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With Jesus In The City Of Bethany

I was interviewing Diana Thomas, the Australian Aid worker who was kidnapped by the Taliban, and imprisoned for one hundred and six days from August to November 2001. She and the other prisoners were shifted from prison to prison to foil any attempt at rescue. The Taliban eventually decided to demand a ransom. One of the prisoners asked for a satellite phone to pass on the ransom demand, knowing that the Americans could trace the location of the call. The prisoners were crushed into an old, steel, shipping container that was unbelievably hot by day and unbearably cold by night.

One night, they heard a voice whispering through a space near the two steel doors. Suddenly shots, shouting, a small explosion, and a voice calling, “It is safe. Come out.” They literally walked from a grave to life, rescued by a local Afghan military commander of the Northern Alliance and turned over to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Many people are trapped by the fear of death. In Melbourne and Sydney’s “Underbelly” we have seen people shot on a daily basis by unknown assailants. We have heard of drive-by shootings. Bikie gang shootouts. In parts of Sydney’s Western suburbs, many people sweat in fear of death. Older people have suffered real trauma in life in previous wars. Many Vietnam and Iraq war veterans are not coping well.

Is your life being dominated by fear, or do you choose to live by faith? There are only two options. I listened to people who called me on talkback radio for decades and I was amazed to find so many people in the community living by fear. Especially fear of death, their death.

The committed Christian however, chooses to live by faith. We trust God to care for us, to protect us, to hold us in His hand. So we live boldly without fear. The Christian knows he or she will die, but also will live in all eternity.

We need to help people in their fear of death if we are to live successfully in our city. That involves applying the Bethany principle.

1. The Village Of Bethany (v 1-16)

You exit the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem and follow the Jericho Road for 3 kilometres up and over the Mount of Olives passing the churches in the Garden of Gethsemane to Bethany. It is a small Christian and Arab village with a population of 3,600.

Here Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. This took place shortly before Jesus Himself was to die and be buried. This climaxed the growing opposition towards Jesus. After what happened in Bethany, witnesses immediately went into Jerusalem and reported to the Chief Priest and his cronies of this man who was making news and putting at risk their relationship with the Roman government.

Bethany in the time of Jesus was a settlement of people who had come from Galilee to live by Jerusalem. The Galilean names on the little stone bone boxes by the tens of thousands that cover the hillside explain why Jesus and the disciples found it convenient to stay here with their own countrymen.

Jesus is reported to have lodged in Bethany before His entry into Jerusalem, and it was from Bethany that He parted from His disciples at the Ascension. Bethany is commonly identified with the Palestinian village of al-Eizariya located east of Jerusalem on the south-eastern slope of the Mount of Olives.

The oldest house in present-day al-Eizariya (Arabic, meaning “Place of Lazarus”) is a 2,000-year-old dwelling that has attracted pilgrims who believe it might have been the House of Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus. Next door, I was pleased to have a meal in the aptly named “Mary, Martha and Lazarus Restaurant”!
The village has been here since at least Roman times, and nearby was an Iron Age settlement that is believed to be the Biblical Ananiah in the territory of Benjamin (Neh. 11:32) that is called Bethany in the New Testament (Beth Ananiah = Bethany).

There is no record of a church in Bethany in the 4th century, although both Eusebius the historian and the Bordeaux pilgrim (333AD) mention the tomb of Lazarus in a vault or crypt. Around 490 AD, St. Jerome recorded visiting the Tomb of Lazarus and the guest room of Mary and Martha. The latter was the Lazarium mentioned by the pilgrim Egeria (a member of a French religious order who made a leisurely pilgrimage to the Holy Land and wrote down her observations in a book called Itinerarium Egeriae, “The Travels of Egeria” in about 350AD). In her account of the liturgy on Saturday in the seventh week of Lent she wrote, “Just on 1:00 everyone arrives at the Lazarium, which is Bethany… by the time they arrive there, so many people have collected that they fill not only the Lazarium itself, but all the fields around.”

The structure known as the Lazarium was destroyed in an earthquake, and replaced by a larger Church of St. Lazarus in the 6th century. The church was mentioned by Theodosius before 518 and by Arculf. During the Crusades King Fulk and Queen Melisande purchased the village of Bethany from the Patriarch of the Holy Sepulchre in 1143 in exchange for land near Hebron.

Melisande built a large Benedictine convent dedicated to Mary and Martha, extensively repaired the old church of Lazarus and rededicated it to Mary and Martha. She also built a new west church to St. Lazarus over his tomb; fortified the monastic complex with a tower; and endowed it with the estates of the village of Jericho. The convent of Sts. Mary and Martha became one of the richest convents in the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

After the fall of the Crusader kingdom in 1187, the nuns went into exile. The new west church was probably destroyed at this time, with only the tomb and barrel vaulting surviving; the 6th-century church and tower were heavily damaged but remained standing.

The cruciform-plan church stands over the East end of the older churches. Trapdoors in the floor just inside reveal parts of the apse of the 4th-century church (the Lazarium), which was shorter than the 6th-century church. The modern church bears a mosaic on its facade depicting Mary, Martha and Lazarus. The interior is decorated with polished stone and mosaics.

Just up the hill on the left is the 16th-century Mosque of al-Uzair. The courtyard is in the Byzantine church atrium and the mosque is built in the vault that formerly supported the west end of the 12th-century church. A further 25m up the hill on the left is an entrance to the Tomb of Lazarus, which is accessed by 24 very uneven and steep stone steps. This probably was a rock-cut tomb, but very little of its original form remains. The rock probably collapsed under the weight of the large Crusader church built above it. The tomb of Lazarus is cut deep into rock. In the 16th century the twenty-four uneven steps were cut to allow easier access to the tomb. They take you to a small antechamber and then down further into the tomb with benches where bodies were laid. This tomb was there in the time of Jesus and is the place of the resurrection of Lazarus. Lazarus is venerated by both Christians and Muslims.

The original blocked entrance can be seen in the east wall of the antechamber; this alignment suggests the tomb predates the Byzantine churches and may well be from the time of Lazarus. In dim light being in this tomb certainly generates an air of authenticity. It certainly was the tomb of somebody and probably Lazarus.
Nearby are substantial ruins that are traditionally identified as the House of Simon the Leper. Here Jesus visited the house of Simon the Pharisee and was anointed by Mary who wept over his feet and poured sweet perfume on them.

Bethany was also where Jesus started the journey into Jerusalem on a donkey on Palm Sunday. Bethany was also the home of the sisters Mary, Martha and their brother Lazarus. Jesus often stayed at their home. When He was down in the Jordan Valley at Jericho, the sisters sent a message saying His friend was very ill. They did not have to mention the name of Lazarus. Jesus would know.

Jesus knows our need, even if our name is not mentioned. Jesus recognized that the sickness of Lazarus would not mean death permanently, but was an opportunity that would bring glory to God and be the forerunner of His own death and resurrection. (v 4-7) There was no hurry. It had taken a messenger one day to reach Him with the news. Jesus continued what He was doing for two more days. Then it took another day to travel to Bethany. When He arrived He discovered Lazarus had been dead four days.

When people wanted Jesus to come to the feast of Tabernacles He came at a time He determined. At the wedding at Galilee, His mother urged Him to take action, but He moved when He was ready. He made it clear that it was God’s timing that was important. So, “after this”, the completion of His work in Jericho, Jesus went to Bethany.

His disciples were reluctant to go with Him. They recognised the danger. Bethany was three kilometres from the very people who had tried to stone Jesus to death not long before. Now again they could kill Him. v8-16 Peter usually expresses the mind of the disciples but he is apparently not there. There is no mention of Peter between the end of chapter 6 and the beginning of chapter 13. Peter apparently stayed in Galilee when Jesus and the other disciples journeyed down to Jericho.

Peter was not an eyewitness of the resurrection of Lazarus. So he does not mention this in his record of the life of Jesus written down as Mark’s Gospel. As Matthew follows Mark’s account, he does not mention it either. John was there, so he mentions the raising of Lazarus. Without Peter, it is Thomas who says “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” The disciples go, even at risk to their own lives.

2. Death In New Testament Times (v 17-37)

For most of the world, death is the last enemy. People live in fear of death. They are bound by the finality of it and the futility of it. Jesus had arrived four days after Lazarus had been buried. The detail of the burial of Lazarus is authentic.

Dr. J.A. Thompson, lectured me in archaeology at Melbourne University. He was director of The Australian Institute of Archaeology. He taught: “Death in Bible times was never hushed up. There was an open and public demonstration of grief by the close family, friends and neighbours. People would cry, moan and beat their breasts. Some would tear their outer clothes and then don sackcloth, a coarse material worn next to the skin. They threw earth over their heads, rolled in dust or sat among ashes. They gave up wearing perfumes or even washing; they fasted, and some shaved their hair. The interval between death and burial was quite short. Bodies decomposed quickly in the heat. Wealthy people had burial chambers cut into soft rock, big enough to accommodate several corpses as family tombs. Later the bones were places in a stone ossuary. When bodies were buried in tombs they were embalmed with linen cloth, spices, myrrh and aloes.”

3. The Raising Of Lazarus (v 38-45)

Jesus predicted that the outcome of Lazarus’s death would be the glory of God. He promised Martha her brother would rise again. Jesus ordered: “Take away the stone.” “But, Lord ,” said Martha, “by this time there is a bad odour, for he has been there four days.” Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”

When he had said this, Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” Martha protested it was improper to expose a decaying corpse. Jesus did not ask God to raise Lazarus; He thanked God for having done it. Jesus once promised all who were in their graves would hear His voice. (John 5:28)

The words spoken were brief, direct, and imperative, “Lazarus! This way out!” as if Jesus were directing someone lost in a gloomy dungeon. The creative power of God reversed the process of corruption and quickened the corpse into life. The effect was startling. The dead man appeared at the entrance to the tomb, still bound by the grave clothes. Jesus ordered he be released from the wrappings and returned to normal life. It was a supreme demonstration of the power of eternal life that triumphed over death, corruption, and hopelessness.

4. The Necessity Of The Death Of Jesus (v 46-52)

The raising of Lazarus created such public acclaim about Jesus that His enemies knew they had to get rid of Him permanently! The raising of Lazarus illustrates that through the death of Jesus He would bring all who would believe in Him to life. “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die.” John 11:25-26 Whoever lives and believes in Jesus will share in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus through faith. It is witnessed in our baptism. His triumph over death will ensure our triumph over death also.

Through His death and resurrection believers everywhere would find life. Death for the Christian is not bad when that death puts us immediately into the presence of God. Living boldly by faith enables us to think more clearly, move more freely and plan more confidently, because we are not bound by our fears of death. The Christian lives with the certainty of God’s presence and the comfort of His love. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil for Thou art with me.” Psalm 23

If we believe that Jesus died for our sins, we will be born again. Spiritually reborn. If we are not born again, we will spiritually die as well as physically die. Here is the Christian equation: those who are born once, will die twice – physically and spiritually. But those who are born twice, born physically then reborn spiritually, will die only once. For spiritually they shall live forever. Born twice; die once!

Jesus said: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me will live, even though He dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” John 11:25-26 Do you respond to the words of Jesus when He calls you from spiritual death? “Come out”! Your life was been bound in grave clothes. You have been living among the tombs. By obeying Him, you walk free!

I met Lazarus one night driving a Taxi. It was just after midnight and I had finished my radio program and wanted to go home. The taxi was not driven by my regular driver, John. The unknown driver told me he had asked John if he could drive me home this night because he wanted to thank me. The strange driver told me he owed his life to me. One Thursday night he was in despair. His marriage was broken and his wife and children had left. In a small flat after work at 4am, he decided to blow his brains out with a shotgun. He loaded the gun, then took two cans of beer out of the fridge for a last drink. While he drank the cans he idly switched on the television, and by chance, it was my program that is repeated in the early hours of the morning. I was saying: “It does not matter how deep the hole is that you are in or how dark the outlook, if you ask God to tackle your problems together, you will overcome them.” That is all he heard or remembered. But God called him that night. He put away the gun. He went to sleep and has been strong ever since he asked God into his life to help him. He came out of the tomb and lived. The twice born die only once!

That is the Bethany Principle that must be applied if we are to live successfully in our city.

Rev the Hon Dr Gordon Moyes AC MLC

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