Christ Reformed United Church of Christ

This Sunday's Sermon




John 11:1-50


     How could I have known at the time of my graduation from seminary that I’d just spent three years preparing to do ministry in a universe that would no longer exist at the time of my retirement from full-time, settled ministry? The decades since 1984 will undoubtedly be designated as a hinge-point in history. Call it the Digital Revolution: in importance, not unlike the Industrial Revolution, during which production shifted from hand-made to machine manufactured, or the revolution in science, literature, enlightenment, and knowledge that was sparked by Mr. Gutenberg’s invention of the movable-type printing press. My seminary student sermons, for example, were prepared on a Smith-Corona portable electric typewriter without built-in correction tape. Goodness knows how many pints of liquid white-out all those assignment papers sucked up. When driving home for Christmas break, I’d listen to music stored on a compact cassette tape. I would, in my early years of ministry, share photographic interpretations of the Psalms by way of my Kodak Carousel Slide Projector – hoping and praying that the light bulb wouldn’t burn out when turning it on. Nowadays I can research a sermon, listen to music, show my vacation photos, watch a movie, check my calendar, keep in touch with friends, do a real-time video conversation to the far corners of the earth with both of my children (at the same time), take in the daily news, turn on a flashlight, pull up a travel route, check a map, and read a novel (among other things) on a small, single device that fits in my pocket.   


     Think, then, on how Mary, Martha, and their brother, Lazarus, also lived through a hinge-point in time. What, after all, did they see and hear when hanging around their friend, Jesus of Nazareth? They saw deaf people hearing, blind men seeing; sick women made well, the dark spirits being bashed, poor families fed, and dead children coming back to life – indeed, even Lazarus coming back to life after having been four days in the tomb! What they witnessed were the very things that had been foretold in the ancient Hebrew Scriptures regarding God’s future. So let’s unpack that.  


     Let’s start with that part of the story when Martha gently scolded Jesus. "If only you’d been here,” she protested. Now when’s the last time that you and I did the "If only” routine? "If only I’d taken better care of myself… If only I’d worked at it a little longer or harder… If only we’d taken that investment advice…” Martha wanted to do a make-over: "If only…” Yet Jesus is bound and determined to point her away from the past and toward the future. "Your brother will rise again,” he promises. Well! Yeah! Like most of the Jewish faithful – with the exception of the Sadducees – Martha put hope in a hand-full of later Jewish prophecies that foretold of a future resurrection. "Many of those whose bodies lie dead and buried will rise up,” says Daniel 12:2 – "some to everlasting life and some to… everlasting disgrace.”


     Then, too, God’s Messenger, Isaiah, had expanded on that hope to cover ALL of God’s Creation. Listen to a few selected sentences from Isaiah 65… "Look [saith the LORD God], I am creating new heavens and a new earth, and no one will even think about the old ones anymore… Rejoice forever in my creation… The sound of weeping and crying will be heard in it no more. No longer will babies die when only a few days old. No longer will adults die before they have lived a full life... My people will live as long as trees… They will not work in vain, and their children will not be doomed to misfortune… The wolf and the lamb will feed together… In those days no one will be hurt or destroyed on my holy mountain. I, the LORD, have spoken.”


     Martha’s hope for Lazarus, then, was that he’d someday be given New Life made fit to share an existence in God’s New Creation. Yet her flat response to Jesus’ words – "Your brother will rise again” – suggests that the hope he’d offered was of little value in the present moment. That’s when Master Jesus lobbed at her his awesome surprise – namely, that God’s future was about to invade the present like an explosion of light. So what’s that mean? Gospel John is telling us that Jesus not only comes from heaven to earth, as we sing of it every Christmas, but that he has likewise come from God’s future Kingdom-come-on-earth-as-it-is-in-Heaven into the messiness and suffering of the present darkness. Jesus’ earthbound ministry is, in other words, a preview – a glimpse, if you will – of how it will be when that part of the Lord’s Prayer comes true; of how God’s New Creation will be experienced when Jesus comes again to complete God’s work once and for all time.  


     Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the life.” Now there are two things to be said of that one sentence. Jesus did NOT say, in the first place, "I will someday be the resurrection and the life.” On the contrary! The gift of New Life that Jesus offers his followers is for right here and right now! Eternal Life is not simply about more time for living; it’s about a healthier quality of living – a quality of hope, faith, and love Divine that neither life, nor death, nor anything in Creation can ever destroy. Neither is resurrection – in the second instance – a mere point of Christian doctrine. Resurrection wears a face! Resurrection is a person! Resurrection is, in fact, the same person who stood before Martha and Mary, asking them to take a leap of faith. What he’s doing, suggests another preacher, is asking Mary and Martha to replace the words "If only…” with the words, "If Jesus…” Think on it this way: IF Jesus really is God-With-Us, and IF Jesus really is the embodiment of Life and Resurrection Power, then what does it mean when a person casts their lot with him? How very different will the future appear!?


     Well! What do you suppose it meant for Lazarus that Jesus resuscitated his dead body back to life? What’s it usually mean for people who’ve been brought back to life after having been pronounced clinically dead? It meant that Lazarus was given a new appreciation for life and living. It meant that he was given a new perspective on death and dying. Whatever fears, worries, and insecurities; whatever boredom, self-doubt, bitterness, and envy had characterized his life before death and resuscitation surely seemed rather silly and shallow after having been given a second shot at life. Here’s the paradox: perhaps the greater concern for us – as it had become for Lazarus – should NOT be the concern for life after death but, instead, the Godly way to a rich, meaningful, and joyful life BEFORE death. Remember what’s been said: Eternal Life is a present reality that’s defined as a quality of hope, faith, and love-full living that survives death.


     Years ago, Dr. Ashley Montegu, a renowned anthropologist, spoke at the University of Miami. While being chauffeured from his hotel to the campus, he observed crowds of people walking the Gold Coast streets and beaches. He turned to his student escort and said, "The living dead.” The young student – perhaps having seen a movie about zombies, called by the same name – was taken aback and asked his guest what he meant by it. "I see people here trying so hard to have a good time,” replied Dr. Montegu, "but they have a hollow look about them. They appear empty behind the eyes. Many of them live so superficially. I can’t think of any way to describe them but as the living dead.”


     I mentioned two weeks ago the result of a survey taken among university students. The survey results tell that more students than not were "hooking up” – that is, doing casual, "one-night-stands.” The sad part of the survey had to do with what the students actually wanted to do. Most of them really DID want to date, go a’ courting, and get married in much the same way as their grandparents did it. So why, pray tell, do young Americans spurn their own desires for deeper kinds of relationships? One of the study authors put it this way: "Because everybody else is hooking up you assume that they do it because they like it – whereas you know that you don't like it that much, but you do it to go along.” It makes you wonder if the same reason would be given for binge drinking, for taking dangerous medications bought off the street, and for otherwise caving in the desires of the crowd, even toward self-defeating ends. "I can’t think of any way to describe them,” said the good doctor, "but as the living dead.”


      Is there, then, a healthier and more productive way to cope with life’s fears and hard knocks? Indeed! There is; and Lazarus found it! Lazarus found the Godly Way to cope with challenge, struggle, and hurt. By sticking with the Savior of his life he found the hope and the peace, the joy and the Grace – the New Life – that Jesus offers to all who follow in his Way. Then, too, when we realize that the raising of Lazarus’ is Jesus’ last public sign and wonder prior to his suffering and crucifixion, it should be obvious that Jesus himself endured the worst of ALL life’s hard knocks – the "knocks” of rejection, mockery, humiliation, torture, suffering, and death. So how did HE cope with all that?  


    What, do you suppose, occupied Jesus’ time during those two days he waited before going to Lazarus’ tomb? Surely he spent that time with God – praying, listening, and striving to discern God’s meaning for his life. Jesus knew, after all, that his twelve disciples were absolutely correct when they warned him away from going back to the very same place where powerful men had already tried to kill him. Jesus therefore spent those days submerged in God’s will – thinking on the goodness of God who forgives; thinking on the astonishing way in which God’s Glory and salvation are about to be revealed; thinking on God’s Power to transform and give New Life – to make a New Creation.   


     Of God’s plan – as Jesus discerned it so clearly during those two days he waited – we get a hint when the Jewish leader, Caiaphas, put it to the Jewish Council in this way: "You don’t realize that it’s better for you that one man should die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed.” Ol’ Caiaphas said more than he knew! God, in Christ, HAS given his people New Life by loving them to death – literally, loving them TO DEATH! To every man, woman, and young person who casts their lot with him, Christ crucified gives the only gifts that last – the gifts of hope, faith, joy, and Love Divine. To those who have eyes to see, Jesus Christ is the promised One whose work reveals God’s Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. To the hurting, struggling, and stressed-out souls who have ears to hear, Jesus of Nazareth IS the resurrection and the life.