Friday, February 08, 2008

Dealing With Death: A sermon preached in CITC Exegesis Class on 7th February 2008. John 11:17-44

I want to tell you the story of a young woman who lived in Lurgan around 1705, named Margorie McCall.

Margorie is thought to have fallen ill and - as her family thought – died. There was quite a lot of commotion at the wake concerning a valuable ring that Margorie was wearing. Many of the mourners tried in vain to prise the ring from her fingers – perhaps because they anticipated the possibility that grave robbers would desecrate Margorie’s resting place in order to steal the ring.

After the wake, Margorie was duly interred in Shankill Graveyard. That very same night her body was exhumed by grave robbers. The robbers also tried in vain to remove the ring from her finger, but could not. Eventually a blade was produced – perhaps with the intention of severing her finger to remove the ring. As soon as blood was drawn from Margorie she came to – revived from the coma-like state - or ‘swoon’ - she had fallen into. This obviously gave the robbers the fright of their lives and they fled the cemetery never looking back. She climbed out of the coffin and began to make her way home.

Meanwhile her family were gathered around the fire at home when they heard a knock at the door. Margorie’s husband John – still wrecked with grief – exclaimed – “if your mother were still alive, I’d swear that was her knock.” And sure enough, upon opening the door John was confronted by his “late” wife – dressed in her burial clothes, very much alive. He fainted immediately.

It is said that Margorie McCall lived for some years after this grotesque event and when she did die she was returned to Shankill Graveyard and to this day her grave stone still stands. It bears the inscription – “Lived Once, Buried Twice.”

In our Bible reading today, we heard of a death. Lazarus, a friend of Jesus had died, leaving his two sisters behind. Mary and Martha were understandably upset, especially since they had sent for Jesus while Lazarus was still alive – while there was still a chance of recovery.

Yet Jesus hadn’t appeared. Instead, he had stayed where he was for another two days. Eventually, Jesus arrives at Bethany, and meets with the two sisters. We’re going to think about their reactions to the death, as well as Jesus’ reaction to the death, and how he turns everything upside down.

As someone has once said, there are only two things guaranteed in this life – death and taxes. For many people, death is something to be feared, something to shy away from, because it means the end. There is an awful finality about death. This was felt in the days of Jesus – professional wailers would attend the home of the deceased, wailing for the dead, and helping those left behind to mourn.

But notice that both Mary and Martha had the same reaction to the death. In verses 21 and 32, each one says to Jesus ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ They seem to recognise that Jesus could have made a difference. He could have saved Lazarus from dying. Does Jesus make a difference for our grief? As we think about the passage, we will see how Jesus can make a difference in death.

The first sister to say it is Martha. You might remember from previously meeting Martha in Luke’s Gospel that she is the practical one. Martha was caught up in serving, getting annoyed while Mary sat listening to Jesus. Well, when Martha hears that Jesus is on the way, she goes out to meet him.

You know the way a sentence can sound differently depending on how it’s said, or in what context it comes? This is just one of those times – at first glance, it seems like Martha is giving Jesus a telling off, for not coming sooner, not being there at the right time to stop Lazarus from dying. Yet we can see that Martha is actually speaking words of faith, words of hope. Even though you weren’t here, ‘But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.’

Even after all this, though, Martha still doesn’t seem to get it. Jesus gives a simple reply – ‘Your brother will rise again’, but Martha thinks he is speaking of the future resurrection at the Day of the Lord, on the last day.

Are you a Martha? She has no doubt that God could have worked in the past to save her brother. She has no doubt that God will work in the (long term) future to raise her brother. But she doesn’t think God can act in the present to raise her brother. Remember that Jesus is the same yesterday, and today and forever – he still has power to act today, and is still working for his glory.

Do you also see the graciousness of Jesus – he doesn’t get into a debate on how God can act; rather he states simply who he is, and what he can do. ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?’

Here we have another of those ‘I am’ statements by Jesus we find throughout John’s Gospel. Jesus uses the divine name of Yahweh ‘I am’, and speaks of himself. We will see what this I am means, as the rest of the passage unfolds.

Martha expresses her faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ who was to come.

Next up, Mary comes along (with a crowd in tow). See as she falls at Jesus’ feet and uses the same words of Martha. If you had been here, Lazarus wouldn’t have died. That’s all she manages, as she weeps, and the crowd weeps with her. Do you see the different reactions? Once again, Mary is at Jesus’ feet, in close relationship with the Lord, pouring out her loss to him; it is enough to be with Jesus for her.

So far we have thought about the reactions of Mary and Martha to the death of Lazarus. Yet in these verses, we also see the reaction of Jesus. The shortest verse of the Bible speaks so much more to us, as we read in verse 35 that ‘Jesus wept.’ These were not the tears of the professional mourner, nor the detached onlooker. Through his tears, we know that Jesus is with us, alongside us in our griefs and losses.

Yet there is also, what the commentators describe as, anger. Twice we are told, Jesus was deeply moved. Some have argued that this is anger at death itself, in how it destroys and decays.

Nevertheless, by his tears, Jesus shows the deep love for his friend – a fact not missed by some of the crowd – ‘See how he loved him!’ Yet others in the crowd seem to be more cynical, almost challenging – ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?’ Is this the expression of doubt or contempt – well, if Jesus was worth his salt, he could have saved him. Are they asking if there is a limit to Jesus’ power – well, he can do some things, but not others.

Yes, Jesus could have saved Lazarus from dying. Martha knew that. Mary knew that. Even the crowd seem to hint at it. What they fail to realise is that Jesus is going to do something much more amazing than healing. Jesus has said that he is the resurrection and the life, and he will demonstrate it.

Finally, they arrive at the tomb, and Jesus calls for the stone to be rolled away from the entrance. This was probably a similar type of tomb to that in which Jesus was laid. You’ll remember the worry the women had on that first Easter morning about who would roll away the stone for them – so here, the stone would be huge, needing several men to move it.

And yet again the ever-practical Martha jumps in. Why would you want to open the tomb to see the body? Decay will have started – there’ll be a smell. Lazarus is really dead, not like Margorie from our opening story. And after all, he’s been dead for four days. The Rabbis taught that the soul attempted to return to the body of the deceased for three days, and on the fourth day went off. He was really dead!

But Jesus knows what he’s doing, and reassures her by saying ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?’ Once again John has that focus on believing, seeing, and the glory of God. Again, we’re right back to the whole purpose of John’s Gospel – ‘these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name’ (20:31).

Having prayed (for the audience to know that the Father has sent Jesus), he then cries in a loud voice – ‘Lazarus, come out.’ What was happening? Dead people don’t get up and walk out of their tombs… Yet behold, Lazarus comes out of the tomb, bound in the grave clothes. And Jesus tells them to ‘unbind him and let him go.’

Jesus declared that ‘I am the resurrection and the life,’ and here we see, in a foretaste, just what that meant. Jesus is the one who has the authority over life and death, and who within a matter of days would himself die on the cross, only to rise again. While Lazarus would die again (and indeed, was the target of a murder attempt on the part of the chief priests – 12:9-11), Jesus will not die again, but lives for ever more.

As John Stott has commented, ‘Jesus’ remarkable reply, I am the resurrection and the life, is a culmination of the unfolding revelation in the preceding chapters. Jesus has been revealed as the giver of life, in a number of ways. Materially, he gives life to water, making it wine. Spiritually, he offers the new spiritual life of the kingdom of God to Nicodemus, and the life which springs up within a person, satisfying all thirst, to the woman of Samaria. Physically, he imparts life to a dying boy, a long-standing physical paralytic, and a man born blind. He is the good shepherd who has come to give life ‘to the full’. The life he brings is primarily eternal life, the life of the long-awaited kingdom of God. Jesus now fills out these claims to their fullest proportion. The life he gives is nothing less than the indestructible life of the resurrection, the very life of the deathless God himself. Moreover, it is his gift here and now.’ (BST p. 163).

For the person in Christ, death is not the end. The raising of Lazarus is a sign – pointing us primarily to the glory of God manifest in Jesus; but it also points to the new life available in Jesus, to that eternal life, because Jesus has conquered sin and death.

As a result, we don’t have to be like the crowd of wailers, ‘sorrowing as those without hope’. We don’t have to wait, like Martha, for the last day for the new life to become real for us.

We can experience and enjoy that new, eternal life in Christ now, and look with hope through our earthly death, knowing that we live in him who has defeated death.

Jesus said: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?’

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