Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Sermon for April 10th: John 11:1-45

Adding Life to Your Days

Like many of you, I’ve attended my share of funerals over the years, and of course as a pastor I’ve conducted lots of them as well. I know the reactions that death tends to provoke in people. No matter how strong our Christian faith is, we all find death difficult to deal with. This is even true when the person has died a natural death, full of years and ready to meet their Lord. It’s even harder when it is the death of a friend the same age as ourselves, a person who had died before their time, or the death of a brother or sister or even, worst of all, of one of our own children. When death strikes, it raises urgent issues in our minds: Why has this happened? Where has she gone? Why did God let this happen? Where is God in all of this? And perhaps most threatening of all: What will happen to me when I die?

We can see people dealing with these sorts of issues in verses 36-37 of our gospel reading. There we read that when the people at the tomb of Lazarus saw Jesus weeping, some said, “See how he loved him!” And still today, at the graveside of a friend, some will say wistfully, “God really loves us – he’s weeping with us now, sharing our grief”. Some indeed will go further, and say that weeping is all God can do in the situation – God is not all-powerful; he would like to prevent evil in the world, but he can’t. That’s the view that Rabbi Harold Kushner takes in his bestselling book When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

Other people at Lazarus’ graveside commented “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” And in the same way today, in the face of death, skeptics will ask “If there’s a loving God, why couldn’t he stop this from happening?” Their conclusion is that God doesn’t exist, or that he doesn’t really care, or even that he is punishing the one who has died, or their family.

In this passage Jesus is leading us to a different view, a view that sees death as an enemy, but a temporary enemy. But he isn’t just talking to us about death in this passage; he’s talking about life, too. John Henry Newman once said, “Fear not that your life will end; fear rather that it might never begin”. We know what he’s talking about, because we sometimes look at people and say to them “Get a life!” We understand that there’s more to real life than just biology; that it’s possible to be alive physically and yet not be ‘living’ in the full sense of the word.

But what exactly is ‘real life’? How do you get it? Does Jesus have anything helpful to say on this subject? In fact he does, and in this passage he talks about both life before death and life after death – what we might call the two issues of ‘adding days to your life’ and ‘adding life to your days’.

Let’s start by thinking about our future hope. And at the outset we need to remind ourselves that Jewish beliefs about life after death were very different from the popular beliefs of most people today. Jews in the time of Jesus didn’t put so much emphasis on the immortality of the soul as on the resurrection of the body. For them the issue was not individuals going to heaven after they die, but rather the coming of heaven to earth, the coming of the kingdom of God.

Jewish people in the time of Jesus believed that when God’s kingdom came in all its fulness, evil would be finally defeated forever and life on earth would be renewed as God had originally planned it. Some of them also believed that God would work through the Messiah, a King like David, to bring about this kingdom. But the question then arose, “What about the many righteous people who have worked and prayed for that day, but who died without seeing it come to pass. Have they lost their chance of participating in it?” Not at all, came the answer – God will raise them from the dead so that they can join with us in the joy of his kingdom on earth.

In today’s gospel reading Jesus clearly accepts this Jewish belief in the resurrection of the dead. However, he makes one important modification: the way to the resurrection is to believe in him. And so he says to Martha “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (vv.25-26). The Jewish belief was that ‘the righteous’ would be raised from the dead, but the New Testament authors realised that in fact none of us is righteous. As Paul says, ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). Therefore it was necessary for Jesus to give his life for the sins of the whole world, so that all who believe in him could receive forgiveness and the hope of resurrection.

In this passage Jesus refers to death as ‘sleep’; he says “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him” (v.11). This language is used for the death of Christians throughout the New Testament. The reason is surely that sleep is a temporary state; one who sleeps is going to wake up again. And so for the Christian death is temporary; all who are joined to Jesus through faith and baptism will one day experience the resurrection just as Jesus did. The raising of Lazarus is a visual aid to help you and I understand our future – with the important difference that his resurrection was only temporary, whereas ours will be permanent.

As he faced his execution at the hands of the Gestapo the German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “This is the end – for me, the beginning of life”. Like Bonhoeffer, we can face death with confidence, knowing that the time will come when God will add ‘days to our life’ – endless days, in fact! This is what we believe for those who have gone before us: the resurrection morning will come for them, and for us, and we will share together in the glorious coming of the Kingdom of God in all its fullness.

But that’s not all; this passage is pointing to something deeper still. If we look closely we see that in fact two people are given life in this story – Lazarus, but also his sister Martha. Martha begins to experience eternal life, not just as a future hope, but also as a present reality. Let’s think a bit more about this.

In my files I have a Beetle Bailey cartoon in which the old colonel’s wife comes to him and says “I’ve mapped out a new regimen for you”. He asks, “Why?” She says “Everyone should try to get rid of their bad habits and replace them with good ones. Diet, exercise, moderation in all things – that’s the key! Avoid alcohol, rich food, unsafe sex, exposure to sun on the golf course…”. Again he asks “Why?”, but she’s still reading from her list: “…avoid prolonged TV sports viewing, boozing with your buddies”. He cries out “Why?” “So you can live longer”, she replies, and this time he yells out “Why?”

I call that a ‘God-shaped question’. Why would you want to live longer if you can’t enjoy your longer life? There’s more to life than just physical existence lasting as long as possible. And so in this gospel Jesus talks not just about adding ‘days to our life’, but also adding ‘life to our days’.

Somebody once asked Jesus ‘”What are the most important issues in life?” Well, the actual question was ‘Which commandment is the greatest?” but the meaning is the same. Jesus’ response was that the most important issues in life are our relationships with God and with other people; he commanded us to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. “Do this”, Jesus said, “and you will live”. But the converse is also true: miss this, and you will miss out on the whole point of life. Even though your heart will still be pumping blood around your body, you will not be alive in the full sense of that word.

This is the new kind of life Jesus came to give us. He says to his Father, “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3), and of his disciples he says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

To be a Christian, in the New Testament, is to learn to live in a way that is so powerful and real that what came before seems like death in comparison. This was the incredible discovery that the early Christians made. One of them reflected on this experience and wrote these words: ‘You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived… but God…made us alive together with Christ’ (Ephesians 2:1, 4-5).

If this language seems extreme to you, think of the words people sometimes use to describe the experience of falling in love. In the movie Shadowlands the filmmaker puts some words into C.S. Lewis’ mouth. Lewis says to his wife Joy, “I began to live the day I met you”. Now, let’s remember that he was in his fifties when he met her! He had thought that he was alive all that time, but looking back he sees that his former life was so empty and drab compared to what he was now experiencing that it was like not being alive at all. And what had caused this incredible new quality of life he was experiencing? It was caused by a love relationship with another human being. Lovers speak like this all the time, and we know what they mean. How much more, then, will the discovery of a love relationship with the living God raise us up from mere biological life to the abundant life Jesus promised us!

In some people’s lives this is very dramatic. Here’s one such story that I found in a book by William Barclay:

He was an American army chaplain on a troopship in which 1,500 marines were returning from Japan to America for discharge. Greatly to his surprise he was approached by a small group to do Bible study with them. He leapt at the opportunity. Near the end of the voyage, they were studying this chapter (the raising of Lazarus) and afterwards a marine came to him. “Everything in that chapter”, he said, “is pointing at me”. He went on to say that he had been in hell for the past six months. He had gone straight into the marines from college. He had been sent out to Japan. He had been bored with life; and he had gone out and got into trouble – bad trouble. Nobody knew about it – except God. He felt guilty; he felt his life was ruined; he felt he could never face his family although they need never know; he felt he had killed himself and was a dead man. “And”, said this young marine, “after reading this chapter I have come alive again. I know that this resurrection Jesus was talking about is here and now, for he has raised me from death to life”. That lad’s troubles were not finished; he had a hard road to go on; but in his sin and his sense of guilt he had found Jesus as the resurrection and the life.

Perhaps your discovery of new life in Jesus hasn’t been so dramatic as that. The drama isn’t important; what is important is the reality of our connection with the living God through his Son Jesus Christ. This relationship with Christ is the ultimate way to ‘add life to our days’.

In this passage, you see, a two-part invitation is being given to us: an invitation to be raised from the dead in the future, and an invitation to live an abundant life in the present. Of course, the two are connected; it’s precisely because God’s life can come into us in the here and now that our life with him will never end.

So the question this passage puts to us is “Are we experiencing this reality?” And if we want to know how to experience it, the passage doesn’t leave us in the dark. Jesus says to us as he said to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (vv.25-26).

That’s the question for us: ‘Do you believe this?’ This isn’t just a question about intellectual beliefs but about trust and commitment. Am I willing to stake my life on Jesus? He is inviting all of us to come to him, to put our lives in his hands in faith, and thereby to discover the abundant life God planned for us from the beginning.

In a few moments most of us will all come forward to receive Holy Communion. In our church, when I say the words ‘The body of Christ broken for you’ and ‘The blood of Christ shed for you’, we are invited to reply, ‘Amen’. ‘Amen’ is a Hebrew word that means ‘I agree’, or ‘Yes, I believe this’. Let me suggest that as we come forward to receive communion today we remember Jesus’ question to Martha, “Do you believe this?” Let’s also remember that Holy Communion is one of the ways we are offered assurance of eternal life; as Jesus says in John 6, ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day’ (John 6:54). So as you receive your communion today, let me suggest that you take this opportunity to reaffirm your faith in Christ with a wholehearted ‘Amen’. Jesus says to us as he said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Let us reply, in spirit and in truth, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who has come into the world to save us’. And all the people said…Amen!

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