Jesus is the Life (John 11:25-26)
Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Sunday, April 10, 2011
5th Sunday of Lent, 5th Sunday of Church-wide Study - Culture Making
Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Festival of the Dedication, and while there, he said works (teachings and miracles) were testimony that he was the Messiah and the Son of God. Some did not like what he had to say. They wanted to stone him to death. The would-be executioners accused him of equating himself with God. He did not deny it (10:33-36). They wanted to kill him for blasphemy. He escaped and went away from Jerusalem, east of the Jordan River.
About that time, illness hit his good friend Lazarus who lived in Bethany. with his sisters Martha and Mary. When death was near, the sisters sent for Jesus. Bethany was in the shadow of Jerusalem, a short walk from the temple. To go back would be to return to where important people wanted to kill Jesus and were ready to do so without warning. Martha and Mary wanted him to come anyway, so he could save Lazarus.
Jesus waited. He took his time and continued his work. He told the disciples that the illness of Lazarus would show God’s glory (11:4). The disciples surely did not understand how a terminal illness could bring glory to God, but they had heard something like this before. Jesus said that a man they met was blind in order that “God’s works might be revealed in him” (9:3).
Curious. The glory of God is seen in deadly disease. The work of God is seen precisely because one is blind. Are there conditions that we see – epilepsy, muscular dystrophy, diabetes, cancer, cystic fibrosis, alcoholism – that help us see God and see and experience the life God has for us?
Without hurry, Jesus made his way back toward Jerusalem, to the village of Bethany, to the home of Lazarus and his sisters. The disciples reminded Jesus of the death threats, and he replied, “Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them” (11:9b-10). By “stumble,” Jesus did not mean “die.” He did die, horribly, on a Roman cross. But death of the body was not his major concern.
In John 1, we read that Jesus is “the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it” (1:4b-5). In Jesus’ eyes, life is walking in the light and he is the light. The death of the body is not the end of life as long as the one who dies, dies in Him, the Light.
By the time Jesus and his nervous disciples made it to Bethany, Lazarus had been dead 4 days. Jesus has a theological conversation with Martha and an emotional one with Mary, and then he goes to the tomb. He commands the stone to be moved away. As weeping mourners looked on, Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man walked out of the grave alive.
When Martha talked with Jesus before he brought Lazarus back to life, she was unhappy. Jesus had not prevented Lazarus’ death. She didn’t know he would raise Lazarus that day. As they talked, Martha affirms her belief in an end-times resurrection. The idea of the dead rising was prevalent in Israel at the time. She believed it, but she didn’t want to wait for the end time. She wanted Lazarus to be alive and well right then and there. Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.”
Most church goes believe what Martha believed – at the end, there is a resurrection. Even though we die, if we believe in Jesus, we will live, someday. Speculation about when someone goes to heaven after death is never-ending. Do we go to Heaven the moment we die? At death do we lie in a sleeping state and go to Heaven at Christ’s Second Coming or on Judgment Day?
Jesus blows up that sort of thinking with what he says next. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live. And everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Whoa! Really, Jesus? Can we trust what he says? I ask because we know a lot of people who have died. I ran down the list - epilepsy, muscular dystrophy, diabetes, cancer, cystic fibrosis, alcoholism, heart disease; people die. My mom recently read an obituary. It said someone had died of old age. That old lady believed in Jesus, the Jesus who said, “Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” She died.
Death is reality. Twelve 12 people died during the Columbine High School shootings 12 years ago. Thirty-two people died in 2007 after a shooting rampage at Virginia Tech. Almost 2000 deaths are attributed to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina. On September 11, 2001, about 3000 died in the terrorist attacks on our country. Nearly 6000 have died in our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, dating back to 2003. They don’t grab the headlines, but alcohol-related traffic accidents kill 10,000 annually.
In 2008, Cyclone Nargis hit Burma and claimed 85,000 lives and 54,000 people are still missing. Three hundred deaths are due to the earthquake that hit Haiti last year. Tragedies dominate the news. What is less reported is the 2 million people who died of AIDS in 2008. CNN and BBC and other news outlets give less attention to the 10.9 million children who die of hunger ever year. That’s 30,000 children who will die today for lack of food – we know about death. So how do we swallow Jesus’ assertion that “Everyone who lives and believes in [Him] will never die.” Yes they do. People do die.
An MSNBC interviewer badgered a well-known Christian leader recently. The interviewer said, “Does God care about the suffering in Japan right now?”[i]
Christian leader: “Yes.”
Interviewer: “Is God unable to do anything to help?”
Christian leader: “Of course God could help.”
Interviewer: “Well which is it? Does God care, but is unable to help? Or, is God able to help, but doesn’t care?” It must be one or the other. Which is it?
I thought, “What would I do if I were in that pastor’s place, on TV, and an interviewer peppered me like that?” The first thing that came to me was to say, there are many worse things the interviewer could pick up. I’ve named many – war, disease, other disasters, alcohol-related deaths. Every time there is death, we could ask, which is it? Does God care, but is unable to help? Or, is God able to help, but doesn’t care?” It must be one or the other. Which is it?
Unless Jesus means something different when he says “live” and “die.” Maybe he uses those words in the differently than we do.
Jesus said Lazarus’ illness would lead to God’s glory, but it led to death. When Jesus commanded the stone to be rolled from the grave, Martha protested. The rotting corpse would stink. Jesus responded, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” There it is again – God’s glory.
Bringing Lazarus to life was a sign of glory; God’s glory is Jesus. “I am the resurrection and the life.” Both resurrection and life are important. To understand the glory revealed in Jesus, we focus on the second part.
“I am … the life.” Later, when Jesus gives final instructions to the disciples before he is arrested, he says to them, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Life is not the flowing of blood through a body, the breathing in of air, the consumption of food. That’s life for animals. People are created for a special relationship with God, made in the image of God. Life for people, God’s image bearers, is relationship with Jesus.
When he says, “Everyone who lives and believes in [Him] will never die,” he’s saying belief – faith – is life. Death does not interrupt it. Though the heart stops, and the body dies, there is no interruption in the God-human relationship for the one who has put complete trust in Jesus.
Many people have died in Japan in the last couple of weeks. Those who knew Jesus still know Jesus and never for a second stopped knowing Him. Though their perished, the relationship was not broken. I don’t know if they’re in heaven right now or in a restful waiting place. The Bible isn’t that clear. But Jesus is clear that he is the life and that everyone who sees Him for who he is – the Son of God, the Lord, the Savior –will have the life. The disasters survivors who do not know Christ are are on a trajectory toward eternal death.
We do not seek the death of the body but neither do we fear it. Our time on earth ends when it ends. We know life is Jesus, so we seek to be in Christ. When we are in Christ, the death of our bodies, whenever that comes, is for the glory of God.
Life is eternal because Jesus is eternal. A rich young ruler asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus told him to sell all his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor, and then, when he had nothing left, he was to come and follow Jesus. His question was about eternal life. Eternal life is had when we give up everything and follow Jesus. Eternal life is understood when we realize it’s not about our life spans on earth; it is about life in Christ. That does not end.
What does eternal life assume about the world? It assumes that the fate of the world is not the same as the fate of humanity. This world will end. We do not have to end. The key to eternity is faith in Jesus. Our fate is tied to our faith in Him.
What does eternal life assume about the way the world should be? Eternal life assumes human beings should desire things of eternal value over things of temporary value. A human life is of temporary value. Jesus raised Lazarus to the reality that Lazarus would go through the painful death of the body again. In John 12, the religious leaders are plotting to bring about Lazarus’ death. Lazarus’ should desire relationship with Jesus should more than health or life; that relationship won’t end and in the resurrection, he will have a new, incorruptible body. Eternal life assumes we should desire eternity over health, over money and power, and over all earthly things.
What does eternal life make possible? It is possible for Christ-followers to think and talk differently about death than those who do not know Him. It would be a sad lack of faith if we did otherwise. We aren’t casual about death or dismissive. If someone I love dies, it hurts. If it was my wife or one of my children, it would crush me beyond belief. But, in a place deep inside me or anyone who follows Jesus, the posture toward death is not what it would be if I didn’t know Him. Jesus is the life and he makes it possible for us to treat death for what it is – painful, but not an end.
What does eternal life make impossible? Hopeless grief is impossible. Grief is appropriate. Jesus displayed grief. As Mary wept at the fate of her brother Lazarus, Jesus also wept. He knew Lazarus would be raised, but he wept at Mary’s sadness and at the way sin blinded people from seeing Him and seeing God at work. Jesus wept. We are encouraged to weep if weeping expresses what’s in us. But, when we know the life, Jesus, it is impossible for us to be hopeless. Even our sadness is filled with eternal hope.
What new culture is created by eternal life? In Christ, we have unending fellowship with God and one another. It is a culture of unbroken friendship, uninterrupted relationship. This culture begins shaping our view of reality the minute we ask Christ in and begin giving our lives completely to Him. Eternal life does not start at the death of the body. Eternal life starts when we are born again. It is more fully experienced once we enter the resurrection, but it begins now. All in Christ are already eternally alive.
No matter what comes your way – the good, the bad, and the ugly – remember that Jesus is the life and we have that life now. When people die, we grieve and comfort. When there’s a disaster like the tragedy of hunger that kills millions, we rush to help. As we do so, we share the gospel knowing that when others come to Jesus, they enter eternal life.
[i] At the time of this writing a major earthquake and subsequent tsunami rocked Japan (March 27, 2011) and the disasters lead to a major nuclear power plan meltdown. http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/magnitude-65-earthquake-rattles-eastern-japan-again-tsunami-alert-issued/2011/03/27/AFFFlvkB_story.html.