Face to Face with Death
John 11:1 – 44
Face to Face with Death
The problem with death
Earlier this year Bronnie Ware, an Australian palliative care nurse wrote a book called The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying.
And as it turns out, death is a best seller, and readers around the world, intrigued and fascinated, snapped it up.
Death looms large over life, doesn’t it,
And death is a problem for us.
It gets in the way of the things that people love the most:, family, friendship, dreams.
And so for some, the way to deal with death, is to make jokes,
You’ve probably heard Woody Allen famously saying, It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.
Perhaps not surprisingly, for someone as. neurotic, as Woody Allen seems to be, he is well-known for his comments about death. He also said I don't want to achieve immortality through my work;
I want to achieve immortality through not dying.
But. much more tellingly, in a 1977 interview with Esquire Magazine, Allen said, "The fundamental thing behind all motivation and all activity, is the constant struggle against annihilation and against death. It is stupefying in its terror and it renders anyone’s accomplishments. meaningless."
Death is stupefying in its terror, and it renders anyone’s accomplishments meaningless.
It’s easy to laugh at the first couple of comments, I’m not afraid I just don’t want to be there,
But when you are there,
When the police knock on your door, with the news you hoped you would never hear about someone in your family,
When you’re sitting in the doctor’s office, and she says, “I’m sorry, you’ve only got weeks to live.”
When in that instant when life changes, and you realise that death isn’t some abstract concept that you’ll deal with at some point in your life, but something that is thrusting itself in your face, right now!
In that moment,
Is death stupefying, and about to render your life meaningless,
Or, do you have a view of life that can deal with death?
Do you have a worldview, that allows you to face death confidently?
Is your worldview up to the challenge?
Can it give you, what you need in that moment?
John chapter 11, gives us an eye-witness snapshot of an event in Jesus’ life, in which people’s worldviews are transformed.
And not only their worldview, but their lives.
And this transformation doesn’t happen just because they learn something new,
They haven’t just gained a new way of looking at the world,
But they’ve had an encounter with Jesus, who holds power over death.
And I wonder how your worldview compares?
What kind of hope, and security, and confidence does it give you, in life, and in the face of death?
Death is not the end of this story
So we start, with a sick man,
And a message sent to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”
And Jesus says, verse 4, This sickness will not end in death.
We love to hear the end of the story, don’t we?
If you’ve ever read stories to children, and tried to. hurry things along a bit, by closing the book before you get to the end, what kind of parent would do that? , If you’ve ever done that, you know that’s not on, we have to hear the end of the story.
Think of all the reality shows that are on TV, whether it’s The Biggest Loser, or my Kitchen’s better than your kitchen. whatever, all the hospital shows, We think we’ve come to the end of the series, But then we go back and visit everyone who’s been in the show, in their normal life, away from the crowds, because we want to know how the story ends.
Well Jesus says, this story isn’t going to end in the usual way.
“This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.”
We know there are some illnesses that. people don’t get better from.
We know there are some illnesses that leave people sick for the rest of their lives.
But Jesus says this sickness isn’t going to have the normal trajectory.
This sickness isn’t going to end in death.
No, as we’ll see, this sickness ends in resurrection, and a resurrection that displays the glory of God.
Now glory is a funny term isn’t it?
Occasionally w might say something is glorious, when we really just mean to say it’s really, really good! “Glorious weather”, that kind of thing.
But we do talk about seeing glory don’t we? We talk about seeing someone in “all their glory”!
We mean seeing someone as they really are!,
The full picture, nothing hidden from view!
That’s actually the sense in which John, who’s writing this account of Jesus’ life, uses the term glory.
So, for this sickness to be for God’s glory, means that through this sickness, God will be seen for who he is,
The full picture,
Nothing hidden from view.
Two important questions
Which raises, I think, two important questions,
Does Jesus care? And is Lazarus really dead?
Does Jesus care? 5 – 17
And it’s easy to think Jesus is pretty callous here, verse 6, even though he knows Lazarus is sick, Jesus stayed where he was two more days.
Now the fact that later on we’re told Lazarus has been in the tomb 4 days, probably means he was already dead by the time Jesus got the message.
But it does seem a bit heartless, doesn’t it?
Although John keeps telling us that Jesus loved Lazarus, and Mary and Martha.
And those of you who have got the English Standard Version of the Bible, that version actually does a slightly better job of translating the original language. It says Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus., 6. So,, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
So, when he heard,
It’s actually because of Jesus’ love for this family that he stays where he is.
That’s extraordinary isn’t it?
Now, I’m sure plenty of people around Jesus, thought, well, he obviously doesn’t care!
Or maybe that’s a little harsh, maybe they thought “Jesus knows there’s nothing he can do”,
Maybe they think he’s more concerned for his own safety and well-being, since there were people near Lazarus’ town who were trying to kill Jesus.
There’s been at least 3 previous attempts to take Jesus’ life, so it’s not surprising, that his disciples say things like, “But Rabbi,”, “a short while ago the Jews tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?” And if Lazarus is just asleep like you say, well let’s not get too carried away and do anything rash, since he’ll wake up by himself anyway!
But it could look like Jesus is more concerned for his own skin his own. glory, than for Lazarus.
And, I reckon, there will be people here this morning, who have felt exactly like this,
Who have thought, “well, the fact that God didn’t step in and do something, at that point in my life, when I really could have done with his help, well, just goes to show he doesn’t care after all”
Or at least he doesn’t care for me,
Or maybe he does care,
But perhaps he can’t actually do anything about those moments in life, when everything falls apart.
But Jesus has a bigger picture in mind, doesn’t he?
If he was simply about. meeting people’s expectations,
Dealing with the needs that we feel most keenly,
He would have dropped everything, gone to the nearest Rent-a-Chariot depot and raced to Bethany.
But Jesus’ mission and purpose isn’t to meet our expectations,
And fit in with our timetable,
And to deal with the needs that we feel most keenly, even when we feel them exceptionally keenly,, and there would be few we feel more deeply than this.
There will be times when we don’t see how God’s inaction, or perhaps more accurately God’s unseen action can be reflective of a God who loves us.
And yet, even though we don’t see the end from the beginning, as the prophet Isaiah describes God’s perspective, here in John 11, we get just a brief reminder,
Of God’s knowledge of what is good, and right, and best.
Jesus’ great desire for his friends, his disciples, all those who will witness what’s about to happen, is much more significant, than the need they feel most keenly.
He wants them to see God in. all his glory.
That’s not Jesus saying I want people to think well of me,
I want people to be impressed by me,
It’s, “I want people to come to grips with who God is,
And what he offers them,
And how much he loves them”,
Actually what Jesus wants is spelled out in different words in verse 15.
He wants Mary, and Martha, and Lazarus, and the disciples, and the crowds, to believe ,
To believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God, which, you’ll know if you’ve been with us recently, is the whole point of John’s gospel
So he waits 2 days, before setting out for Bethany.
Is he really dead?
You see, by not arriving until Lazarus has been in the tomb for 4 days, Jesus is able to demonstrate his claim to have power over death.
You might have noticed, John makes quite a point of telling us the timeframe.
The popular conception at the time was that after death, a dead person’s spirit. hung around the body for 3 days, and then departed.
John wants us to know, Lazarus was totally and unambiguously dead!
When I worked in the anatomy department at Adelaide Uni, a lion died at the zoo, and her body was brought into the anatomy lab. She weighed 300 kilos or something, and she was still warm, and I couldn’t help but think, “how do we know she’s really dead?!”
I very graciously waited at the door and allowed our department head go in first!
John just keeps telling us over and over.
He’s in the tomb There’ll be a smell!
Do you get the point?
This wasn’t resuscitation,
Jesus wasn’t an early pioneer of CPR!
Lazarus was dead.
This episode is about dealing with death.
An extraordinary claim: Jesus gives eternal life to those who believe 17 – 32
But before we get to the raising of Lazarus from the dead, because. let’s face it, we all know what’s going to happen!
But John doesn’t just tell us what happens, does he,
He also gives us the explanation, in fact he gives us the explanation before the event.
And it’s this claim from Jesus’ lips that makes sense of the extraordinary event at the end.
And the claim is, that. today .. Jesus gives eternal life to those who believe in him.
See Martha believes that one day everyone will be raised from the dead and have to give an account to God for the way they’ve lived in his world, verse 24, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am. the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26 and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.
So far in John’s eyewitness account he’s shown us that Jesus. gives life, in a whole stack of different ways.
He’s given new life to a dying child,
A new kind of life, to a paralysed man, and a man born blind ,
He’s offered spiritual life to Nicodemus, and the woman at the well in Samaria, and to countless others who hear the good news of the kingdom of God,
But the life that Jesus offers is. more than anything else, resurrection life.
Life that can’t be snatched away by death.
Life that doesn’t end at death.
And if Jesus was just a prophet,
Just a wise man,
I imagine he’d just nod and agree with Martha, “Yes, he’ll be raised on that last day.”, pat on the shoulder, would you like a cup of tea?
But that’s not what Jesus does, is it?
He makes a staggering claim to offer this life and this resurrection. now.
I am the resurrection and the life.
Not, I can offer you resurrection and life, or I can show you resurrection and life, but you’ll actually need to go out there and achieve it for yourself,
Which, when you think about it, is pretty much what every religion and philosophy on earth offers when it comes to life and death, if they actually offer anything at all.
See Martha, she believed in the resurrection.
She was a spiritual person,
She knew that one day she would be able to have confidence about death and about what’s on the other side.
Jesus says, that day. is now.
Because I stand here, and I am. the resurrection and the life.
The particular words that Jesus uses, echo. if you like, the name that God had given himself in the Old Testament. “I Am”
“I Am” was kind of God’s personal name.
This resurrection life, is kind of like God’s own life, it’s the life that God himself has.
Life that death has no hold on.
And it’s available today Jesus says, because God himself is here. I Am, the resurrection and the life.
The life that God brings, and offers, and guarantees is available now, because God himself has come into the world in the person of Jesus Christ to make it available.
See Jesus wants to change Martha’s focus, from a right and correct belief in something that will happen on the last day, to a personal trust in the one who can bring it about.
See it’s a shift from doctrine, to relationship.
The doctrine is correct, and important, but the one who makes that doctrine true and possible, is standing right in front of her, and Jesus wants to make sure that she understands there is no resurrection and life outside of a relationship with him.
As I said, it’s quite a claim, isn’t it?
To be not just the one who brings, offers, promises, resurrection and eternal life,
But to be. the embodiment of those, the source of resurrection and life.
If this is true, then this resurrection life,
Life which doesn’t end at the funeral,
If Jesus’ claim is true, then that kind of life is available to anyone who trusts in Jesus.
To anyone who believes that yes, Jesus is the way to eternal life with God.
Which is why, every time I take a funeral, I say these words from Jesus in verse 25, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even though they die,
Because that offer still stands.
Jesus offers a life that doesn’t end at the funeral
Death is an enemy that Jesus fights
But I think these are also among the hardest words I have to say in any funeral, even though the invitation extended in them is so wonderful and so unique, you won’t find an invitation like this on the lips of any other person,
No other philosophy or worldview will give you this invitation.
But Jesus’ words remind us, if we needed reminding, that death is still an enemy.
See, to inherit resurrection life through trusting in Jesus, doesn’t mean we’re spared. physical death. No, Jesus says even though he dies, this will be what happens to you.
Death is an enemy.
The 16th century church Reformer John Calvin spoke of what he called death’s “violent tyranny” over people.
And down in verses 33 to 35, we see just how angry and upset Jesus gets at death. It’s a little bit hidden in our English translations, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled, in the original language that’s actually a word picture of a horse, snorting and bellowing with rage!
Have you ever seen an angry horse? You want to keep away from the pointy bits that’s for sure!
That’s the best picture John could come up with to describe Jesus’ anger at death!
You can imagine John, after this event, sitting down, writing it all down, “Now what’s the best way I can describe how Jesus was then?,
I know, a snorting beast, pulsing with rage!”
Do you get the picture?
Jesus hates death.
When I was little, in our family, we weren’t allowed to say the word “hate”, I hate you, I hate that, it was too strong a word. And so either I or my sister, precocious as we were, came up with the phrase “dislike immensely” as a suitably palatable alternative.
But dislike immensely doesn’t do justice to this!
You see death is a sign that we have a problem.
Death says, the world is not the way that God created it to be.
The world is broken.
This kind of human life is not the experience that God intended for us.
If we skip in our minds right back to the beginning of the Bible, in Genesis chapter 3, we see an episode of sin, that is characteristic of all sin,
It’s where people push God and his pattern for life to the side,
And decide to live in God’s world, without any reference to him.
And because of that decision back then, and that decision made countless times in the lives of every single person since then, our world is broken and out of step with God, and we face death, both physical death, like Lazarus here, and spiritual death, separation from God and his blessing forever.
It’s no wonder that Jesus is so. indignant at death!
Humanity has gone it’s own way!
Humanity is lost!
Humanity needs a saviour.
Of course we know, that Jesus’ anger at death, and at sin, which leads to death, doesn’t stop here at the tomb of Lazarus.
Here’s another story that doesn’t end at the funeral.
As we saw, in coming here to the outskirts of Jerusalem, Jesus puts into motion, the events that lead to his own death.
A death that he very carefully brings about himself,
Not in some sort of suicidal gesture,
But offering himself as a substitute.
If the right and due penalty for sin is separation from God, then when Jesus himself endures that separation from his Father,
When he faces God’s anger at sin, then those who trust that that is what they deserve, but that Jesus stood in their place, They are spared that horror for themselves.
When Jesus promises resurrection and life, he knows how he’s going to achieve that.
He knows what it’s going to cost for people to be made right with God, and to enjoy God’s blessings forever.
Jesus understands our suffering
But even here, we see that Jesus is not removed from the sufferings of his people.
Jesus sees his dear friends, and the others around mourning, feeling the pain of death’s violent tyranny, and he too feels the pain.
Verse 35, Jesus wept, is the shortest verse in the Bible, but it actually doesn’t need to be any longer to show us that Jesus knows exactly what it is to suffer in this life.
When I was in school, I travelled through Asia a bit, and lots of places you’d go, you’d see these statues, buddhas, gods, idols, and they were always smiling.
It was like the people who carved them only knew how to do one face.
And I remember being struck by the seeming. incongruity, of these happy, smiling gods, on the one hand, and the poverty and suffering of the people, on the other.
Here were people who couldn’t afford enough to eat,
Who had no chance of medical treatment, and so suffered terribly, in some cases,
Some who were treated as outcasts by their communities, some who suffered at the hands of their countrymen every day,
And yet their so-called gods just kept smiling blankly out at them.
Here is the God who feels our pain.
The great “I Am”, the creator God, comes into the world, and experiences our life from the inside.
You know that expression, “before you criticise someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. Then when you criticise them, you’re a mile away and you’ve got their shoes!”
No! but we know that expression “walk a mile in their shoes”, well when God breaks into the world that he made, he lives a lifetime in our shoes.
He sees and feels the misery of his beloved people and burns with rage against this enemy.
The claim proven: Jesus is the resurrection and the life.
And so we come to where the real action happens.
The claim has been made, I am the resurrection and the life He who believes in me will live, even though he dies;
The explanation for the event has been given, now all that remains is to see whether the claim is true.
Does Jesus really have power over death?
Can Jesus really bring that resurrection life from that last day, into human experience today?
Does Jesus really stand before us, as God, come in the flesh, the one who holds the power over life and death?
I remember once being told that they way to tell a story to post-modern people, is to ask a question, and you tell your story, working towards an answer to that question, and then as soon as you’ve answered it. basically, shut up.
That’s how post-moderns learn. we’re told.
So the classic example of this is the movie Jaws.
From the opening scene when Chrissie Watkins gets killed by the shark, the question that drives the whole movie is, “when is it going to be safe to go back in the water?”
And then from the time the shark is killed, to when the credits roll, is less than 60 seconds.
Answer your question. then finish.
Now I don’t know whether we’re post-moderns, or post-post-moderns, or what we are,
But that’s the narrative method that John employs here.
Is Jesus who he claims to be?
Does he have the actions to back up his talk?
Does he really hold power over death?
Verse 43, When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 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.”
And the credits roll.
See John wants us to go away, having seen and heard, and learnt, one thing really.
This isn’t the way you end the story if your story is about how Jesus is nice, and kind and cares for people.
This isn’t the way you end your eye-witness account of an episode, if you’re trying to present Jesus as a wise teacher or a good man.
This is an account, of Jesus demonstrating his power over death,
His ability to give resurrection life here and now, to all those who believe that in his death and resurrection, sin and death are defeated.
See this is really just the opening act.
Lazarus dies again,
Jesus is raised to life, never to die again.
What a way to back up your claim!
When I was growing up we use to play Monopoly a bit.
It was good fun, when you’re doing well, because getting property and houses and hotels, gives you the ability to basically do what you want!
And so the goal is just to amass as much stuff as you can, to make life better, in the game.
But then at the end of the game, when the lid goes on the box, everything you worked so hard for, well it doesn’t offer you. anything does it? Does you no good at all.
Do you know, at the end of your game,
When the lid goes on your box,
What good is your worldview going to be to you?
Is your view of life and death, up to the challenge?