RESURRECTION and LIFE – John 11:25
Bible reading follows
One of the good things about being a minister is getting to share in some of the best moments of people’s lives. The worst thing is that you also get to be there on the worst day of their lives – when they face the reality of human mortality. And the hardest part is the expectation that you’ll be able to say something that will take the pain away, when you know there isn’t anything that can.
For some people – particularly those who are old or suffering - death is a merciful release. But not for those who still seem full of life. The younger its victims are the greater our sense of tragedy and injustice. Despite the fact that death is the one thing that will happen to all of us, without exception, and that compared with eternity the human lifespan of 80 or so years is of no more consequence than the 45 day lifespan of a fruit fly, we still tend to think of death as something that is tragically wrong – the ultimate obscenity in life.
Even Christians, despite their professed beliefs, tend to do the same. The natural grief of parting with a loved one and the fear of being alone can cause us to forget the truth that is so beautifully expressed by the prophet Isaiah: ‘The righteous perish, and no one takes it to heart; the devout are taken away, and no one understands that the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil. Those who walk uprightly enter into peace; they find rest as they lie in death.’
We don’t deal with death very well in our modern society. We know it happens all the time, but only rarely do we see it – not like in previous generations when infant mortality was high, life expectancy was low, and people usually died at home. We try to make the best of it with celebrations of life rather than the old-time church funeral that commended souls to God and talked about them having entered a new and greater form of life. Then we all go home leaving the grieving family to get on with life as best they can, tending to keep our distance because we don’t know what to say.
However, despite all this, death is the one reality of life we all will face. From the moment we are born we begin the process of dying. And in this present time, with the whole world shut down, not because of war or cataclysms that are the subjects of doomsday movies, but because of something so tiny that we cannot even see it – a virus, we realise how vulnerable we are and how fragile life is.
John’s Gospel records a series of miracles that Jesus did which John chose from many others because they were signs of who Jesus is and what he’d come to do. The raising of Lazarus is the sixth in the series, and leads to the final one, Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead. The raising of Lazarus is a sign that Jesus is the conqueror of the last enemy – death itself. It follows his words to Martha, who was consumed by grief over her brother’s death: ‘I am the resurrection and the life, he that believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever lives and believes in me shall never die.’
In John’s account of this Lazarus had been dead four days, long enough for decomposition to set in. It’s interesting to note that there was a common belief amongst the Jews that the spirit of the deceased remained hovering around the corpse for four days seeking to re-enter the body; but after four days it could no longer recognize the face and realized it had to move on.
And so, when everybody had given up hope, realizing that death - the last enemy - had won, Jesus performed his greatest miracle: he raised Lazarus from the dead; a sign for all who have put their trust in him that one day he will do the same for them.
Even in this materialistic age, most people have an innate sense that death is not the end of a person’s being, and that the soul, or personality, lives on. This has always been central to Christian teaching. It’s evident in Paul’s famous statement about ‘being absent from the body and present with the Lord.’
But the New Testament also teaches that our ultimate destiny is to be given a new and glorious body, which the Apostle Paul says will be ‘like his glorious body;’ meaning like Jesus’ resurrected body – something quite different from the bodies of flesh and blood we now have, with powers and properties quite beyond our present comprehension – yet a body nonetheless.
And this is what the raising of Lazarus signifies. It was the foretaste of what Jesus promised when he said: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He that believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. And whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.’
And then he said to Martha: ‘Do you believe this?’ And that’s what I want to say to you – Do you believe it? If you do, then you’ll know why Jesus, speaking of the worst that life could throw at his disciples, simply said: ‘Don’t let your hearts be troubled.’
Over the years I’ve met a number of people who have had a taste of what lies beyond. We now describe their accounts as Near Death Experiences. One of the most dramatic was Ray Roberts. Ray spent much of his life as a missionary working amongst the Aboriginal people of the Western Desert. When he retired, he became a member of a church where I ministered before moving to Katoomba.
But late one Friday he was suddenly taken ill and pronounced dead on arrival at the Katoomba Hospital. They put his body in the hospital morgue ready for a post-mortem the following week. However, his wife Rita woke up on Sunday morning with the strangest feeling that he was still alive. The hospital staff tried to tell her that her feelings were just part of the natural grief reaction. But she was adamant and told them she was coming to the hospital.
So, they took her to the morgue where Ray was lying just as they’d left him on Friday. But as they turned to leave the ward sister suddenly noticed the faintest hint of a breath. They checked his heart and found a very faint pulse. So, they got him back to the ward, and soon after he opened his eyes and began to speak to them. Needless to say, Rita was overjoyed and the hospital staff were utterly amazed and began to refer to him as Lazarus.
Later, Ray got to tell his story. But the thing I remember most clearly was his inability to find words to describe something so wonderful that he was profoundly disappointed when he woke up and found himself still here. He said that the only possible analogy he could think of was to imagine standing on the highest mountain in the Swiss Alps, looking down on the most breath-taking vista, and hearing the most glorious music ever been written performed by all the world’s greatest choirs. And even that, he said, would not do it justice.
But there was one other thing. He was convinced that God had sent him back for a purpose. It had always troubled him that the Aboriginal people he’d spent so much of his life with lived with a terrible fear of death. Ray was convinced that he’d been sent back so that he might tell them what he’d experienced, and that if they had faith in Christ, they need never fear death. And that’s what he did, until, a few years later, he returned to where he longed to be.
Well, the story of Jesus raising Lazarus, is the great sign that Jesus has conquered death – the last enemy. And so, for us, death is no longer to be feared. Though it brings with it the deep sadness of human grief, it is, in reality, a gateway to life. That’s why the Apostle Paul said: ‘For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
We’ve been talking today about the raising of Lazarus and how it is a sign of what Jesus promises to all who have faith in him; that physical death is only the end of mortal life, and the beginning of our real life. I don’t think anyone has ever summed it all up better than C S Lewis, in the final words of his wonderful children’s books The Chronicles of Narnia: ‘For us this is the end of all the stories…But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world… had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: and in which every chapter is better than the one before.’
11 Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.)3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”
4 When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” 5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, 7 and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”
8 “But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?”
9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. 10 It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”
11 After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”
12 His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” 13 Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.
14 So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, 15 and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
16 Then Thomas (also known as Didymus[a]) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was less than two miles[b] from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother.20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
28 After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” 29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her,noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.
32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
35 Jesus wept.
36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39 “Take away the stone,” he said.
“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”
40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 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.”
43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 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.”