for pushing their way onto that crowded connecting flight out of Denver.  Their part in the story is true, too.  

It is because of them that the story- remember it is a true story- that I am about to tell you could be the most important story you’ve ever heard.

Jesus, the rabbi, was teaching in the middle of a crowded Jerusalem street.  The main point of the lesson was that His miracles were evidence of His divine relationship to God.  He told them, “Actions speak louder than words.”

The Jewish leaders were standing around the man waving their arms, throwing dust in the air and shouting, “Blasphemer!  Blasphemer!”  The teacher quietly went on proving His direct relationship with God.  His calm, self-confident manner only added fuel to the fiery temper of the Pharisees. Something He said about them “not recognizing His voice coming from God” caused their anger to reach the boiling point, which they demonstrated by picking up rocks and challenging the crowd to join them in stoning this heretic.

Before they could organize a proper lynch mob, Jesus and His disciples slipped through the swarm of rioters and made their way outside the city.  The Master, with His followers, then crossed the Jordan River and walked a single day’s journey north to the wilderness where John the Baptist started his baptizing ministry.

A few days later, as the sun was settling in for the night, a couple of dusty and exhausted travelers arrived from Bethany, a small village just two miles northeast of Jerusalem.  The group was preparing the evening meal as the travelers arrived with a message for Jesus.  The distress on their faces was enough to send a couple of disciples off to interrupt the Rabbi’s meditation and inform Him of an urgent message from the Jerusalem area!

When He and His disciples returned to the camp, one of the travelers ran up to the Teacher and cried, “Lord, the one you love so very much is sick.”  He could say no more, not wanting to be responsible for bringing the Rabbi back into the extreme danger of Judea and yet, believing this man could bring his friend back to health.

The messenger had no way of knowing his friend had died just a few short hours after he left on this journey.

The Master knew this, but He gave a comforting reply just the same.  He told the travelers, “This sickness is not fatal.  However, it will be an occasion to show God’s glory.”  Only later would they discover the deeper meaning of what He said.  He was really saying the ultimate issue of the sickness was not the death of the friend, but the glory of God.  But for the time, they were satisfied with His comforting remarks.  After a shared meal around the campfire, and with the anxiety for their friend relieved, they all slept peacefully under the stars.  

The next morning the messengers returned to Bethany.  The Teacher and His disciples continued to teach in that historic spot where the Baptist was first used by God as a herald for the coming Messiah.  Many of the people in Jerusalem who had witnessed the Master’s miracles followed Him here and joined the country people in giving their allegiance to this Rabbi.  The followers of the Rabbi were finally beginning to relax after what they considered a very close call in Jerusalem.

It was on the second morning after the messengers had returned to Bethany that the Teacher stunned His followers with an announcement.  He told them the time had come to return to Judea.  His followers all began to talk and shout at the same time.  “Rabbi,” one said, “It was only late last week the Pharisee's tried to stone You.  Their anger hasn’t lost any of it’s fire.”  Another asked, “Do you think it wise to give up what we’ve worked so hard to achieve for almost certain death?”

To see the contrast between the panic and pandemonium of the disciples with the confidence of their Teacher was an extraordinary thing.  He began to ease their fear by explaining there were opportunities that had to be taken advantage of while they were available or they would be lost.  For the Master, danger never prevented Him from seizing the moment.

He went on to explain, the friend in Bethany had died and He was glad He hadn’t been there to prevent the death, because it was a part of the opportunity that awaited them.  This kind of talk, far from calming the followers, created an atmosphere of anxiety and fear.  Some still wanted to argue against the trip.  Others felt at a loss, but since their normal spokesman was away on a a  short assignment, they didn’t know what to say.  At that point the follower named Thomas stood among them and with a kind of quiet despair said, “Let’s all go.  We might as well die with Him.”  

And so they came to the outskirts of Bethany.  By the time they had traveled this far, the friend had been in the grave four days.  For the Jews, the fourth day was the climax of their period of mourning.  Most believed that for the first three days the soul of the dead person remained close to the body, hoping to find a way to return.  They believed it was early on the fourth day when the soul saw decay setting in, and as a result gave up any prospect of returning.

The dead man’s older sister heard that the Rabbi was near town and so went out to meet Him.  Her first words to Him had the effect of a drink of warm salt water on a 120 degree day.  She said, “If You had been here my brother would not have died.”  Seeing the effect of her harsh words on the Teacher caused her to soften her tone and confess she still believed God listened and responded to whatever the Teacher said.  

At this point, the Rabbi looked right at the woman and said, “Your brother will be raised up.”  She acknowledged her hope of the future resurrection but the Jews and the disciples standing nearby could see that her present grief was totally blocking out the light of any future happiness.  however, the Rabbi continued by saying to this sorrow filled woman, “ I AM the One who raises the dead and grants life.  The man or woman who gives their will to my authority- even though he dies- he will live again.  And everyone who lives, giving allegiance to Me will ultimately not die at all.”

For one brief but powerful moment a beacon of hope lit up the heart of this woman as she said, “Yes, Master, all along I have believed You are the Messiah, the Son of God.”  Some of the Jews who had come to mourn with the woman could hardly believe their ears.  This man was again claiming equality with God and leading lonely women astray.  Their hatred for this man was at that very moment turning their hearts to stone.  

Before their hardened hearts could turn to malicious action, the one the Rabbi was talking to, went to tell her sister that the Teacher was asking for her.  In part, the contempt these Jews held toward this man was for His treatment of women.  Women were allowed to learn from Him on the same basis as men.  No respectable rabbi ever taught women, but this Man had a whole following of women.

The younger sister, one of these female followers, rushed to her Teacher and fell at His feet as a loyal disciple.  Full of despair and sadness, she said, “Master, if only You had been here my brother would not have died.”

The Jews who had followed  this woman to the Teacher began mingling with those who had been there already.  Now in hushed voices they shared the previous conversation between the Rabbi and the older sister.  A kind of sinister, throbbing malice filled the atmosphere, covered only by the loud wailing of the sisters and their many friends as they recklessly abandoned all forms of dignity in the eastern style of mourning.

The Rabbi could fee the evil contents of the atmosphere beneath the mourning wails.  If one would have looked closely, he would have seen the Rabbi’s nostrils flare slightly, His eyes dilate, His facial skin tighten and His breath become a bit more rapid.  Suddenly He said in a loud voice, “Where did you put him?”

As they walked to the tomb, The Teacher carried Himself much like a soldier going into combat, with on tiny exception- His eyes were spilling over with tears.  To the Jews this confirmed the man’s incompetence and unfitness to be called a rabbi.

Meanwhile, the procession of howling men and women arrived at the grave.  The tomb was a cave with a flat round stone rolled across the opening.  As the crowd came near the tomb, the wailing and the loud groaning increased.  The Teacher still carried Himself with the dignity of a veteran solider, now knowing the enemy was standing within striking distance.

When the Rabbi reached the tomb, He commanded the stone to be rolled away.  People instinctively put their hands over their faces and groaned- no! NO!  The dead man’s sister began to plead with the Teacher, reminding Him her brother had been in the tomb four days and by now the stench would be unbearable.  

A spasm of anger gripped the Rabbi and He said, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”  There had been a few in the group who were eye witnesses of the Rabbi’s anger in the Temple courtyard.  The red hot wrath of the man was still etched deeply on their minds.  They jumped immediately to action, believing the stench of the grave could not be as bad as this man’s angry passion.  

When this was done the Teacher turned His face upward and said, “Father, I am grateful that You have listened to Me.  I know that You always listen to Me, but I have said this for the benefit of the people standing here, so that they may believe that You sent Me.”

When He had finished praying, He paused for a moment and in a loud voice that echoes across the valley, loud enough so that even His enemies in Jerusalem could hear, He said, “Lazarus, come out!”

For just a second the wailing and groaning of the mourners was replaced by silence- then whispered mocking, and just as the whispering was growing into laughter, the air turned into ice.  Lazarus, the cadaver, stood in the opening of the tomb!

Jesus said, “Take off his grave clothes and set him free!”  Now that is real power!

If you know the rest of the story you know the enemies of Christ went on to do their worst to Him.  But His death was the main part of God’s plan to rescue you and me from our sin.  Jesus died as a sacrifice acceptable to God and beneficial to everyone who would make Jesus their master.  The Bible calls Jesus death an atonement for sin.

But even that is not the rest of the story!  If Jesus was who He said He was, He would have to be resurrected.  The Bible account tells us Jesus Himself entered into the realm of the dead, removed the poison of death, and returned to life, validating both His prophecy and His power!  His sacrifice will never lose its power to set you free of your grave clothes.  

What Jesus accomplished with Lazarus is a minor example of His great power.  What Satan tried to do to Jesus on the cross, really exposed the whole world to God’s love and His resurrection power.  The cross reveals the love of God and Sunday morning reveals His power.  God knows that every one of us had managed to get tangled up in grave clothes and death as we’ve tried to be masters of our own lives.

But that first real Sunday unleashed on the world the greatest power in the universe- resurrection power!

Some of you may still be wearing your grave clothes (decaying relationships, imprisoning killer addictions, self destructive attitudes).  Jesus has the power to “take them off so you can be free!”

Paul prayed for the Ephesians, “I keep asking that God may give you the spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know Him better... and His incomparably great power for us who believe.  That power is like the working of His mighty strength, which He exerted in Christ when He raised Him from the dead.”

If we had eyes to see the truth about Jesus and integrity enough to agree with the truth, we’d all admit resurrection power is our only hope!!!  Jesus is the only one with that power.  What have you done with Jesus?

1 comment:

  1. Wow! What a powerful sermon. so glad I could read it. I always so enjoyed Pastor Mike's great descriptive ability. Even to the facial movements of Jesus' face. Thank you for this posting. I have been thinking of my precious friend Penny this week. God bless you all in this time of remembering, celebrating Pastor Mike's life, and pain of missing him. Marilyn