I Am the Resurrection and the Life
Death haunts us all. Every moment of joy, of laughter, of excitement, of accomplishment, of satisfaction that you and I will experience in this life has hanging over it the dark shadow of death. The realization that our physical bodies will wear out, wear down, decay, and eventually stop working entirely. We will die. Every one of us. Anxiety, fear, anger, grief, guilt, sadness, and depression all find their root in this reality – we all face, and will walk through, the valley of the shadow of death. Summer is the season of outdoor weddings here in beautiful northern Michigan. They are moments filled with great joy, great hope, and joyful celebration. And yet … every marriage will end in heartbreak for at least one of the two. Every marriage ends in one of what I call the “Big D’s” … divorce or death.
How’s that for an inspiring introduction? Are you depressed yet? Every word I have just spoken is true, and you know it. So where is our hope?
Every human being born into this world is either dying or has died … save One. Even those raised from the dead have died again … save One. And it is in that One, Jesus, the Christ – the One who experienced death, a brutal death; who was buried, and then rose again in victory over death, never to die again – that we place our hope and our trust.
In what is perhaps the most beautiful of his “I AM” statements recorded in John’s Gospel, Jesus looked into the despairing eyes of his dear friend Martha, who had just four days prior buried her brother, his friend, Lazarus, and said “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he died, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” Four days after a funeral, the mourners still there comforting the family, the anguish and despair still very present, Jesus says, “I AM the resurrection and the life.” And then he asks Martha a question. It’s the question that we’re going to wrestle with today. He asked her, “Do you believe this?” Today, Jesus stands in front of you, looking deep into your eyes, and asks you the same question today. “Do you believe this?” Your answer to this question, straight from the mouth of Jesus, will impact, for better or for worse, how you live every day of your life. Turn with me to John 11:17-27.
There are three things that leap off the page as Jesus joins his friends Mary and Martha and their family and other friends in mourning the death of Lazarus. The first of those is love. We don’t know much about Lazarus, other than that he was the brother of Jesus’ friends Mary and Martha, and that he was a good friend to Jesus too. But we know that he was deeply loved by many people. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus lived in Bethany, just 2 miles outside of Jerusalem. Even by foot, Bethany wasn’t a long journey from Jerusalem. Less than an hour away by foot. Piece of cake. And John tells us that many from Jerusalem had come to Bethany to be with Mary and Martha after Lazarus died. Many. Lazarus was well known in the tiny village of Bethany and he was obviously also well known in the nearby city of Jerusalem. Many people cared about him and his sisters.
But he was also very special to Jesus. Now, it’s easy to say that of course Jesus loved Lazarus. Jesus loves everyone, right? But Jesus also had special friends, just like we all have special friends – people we’re especially close to. He had 12 disciples and other followers who traveled with them too, but Peter, James, John, and Mary Magdalene were closer to him than many others. John was called the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” And that same John tells us up in V. 5 that “Jesus LOVED Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” They were special friends of his. Even Jesus had acquaintances, friends, and close or best friends. And Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were obviously in that special group of very close, deeply loved friends.
The story actually begins with Lazarus getting sick. We don’t know with what, but we know it was serious, because his sisters were worried and they sent word to Jesus that Lazarus was sick. And when they did, they said “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” Even Mary and Martha acknowledged that Jesus and Lazarus had a special friendship. They were close. Close enough that Lazarus, and Mary and Martha, certainly knew the kinds of things Jesus was up to. They knew the things he had done. They knew that he had healed people who were in a completely different town. They knew their friend’s power, they knew his heart, and they knew his deep, deep love for Lazarus. They trusted him to do what was best.
Things hadn’t gone well for Jesus the last time he was in Jerusalem. The religious leaders wanted to stone him to death right there. And Bethany was awfully close to Jerusalem. Surely the religious leaders were keeping tabs on his whereabouts. But Jesus didn’t need to be anywhere near Lazarus to heal him. Surely he would at least do that. But maybe, because of his deep love for Lazarus and the seriousness of his illness, Jesus would come. Either way, he would do something. Right?
So what did Jesus do? Look at V. 6. Does that seem odd to you? He did nothing. Not as far as Lazarus was concerned anyway. Look at this from Mary and Martha’s perspective. He didn’t even speak healing words over Lazarus. They knew he didn’t NEED to be there, and that it was dangerous for him to be there. But Jesus didn’t do anything. He just stayed put. And Lazarus died from a serious illness that Jesus could have, and given his friendship with Lazarus and his sisters, probably SHOULD HAVE healed. Like he did for Peter’s mother-in-law.
God’s deep, deep love for us doesn’t prevent us from experiencing pain, and sickness, and sorrow in this life. It doesn’t guarantee that our businesses will miraculously succeed, that we’ll never get into car accidents or go through hard times, and it doesn’t guarantee that we’ll physically survive any of it. As followers of Christ, we will still experience life in this fallen world in its fullness, the good, and also the bad and the ugly. And that causes us to feel betrayed by God, rejected by God, and unloved by God. And that makes us angry.
Look at Martha and Mary’s response when Jesus finally does arrive four days after Lazarus was buried. Look at V. 21. And then down at V. 32. When Reece gets upset about something in the car or at home he’ll look at you and say “Bruh!” Or “What the heck!?” That’s what Mary and Martha are both doing here. “Bruh! If you’d been here, even spoken a word, Lazarus would still be with us. What the heck? Aren’t we best friends?” They were angry. They were hurt. They felt betrayed. AND THEY TOLD JESUS ABOUT IT.
As a therapist, one of the hardest things to get my Christian clients to do is admit that they’re mad at God for what they’ve had to experience, what they’ve gone through or are going through. If I can get them talking, spilling their guts, it usually comes out spontaneously, and I sit back and say, “Mmmmhmm.” And they’ll look at me and say, “Yeah.” But God already knows that we’re mad at him. Why do we lie to him, and to ourselves? Real relationships are honest, aren’t they?
And Jesus doesn’t chide them. He doesn’t correct them. He meets them in their anger, and offers hope. That’s the second theme that we see here. Hope. Look at Vv. 21-27. And then down at Vv. 32-37.
So we need to know that Lazarus having been in the grave for 4 days is important. The Jews believed that the soul stayed near its dead body for 3 days, hoping to return to the body. But on the 4th day, seeing its body beginning to decay, the soul departed for good. And as rare as it was, people HAD been resurrected within that window, by Jesus and by a very few others who were special prophets of God. But never on the 4th day or after. So even if Jesus came after Lazarus had died but sooner than he did, there was hope. But now, there was nothing. At least that’s what they thought. Only real, direct, divine intervention could do any good now.
God doesn’t just raise the dead to life. God raises the dead and decaying to new life. Jesus didn’t just speak, he yelled into the grave, and Lazarus came waddling out, still wrapped in his burial clothes. I wonder if, as his renewed, undecayed face was unwrapped, if Lazarus looked as his dear friend Jesus and said, “Bruh! You couldn’t come any sooner, huh?” Lazarus wasn’t just dead. He was dead and decaying. And here he was, alive and renewed.
Jesus didn’t say, “I give you resurrection and life.” He said, “I AM the resurrection and the life.” Oh, he does give resurrection and life. But he does that by giving us himself. By walking with us through the valley of the shadow of death. And as followers of Christ who place our faith in him, we don’t have to wait until we have died physically to live in the kingdom of God. Every time we pray the Lord’s prayer, we say “Thy kingdom … come. Thy will be done on … earth, as it is in heaven.” In other words, forgive me and fill me with the Holy Spirit so that I can live in your kingdom right here, right now, on earth, as I will one day with you in heaven. First, God resurrects the dead and decaying, and then he gives us life. Real life. A life that is both present gift and future good. In Romans 6:4 St. Paul says, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Newness of life. Not just then. Now.
John uses the word “life,” the Greek word “Zoe” 36 times. That same word is used just 16 times in the three other Gospels combined. It’s a major theme for John. Zoe. Life. Life in the kingdom of God, both now on this earth, and then with God in the new heaven and new earth. Doesn’t mean we can’t grieve and mourn in the face of death. We do. But we grieve, we mourn, with hope. With trust. In 1 Thessalonians Paul says, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep (that’s the same word Jesus used in referring to Lazarus. Sleep. His disciples took that literally and thought “then what’s the big deal?”), that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words” (4:13-18). We do grieve, but we grieve with hope. A hope firmly planted in the one who brings dead and decaying bodies back to life.
When you think you’ve messed things up too much, that your life is over, that nothing can resurrect the mess you’ve made of things, think again. Jesus brings the dead and decaying to new life. When you think there’s no hope for you, think again. Jesus brings the dead and decaying to new life. When you think this world, this life, is hopeless, think again. Jesus brings the dead and decaying to new life. And when this world looks at the shadow of death looming over everything we do and all that we are, and says “What’s the point? Life is meaningless,” as followers of Christ we say, think again. Jesus brings the dead and decaying to new life. We will all face death. Every one of us. The death of things we love. The death of people we love. The slow decay of our bodies and eventually our own death. We will all know grief. But Jesus has left death a wasp with no stinger. He will walk with us through the valley of the shadow of death and bring us out on the other side into his presence. Yes, it’s scary. It’s scary because we don’t know what it’s like. But we do know that Jesus won’t leave our side, on this side of death, in our journey through death, and on the other side. We can never, ever be separated from him and his love.
Love. Hope. And then faith. That’s the third theme that jumps out of this passage. Jesus asks Martha, “Do you believe this?” And her answer is, “Yes, I believe in the final resurrection.” I know that my brother will one day, at the end of time, be raised to new life. That’s the faith that Martha could offer, and she was right. But Jesus pushes her farther. He raises Lazarus to life now. Yes, he would die again physically one day and be raised to new life in Christ in heaven. But Jesus needed to show his power over death today too. Not just then. Now. A sign of his own resurrection to come. He raises her brother, who has been in the grave for four days, to life. The decay reversed. Look at V. 39. I think this is funny. The finality of death is so real to Martha. She can’t see around it. She thinks Jesus just wants to see the body, and Martha is like “Ew. I’m not sure that’s a good idea Jesus. I mean, 4 days. The stench.” But where Martha could only see an end, Jesus wants her to see another step on the journey.
Jesus took what Mary and Martha had to offer, a real and true as far as it went but incomplete faith and expanded it. Jesus, the resurrection and the life. Redefines death. It isn’t final any longer. In Christ, it is a gateway into further life and fellowship with God. But we are living in the beginning stages of that life right here, right now, in this world. Yes, we face death. But we do not face it alone. Death itself cannot separate us from God’s love. And death is no longer final. Death does not get the last word. Jesus does.
Pastor Carlo Carretto says, “When the world seems a defeat for God and you are sick with the disorder, the violence, the terror, the war on the streets; when the earth seems to be chaos, say to yourself, “Jesus died and rose again on purpose to save, and his salvation is already with us.”
Every departing missionary is an act of faith in the resurrection. Every peace treaty is an act of faith in the resurrection. Every agreed commitment is an act of faith in the resurrection. When you forgive your enemy, when you feed the hungry, when you defend the weak, you believe in the resurrection. When you have the courage to marry, when you welcome the newly-born child, when you build your home, you believe in the resurrection. When you wake at peace in the morning, when you sing to the rising sun, when you go to work with joy, you believe in the resurrection.[i]
This world looks at the shadow of death looming over all things and says “What’s the point? Everything is meaningless.” Jesus says, “I have taken the sting out of death.” Yes, even with God’s love we face trial and challenge and pain and sickness and death. Yes, we mourn. But not without hope. And in Christ we are set free to live, to really live, as citizens of heaven, truly alive in this world. “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” The words of Jesus. Let us pray.
[i] Carlo Carretto in Blessed Are You Who Believed. Christianity Today, Vol. 40, no. 4.