Sermon: Why Are You Waiting To Begin Eternity?
Scripture: John 11:17-27; 32-44
Date: November 1, 2015
And so we come to the last of the I Am statements of Jesus. And at long last we come to probably the most familiar of them and perhaps the most straightforward of these revelations by Jesus as to His nature. At least it would have been the most straightforward and understandable if Jesus had spoken these words to Mary in the garden on Easter Sunday, or the Disciples gathered in the Upper Room or on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. I am the Resurrection and see, here I am to prove it. I was dead and in the tomb, but now I am alive again. But, of course, that’s not the way it happened. This was a pre-crucifixion statement not a post crucifixion statement. And, of course, did not have anything to do with the cross, but was referring to His friend Lazarus. We’ve been talking about the context of these statements. Well that’s the context. Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem and we’re told has made camp along the Jordan River, near where John had baptized Him, and He’s kind of holding a camp meeting there. But while He is there, He receives word that His dear friend Lazarus from Bethany had fallen ill and that his sisters Mary and Martha were asking Him to come right away and heal him. Now, Bethany, was located less than two miles from Jerusalem on the Mt. of Olives and so would have been a days journey for Jesus. But Jesus delayed two additional days before starting for Bethany. Now during those two days Jesus makes two important statements for the understanding of this story. The first was that He tells the Disciples that Lazarus’ illness will not end in death. And then the second is a discourse that begins with Jesus saying: “Lazarus has fallen asleep and I am going there to wake him up”. “But,” the Disciples protest, “if Lazarus is asleep, he’ll get better. You shouldn’t go anywhere near Jerusalem because we hear they are looking for you.” So Jesus speaks plainly to them. “Lazarus is dead, so let us go to him.” And so by the time they arrive in Bethany, Lazarus has already been in the tomb for four days. And his sisters are upset with Jesus for delaying his arrival until their brother had been dead and buried for four days. And so, it is really to their grief and anger that Jesus says: “I am the Resurrection and life. He who believes in me will never die.”
So there are some things we need to understand to truly know what Jesus is saying to us here.
As has been the case with these other I Am statements, the context in which Jesus makes this statement tends to challenge our previous understandings. So the first thing we need to know is that unlike the other I Am statements, this one was not spoken in the midst of one of the great festivals of the Jewish faith. And the second thing is that relatively few of the Jews in Jesus day believed in resurrection and eternity. Of all of the religious teachers, in fact, only the Pharisees taught about a life after death. And so most of the Jews who were there mourning the death of Lazarus, would not have understood the concept of Resurrection at all. Even Martha doesn’t seem to understand it. Look at her response when Jesus talks about Resurrection. She says nothing about resurrection, but rather says “I believe you are the Messiah.” In other words, “I believe that as the Son of God you could have healed Him. I’ve seen you heal others. But resurrection? I don’t know what that is.” And truthfully, for many Jews, resurrection was the last straw as far as Jesus was concerned. With the raising of Lazarus, both Jesus and Lazarus became wanted men by the Jewish leaders. Look at what John says happened in the aftermath of this story.
Many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in Jesus. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. (the ruling council) Therefore Jesus no longer moved about publically among the Jews.
So raising Lazarus from the dead made Jesus a wanted man. The Jewish leaders did not want to embrace the possibility of resurrection because they did not want to acknowledge that Jesus had power over life and death. They could explain away miracles of healing, but they couldn’t explain how this Jesus could have authority over life and death if He was not from God. Jesus was offering new life, and most of the Jews wanted no part of it. In fact they feared it. And it is really not that much different today. Recently a survey was taken concerning the deepest fears of human beings. And it was found, not surprisingly, that the number one fear of human beings is the fear of death. There’s been a great deal of excitement recently about the new Star Wars movie that I think is going to be released on Christmas day. But I am not all that excited. Oh I’ll go see it, but I much prefer the Star Trek movies because they are much more philosophical, even theological in nature. And at one point Captain Kirk, resident theologian, says this about dying. “How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life.” One writer says this:
Jesus knew that the secret to death’s power is found in how much we fear it. Fear releases dominating power before the grave – not at the grave. Somehow the fear of dying traps the very purpose of life and locks it up – and we never enjoy our life (to the fullest).
Believing in resurrection addresses our greatest fear. Believing that we will live again eternally allows us to live life without the fear of death hanging over us. Mary and Martha believed that death was the worst thing that could of happened to Lazarus. But resurrection says that the worst thing that could happen is to live without God. So why don’t people embrace Jesus teaching on resurrection. Well, ironically the number two fear of human beings is – the fear of life. Now, as then, many fear resurrection because we fear the new life it offers. In fact, among those who identify themselves as Christians there is a great debate as to whether the resurrection of Jesus ever happened. Even many Christians are quicker to embrace the cross then the empty tomb. We fear life – especially the new life that Jesus offers. And so when Jesus calls us to come forth, many make the decision to stay in the tomb. Resurrection doesn’t restore us to the old life, it raises us to new life. Jesus call is always to new life. But it is always our choice as to whether we want to embrace that new life or not. I know that was true in my experience. As a teenager I was hesitant (even scared) to receive Jesus as my Lord and Savior because I was afraid of the new life that came with it. Not too long ago I was talking with someone about Holy Communion, and they commented to me that they never take Communion and usually try not to go to church when they know it’s going to be offered. And I asked them why and they said: that they feared what it would require of them. Many reject Resurrection – New Life- because they fear what it will require of them.
And then we need to know as we reflect on these Saints whose lives we honor today and prepare to receive Holy Communion is that for Jesus, Resurrection was simply a part of the journey, part of the Way that we talked about last week. If the Way was the Cross, then surely Jesus did not mean for the journey to end there. Now when I read the story of the raising of Lazarus, I have always been confused about why Lazarus would have been in the grave four days before Jesus arrived to call him to come forth. What I discovered was that the key really lay in the burial customs of the Jews and the fact that Bethany was located on the Mount of Olives. For Centuries the largest Jewish Cemetery for religious Jews has been located on the Mount of Olives. In fact, archaeologists have discovered that in some places on the Mount of Olives that there are several layers of graves, where through the centuries, the Jews have been buried on top of one another. One writer described Jewish burial customs of Jesus day like this:
In ancient Palestine, as in Israel today, burial was usually on the same day as death, or as soon thereafter as possible. There was no embalming, and among Orthodox Jews even today, there is no embalming. They believe that such a pagan practice is disrespectful of the dead. The custom was to bury in caves on the hillside. As one visits the Mount of Olives today, one can see thousands of graves. And Bethany was just over the Mount of Olives, a scant two miles from Jerusalem. From Jesus’ day there are records of an occasional resuscitation, in which a supposedly dead person would be revived by the coolness of the tomb. Consequently, there developed the custom of the family’s visiting the tomb for three days, hoping against hope, that some sort of mistake had been made. In addition, rabbis taught that the spirit of the deceased hovered over the body for three days before finally departing. So, by mentioning the “four days,” John is telling us emphatically: Lazarus was certifiably dead! There was no possibility of a mistaken diagnosis. He was dead and had been so for four days.
So why was that important. Well, at least two times previously Jesus had appeared to exercise authority over life and death. One was in the raising of Jairus’ Daughter and the other was when He interrupted a funeral procession and raised the only Son of the widow of Nain. But in both of those instances, the word had quickly been spread that there had been a mistake. That neither the boy or the little girl were really dead. That all Jesus had done was awake them from a deep sleep. Because they had not been dead long enough for their Spirit to depart. He wanted to be sure that there was no doubt that Lazarus was dead. And so why did that matter to Jesus? Because Jesus didn’t see death as a final destination but rather simply a step along the way of the abundant life He offered. We tend to think of resurrection as the beginning of New Life but Jesus understood New Life in a much more spiritual way than a physical one, and so New life didn’t begin with death and resurrection. John wrote that “whoever believes in Him, shall not parish, but rather have eternal life. New life begins at the point of responding to the call of Discipleship. Resurrection was very much a dying to self and being raised in God. Recall Jesus encounter with the Rich Young Ruler. According to Jewish Law, He had done everything right. He had kept the commandments, lived according to the law. And Jesus commended Him for His old life but then called him to new life. Sell all you have and give to the poor. Die to your old life, and embrace the new life of a Disciple. That would have been his moment of Resurrection, but He wanted no part of that and chose earthly life instead. When Nicodemus who was a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the Temple, came to Jesus, he was seeking a better life, but what Jesus told him was that he needed to embrace new birth, new life. For the Jews, a faith filled life was a matter of life and death. You lived as best you could according to the law, so that you could die well. But what Jesus was saying to the Disciples was I am life, I am resurrection, I am new life. In essence, Jesus was saying that a faith filled life is not a matter of life and death, but rather a matter of life on life. And that earthly death is just a momentary rest before the continuation of the journey. For the Saints we honor today, eternity began when they received Jesus Christ as their Lord, when they accepted New Life in Him. As part of the funeral ritual we talk about these who now rest in their labors, who die in Christ so that we can go forth to live for Him. So I Am the resurrection and life cannot be separated from the statement, I Am the Way. Jesus intended for resurrection to simply be the continuation of the journey. The unique message of John’s Gospel which is communicated by I Am the Resurrection and life is that, in the words of one pastor:
Eternal life is not something which happens to us only after we die. It begins not at the end of time, nor at death, but wherever and whenever anyone becomes linked up with the Eternal God through the living Christ in the here and now. Whoever believes in Him has Eternal Life, NOW.
So that in the words of Jesus: Here is the truth, whoever hears my word and believes Him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over (then) from death to life. So Jesus felt no sense of urgency to reach the tomb of Lazarus because He knew that Lazarus had already been resurrected to eternal life the day that he embraced his new life in Christ. The day he became a disciple. We’re told that Lazarus is a friend of Jesus. That term “friend” is a special one. James says of Abraham “that he was counted as righteous and he was called a friend of God.” In his farewell discourse Jesus says to the Disciples: “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” Lazarus had entered the way of eternal life long before Jesus called him from the tomb. Peter entered into the way of eternity when he dropped his fishing nets and followed Jesus. Matthew entered the way of eternal life when he stepped from the tax collectors booth and followed Jesus. Paul entered eternity when he encountered Jesus on the Damascus road and received new life. Eternal life is not the reward for a life of discipleship. It is the way of discipleship. New life in Christ will be lived out forever, no matter when it begins.
So when we come to partake of these elements of Holy Communion, we do not come to participate in the death of Christ, as some suspect. No, we come participate in Resurrection and step into a glorious eternity. I Am the resurrection and life is the invitation to you and I to travel through eternity with Him and for you and for me that journey can start today. So the question that the story of Lazarus leaves us with is What are you waiting for? Why are you waiting to begin eternity?