“In this world, nothing is certain,” Benjamin Franklin wrote, “except death and taxes.” That is certainly true in our lives, and it was true in Jesus’s experience as well. Here in John 11, Jesus engages in an activity sadly familiar to all of us – attending the funeral of someone we love.

There are differences in how funerals are conducted today and in Jesus’ day. In first century Judaea, burial took place as quickly as possible. From the timeline here in John, it seems Lazarus was buried on the day he died. The deceased was usually anointed with spices and ointments and bound with strips of cloth, and then as many people as possible would gather and accompany the family carrying the body to the tomb, a cave or a cavity hewn in a hillside. Deep mourning then continued for seven days during which the immediate family stayed at home and people came to visit and comfort them. We are told in verse 19 (and this seeming detail has a great bearing on what happens later to Jesus) that “many of the Jews [from Jerusalem] had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother.”

None of this sounds surprising, but two features of this funeral are unusual.

Firstly, there is Jesus’ delay.

In verse 21, Martha’s first words to Jesus are, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” The unspoken question is, “Where have you been? Why did you not come?” And we know, from the verses at the beginning of this passage, that Jesus intentionally delayed. Verse 6, “after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” Various reasons, theological and practical, are given in the text. That he delayed because what would therefore unfold would glorify God (he may be referring to Lazarus’ resurrection or his own death or both). Or that he delayed because of the danger! In chapter 10 he narrowly escapes being stoned by the religious leaders in Jerusalem. The disciples mention this again and the end of this chapter we know Jesus’ death is now certain.

All these reasons are significant, but I also think Martha’s question is meant to feel unresolved – to be unresolved – because this is how our questions about death often are. Why did my father get sick and die? Why did my friend’s mother not recover from that illness? Why did this good man – or that good woman – people who have done good all their lives – get that terrible disease? Why did this freak accident happen? “Where were you, God? Why did you not come?” The questions remain unresolved.

But in the story Jesus listens. Jesus listens to Martha. The answers do not come – not as Martha perhaps would like – but Jesus hears her.

And this is what the text promises us as well. “Out of the depths,” the psalmist says, “I cry to you O Lord…,” and at the end of the psalm concludes, “Hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem.” The answers we would like, perhaps, do not come, but the promise is there that God is steadfast love and with God – even in the darkest of bleakest of life’s situations – there is power to redeem.

The second unusual feature of this funeral is Martha and Mary’s behaviour. As I mentioned earlier, those in deep mourning were meant to remain at home, not to engage in normal activities, not even to wash or apply ointment or put on shoes, commentor William Barclay notes. And he also mentions that in the funeral procession, “The women mourners walked first, for it was held that it was woman who by her first sin brought death into the world, and therefore she ought to lead the mourners to the tomb.”

Not only do both Martha and Mary leave their home to meet with Jesus, but they lead the other mourners – not by epitomising sin – but by epitomising genuine faith.

“Even now,” Martha says to Jesus, “I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him… [and] I know that [my brother] will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

“I am the resurrection and the life [now],” Jesus says to her, “Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Lord,” she says, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

It is an extraordinary faith statement. It foreshadows the fact that it will be women who find Jesus’ empty tomb; that women will be the first evangelists. No longer harbingers of sin, but now harbingers of God’s new life! With Martha’s words of faith and Mary’s continuing to place herself at Jesus’ feet as a disciple, they lead the mourners – and all of us – in acknowledging that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s great power to redeem.

John 11:28-37

Jesus wept.

Despite everything you’ve been told, this is not the shortest verse in the Bible. In the Greek New Testament this verse, John 11:35, contains three words and 16 letters. For an even easier Bible verse to memorise, in Greek, you should go for 1 Thessalonians 5:16 which is only two words and 14 letters. “Rejoice always!”

There is more weeping in this reading than rejoicing, but there is something to rejoice about.

“See how he loved him!” the Jews who had come from Jerusalem (there they are again!) say when Jesus begins to weep. And at the beginning of chapter 11, it is emphasised how much Jesus loved this whole family. The message Martha and Mary send to Jesus simply says, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” And again, the text mentions Jesus’ genuine love and affection for Martha, Mary and Lazarus.

Love and grief are different sides of the same coin. I was reading an article this week that spoke about a letter British novelist Julian Barnes received from a friend after his wife’s death. It said, “The thing is— nature is so exact, it hurts exactly as much as it is worth, so in a way one relishes the pain. If it didn’t matter, it wouldn’t matter.”

What the text tells us is that Jesus loved – deeply loved – and grieved – deeply grieved. Translators struggle with the words used here for Jesus’ grief. One is used elsewhere to express anger and the other to express great distress, as when Jesus faces his own death (12:27) or his betrayal by a friend (13:21). These two verbs combine to tell us that Jesus is feeling at this point the deepest sort of human emotions – that Jesus’ friends, that Jesus’ followers, that all of us deeply matter to Jesus. We matter.

Hebrews 4:15, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”

Jesus wept for Lazarus. He wept with Mary. And Jesus weeps when we weep.

John 11:38-46

In the Eastern Orthodox Church Lazarus is venerated as Righteous Lazarus, the Four Days Dead. It’s a cool name, isn’t it! Righteous Lazarus, the Four Days Dead!

But while Lazarus was four days dead before being raised to life, we must remember that he was also Righteous Lazarus, Who Lived 30 or so More Years and Then Died Again. In other words, Lazarus was raised to ordinary life – not raised (or resurrected) to eternal life.

But Lazarus’ revived life is a sign of the life that is to be found in Jesus. Just as Jesus speaks of being “the water of life,” or “the bread of life,” or “the light of the world,” “Here,” Professor of Preaching and Worship, Alyce McKenzie writes, the restoration of physical life is a metaphor for breaking free from the bonds of spiritual death into the gift of eternal life that Jesus brings.” Eternal life is not just life that lasts forever. It is not just quantity, but quality of life. It is a sharing in, being part of, being found in God’s life, here and now and forever.

And this life – life in God – is transcendent over death.

We are given evidence of this in the raising of Lazarus, the Four Days Dead. (The significance of four being that the rabbis believed the soul hovered over the body for three days, but after four days, you were really dead!) Death could not hold him when Jesus called him.

And we are given evidence in the narrative of the growing threat to Jesus’ life. Throughout chapter 11 we have these references to the Jewish crowd, that might go this way or that way, that might say “See how he loved him” or “If he could heal a blind man why didn’t he heal this man?”; that might become believers, verse 45, or, might betray Jesus to the chief priests and Pharisees, verse 46. But despite this threat, in the face of this threat, Jesus walks the road that leads to death. He will not turn from this road because he will not turn from demonstrating God’s life, from preaching God’s life, from being God’s life, from sharing God’s life with all people. He will not turn from being the embodiment of God’s love and power to redeem. He will not turn because we matter to God. The threat of death could not hold him when God called him.

This life and death moment – Lazarus choosing life and Jesus choosing death – takes place in verse 43, where Jesus cries out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The verb here, kraugazein, occurs six times in John, four of which are the shouts of the crowd (it seems they have now chosen which way to go) in chapters 18 and 19 to crucify Jesus. The crowd’s shout brings death to Jesus, but Jesus’ shout brings life to Lazarus and to us.

Lazarus is not just Righteous Lazarus, the Four Days Dead, but Loved Lazarus, Who Shares God’s Life Forever. And you and I as well, if we, like Martha, know Jesus that is our Saviour, our Redeemer, the presence of God in our world, if we, like Mary, can kneel at Jesus’ feet, we too are not just Righteous Belinda (insert your own name) However Many Days Dead, but Loved Belinda (insert your own name), Who Shares God’s Life Forever.

If we know God we share God’s life here and now and forever.

Two weekends ago my family got together to mark my father’s first birthday since his death, and we went to Macquarie Park (the old Northern Suburbs Cemetery) to see the plague that has been placed above his ashes. My brother said a prayer and we shared some thoughts about the impact of dad’s life on our lives, and then we acknowledged that he – that we – share a greater life – an eternal life – a life in God together and we did this by saying together ‘the grace’.

Can I invite you to reflect on those we have lost as individuals and as a congregation and to pray this prayer together, together with them, for we share in God’s life together. “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all, now and evermore. Amen.”