Sermon: From “If Only” to “Only If”

Scripture:  John 11:

Date: April 29, 2018


For most of the world, Easter isn’t really much of a Holiday and the Easter celebration ends quickly.   It’s pretty much one day and we’re done. Oh we have the obligatory Easter egg hunts often on the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter.   And we have tried our best to commercialize Easter like we have Christmas. We have tried to elevate the Easter Bunny to the same kind of status as Santa Claus.   We even have giant Easter Bunnies who set up shop in the Malls and encourage little children to come and sit on their laps. Did you see this video that went viral in the days before Easter of the Easter bunny visiting an elementary school and as soon as it stepped into a classroom one of the little kids became hysterical.  Screaming and crying. And someone caught it all on video, thinking that it was funny. Nothing could console this child. And frankly I couldn’t blame the child. There is nothing comforting or endearing to me about a seven foot bunny with a plastic face and ears, that brings candy on one day of the year and leaves behind hidden eggs.  A rabbit bringing eggs. Part of the reason Easter hasn’t really caught on like Christmas is that there is so much of Easter that just doesn’t make sense. Even in the church. A baby born in a manger we can understand. Oh some struggle with some of the other elements of the Christmas story. Virgin birth. Angels. But even those are more acceptable then Crosses and empty tombs.   We struggle to believe in and celebrate resurrection in large part because we don’t really understand it.   It leaves us with more questions than answers.   More doubts than beliefs. I think for some of the answers we need to look to this story of the resurrection of Lazarus which happened in the days leading up to Holy Week.     For instance, is resurrection for us and if so what does it mean for us? Is it an earthly physical resurrection or reserved for Heaven because we sure don’t see a lot of Lazarus’s walking the earth, do we?   Even the Gospels seem a little unclear as to whether Jesus’s resurrection body was a physical one or a spiritual one. And if resurrection is okay for Martha’s brother, then why is it not okay for my brother or sister, or child, or husband and wife, or mother or father.   Loved ones or friends that have died. When was the last time you went to the cemetery and saw an empty tomb? You see, I think one of the reasons we rush past Easter is because we don’t really understand it.


There was a story in the news the other day about scientists starting the process to bring the ancient Woolly Mammoth back to life.   It seems that they believe that they can take some of the DNA out of the skeletal bones of the Wooly Mammoth that has been extinct for 25 million years according to the story, mix it with the DNA extracted from live elephants and bring the Wooly Mammoth to life again.   I don’t understand how it works which makes me very skeptical but some scientists are convinced that it will work. And the story concluded by saying “in two years, this giant creature that has been extinct for 25 million years, could be walking the earth again.” But more than asking how this might work,  my question is “why?” Why do we want to bring the Woolly Mammoth back to life? Of all the animals that have gone extinct over the course of time, why pick the Woolly Mammoth? Where would Woolly Mammoths even live? Aren’t there any smaller and potentially less destructive animals that have become extinct, that we could start with.   Maybe a monkey. Or a small cat. You know, the scientists in the Jurassic Park movies, successfully brought dinosaurs back to life and that didn’t turn out very well. It’s all good until the test animals turn on you and eat you. If we’re going to do this, let’s start with a small animal that we can control, and preferably a herbivore rather than a carnivore.   So why do we want to do this in the first place? And why start with a giant like the Woolly Mammoth? And then, of course, after the story was reported, there was a discussion because we can’t just hear the news anymore without someone telling us what we should have heard. And the discussion eventually got around to human beings and the possibility of regenerating human life.  And one of the commentators said: “Think of the possibilities. We could bring back to life many of the great people from history. Mohammed. Gandhi. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Winston Churchill. Abraham Lincoln. Martin Luther King. Billy Graham. Just to name a few. We could go to their tombs and open their coffins, and extract DNA and mix it with a living being, and bring back to life some of the greatest people that have ever walked this earth.  We could even bring back Jesus Christ,” this commentator said. I wanted to call that news person and say, “it’s already been done. God raised Jesus from the dead more than 2000 years ago. So His tomb was empty. No DNA to find there.” But the truth is that most of the world would rather believe that scientists can take a tiny speck of DNA extracted from 25 million year old bones and bring back to life a giant animal like the Mammoth, rather than believe that God could raise Jesus in a miraculous way after just three days in the tomb.  Because think of the implications. If God, can give life back to Jesus, then surely he can do the same for you and I. Isn’t that the story of Lazarus? Paul, talks a lot about that. To the Romans He wrote: And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of His Spirit who lives in you.  And to the Corinthians He wrote:  For if in Adam we all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ the firstfruits; then at His coming, those who belong to Him.   Now what we need to see is that in both of those statements, Paul is acknowledging the doubt through which many approach resurrection.   It’s found in the word “if” that He uses.  Look at this. First to the Romans:  If the Spirit.   And to the Corinthians: if in Adam, we all die.   You see, I think that when it comes to believing in the resurrection, there is so much doubt contained in that tiny word.  IF. In matters of faith, “If” is shorthand for doubt. When it comes to resurrection it seems to me, we are way too concerned with the how of it, rather than focusing on the why.   


In this passage,  Martha was distraught.   And the “ifs” begin to creep into her faith in Christ.  It had been days since she had sent word to Jesus that Lazarus was sick and dying.   But now, after her brother had been in the grave for four days, Jesus comes. Martha is so upset that she doesn’t wait for Jesus to come to them, but rather she goes out and meets Him.   Now the Jewish people had many customs surrounding mourning and death. There were those who were professional mourners, who came and stayed for days. The Rabbi’s taught that for even the poorest of the poor there should be at least two mourners and a flute present.   And the family of the deceased was supposed to remain in seclusion for several days after the funeral.   Not come out of their homes – especially the women. But apparently Martha was so upset that she defied the custom and went out and met Jesus along the way.  “If” she says, and some translations add the even more emphatic word “only” – “if only you had come when I sent word, my brother would not be dead right now.”   “If only” – in my experience those are usually words which signal that something has gone wrong – sometimes with tragic consequences. For instance, I’ve sat with parents whose teenage child had gotten caught up with drugs and alcohol – “If only we would have paid more attention to the warning signs.”   Or people stuck in dead end jobs – “If only I would have worked harder in school.” Marriages falling apart – “If only I would have been a better husband (or wife.)” Or, we think that life would be easier “if only I had more money.” I have to confess that the older I get and I deal with the aches and pains of arthritis and a bad back,  and a bad heart, more and more I find myself thinking, “If only I had eaten my vegetables like my mother told me” and “if only, I had exercised more”. In our mind, “If only” rationalizes our failures. And excuses our inactivity. And justifies our lack of faith. Because like Martha, we blame God. “Lord, if only you would have intervened – come through for me – protected me – then things would have been different.”    They are words that focus on the past and offer little hope for the future. And there just below the surface, they are words that speak of death. “If only you had come, Jesus, things would be so different. Lazarus would be here to greet you. My heart would not be broken. Death would not have intruded in our lives”


So how do we handle the “if onlys” of Easter.   Well, may I suggest that when Jesus comes, He turns our words around.   “My brother is dead” Martha said. To which Jesus replies, “Those who believe in me will never die.”    And then Martha says, “I know he will live again in the end of days.” And Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.”  


I suspect that most of us understand resurrection in the same way that Martha did.   If there is a resurrection at all, it is somewhere off in the future. In fact, there were many Jews who did not believe in resurrection at all.   When the body died, the Rabbis taught, the soul went to a place called Sheol, which was the abode of the dead. The common belief was that after three days in the grave, the soul separated from the body and made the journey to Sheol.  Now note that Lazarus was in the grave for four days when Jesus arrived. So not only did those who were there when Jesus arrived believe that after that length of time the body would have begun to decay, but also that the soul was already gone.  So by delaying His arrival until Lazarus had been in the grave four days, Jesus makes it clear that not only does He hold the keys to physical life, but that He also restores the soul. The resurrection that Jesus brings unites body and soul. And so the life that Jesus offers not only defies physical death, but it also restores the soul.   Before calling Lazarus to come out of the grave, Jesus prays that what He does will show the glory of God. It is the human soul that reflects God’s glory. Because though the body may die, in Christ the soul never does. So through resurrection, God’s glory is shown for all to see.


You know, in recent years we’ve heard a lot about “near death” experiences.  And almost all who describe having that kind of experience, talk about going down a long dark tunnel towards a glorious light.   That must have been the same kind of experience that Lazarus had as he emerged from the darkness of the tomb and beheld God’s glory in the person of Jesus Christ.   Resurrection happens whenever we step from darkness into God’s light because with His resurrection, Jesus gives light and life to souls that have been lost in darkness.  Perhaps that’s where you have been. Perhaps that’s where you are right now. Lost in the darkness of earthly tombs. But just as he called Lazarus to step from the tomb,  he is calling you today to step out of your darkness and embrace the light of God, the glory of God. You know, science and medicine are now able to prolong life and sometimes even restore it.   Resurrection may not be nearly the mystery to us as it was to Martha. But the difference between what science is trying to do with the Woolly Mammoth and what God does at Resurrection lies not so much with the physical body but rather with the soul.   Because while science may be able in the not too distant future rejuvenate long dead DNA, only God can restore a soul. “I am resurrection and I am life” Those words are just as true for us as they were for Lazarus and Martha.

     And so Jesus as the resurrection and life brings glory to God.   As He stands in front of Lazarus’s tomb Jesus says: Did I not tell you that only if you believe in me you would see the glory of God?  And then He prays, not that God will give Him the power to bring Lazarus back to life, because He already knows what God is going to do.  He prays that through Lazarus’s resurrection, God will be glorified and that because of that the people will believe that He is the Messiah.   

Jesus ministry is just about done at this point.   Bethany where Lazarus tomb was, is on the way to Jerusalem.   And Jesus knew that death awaited Him in Jerusalem. And so for the people now is the time to make their choice.    The resurrection of Lazarus is what sets the events that lead to Calvary in motion. The Jewish leaders knew that once word spread that Jesus even has power over death, that the masses would rally to Him which would make the Romans anxious enough to crack down on the Jews.  “Better that one should die than so many”, they reasoned. The irony is that the resurrection of Lazarus not only showed God’s glory and gave life to Lazarus, and the promise of eternal life to all, but it meant that Jesus would have to give His life away. He gives His life away so that we might live.  Susan Willhauck writes:

Lazarus and Jesus – one life regained, another’s death forged.  . . the decision to put Jesus to death is culminated in the giving of life to Lazarus.


By being willing to turn His life into death, Jesus turns our death into life but only if we believe.    One writer puts it this way:

The miracle of the raising of Lazarus had a symbolic importance.  It showed the tragic nature of humanity, sick unto death as we are, and the miracle of life in Christ who calls us forth into life.  Jesus loved Lazarus, as He loves all of us. Jesus gave Him life as He does all of us.


When He called Lazarus back to life, he called everyone who believes back to life   “I am resurrection and life.”


And then notice that Jesus does not say to Martha, “I bring the resurrection and life”, He says, “I am the resurrection and the life.”  What’s the difference? The first is a promise of some future reality. Eternal life is somewhere out there. But what Jesus says is that I am life right now.   Our faith is not meant to be lived out tomorrow. It is meant to make a difference today. “I know my brother will live again someday.” Martha says. But Jesus says, “I am the difference between death and life.  I am the point at which death leaves off and life begins. I make the promise of eternal life begin now.” But not “if only” He would come, no “only if” you believe. There is nothing in the tomb that can hold power over Christ – whether it be our tomb or His own.   Even in the midst of death, we can find life in Christ. In almost 40 years of ministry, I have watched many people take the journey toward a physical death. And I have been constantly amazed that as people have come closer to death, the more powerful is their witness to life in Jesus Christ.   “I am the resurrection and life.” “I am life – now, today and always.” You see, it is often at the point of death that “if only” can creep into our faith. If only God would come, we would not die. But Jesus turns those deadly words around. “I am resurrection and life not “if only”, but instead Jesus says, He is our life but “only if” we believe.  Eternal Life begins when we believe. The Messiah, Jesus Christ, is the difference between life and death. In teaching about the resurrection of Lazarus as part of the Disciple Bible Study, Elsworth Kalas says:

It’s a good thing that Jesus says “Lazarus come forth” because if he had not called Lazarus by name all of the tombs would have opened.


But that’s really the point of resurrection,  isn’t it? That when Jesus says come forth to life, He has each one of us in mind.   But only if we believe it to be so.

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