"I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE"
Easter Sunday April 12, 2009 Jn.11(17-27,38-44)
A COSTLY LITTLE LAPSE IN JUDGMENT
We've all done it at one time or another: a little slip, an oversight, a mistake that has consequences that may range from minor inconvenience to major catastrophe. Perhaps it forces somebody else to scramble in order to cover our gaffe.
This past Thursday, Britain's top counterterrorism officer resigned a day after his security blunder forced police to move up a major operation in northern England. As it happens, Bob Quick was photographed Wednesday clutching confidential documents that could be clearly seen as he arrived for a meeting with the British Prime Minister. The documents showed details of a major anti-terror operation in northern England; originally planned for later, it was moved up as a result of the leak, and police arrested a dozen men. The operation, though rushed, was a success; but the failure to conceal the documents left Mr Quick no other choice but to resign his post. He realized his mistake had put hundreds of other officers at risk.
Such a little slip can have such major consequences! Sin can be just like that - a little flirting with a glance and lingering conversation here, a little fudging on the income reporting there - and before too long we find ourselves paying a heavy price. A momentary lapse can result in years of regret, as we long for just one chance to turn the clock back and cover up our error. Mr Quick was just a little too quick rushing out the door - even slipping the documents in a plain brown envelope would have worked. The Hebrew word 'kaphar' for 'atonement' can mean 'to cover over', to coat as with pitch. We need a Saviour to cover over our moral messes.
An antiterrorist officer would likely have been familiar with the expression from the war, "loose lips sink ships". Back in New Testament times, loose lips were just as deadly. Jn 11:46 says some who'd seen Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead put their faith in Him; but some went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. The Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, which decided something had to be done lest multitudes follow Jesus and the Romans come and destroy their nation (though Jesus clearly had no intention of being a political Messiah). High Priest Caiaphas' opinion was that it was better that one man die for the people than the whole nation perish. So from that day on they plotted to kill Jesus.
Terrible things happened because information was leaked to the wrong people. Yet the message of Easter is that God can bring good out of even our most un-coverable faults and failures. Believing in Jesus brings new life when all seems lost.
JESUS TARRIES: OUR HAPPINESS IS SUBORDINATE TO GOD'S GLORY
There are three principal points that stand out in the story of the raising of Lazarus: Jesus tarries; Jesus' tears; and Jesus' triumph.
First, Jesus TARRIES. In 11:1, Jesus finds out Lazarus is sick, presumable early enough to do something about it. This isn't just anybody off the street; the sisters send the message in v3, "Lord, the one You love is sick." Again, v5 emphasizes, "Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus." This family was very special to Him, there were ties of affection. Even so, v6 - "Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days." Why did Jesus tarry? Why didn't He get a move on? Of course, He could have merely spoken the word and healed Lazarus from a distance then and there like He had with the centurion's servant (Mt 8:13) or the royal official's son (Jn 4:50) or the Canaanite woman's daughter (Mt 15:28) - distance was no obstacle for Christ's healing power. It's not a question of His ability: as Martha states in 22, "even now God will give You whatever You ask." Christ had the power to heal Lazarus without even budging an inch; but instead He declined the sisters' request, remaining east of the Jordan two more days. He delayed until it was 'too late'.
This is a big issue in this passage, for it's the first thing both sisters mention the moment Jesus arrives, each in the exact same words - "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." (21,32) It's not really blaming God, but next thing to it: "Lord, if only the road hadn't been so icy that morning...If only I'd gotten that job..." There comes a point in our lives when we too are tempted to say, "Lord, if you'd allowed THIS, then THAT would not have happened."
What's at stake here? Why did Jesus wait, instead of acting to save Lazarus' life? Why does God allow us or our loved ones to suffer sometimes? There are clues in vv4&40: 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." The 'end' or 'goal' of the matter, what it's 'for' or its purpose, is for God to be glorified - His honour and fame better known. Again in v40, Jesus reminds Martha, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see [here it is again!] the glory of God?" If Lazarus hadn't died, he couldn't have been raised back to life.
What, after all, is God's chief goal for us in life? His goal or purpose is not that we just have it easy - that would create a tribe of spiritual dwarfs; His purpose is that with His help we persevere through and overcome great challenges, seeing His power realized and taking effect through our weakness and finiteness. Then we will glorify Him as He leads us in overcoming; we will come to understand His greatness and sufficiency in a way we wouldn't have known otherwise, without those difficulties. And the increase of His glory isn't a bad goal - appropriate for the Lord of the universe, and His delight is to eventually share that glory with us (2Thess 2:14). 1Peter 5:10, "And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast." Elsewhere the Bible says, "...God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it." (Heb 12:10-11) Holiness, righteousness, peace - those are things God's excited about developing in our lives; but they don't come from just living on easy street.
JESUS' TEARS: GOD SYMPATHIZES WITH US
So, while Jesus tarries and seems to keep distant for a while, that's not where He leaves us. This passage shows He also comes alongside and sympathizes with us. He doesn't remain aloof, like the god of the deists. Even though Jesus knows what He's about to do, His tears show He enters with feeling into the distress of our human problems.
Note the emotional ringer Jesus goes through when He comes to Martha and Mary. V33, when Jesus sees Mary and the others weeping, He is 'deeply moved in spirit and troubled'. V38, coming to the tomb, Jesus is 'once more deeply moved'; a commentary notes He struggled to control Himself. And most notably, v35, the shortest verse in the Bible, just two words but so packed with significance: "Jesus wept." Another way of putting it, He 'burst into tears'. Hear God crying alongside the deepest point in our pain and grief.
It's not a performance; not a put-on or show like the wailing of the professional mourners. This is real, true solidarity. The onlookers interpreted Jesus' tears correctly in 36, "See how He loved him!" But Jesus doesn't stop at tears to show His love for us; at Easter, this cross becomes an even more profound sign of His love for us. Romans 5:8, "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
Robertson comments on Jesus' tears, "Chiefly it was the sheer human sympathy of His heart with Martha and Mary touched with the feeling of our common weakness." Hebrews 4(15), "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses..."
Thursday night we showed parts of the "Matthew" video starring Bruce Marchiano as Jesus. This actor's portrayal of the Saviour has sometimes been referred to as 'the joyful Jesus', but it's more than that: yes he smiled a good deal, but he also used tears and hugs and taking people by the hand, touching them, connecting. He was 'God with skin on' and more; but when you think about it, of course Jesus would have made he fullest and most appropriate use of the human heart and emotions - He designed it! Quite a contrast to some of the stern, detached, emotionless or stoic portrayals of Jesus on film in the past. Jesus' tears prove God comes alongside and sympathizes with us, He feels our pain.
JESUS' TRIUMPH: LIFE CREATING ANEW FROM THE DEEPEST CORRUPTION
What's the key to Jesus' victory, His triumph? Where's He get this amazing power from? The key is His continual contact with the Heavenly Father, and awareness of what the Father is doing.
Back when the request first came, Jesus had good reason NOT to go to Bethany, which was just a couple of miles from Jerusalem. V8 the disciples protest, "But Rabbi, a short while ago the Jews tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?" (cf Jn 10:39) A commentator notes, "It seemed suicidal madness to go back now." Thomas understands the seriousness of the decision, for he says bravely but pessimistically in v16, "Let us also go, that we may die with Him." But how does Jesus justify His decision to go back? Vv9-10 He replies with a figure of speech, "Are there not twelve hours of daylight? A man who walks by day will not stumble, for he sees by this world's light. It is when he walks by night that he stumbles, for he has no light." Come again?! What's that got to do with anything? What's He getting at?
Reading between the lines, Jesus is affirming that where God the Father has 'shone the light' and given direction to proceed, it's safe to go. Where it's night - where the Father hasn't given the 'OK' - it's not safe to go. Jesus had complete confidence the Father knew when His 'hour' would come, and this was not it. By the way, the NRSV has a better translation at the end of v10, those who walk a night stumble because "the light is not IN them"; ties in with trusting in the light so we become sons of light / daughters of light over in chapter 12(35f).
Jesus makes a point of it all depending on the Father by pausing to thank the Father down in vv41-42. He could have just gone ahead and called Lazarus out, but He stops to give the Father appreciation and underline that Jesus' ability - His phenomenal power even to raise the dead - comes from the Father who sent Him.
Jesus' triumph comes from being in contact with God. And what's the requirement for keeping in contact? Believing - as this chapter and John's entire gospel emphasizes. Look closely at vv25-26: Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life.He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.[Then He brings it home by pointedly asking Martha] Do you believe this?" What's the plug by which we can plug into the power and deliverance of God? Believing, total commitment, active faith.
Martha has a very sensible, practical side to her; when Jesus tells them to take away the stone from the tomb, she cautions, "But, Lord, by this time there is a bad odour, for he has been there 4 days." If you've been to poorer areas of cities in the tropics, you'll understand her concern: the smell of rotting matter almost assaults your nostrils, the decay is so rank due to the heat. KJV put it even more directly: "by this time he stinketh"! Sensibility is crying out, "Don't do it!"
But what's the key? Jesus reminds her, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" Have faith in God, He's saying. And the end of v42, "I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may BELIEVE that You sent Me."
Why are you here this morning? Is it out of curiosity, perhaps to keep a friend or relative company? Is Easter little more for you than a date on the calendar, an excuse for a long weekend? Easter is about the cross and empty tomb of Jesus, which offer you forgiveness of sin and eternal life in the power of God's Holy Spirit for all who believe Jesus is what He claimed to be, the Son of God - the very words that caused Him to be executed. He's alive and questioning you right now as He asked Martha, "Do you believe this?"
He said, "I am the Resurrection and the Life." Eyewitness evidence from the very first attests to that, backed up by the lives of martyrs from Jesus' own disciples on down who refused to deny they'd experienced the risen Christ. What else could account for the way an avowed church-destroyer like Saul would turn 180 degrees and become Paul, a life-long church planter?
John's overall purpose in writing his gospel was not just to record history, but as we read in 20:31, "...these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name."
Do you need - do you want that kind of resurrection-power in your being? At the start of his gospel, John wrote, "In Him was life, and that life was the light of men." (1:4) On Easter Sunday we celebrate Jesus' resurrection to a glorified state, far superior to even Lazarus' being resuscitated and restored back to human life (for a while). But resurrection is only one small aspect of the life Jesus offers. Westcott wrote, "The resurrection is one manifestation of the Life: it is involved in the Life." Believe, so that you may experience new, released, abundant life in Jesus' name - 'life to the full'.
BACK FROM THE DEAD
Ruth Bell Graham (Billy Graham's wife) wrote of growing up in Chian where her father was a missionary physician. She was told of a jolly gentleman named Mr Kao Er. One day as he attended prayer meeting, bandits broke into his house and kidnapped his two children, an eight-year-old son and a baby daughter. As word spread, the local Christians and missionaries gathered in earnest prayer.
Never one to miss an opportunity to witness, Mr. Kao Er had a large sign painted and posted in front of the hospital gate. It said, in effect: "The bandits have kidnapped our children and have demanded a thousand yuan ransom. I am not a wealthy man. I cannot pay a thousand yuan. I cannot pay five hundred yuan. I cannot even pay fifty yuan. But I believe God. If it is His will, He is able to bring my children back without any ransom."
Passersby were amazed by his message, and it was widely expected that the children would be quickly killed. (We might say, they were as good as dead.)
Weeks passed, and in the course of time a band of soldiers broke in upon the hive of bandits. As they pursued them, they heard a sound from the ditch beside the road. One soldier stopped to look, and there he found a skeleton-like child lying in the ditch where the bandits had hastily thrown him. It was M Kao Er's son. He had been imprisoned under a large overturned vessel, and was on the brink of starvation. But he was alive, and he recovered.
But what of the baby girl? Later there was another battle between the bandits and the soldiers. This time, the wife of the bandit chief was captured, and she was found nursing two babies-- not twins--too near in age to both be her own. The daughter, too, was returned to her parents.
Ruth Graham recalls, "Sitting one Sunday in the little gray-brick Chinese church, I watched as Mr Kao Er, carrying his still-too-weak-to-walk son, and his wife, carrying the now healthy, chubby baby girl, walked forward to publicly give thanks to God and to dedicate both children to Him."
It's as if Mr Er received them back from the dead. He believed God, and Jesus who is the Resurrection and the Life mercifully spared their lives. Praise the Lord today for His victory over sin, death, and the grave! May He be glorified as we commit to Him our lives, our families, all we have and are, and trust Him to light our way. Let's pray.