Jesus: The Resurrection and the Life

Fan of West Wing and American Political shows… seems they rely a lot on polling data… people in call centres ringing randoms and asking questions. Do you prefer this candidate to that? From 1 to 5 where one is strongly agree and 5 strongly disagree how would you respond to this statement…Speeches, policy, whole campaigns and even careers are be shaped by these random phone calls…It seems that a random phone call without context and relationship can draw out the truth in a way that speaking to people face to face doesn't…So in spirit of the pollsters I want you to imagine you're at home and you get a phone call, and the question is this: What do you think is the single greatest problem facing the world today? Please pick from the following options:

a) lack of food
b) religious extremism
c) international conflicts
d) nuclear explosion
e) natural disasters
f) other

what would you say? What do you think is the greatest problem facing the world today? I want to suggest one that's not on the list, something so obvious and so fundamental that we can't imagine ever living without it… I'm talking about death itself. Isn't that what makes all those other problems so problematic? They lead to death. Death on a broad scale. But we know don't we that we are all going to die. What if we could do away with death itself?

Death is such a given that that question doesn't even really make sense does it. But tonight I want to show you that Jesus claimed to be able to do just that. Jesus claimed that he had come to do away with death itself, he claimed to be 'the resurrection and the life'. And I want to show you that it was no empty claim, he demonstrated it by raising a man called Lazarus from the dead. And that means he has an answer to our deepest and most fundamental problem.

So we're going to work our way through that passage that was read to us from John 11. And I want to look at it in three stages.

1) Confronted With the Grim Reality of Death

Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair. So the sisters sent word to Jesus, "Lord, the one you love is sick."

I want you to notice what's going on here. This isn't one of those urban legends where something supposedly happened to some bloke once and we're hearing about it seventh hand and the details can never be verified. The people involved are well known at the time of writing, and John gives us the details we need to identify them, and even to track them down to ask about it if we wanted to. This is written as real history, not legend, not fabrication, we're talking about a real bloke from a real family who got ill and died.

When he heard this, Jesus said, "This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it."

Notice that Jesus doesn't say this illness won't lead to death, but that it won't end in death… It won't end in death, but Lazarus does die.

After he had said this, he went on to tell them, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up." His disciples replied, "Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better." Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. So then he told them plainly, "Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him." 

His friend – the friend he loved – is dead. Jesus takes his disciples off to see the family. No that's not actually what Jesus says, is it – Jesus says let us go to him, to Lazarus who is dead.

When they arrive Jesus find things just as you would expect a few days after a death in the family. Things are all over the place. Everyone was in a bit of a state. Friends and family had gathered around the bereaved.

Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 

It seems Lazarus was still a young man, no mention here of a wife or kids, it's his sisters who are comforted. No doubt in keeping with local custom there would have been a combination of family and friends, and a few professional mourners who were paid to weep for the dead. Apart from the paid mourners I've been in that scene, have you? Gathered around to share your grief, suffering together, sometimes offering comfort, sometimes needing it. The pain of separation still raw, half unbelieving that you've lost a friend and you'll never see them again. And it's so much worse when death comes too soon, like it has here - a young man cut down in the prime of life. It's a tragic scene.

And Jesus isn't immune to the emotion of the situation. He meets with the sisters, and goes out to tomb with them. Verse 33

When Jesus saw Mary weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. "Where have you laid him?" he asked. "Come and see, Lord," they replied. Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, "See how he loved him!"

Now we know the end of the story, we've just heard it read. Jesus is going to raise the dead man back to life. But even knowing that he was going to bring Lazarus back from the dead Jesus is deeply moved. The expression is actually a lot stronger than that – Jesus was disgusted, Jesus was incensed. Anyone who's stood by a coffin knows that feeling. We know that death isn't natural, death isn't an old friend come to see us off. Death is our enemy. Death is cold and hard and unfriendly. Every death is an outrage. Confronted by death Jesus is enraged. Just as we are.

This part of the story is vivid, it hardly needs illustrating. Unless you're very young here tonight you'll almost certainly have been confronted with the very same realities that Jesus faced that day. Death is the great leveller, the perfect statistic, we all die. Back in Jesus day most people died at home, most people by adulthood would have seen many people die. These days most of us come close to death first through the loss of a celebrity – Phillip Seymor Hoffman, Amy Whinehouse, Kurt Cobain, Jimmy Hendrix, Dianna … And we're stunned, offended, hurt, empty, shocked… it's as if we expected to live forever, as if we expect everyone should live forever. And when we stop and think that is what we think somewhere deep inside isn't it? Death is an unwelcome intrusion into our lives… and we wish it could be undone, removed, taken away. What would we give to have our loved ones back? What price would we pay to stay young forever and never face death? We'd pay a lot wouldn't we?

And that's what Jesus seems to be offering as he takes this all in. In fact from the very start of this passage Jesus has been saying outrageous things about himself and power over death. So let's look at this second aspect of the passage as Jesus makes a crazy claim:

2) The Crazy Claim of Power Over Death

Jesus reacts to death just like we do. But he clearly doesn't think of it like we do. We got a hint of this right back at the start of the passage. The things Jesus says make no sense in our world at all. Look back at verse 4:

When he heard this,- that is that Lazarus was sick - Jesus said, "This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it." Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.

Jesus just doesn't react like we would, it's as if he knows something no one else does… why is he staying where he is… and what does he mean that this will bring glory to God so that God's Son may be glorified through it? And then after waiting a couple of days he announces that Lazarus is dead. He does know things no one else knows.

After he had said this, he went on to tell them, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up." His disciples replied, "Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better." Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. So then he told them plainly, "Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him." 

Jesus knows that Lazarus is already dead. In fact it's almost like Jesus has been waiting for Lazarus to die before he sets out to go to him. How does he know this? We're not told… but it's not from a secret messenger, this is knowledge that Jesus has that is not available to others…
And that's far from the most unsettling thing in this section. Jesus loved Lazarus, but he's glad for the sake of the disciples that he was not there to save Lazarus from death. Why? Because this way they are going to believe. But believe what? This is where Jesus crazy claim comes in. Look at what he says to the dead man's sister when he arrives in Bethany a few days later…

"Lord," Martha said to Jesus, "if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask." Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." Martha answered, "I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day." Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"

What is Jesus saying? This woman has just lost her brother. How can Jesus be so reckless with her emotions? What is he talking about? What is this life that he offers that even death can't take away?

Now Martha knew Jesus as a man who could do impossible things – she knew that he had walked on water, calmed storms at see, and particularly she'd seen his power to heal the sick. But what Jesus is saying here goes far beyond that sort of power. He's claiming a sort of trump card over death itself. Anyone can kill, but Jesus says that he can give life, in fact that he is life – life flows from him, he grants life; and the life that comes from him is somehow immune to death. He can give life that lasts even through death, life that cannot be extinguished by death.

I'm not the most gullible person, but I have to admit I can be taken in by a good story … I have a big sister and she loved to take me in with a good story… regulars will know that she once fooled me into eating a cake of soap. I know it was stupid, in my defence I was very young and she made a really convincing argument – it's a cake of soap, a cake; it's a bar of soup, like a Chocolate bar…like I said I was very young. But I'm still a bit gulible… I've watched countless advertisements and thought 'I really need that, that's gonna really make me happy'. I even had high hopes about the new star wars prequels, I desperately wanted to see the Matrix Two and Three … I know what it is to be fooled by fine sounding arguments… but life after death?

That's a whole 'nother kettle of fish isn't it? Who would possibly be gullible enough to believe that one?

Can we make any sort of suitable comparison… Well you know Richard Branson has been selling tickets to space for years. He's raised millions from people who want to be the first passengers on a commercial flight into space. According to his Virgin Galactic website over 600 people have already bought tickets – at $250,000 a pop. But quietly, the dates keep slipping. The first flight was scheduled for 2007 (around the same time as the first iPhone shipped). Every year Branson has announced it's just a few months away. Three months ago he confidently predicted flights were just three months away. In the last couple of weeks the Sunday Times and the Guardian have been reporting that there are problems with the technology, accidents in trials, even deaths on the launch pad. Industry insiders suggest the technology may never be up to the task. And miraculously Branson announced this week that it's now ready… Maybe those investors have been taken for the only ride they're going to get already…

But that's just money. A lot of money – for me, not so much for David Beckham and Justin Bieber.

But still he's hardly promising life after death is he? For that we really have to look to religion don't we. Is this just a case of another crazy cult leader? Do you remember the Heaven's Gate cult and the Hale Bopp comet? On March 26 1997 police discovered bodies of 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult…. The cult members had been led to believe that they could access an alien space craft that was trailing the comet Hale-Bopp as it came close to the earth… all they had to do was to dress in the appropriate clothes – black shirt and trousers, orange shoes from memory – and kill themselves. It's clearly absolutely crazy, but 39 of them did it. 39 believed in life on the space ship after death so much that they took their own lives to gain it. Now you and I rightly say that's crazy, absolutely mental.

But look again at what Jesus says

I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.

I'm not falling for the heaven's gate clowns story about a space ship hiding behind a comet, or interstellar space travel by suicide, how could Jesus ever convince me that he's not just another 2 bit cult leader with a Messiah complex?

For that we need to move on to the last aspect, the proof.

3) The Proof of the Pudding

Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. "Take away the stone," he said. "But, Lord," said Martha, the sister of the dead man, "by this time there is a bad odour, for he has been there four days."

Notice 4 days – after 4 days the body is in the process of decomposing, especially in a hot climate like Judea. The smell would be quite overwhelming, reeking of death and decay. The body would be laid in a cave cut out of the rock, and the cave sealed with a stone for precisely this reason – to contain the stench. Once the body had decomposed the bones would be collected and stored in a box – an ossuary – so the tomb could be re-used.

But Jesus barrels straight up to the tomb and says open it up…

Then Jesus said, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, "Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me."

This is now the third time that Jesus has said that what is happening happens so that those who see it will believe. Do you see what he's doing? This is a deliberate demonstration – the claims he's making are so extreme, so crazy, that they can't just stand on their own. Either Jesus has to be locked up as a dangerously deluded individual, or those claims need to be supported by really outstanding proof. And so Jesus steps up to a tomb in which a body is decomposing and

Jesus called in a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!"

Do I need to tell you this is the moment of truth? Do I need to spell out the risks of failure here? What would happen if you tried this at a funeral? You'd risk a lynching wouldn't you? Even if it was your friend's funeral; especially if it was your friend's funeral. … Imagine being so deluded or so insensitive that you would ever do anything like this. Either Jesus has the power he claims or he's about to be horribly exposed:

The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, "Take off the grave clothes and let him go." 

If this is familiar to you stop and read that again. Jesus calls and the dead man answers, Jesus commands and the dead man lives. Even the onset of decay can't stop Jesus bringing Lazarus back. This is a miracle of new creation – Jesus is the creator doing his creating work.

But Jesus won't let us accept this miracle just as a thing in itself. He has set this up as a picture of an even greater work of new creation that he's doing in the world. He's come to defeat death and corruption and to bring Life, life that can not be defeated by death.

The promise of this miracle is confirmed by Jesus own resurrection – there are some there who are so angry that Jesus has done this, and so threatened by people putting their trust in Jesus, that they decide to Kill Jesus and Lazaurs too, to stop people believing in Jesus. And they do (I don't know about Lazarus, maybe killing Jesus didn't have such a good effect and they gave up on that plan, I don't know). But Jesus doesn't stay dead – he can offer life that can not be defeated by death.

What can we say about this? Not like the Hale-Bopp comet guys is it, not like Heavens Gate or any other crazy cult leader leading the weak minded by pure strength of personality. He makes the claim and he backs it up. It's a bigger better version of the 'Daz Doorstep Challenge'. He makes the claim and he then he sets out to prove it.

Compare Jesus to the great philosophers and wise men – who ever claimed the power over life and death? Part of wisdom is recognising our limitations isn't it? Compare Jesus to the miracle healers and wonder workers – he's on a whole different level isn't he? Compare Jesus to the great religious leaders – which of them ever made the sorts of claims he made, and showed the sorts of results he showed?

This man Jesus is unique in what he claims about himself. He makes astonishing claims, outrageous and ridiculous claims. But he's not all talk, not by a long shot – he talks the talk, and the walks the walk.

I'm Aussie cricket fan – and Mitchell Johnson – laughing stock before Ashes series… before South Africa lots of people predicted he would fall flat on his face. But in first test, just finished he ended with 12 wickets and led Australia to a huge victory. Talk is cheap… but sometimes, when talk corresponds to reality, talk is serious. Some people shoot off the mouth all the time. But sometimes we do well to listen. When Jesus speaks he's not just shooting his mouth off, he's not talking himself up to psych his opponents out. He's telling us truth that we need to hear. He's announcing the decisive point in history. He has come to end death.

What should we do with this?

This is the sort of thing which, if true, must change your life. Imagine if you'd been there that day. You're one of the mourners. You're stood outside a grave. Your friend is in there. Just a few days ago he was alive and well. But four days have passed since death claimed him. Even with the spices on the body and the stone covering the entrance you can actually smell death and decay. That's your friend in there, and you'll never see him again. Think too hard about it and you well up… the pain is raw, visceral. And this Jesus guy walks up and starts talking about rising from the dead. Could he be anymore cruel? He asks them to roll back the stone… this is torture isn't it; or some kind of mocking joke? And then he makes a show of praying to God. And he calls out towards the tomb 'Lazarus come out'.

And there's movement, then there he is, still dressed as a corpse, but moving. Not a zombie; he was decomposing just moments ago, suddenly he's sound, walking – ALIVE! From that moment on, life will never be the same will it? Can you look at a tomb and not remember that moment? Death is no longer the final argument, no longer the end, now you know that death can give way to life. And more than that you know the guy who has power over death. Jesus spoke the word and death gave way to life. Do you think you'd walk away from that and forget Jesus' name?

This one afternoon overturns everything you've ever known about death and life and hope and it would take a lot to stop you from trusting in Jesus now wouldn't it?

Of course we weren't there. We have to trust that the eyewitnesses are telling the truth. But the implications are the same. If Jesus really did this, then he really does have the power over life and death – not a magic trick, not a conjurers illusion, but the power to create life out of death, the power to grant life that can not be destroyed by death. If this is true, then Jesus is the real deal. Can you walk away from this tonight unchanged? Can you just ignore the possibility that Jesus could control your life and death? Or do you realise that this is potentially the best news ever – like finding out you've got cancer only in reverse.

Someone was told me this week about an internet show called arsonist Sam. Maybe you've seen it. It's fireman Sam, but played backwards and overdubbed. Arsonist Sam is the anti- fireman. Instead of rushing to put the fire out he goes around starting them. He doesn't rescue cats from trees, but deposits them there to cry. He's a nasty piece of work arsonist Sam. What would happen if arsonist Sam and Fireman Sam could exist in the same universe? Arsonist Sam would run around wreaking havoc, and Fireman Sam would run around after him cleaning up the mess.

We live in a world that has been wrecked, as if by a cosmic arsonist Sam. Everywhere we look there's pain and worse. But Jesus comes into this world to set it all back to rights again. Whatever damage has been done he has the power to make it all right again. I'm not aware of a better offer, a greater claim, a more significant possibility in all the world. If Jesus can overcome death, if Jesus can give life that death can't defeat, then Jesus is the most important person in the universe. So I have only one thing to say to you tonight. Don't miss out. What would you give to live forever? I'd give everything. I have. And I don't regret it for a moment.

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