Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sermon: John 11: 1-6, 17-53 Resurrection and Life

The only sure things in this life are death and taxes. Taxes have been in the news this week, with the budget being announced, but in this morning’s reading, we’re confronted with death. The death of Lazarus, the friend of Jesus. Are we powerless in the face of our great enemy?

At the start of the reading, Mary and Martha (Lazarus’ sisters) send Jesus a message saying that Lazarus is ill. But rather than dashing off straight away to get to his bedside, Jesus stays where he is for another two days. It’s strange behaviour, isn’t it? You’d imagine Jesus would drop everything and go, yet he doesn’t. He says that God’s glory will be seen through what happens - yet because he loves the family, he stays away. (That’s not quite how the NRSV text puts it - it tries to explain away Jesus’ odd behaviour by the ‘though’, but it’s actually a ‘so’).

When Jesus does arrive, Lazarus has been dead for four days. Both Martha and Mary greet Jesus with the same words: ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ (21, 32). There’s a a terrible accusation here - that Jesus doesn’t really care when we suffer; that he is powerless to help. As if that’s not enough, the crowd of mourners heap up the accusations: ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’ (37).

Yet Martha goes further than her sister. Here’s what she says: ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ (21-22). There’s a hint of faith here. Yet even with that, she misunderstands when Jesus says that her brother will rise again.

You see, she looks forward to what God will do on the last day, when everyone who has lived will be resurrected to the judgement. She knows this will happen, but do you see what she’s really saying? Jesus could have done something in the past, to prevent Lazarus from dying; God will do something in the future to raise him in the general resurrection; but right now, Jesus is powerless.

Death is the great enemy. It wins every time, its success rate is 100%. So what can Jesus do in the face of death? He might have been able to do something to stop Lazarus dying, but now he is powerless. It was reported this week that the Bolton football player, Fabrice Muamba, was effectively dead for 78 minutes after he collapsed during last Saturday’s FA Cup game against Spurs. Lazarus has been dead for four days. Even according to the widely held belief of the day, the spirit of the deceased hovered around for three days but then departed. Lazarus is definitely dead.

We see this as Jesus commands the stone to be rolled away, and Martha steps in to stop him - ‘Lord, already there is a stench, because he has been dead for four days.’ Is Jesus only for this life? Is he powerless in the face of death? Let’s think about Jesus reply to Martha, in those well-known words:

‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’

Jesus declares who he is, and what that means for us. All the way through John’s Gospel, Jesus uses these ‘I am’ sayings - I am the good shepherd; I am the way, the truth, the life. That phrase ‘I am’ is the Old Testament name of God, so as Jesus uses it, he’s declaring that he is God, and here’s a part of what that means.

So as he says ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ he’s saying that he is the one who triumphs over death - that he is the one who is life, and who gives life. Now remember that this is before the cross and the first Easter, but these words point us forward to what he will do as he goes through death and is raised to life and lives forever more. It wasn’t clear for Martha at this point in the way it is for us because we live after Easter, we know what is going to happen.

But how does that affect us? ‘Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’ As we believe in Jesus, we’re united to him - he gives us his life, so that, even though we pass through death, it is not the end, we will live with him. Death for the Christian is just the movement into the greater presence of God. We will not perish - in fact, we’ll have this resurrection life both now and in eternity.

As Jesus moves to the grave, he is deeply moved. He weeps, knowing the pain and hurt we have experienced as we suffer loss. Jesus knows what we’re going through as we stand at the graveside of a dear relative or friend. He orders for the stone to be rolled away, despite the objection, by saying: ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’

Jesus is the resurrection and the life. He gives life to those who trust in him, and as a demonstration of his power, as a sign of hwo he is, Jesus calls out: ‘Lazarus, come out!’ ‘The dead man came out.’ Jesus gives life to the dead.

Yet Lazarus would one day die again - his was a restoration to physical life (in fact, in chapter 12, the chief priests plot to murder Lazarus because his being alive was a witness of who Jesus was). The life Jesus offers us will never come to an end. This is the comfort we have as we recall loved ones who have gone before; and as we face our own death.

Jesus has power over death, to give life. Yet not everyone was pleased by the raising of Lazarus. At the end of the reading, the chief priests and Pharisees are furious. They are fearful for their position and power; they determine to get rid of Jesus once and for all. The collision course is set, as we prepare to begin the journey of Holy Week next Sunday, and trace the last week of Jesus’ life.

Isn’t there a great irony that Jesus gives life, but they plot his death. As it turns out, Caiaphas speaks better than he knows, speaking unwitting prophecy: he thinks that if they get rid of Jesus, then the city of Jerusalem will be spared; actually, their plan will mean that Jesus will die for the nation, to gather into one the dispersed children of God.

As the chief priests plot his death, Jesus is the resurrection and the life. We’re told that many believed in Jesus, because they had seen the miracle he performed - they knew, just like us, that dead men don’t rise. Jesus gives life, not just to Lazarus, but to everyone who believes in him.

As we meet around his table, recalling his death for us and his resurrection, we rejoice in the new life that we receive from him. As Jesus says to Martha: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’

This sermon was preached on Passion Sunday 25th March 2012 in Aghavea Parish Church.

No comments:

Post a Comment