Sermon delivered by Joel Snider, pastor of First Baptist Church in Rome, G.A., on Apr. 12 2009.
John 11: 17-27.
The most observant of you will notice that when we read the scripture from John 11 that it is not an Easter story. It is not about the resurrection of Jesus. It is about Christ raising Lazarus. Those of you who are extra, extra perceptive will even notice that it is really not a story about resurrection. Some people differentiate and call it a resuscitation because Lazarus has been raised from his tomb and will die again.
The reason for looking at the story of Lazarus on this Easter Sunday can be found several weeks ago. We looked at the great statements of Jesus in the Gospel of John when he said, “I am,” and he spoke the words, “I am the Good Shepherd. I am the Light of the world. I am the bread of life.” All of these are wonderful statements that help us see into the heart of God and understand what Jesus wants to do for us. Not until we have connected all the dots and not until we have come to this moment on Easter Sunday can we take in the last of his statements, the Great I Am when he says, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
Through the lens of Easter, we look back into this experience before his crucifixion and death when he has come to raise his good friend, Lazarus. The story is actually a very long story. The Reader’s Digest version would include that Jesus and his disciples had gone to Judea because Jesus was in danger. They heard of Lazarus’ illness and Jesus delayed on purpose. This was a little confusing for the disciples, and finally Jesus said, “Our good friend Lazarus is asleep.” They did not get it. They thought, “If he is sleeping, he is going to be fine.” Jesus said, “No, he is dead and we are going back to do something about it.”
Jesus went back and he did not get there until Lazarus had been dead four days. In the ancient tradition of the Jews at this time, there was a belief that the spirit would hover around the body for about four days, and after that time, the spirit was gone. If you can imagine the climate in that part of the world and a dead body, after four days it is pretty noticeably on the way to decay. In both the Old and the New Testaments, God waited until there was absolutely no way to explain something other than it was the hand of God. So Jesus waited until the fourth day after his death, and he went and had an encounter with sister Martha. Martha came to greet him, and at the moment, her main concern was trying to think of what they could have done to prevent the death of Lazarus. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”
I imagine Jesus speaking in a very soft voice, in almost a whisper, trying to calm her and reassure her saying, “Martha, your brother will live again.”
“O, yes Lord, I know on that day when God raises everybody from the dead that he is going to live on that day. I know on the day when God resurrects the dead, Lazarus will live.”
I think again he must have softened his voice to get her attention and he said, “Martha, I am the resurrection and the life.”
It is as if for her the dots are all now connected. She had believed in the resurrection. She had believed that there was something very unique about Jesus but she had not put the two of them together until now. It was like one of those books that we got when we were children where you connected all the dots and finally the picture was clear. Here it was. The picture was clear. Resurrection is tied up with Jesus and she said, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the son of God, who has come into the world.”
They went and found Mary and Jesus repeated almost the identical scene with her. Mary, once again, talked about how Jesus could have prevented Lazarus’ death if he had been there. Jesus was not interested in preventing death. He was interested in curing it. They went to the tomb and Jesus was weeping there at the tomb of Lazarus. That is the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept.” Finally, he called for his friend. He said, “Lazarus, come forth.” Lazarus came from the grave.
What would your reaction have been if you had been there and seen this? It is absolutely amazing. If you read further into the chapter, the reaction was to kill Jesus. Most of us think if we could see a miracle, that would seal the deal. Any doubt in my life would be gone. Let me see manna from heaven. Let me see Jesus turn water into wine. That would be really wonderful, but I would never have a doubt after seeing Jesus bring somebody up out of the grave. But many of the people who saw this plotted to kill Jesus.
If we think about this particular story that took place almost 2,000 years ago and how it has an impact in our lives today, we realize that one of the things we have to deal with is that miracles are never quite as convincing as we think they would be. It is really true. People who already believe find their faith is deepened. People who already believe begin to hear the things that seem so extraordinary and their eyes are opened and they think, “O yes, of course, Jesus could do this. O yes, now I see it. Now I put it together.” But the people who do not want to believe always have a different explanation. Jesus faced this throughout his ministry. He cast out demons and some people said, “O, isn’t it wonderful! This person has been saved and healed.” And other people would say, “You know how he can do that, don’t you? He can cast out devils because he is in league with the Devil.” People who don’t want to believe can always find another explanation. That’s why many of us gathered here today hear the story and think about the empty tomb. For us, we think, “How could you not believe in that? How do you explain it? Where did his body go?”
How do you explain the change in the disciples? Instead of being such scared little disciples, tucked away in a room, hiding, for fear the Romans are going to come find them, they turn into missionary machines who go out and spread the name of Christ all over the world. How do you explain that? If you don’t believe it, somebody always has an explanation for that.
For those of us who do believe, we understand, but don’t expect to convince somebody who does not already believe. Remember, the only thought of many of the people who saw Lazarus come out of the grave was, “How do we stop Jesus?”
This great claim that Jesus makes, “I am the resurrection and the life,” to us sounds simply like promise. What a great promise that Jesus is the resurrection and the life and because of him we can have life everlasting. Not only is this a promise, this is also separation. There is a separation that takes place here because of this.
We do not like to admit how much we become like the culture. Christians often find that our values, our outlook on life, the things that we believe about Christ and the Bible are oftentimes shaped as much by the world around us as anything that takes place in church or in the Bible that we read.
For instance, what really gives us life? In the culture around us, there is this general sense that there is a spiritual plane that exists. Most of us have the opportunity to exist in this spiritual plane where life never ends and you can keep on living, too. We are shaped in this by everything from Patrick Swayze’s movie, Ghost, to Earl the Angel, on Saving Grace. We have this general sense that there is a spiritual dimension and everybody can always be in contact with it and we can live forever.
Martha had a general hope in resurrection. It was only when she heard Jesus say it and he was looking her in the eyes and all of a sudden, ding, ding, ding, the lights went on, and she said, “O, I get it. It is all wrapped up in you. It is not just the natural order of things. It is believing who you are.”
Those of you who have attended funerals or memorial services where I have officiated know that one of the things I always try to say is that the promise is not that somehow the human soul is immortal. That is not what the scripture says. The scripture says that God raised Christ from the dead and all those who love Christ cannot be separated from him.
When Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life,” it’s not just, “Everybody be happy. Everybody can think about eternal life in whatever way you want to. Many are the paths to eternal life.” That’s not what he is saying. It is wrapped up in Christ. I know a lot of us wish it were the other way around because it would be so much easier not to have to make a commitment to Christ. It would be easier not to have to love Christ but just believe it is going to happen because that is the way it is. While Jesus is giving us a problem, he is also making a claim. When he says, “I am the resurrection and the life,” we recognize that this great hope of ours is not just hope in something general; it’s hope in Christ. We place our trust in him. We love him, and as Paul said in Romans, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus, our Lord.”
I love the part when Martha said, “Lord, I know that when the resurrection comes, my brother is going to live again.” Jesus brought the power of the resurrection into the present tense then, and the power of the resurrection has never stopped being in the present tense since. Never. “I am the resurrection and the life.” He is saying, “Where I am the power of God for life exists.” If you only remember one thing from the sermon today, remember this.
We don’t believe that Jesus is alive today simply because of something that we read, no matter how important that may be. We believe that Jesus Christ is alive in the world today because we have experienced him in the present tense. Almost everybody in this room could name a time where something happened, and all of a sudden, you realized that it was not just a story. Christ is here. Christ is real. We can think about times when we prayed and a peace came over us and it was almost like there was a presence with us.
I have mentioned this before. People have told me, “I am almost afraid to tell you about this because you will think I am nuts.” Then they will tell you a story about something that was going on in their life and it was as if a voice spoke to them or it was as if there was a person in the room and they could see something. Other people described it in slightly different ways but there is a sense that it is not just what we read about an empty tomb. We have met this person. This person has spoken in our lives and lifted us up out of the pit. This person has done something for us and we know that Christ is alive.
In the history of the great Christian faith, some of the more famous Christians have expressed it in different ways. John Wesley, the great Methodist, said he just felt “strangely warmed.” He didn’t know how to explain it but there was something that touched him. Pascal, the French philosopher, had an amazing experience and he wrote it down and sewed it into the lining of his coat. He said, “Fire. The God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and the scholars . . .” and he listed the date. He talked about the power of God was so real that it burst into his life.
It is not just people hundreds of years ago. Eldridge Cleaver, the head of the Black Panthers, talked about having a dark night of the soul in which he thought about all the great revolutionaries of the world. Finally, he came to Jesus Christ and that was the one that was real—not just history, but real.
Then there is Chuck Colson who is one of the great political hit men of the 20th Century. He went from being one of the greatest scoundrels, one of the men who was most feared in politics, to a person who works for truth, reconciliation, and forgiveness in the prison ministry. These people did these things because the person who said, “I am the resurrection and the life,” said that to them in the present tense and Christ became real.
This isn’t about what happened. This is about what happens now. Jesus Christ is real in this world. We can try to explain away things the best we can, but Jesus Christ is real in this world. There are times when we have prayed and have received an answer to what we prayed for. There are times when we prayed and got a different reply. We realized that was the answer and it was better than what we prayed for. In times when we didn’t get any answer but got a presence, this was more helpful than if the prayer had been answered.
Jesus Christ is alive and present in this world today. If the story of the empty tomb doesn’t really do it for you, what if you simply prayed, “Christ, be real to me today.” Would you take that challenge to say, “Jesus, be real to me today. Lift my heart. Bless my spirit. Give me the peace that I need. Give me the joy that I have never had.” That is a very dangerous prayer to pray because Christ is real, and when you least expect it, Christ may answer that prayer.
Since the day Jesus came to Martha on the way to the tomb of his friend, Lazarus, and said, “I am the resurrection and the life,” he has not ceased being that. We are here today as living testimony that he is that for us even now.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.