Sunday, November 08, 2009

Sermon: John 11:17-44 Resurrection and Life

When loved ones die, things can get incredibly busy. The funeral has to be arranged, the death registered, the arrangements made for family to travel from abroad. Then there’s the people, who come to the wake, and bring food and tea and coffee. Everything gets very busy. Yet even with all the people around, there can be someone missing. Someone who could have made a difference.

In our Bible reading, Mary and Martha have lost their brother, Lazarus. They know the pain of loss, the hurt of watching their brother die. Their house is full of people, mourners, yet there’s someone missing, who could have made a difference. Jesus was a close friend, who had stayed many times in their house, and when Lazarus had taken ill, the sisters had sent word to Jesus to come and make him better.

Jesus hadn’t appeared. He had stayed where he was for another two days, so that by the time he arrives at Bethany, Lazarus has been dead for four days, in the tomb and all. Where was Jesus? Didn’t he care when Lazarus wasn’t well and was facing death?

Both Mary and Martha greet him with the same words when he arrives: ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ (John 11:21,32) Jesus, you could have done something about this, and healed him, but you left it too late. There’s a terrible accusation here - that Jesus doesn’t really care when we suffer, when we need him.

The crowd join in the accusations. Look at verse 37: ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?’ If Jesus has healed the sick, restored sight to the blind, then couldn’t he have healed Lazarus so he wouldn’t die? Is Jesus not really powerful, or does he just not care?

Perhaps you’ve thought something like this as well. You asked God to heal your loved one, but you watched them slip away. Does God not care? What is God playing at?

Yet even in the hurt and pain, Martha retains some faith. Mary only says the one sentence, but Martha goes further. ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.’ (John 11:21-22).

When Jesus tells her that her brother will rise, Martha misunderstands and looks forward to the end of time, when all will be resurrected: ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ On that last day, when time is no more, all will be raised to the judgement at God’s command. This is what Martha ‘knows’ and yet doesn’t seem comforted by it. ‘In times of bereavement present sorrow dims the prospect of future bliss.’ (Tasker p.139)

Taking her two sayings together, Martha appears to be saying that Jesus could have done something in the past (healed Lazarus) and that God in Jesus will do something in the far future (raising the dead to judge). But right now, as Jesus stands with her, he’s powerless.

Death is the great enemy. It wins every time, its success rate is 100%, one day each of us will die. And what can Jesus do in the face of death? Had he arrived before Lazarus died, he could have prevented death. But Lazarus is dead, has been in his tomb for four days.

We see this as Jesus commands for the stone to be rolled away from the tomb in verse 39. Martha, the practical one, steps in and says ‘Lord, by this time there will be an odour, for he has been dead four days.’

Is Jesus only for this life? Is he powerless in the face of death? Let’s think about Jesus’ reply to Martha back in verse 25. These are well-known words, but try to hear them for the first time:

‘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.’ (John 11:25)

We have here a declaration of who Jesus is, and then what that means for us. Throughout John’s Gospel we find Jesus saying ‘I am ...’ so, for example, ‘I am the good shepherd’, ‘I am the light of the world’, or ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’. Jesus declares something about himself, each time using the ‘I am’ introduction - the personal name of God in the Old Testament. Jesus is saying I am God - and here’s a part of what that means.

So here, tonight, we have this declaration of Jesus: ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’ Resurrection is the victory over death, and Jesus declares that he is the one who triumphs over death. Not only does he triumph over death, but he is also ‘the life’ - the one who is life itself, the one who can give life. Earlier in John’s Gospel, Jesus says this about himself: ‘For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will’ (John 5:21)

Jesus says he is the resurrection and the life. This was before the crucifixion and the first Easter, yet his words point forward to what he will do as he is raised from death and lives forever more. How much clearer for us, as we live after the cross, and after the resurrection for us to understand what Jesus is saying here. He will (and he has) defeated death and lives the powerful resurrection life.

This is what Jesus declares about himself. So how does that affect us? What does it mean for us that Jesus is 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’

All who believe in Jesus - that means to trust in him, to depend on him - all who believe in Jesus, even though we die, yet shall we live. Physical death is something that will happen to each one of us - the only sure things in this world are death and taxes - but even in and through that physical death, we shall live. Death is not the end, but merely the movement into the greater presence of God. But more than that - the second part says that ‘everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die’ - Jesus gives us eternal life, so that all who trust in Jesus will never perish.

As one writer has said: ‘to believe in him is not only to be assured about the resurrection at the last day, but to experience here and now something of that eternal life to which resurrection is the prelude. Such a believer, though he must pass through physical death, as Lazarus has done, will go on living; and no one who has faith in Jesus will ever perish.’ (Tasker p. 139)

Having spoken these words to Martha, and then talked with Mary, Jesus goes to the tomb of Lazarus. As he sees Mary weeping, and the crowd (the Jews) also weeping, Jesus ‘was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.’ Jesus wept. Jesus, the Son of God, weeps at the grave of his friend Lazarus - and therefore he knows the pain and the hurt that we have experienced. The Lord Jesus is not distant from our suffering - he has stood where we have stood, and carried our griefs and our sorrows.

And then he gives the order for the stone to be removed. Martha objects, but Jesus assures her: ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?’ Notice the connection again between believing and seeing God’s glory.

Jesus is the resurrection and the life. He gives life to those who trust in him, and as the demonstration of his power, as a sign of who he is, Jesus calls out: ‘Lazarus, come out!’ And Lazarus (or as the text puts it: ‘the man who had died’) came out.

Jesus, the resurrection and the life, gives life to the dead. Lazarus would one day die again - his was a restoration to physical life (in the next chapter the chief priests plot to murder Lazarus because his being alive was a great witness to Jesus’ power); but the life Jesus offers us will never end. As we reflect on our loved ones death, we can be confident that all who trust in Jesus live with him. And as we face our own death, we can hold to the promise of Jesus that as we believe in him, we shall live, and never die.

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 in Jesus; but it also points us 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 mourners, ‘sorrowing as those without hope.’ We don’t have to wait, like Martha, for the last day for the new life to be ours. 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.

But there’s one condition. All these promises can be ours. The future can be guaranteed. But we must believe. We must trust the Lord Jesus, and take him at his word. Look again at verse 25. Jesus declares who he is, and what that means for us - but he ends with a question. ‘Do you believe this?’ Our answer to this question determines our attitude to Jesus, and our attitude to his promise of eternal life.

I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this?

This sermon was preached at the Living With Loss special service for those who have been bereaved in recent years in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Remembrance Sunday, 8th November 2009.

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