Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Resurrection and the Life


38 So Jesus, again being deeply moved within, came to the tomb. Now it was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Remove the stone.” Martha, the sister of the deceased, said to Him, “Lord, by this time there will be a stench, for he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not say to you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” 41 So they removed the stone. Then Jesus raised His eyes, and … cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth.” 44 The man who had died came forth, bound hand and foot with wrappings, and his face was wrapped around with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.

Of all the miracles recorded of Jesus, this one is perhaps the most dramatic. And in these verses we have another glimpse of Jesus -- a glimpse of amazing compassion and power. Imagine calling out to a dead body and making it become alive and whole! And this isn’t just a resuscitation after a a few minutes. We’re talking days here. We need to appreciate that this is so far beyond any modern technology, it isn’t even close. The power Jesus demonstrates here is no less than the power demonstrated by God himself in the creation of the universe or the creation of life: here, matter and energy configure themselves self according to his authority.

Now, chances are that when you first heard the Lazarus story, it surprised you. But most of us have heard this story so many times before that we are hardly surprised by it any more. What a tragedy! People coming back from the dead should never get old. But there just might be another tragedy this morning: that the raising of a man from the dead is so distracting to us that we easily miss some this story’s other surprises -- and in the process we might miss some of its important lessons, too. So let’s go back to the beginning of the chapter, and look at the details...

1 Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany. [His] sisters sent word to [Jesus], saying, “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick.” 4 But when Jesus heard this, He said, “This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it.” 5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So when He heard that he was sick, He then stayed two days longer in the place where He was. 7 Then after this He said to the disciples, … 11 “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I go, so that I may awaken him out of sleep.” 12 The disciples then said to Him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 13 Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that He was speaking of literal sleep. 14 So Jesus then said to them plainly, “Lazarus is dead,

So... Jesus’ friend Lazarus gets sick. And, hearing about it, Jesus says, “This sickness is not to end in death...” But just ten verses later, we read “Jesus then said to them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead.” Now this isn’t so much a problem for us. After all, we can clearly see the truth in Jesus’ words: “This sickness is not to end in death…” But here’s the thing: we are only able to appreciate Jesus words -- recognizing them for the truth that they are -- because we already know how the story turns out!

So let’s take a minute to imagine how the disciples felt at the end of verse fourteen. They has just been told that “this sickness is not to end in death.” And now they discover that Lazarus had died. Can you picture just how shaken up they could have been? It would have been so tempting to imagine that Jesus had been wrong!

And to make the struggle all the greater, the possibility of a resurrection from the dead was a matter of some controversy at the time. You’ve heard of the Pharisees. You might have heard of the Sadducees. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were the two big political and theological parties in Jesus’ day. But did you know that the Sadducees were much bigger and more influential than the Pharisees! It’s true. Most of the members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, were Sadducees. Only the minority were Pharisees. Now the Pharisees believed in a resurrection from the dead. But not the Sadducees. And since they didn’t believe in the resurrection, as far as the Sadducees were concerned, this present life was the be-all and end-all of existence.

But aren’t there plenty of people today with the same attitude? And just like in Jesus’ day, these present-day Sadducees wield plenty of power in our society -- in media, in education, in politics. In fact, it is often quite a struggle not to get drawn into their attitudes and not to entertain their basic assumption -- that this life is all that matters.

And so we should easily be able to sympathize with Jesus’ disciples’ experience here. In verse fourteen, in order to be willing to trust in Jesus’ words in the face of what appears to be a conflicting reality, they would have to be going against the grain -- the grain of politics, the grain of fashion, the grain of power, the grain of education. There would have been all kinds of pressure on them to imagine that Jesus was either mistaken or lying.

So let me ask you -- how would you respond if you were to ever find yourself in a similar situation? What do we do when the reality before us makes it difficult for us to see the truth in Jesus’ words? There are plenty of people today who would love to try to convince us that any apparent contradiction is a real contradiction. And there are also plenty, who, faced with any conflict between Jesus’ words and an apparent reality, would prefer to discard Jesus’ words. So what about us?

And that’s just the first challenge from our text. Now let’s consider the second, reading verses five and six again: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So when He heard that he was sick, He then stayed two days longer in the place where He was.” What’s up with that? On the one hand, we’re told that Jesus loved this family. On the other hand, we discover that he deliberately postponed his arrival to come and help them out. And this was literally a matter of life and death! Imagine!

This behavior is in such sharp contrast to our current ways of thinking. If you have a friend, and that friend needs your help, and it is in your power to help, you drop everything and come at once. But not Jesus. He hangs around where he is for two days. And then it takes him another two days journey to make it to Bethany (if we read the tail-end of chapter ten, it says that Jesus had gone across the Jordan). So four days after his best friends have sent him their emergency help signal, only then does Jesus arrive. So at the end of verse fourteen, not only might the disciples to tempted to question the truth of Jesus words, but they might also be tempted to question the love behind his actions.

Life can be like that sometimes. Perhaps the struggles you face are enough to make you question Jesus’ words, or even question his love. Perhaps the world’s ways of thinking have gotten to you. Perhaps the way that the world interprets reality looms large in your thinking, making it hard to credit Jesus’ words. If so, then this story just might for you this morning.

But before we proceed with it, let’s see how Jesus’ disciples respond to this difficult situation that he’s put them in. Well, they don’t judge Jesus. And they don’t give up on him, either. They’ve been around him for a while, and they have heard him say difficult things. Chapter six, verse sixty: Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard [these words of Jesus] said, “This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?” (and verse 66): As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore. So Jesus said to the twelve, “You do not want to go away also, do you?” 68 Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You [alone] have words of eternal life.

Yes: the disciples might have been tempted to question Jesus’ words, but they had good reason to believe that Jesus had knowledge and power beyond their understanding. Yes: they might have been tempted to question Jesus’ love for Lazarus, but they had good reason to believe that Jesus exercise of love was on another level entirely to their own. They knew from experience (and we can learn from their experience, as well as from the experience of many saints throughout history) that if you want to see the glory of God, sometimes you need to be patient. If you want to know the truth of the words of God, sometimes you need to be patient. And if you want to feel the depth of the love of God, sometimes you need to be patient.

Isaiah 40:31 “those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, They will run and not get tired, They will walk and not become weary.” With that, let’s return to our text at verse seventeen...

17 So when Jesus came, He found that [Lazarus] had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off; 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary, to console them concerning their brother. 20 Martha therefore, when she heard that Jesus was coming, went to meet Him, but Mary stayed at the house. 21 Martha then said to Jesus, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to Him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to Him, “Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world.
28 When she had said this, she went away and called Mary her sister, saying secretly, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and was coming to Him.
30 Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha met Him. 31 Then the Jews who were with her in the house, and consoling her, when they saw that Mary got up quickly and went out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 Therefore, when Mary came where Jesus was, she saw Him, and fell at His feet, saying to Him, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled, 34 and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to Him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus wept. 36 So the Jews were saying, “See how He loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not this man, who opened the eyes of the blind man, have kept this man also from dying?

In the earlier part of the chapter, we saw that Jesus’ behavior is often far outside human expectations. We saw that his words and actions could be puzzling, to say the least. Yes: he had permitted his friend Lazarus to die, but he had given hints that this is all for a greater purpose: In verse 4, Jesus says that “this sickness… is for the glory of God!” And in verse 15, he tells his disciples: “Yes, Lazarus is dead… but I am glad for your sakes that I was not there.” Jesus isn’t telling them the whole story; he might even be making the puzzle even greater for them. But that’s often how God operates, isn’t it? Things happen that we can’t explain. Sometimes they hurt. Sometimes they challenge our faith. Sometimes they make us really uncomfortable. But along the way, God always provides hints of His plan. Sometimes they are easier to recognize than others. But may we catch those glimpses and hang onto them! Anyone who can raise a man from the dead after four days can certainly work out the details of our lives.

Now, here, in verse 17, Jesus has come to the town that his friends live in, and our glimpse of Jesus comes into sharper focus. Martha runs out to greet him. And they have this interesting exchange. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” We can well imagine Martha’s struggle here. On the one hand, her loss is heart-breaking. But on the other, she realizes that Jesus is no ordinary prophet. After all, she has seen his compassionate healing and listened to his teaching, which she acknowledges with these words: “I know that my brother will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” But in response, Jesus confronts her with this remarkable truth: “I am the resurrection and the life,” he says. “he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.”

Now please understand: Jesus is not addressing personal anguish with theology here. (May God forgive us if we are ever tempted to make that mistake). Jesus is always remarkably sensitive to whoever it is that he is talking to, and this is certainly the very thing that Martha needed to hear. Jesus is not interesting in getting Martha to acknowledge intellectual propositions about himself. Instead, Jesus wants Martha to trust in him in a personal way. Because when we do that, when we invite Jesus to work in our lives, then he delights to act on our behalf. Notice Martha’s response here: “Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God…” Here, Martha gives glory to the Son of God -- exactly the reason Jesus had given for Lazarus’ sickness in the first place. I suspect that our willingness to give the glory to Jesus is also a key to his work in our life and circumstances.

So then Martha runs and tells Mary that Jesus wanted to see her. And Mary comes, but while Martha was ready and open to be pointed to the source of life and the source of comfort, Mary is overcome by the emotion of the last few days and lets the tears flow freely. Then we read these remarkable, amazing words: “When Jesus therefore saw her weeping... He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled… Jesus wept.” Yes: Jesus wept. The source of all joy was crying. The source of all comfort was perhaps even sobbing. Every angel in heaven must have gasped at the sight. What could possibly reduce the Lord of Glory to tears?

Some have suggested that it was to demonstrate appropriate empathy. Yes, but that can’t be the full reason. Some have suggested that it was an expression of compassion. Yes, but that can’t be the full reason either: after all, Jesus knows what he is about to do, and the raising of Lazarus will surely dry Mary’s tears. More likely, Jesus tears are nothing less than a response to our inability to see the truth because of our unhealthy attachment to this present life. What else could keep this dear woman, Mary, someone who knew and loved Jesus, from being completely unable to anticipate the triumph that Jesus’ presence meant in that very moment?

Now at this point you might be tempted to say, “hold on -- the moment of triumph hadn’t arrived yet! Jesus needs to call Lazarus out of the tomb first.” But no! The triumph really is in Jesus’ presence. The raising of Lazarus was just a demonstration -- a picture for us! -- of that triumph. You see, He is the resurrection and he is the life. And the experience of his presence is glory itself. To riff on C.S.Lewis: “[This life is] not the thing itself; [it is] only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” Let’s not be distracted from the eternal by the things of this life.

But don’t you love how the story ends? Even in the face of Mary’s weakness, even if her words implied, “Lord, if only you would see things my way, and work according to my timetable, and appreciate the wisdom of my insight into this situation, things would have worked out...” (may God forgive us when we think that way!) Even if she is too hung up on this life, Jesus, in his great mercy and compassion, gives this woman her heart’s greatest desire -- anyway. And in the process, Jesus gives us a dramatic demonstration, not just of compassion, not just of power, but of the greatest reality in the universe: the fact that in him (and only in him) is eternal, glorious, abundant life.