RESURRECTION SUNDAY, 2016
When people or things in our life die, we want to know why God didn’t prevent it. Perhaps he has something better in mind than fixing this imperfect life here and now.
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I’ll bet you never guess what I want to talk about this week. That’s right. I’m going to teach about the birth of Jesus. Just kidding of course.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central truth on which all Christian theology depends. If Jesus wasn’t really raised from the dead, then he was a madman or megalomaniac. But if he was truly raised, then what he said was true; and he said he was God the Son, come into the world for our salvation.
I have talked before about the theological implications of the resurrection. I probably will again in the future. I have shared with you substantial evidence that supports the claim that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. I’ll do that again in the future also. But this year, I want to talk about the resurrection in a personal way. To do that, I want to consider a different resurrection: the resurrection of Lazarus, recorded in John chapter 11:1-53. Don’t get me wrong, this is also about the resurrection of Jesus. However, I think by considering what happened in this incident, we can learn some things about Jesus’ resurrection, and the eternal life he offers us.
Jesus was at least two days of traveling from his friends Lazarus, Mary and Martha. Lazarus became seriously ill, and so the sisters sent word to Jesus. What John says next is pretty strange:
John connects two things that don’t seem like they should be connected. He says Jesus loved Lazarus, so when he heard Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was. Sometimes it is helpful to pay attention to the connecting words like “so,” and “therefore.” I checked the Greek, and sure enough, “so” is a good translation. But what kind of sense does that make? I can see John writing, “Jesus loved Lazarus, but when he heard he was sick, he stayed where he was anyway.” Or it would make sense to say, “Jesus loved Lazarus, so when he heard he was sick, he hurried to his side.” But John very deliberately connects the fact that Jesus loved Lazarus to the fact that he didn’t go to him, and allowed him to die.
Now, of course, that isn’t the end of the story. Jesus does go eventually back – after Lazarus has died and been in the ground for four days. He speaks to Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary. Martha says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” This is actually a statement, but implied here is a question: “Why did you let him die? Why didn’t you come when we called?”
We know the end of this particular story. Jesus had bigger plans for Lazarus than merely healing him from a deadly disease. He had plans for resurrection. But Martha couldn’t see those plans.
I think that often our deepest struggles with God are like this. We run into trouble because frequently, God is working from an eternal perspective, and we are not. He knows things we can’t know, things we will never know on earth, and maybe not even in eternity. He has purposes that are greater and better than we have thought. And so, what looks like death and tragedy to us looks like an opportunity for resurrection to him.
You can’t fault Martha and Mary and the disciples for failing to see it. It is so much bigger than anything they have thought of hoping for. They are thinking of this life. They are thinking of what seems possible, given their level of interaction with Jesus. But they are not thinking like Jesus.
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” (John 11:23-27, ESV)
Jesus doesn’t answer her unspoken question. Instead, while their brother is still rotting in the tomb, he asks them to put their faith in him. He asks for faith before they have any reason to give it.
I identify with Martha and the others. I usually hope for what seems somewhat realistic. Considering how they had themselves seen Jesus heal people, it was reasonable for them to hope for healing. But resurrection was outside their experience. It was outside their paradigm. So often, we are like that. We want healing and continuation of this life. Jesus wants to give us resurrection. We want what seems possible, even if unlikely. Jesus wants to give us what we haven’t even thought of yet. We want to restore things as they were. Jesus wants to let things “as they were” die, so that he can resurrect something better in its place.
I have a very old Mercedes-Benz. Because the car is so old, a number of things don’t work correctly. I can’t control the side mirrors. The horn doesn’t work either. A few of the dashboard lights don’t function as they are supposed to. Water leaks into the trunk in heavy rain. The only way to lock and unlock the car is through the trunk. Don’t get me wrong, I love the car and the way it drives – still drives like a Mercedes. It just has its little foibles.
One day, our car wouldn’t start. Kari and I were pretty disappointed. We had a lot of driving to do the next day, and we both had to go different places. I called a man in our church who is a talented as a mechanic. He came and got it to start. We’re thrilled to have it back. None of the other things got fixed. I still can’t control the side mirrors or use the horn or see the time and temperature. I still have to use the trunk to lock it up. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very grateful to our friend and very grateful to have the car working again. But it is still the same car.
But now, suppose for a moment that my friend the mechanic was very rich and generous. Imagine that when he heard the trouble I was having, he decided to buy me a brand new Mercedes-Benz. So, imagine that when I asked him to come fix my old car, he said, “No, Tom, I’m not going to do that,” all the while planning to give me a new car, a car in which everything works. I might be disappointed in my friend, not knowing his plan for me. I would be focused on getting my old car back. He would be focused on giving me something much better. I think sometimes this is how we are with Jesus. Our vision is small.
Our vision is for a nice life in this imperfect world. We want “our best life now.” Jesus promises that our best life will never be now, on this earth, and we should be glad of it. His vision for us is for something much more glorious, more real, something far better than anything that has occurred to us.
There is something else about this story that strikes me. In order for resurrection to occur, death must occur first. In other words, Jesus cannot resurrect something unless it dies first. To go back to the point I made earlier: Jesus loved Lazarus, therefore he let him die.
This isn’t necessarily a pleasant thought. Usually, we want to skip the dying part, and go right to the resurrection; but death is a part of the equation. Jesus said:
24 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24, ESV)
This is an obvious truth when it comes to seeds. When you plant a seed, you destroy it, as a seed. But the destruction of a seed results in something new and wonderful, something that is actually much greater than seed was.
It is true also with the caterpillar. When the caterpillar goes into the chrysalis, for all intents and purposes, its life as a caterpillar is over. It will never again crawl on the ground or eat leaves. But instead, it will fly, and drink sweet nectar from flowers.
In the same way, resurrection requires death. This truth is all over the bible:
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? (Matt 16:24-26, ESV)
When Jesus says “take up his cross” he means quite simply, “be willing to die.”
2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (Col 3:2-3, ESV)
20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal 2:20, ESV)
Ultimately, this means our physical death. It means that death is not something to fear. It leads to resurrection. But even now, before physical death, there are things that Jesus would like us to let go. There are ambitions, hopes, values, material things, perhaps even relationships, that we need to allow to die. [By the way, when I say “relationships” I don’t mean marriages. As always, we need to consider the whole scripture, and the Lord has made it clear that he considers marriages to be permanent in this life. Please do not interpret this message in any way that contradicts some part of the bible]. We might feel like letting go of our rights, or our dreams or material things is a terrible thing. And it might indeed be very difficult and traumatic. But there is a resurrection waiting, and sometimes the only thing holding up the glorious new life is the death that must come first.
So anyway, if you haven’t heard the story before, Jesus went ahead and raised Lazarus from death. But there is something about this resurrection I that always struck me as odd. Where is Lazarus today? Dead, of course. Jesus ascended to heaven. But Lazarus grew old and died again. In other words, the resurrection of Lazarus was a temporary thing. The real thing didn’t happen until Jesus died on the cross, and became the first one to be raised to eternal life.
I think this is a message for us also. We want Jesus to raise things that will just have to die again anyway. We get so focused on this life, and the things in it. But the resurrection Jesus offers isn’t just the restoration of our old bodies with our flaws and problems.
Resurrection is not just a restoration of what we have right now. That was Lazarus’ resurrection, but it is not the resurrection that Jesus promises, and ultimately that Jesus himself had. Paul returns to the seed analogy:
35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” 36 You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain… (1 Cor 15:35-37)
42 So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. ( 1 Cor 15:42-44)
So, in light of these things, let me ask you a few questions:
Are you wanting to fix something workable, but which the Lord wants to die? Perhaps what you are dealing with has already died, or begun to. Do the actions of Jesus puzzle you? Are you wondering why he won’t just fix it? Is your vision too small? Do you want God to do too little for you?
Are you looking for temporary resurrection – something that lasts only this world?
Are you looking for real resurrection, but you want to skip the “death part?”
Ultimately, I want us to deal directly with what Jesus says to Martha:
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
Do you believe this? Do you believe that the resurrection is found only in Jesus? Do you believe that true life is only in him?
If you marry someone who has a vast fortune, that fortune belongs to you, through your spouse. You can use it and enjoy it. But you have it only through your relationship with your spouse. To the extent that you have your spouse, you have that fortune. If your relationship is genuine, then you live as one-flesh, and what you have, you have together.
The resurrection is in Jesus. It comes only through relationship with Him. If you have Jesus, you have the resurrection. It is as simple, and as difficult as that. You can’t get it through religious activity. You can’t get it through being good, or deep meditation. If you want Jesus, he will have you, if only you humble yourself enough to confess your needs, and to ask.
That involves repenting of your sins, and also of your inward sin – that commitment you have to being king or queen of your own life. And then we simply invite Jesus in, and trust him to take over. If you would like, do that right now.