By Gary Shogren, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica
The reader should go through John 10:22-31, 10:39-11:46, 12:1-2
The story of Jonah is real and historical, I believe, but its main character is not a big fish. The passage about crossing the Red Sea is not a story about sea travel. Likewise, the account about Lazarus is not about Lazarus. He’s sick at the beginning of the chapter and, well, dead for most of it: 44 verses and he doesn’t have a single line.
But all of these Bible events are about God stepping in to rescue people he loves.
The hero of this story is revealed in John 11:44b – When Jesus heard that, He said, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” We might paraphrase the verse as: “People will be led by this powerful thing that’s going to happen to proclaim God as God, and because of that, the Son of God will also receive that kind of worship and recognition.” This leads to 11:15, which says that the miracle happens “that you may believe”. In 11:25-26, Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in Me, though they may die, they shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
Our Bible study today will be comprised of a long introduction, then a shortish sermon, and then a long conclusion. We’re going to be talking about death, decay and funerals and even hell. We’ll be working through some grim material, but stay with me and we’ll end up well, I promise.
In my ministry, I’ve performed just two funerals. The first one was easy. The second was a hard one, for a guy I didn’t know, but from the little town where we once lived and worked [in the web version I will omit most of the details]. I knew his parents from town and we were friends. They called me “the Reverend.” They had a son in his 20s who was in trouble constantly. One Saturday morning we woke up to find that the whole town was talking…“Bill” was dead. He and a buddy got drunk, and the police chased him through town. The police finally cornered his car against the river which flowed through town and Bill panicked and his friend drove off the high embankment to their death.
That was many years ago. At the funeral stood up to speak and I saw the faces of his friends. It was pretty certain that no-one was thinking, “Wow, Bill really went out in a blaze of glory, didn’t he? Now that’s the way to do it!” No, no glory there. Of course, someone could try to make a Hollywood movie out of him: he’s a loner who plays by his own rules. But that’s not reality: his death was more like a bad cartoon than a Hollywood ending.
Let me mention another name. Kurt Cobain was a musician: a writer, singer, guitarist of a ground-breaking band Nirvana. He struggled with depression and heroin addiction. In 1994, at age 27, full of heroin, he killed himself with a shotgun. His music isn’t my style, but I’ve listened to a bit of Nirvana this week. One song he wrote included these lyrics:
I’m going to hell, I’m gonna die, Who wants to stay?
For many today, usually people younger than I, Kurt Cobain is a symbol. He lived hard, played his music, scoffed at death, was going to hell and he didn’t care, wow! and went out in a blaze of glory. For some he’s a tragic hero. Search on the internet for the phrase “Kurt Cobain lives”, it’ll surprise you. How does he live? Well, they say:in his music, in his fame…No, Kurt Cobain does not live. He had been dead for three days when an electrician came by to do stuff on his house and found the body. That’s not heroic.
In ourselves we wouldn’t know much about what lies beyond death; God knows all about it, and sent Jesus to tell us what’s up: He says that going to hell is not going out in a blaze of glory, it’s ending up in a place of total isolation. When Jesus talked about hell, sometimes he said it was a fire (an aspect which we should take seriously), but it’s not the only we he described it. Sometimes, for example, it’s pictured as a dark alone place. He several times used the phrase: “thrown into the outer darkness.” (see Matt 25:30). In another part of the Bible it says, “For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved” (2 Pet 2:17, Jude 6).
You move around in the world, and you hear what people are thinking…
- Some people think that death is nothing, you just click off and you’re done. No – for person without Christ, it’s darkness, but you’re conscious forever. Imagine going down to a dark basement with a flashlight and then there is no flashlight, and your eyes never get adjusted…but you’re still there. There are worse things than ceasing to exist (and today we’re not even touching on the aspect of “flames”, just the darkness and alone part of it)
- Of course, some say that hell is a big party. No it’s not, it’s the opposite, it’s being totally cut off. And living in the outer darkness is not in a nice sense of “I’d like some down time by myself”. Rather it’s “I’ll never be in touch with anyone again”; Whatever Kurt Cobain is doing now, he’s not keeping in touch with his friends. You think our church is picky about turning off your cellphones? Well, being in hell means you check your devices at the door: no texting, no cell-phone, not even email, not even Facebooking, no face-to-face, no sharing a cappuccino and comparing notes on the afterlife!!! “See you in hell”? No you won’t…
- Others in the world say: I’ll live on in the memories of the next generations. You hear this in some funerals. Well, let’s try a test. Who here remembers at least one grandparent who has passed away? Who has memories of a great grandparent? Great-great…? [note: there was one person who answered yes to the last question] If you’re going for “eternal life” that way, you’re going to lose out too! Similar: better to die a hero, such as a firefighter. Sure, being a hero is a good thing – but how long will they remember you? Some of you might remember some fallen hero from the Middle East or Vietnam or Korea or even WWII; how about WWI or Civil War? Do you still honor some private or sailor in your ancestry who died a hero back then? It all evaporates pretty quickly. You won’t be remembered for long.
What does the Bible say about our future? Earlier in the same gospel we read in John 5:25 (GNT) – “I am telling you the truth: the time is coming…when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear it will come to life.” Paul put it this way – “Because the Lord himself, with the commanding shout of the archangel’s voice and with the trumpet of God, will come down from heaven, and the dead in Christ will first be resurrected.” (1 Thess 4:16)
I don’t care if you’re a musician whose fame goes on for a long time; or a soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his buddies; or someone whose death seems like a joke in bad taste…the key is “In Christ, the dead in Christ” will rise to life, the rest to judgment.
Let’s go through a bit more Introduction…
People who are this morning, how do you think about death?
- Well – for some people here, we worry about death – will it hurt, will I suffer, will I go through long illness, and so forth. That’s logical. Actually, people in Lazarus’ time thought more about death than we do, tougher existence: you could get bitten by a mosquito, develop malaria and die; you could get a minor cut, an infection could do you in…there were no antibiotics in the first century; the experts at this sort of thing say that 1 out of 3 women could expect to die in childbirth, they had a lot of pregnancy, and every pregnancy was a huge risk; the life expectancy of a married woman was maybe 30 years old. Today, they tell you, if you wear your seatbelts, watch your diet, get exercise, keep on top of blood pressure, theyn you’re probably going to go the distance. In the first century, by contrast, people died right and left!
- Maybe you don’t worry about death, at least not consciously. But may I propose that it bothers you more than you might think, if your attitude is: Hold on hard to life and don’t let go. Do you think about cancer; osteoporosis; with age come the lines? Flip through any woman’s magazine, and the running theme is “stay young”. Men, you don’t escape from this either: do you think about cholesterol or blood pressure? Or should you pay it more attention? These are all part of the package of what death means…
I don’t worry about death, but…does this sound familiar? The other day, I started to go upstairs to get something, got halfway and forgot why, went down. Seconds later I started up again, got halfway up and realized I’d again forgotten what I was looking for, so I went back down. Then I said, said, Oh, I know, I went to get my reading glasses, and I put my hand on my head in disbelief…and here they had been the whole time. There’s something about me needing glasses for fine print, and huffing and puffing up and down the stairs and then the repeated forgetfulness – that’s a Triple Crown, but I’m not proud.
So, I may not be thinking about death, but…I’m bothered because vitality is slipping away bit by bit. So for me too, from a different angle, God’s Word applies, “I am telling you the truth: the time is coming…when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear it will come to life.”
In John 11, Lazarus will hear his voice and come to life…for a few years more.
The introduction is done, let’s think about the text of John 11:
There is a crisis: Lazarus is seriously ill, so they send a messenger to notify Jesus. Jesus says that this won’t lead to death (in hindsight we see, not ultimately). Despite his love for the three of them, he delays two more days – during that time, Lazarus gets worse, and succumbs to death.
Jesus is many miles to the east, still he waits one day, a day and a half, two full days. Only then Jesus says “Let us go back to Judea”.
Back in Bethany they hold the funeral without Jesus. It was the custom then to bury the dead almost immediately. The body was washed and laid out on shroud, tied at ankles and wrists, cloth over the face; he was already decomposing, and the Jews buried the dead the same day with spices to kill the odor, without embalming or anything.
When Jesus and his disciples finally arrive (John 11:39) he’d been dead four days. He hadn’t just passed out, but was “good and dead” and decomposing. Martha remarks that “there is a stench”. She wasn’t just speculating, all you had to do was stand outside the tomb, which was one of the ones with a rolling stone over the entrance, like we know from the Easter story. These caves weren’t airtight; you could probably stand outside it and inhale and prove that he was dead. Then when the men rolled the stone back they probably held their breath to keep from gagging.
Now, what is going on here as far as ultimate realities? God has a list of enemies, and he hates them in part because of the damage they do to people, and he will go after them.
What will God do with his enemy, sin? Punish it, even better, forgive it through Christ.
The devil? Throw him into the lake of fire, Rev 20.
And death? I say death, because it says in 1 Cor 15 that God’s “Last Enemy” is not Satan, as we might have guessed, but death. Death destroys people in God’s image and this offends God, even though it’s the punishment he gave. He hates death because it devastates the beautiful creatures he has made in his image. Maybe that’s why Jesus wept (or better he “burst into tears”, 11:35). So, death is God’s enemy, but how do you defeat death? You undo it…you reverse it. And that is precisely what Jesus will do in the final resurrection. It says in another place (Phil 3:21 GNT) that “He will change our weak mortal bodies and make them like his own glorious body…”
But listen…on that day long ago, for one person, for a few more years the Lord Jesus would undo death, he would destroy the destroyer.
In 11:23-24 Jesus says to Martha: “Your brother will rise again”. He leaves it a little open-ended, so that (1) you could be taken to be a nice comfort – you’ll see him again someday; (2) it could mean something else, something more immediate. Martha replied that “I know he will rise again on the last day”. Most Jews believed in the resurrection, and she is correct. People, including you and I, will live again. Jesus will take a dead thing and make it a living person – the same thing he did when he made Adam out of dust. He tells Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life.” In another place he says “I am the way the truth and the life.” Don’t let this go over your head: he doesn’t say “Knowing me gives you a better life”, but “I am life”.
But Jesus also means something more immediate: on that one day, Lazarus was dead…and then he wasn’t. Jesus called, “Lazarus come out!” and he inhaled, and felt his heart beat, and wondered why he couldn’t see – there was a cloth over his face! – why he was all tied up. But he got up and stumbled out…alive.
And there’s more, a passage we don’t always read in connection, because the editors added a chapter division (John 12:1-2 NKJV) – “Then, six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was who had been dead, whom He had raised from the dead. There they made Him a supper; and Martha served, but Lazarus was one of those who sat at the table with Him.” A few days later, Lazarus has a dinner with his friends. He is connecting with them and enjoying life. And most importantly he is with Jesus, really connected with him, who is the hero of his story.
Last Sunday I went to a reception for a friend of mine whom I’ve known for 20 years, and it was nice, but a part I don’t look forward to is that there are always people whom I vaguely recognize. No-one wants to wear name tags. So at times I’m talking away with someone and asking how you’re doing and all and I’m thinking, I have no idea who you are or where I know you from. We have friends from three countries and from many states. I’m hoping that some day they’ll perfect portable Facebook technology where you’ll be reminded “you know him from this place, so-and-so is a mutual friend and his kids names are…”
The resurrection won’t be like that, but more like the dinner that Lazarus had with Jesus and with his fellow-believers. No, better, the resurrection will be that a million-fold. John 12:2 foreshadows that, “there they made him a dinner”. And you too at the resurrection will have that complete and perfect connectedness with him and others. You will be saved from the everlasting state of complete darkness and disconnectedness.
The time is coming, when you will hear the voice of the Son of God, and you will come to life. And you will step out and your limbs will be stronger than you’d think possible, and you’ll stand up straight without making any of those groaning noises, and maybe you’ll run for the first time in a long time, and the wind will blow through your hair and it’ll be nice and thick, and your arthritic fingers will be unbent and nimble, and your skin smooth. And you’ll hear voices saying, hey, we’re over here!! And you’ll distinguish the voices from so far away, and see and recognize them from so far off! You will live…
But you won’t be spending your time admiring each other and how well you’re looking. The important thing is Jesus, who said “I am the resurrection and the life”. You will hear the voice of the Son of God, and you will come to life. The truly good news is not a new and improved you, but being with him. As Paul would later say, “so shall we ever be with the Lord” (1 Thess 4:17). That’s what Jesus offers us in the gospel, and if you love the Lord this morning, hold right on to him, and to that expectation, and we will see you on the other side.
If that expectation is a happy one, the other side is equally grim. In his masterwork, The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis said that, people don’t stay away from God because they’re these great individualists or Lone Rangers. Why don’t people turn themselves over to Christ? Because there is always something they insist on keeping even at the price of misery. There is always something they prefer to joy, says Lewis, they’re like the child who sulks and misses out on play time rather than say I’m sorry.
To paraphrase Lewis – don’t miss out on the party, just because you’ve decided to be in a snit. Like we would have wanted to tell Bill when he was running from the cops, I’m telling you: Whatever it is you think you’re running away from, it’s not worth it, slam on the brakes and surrender. Don’t risk the everlasting darkness. Forever is a long time – in hell, there’s no stand-alone heroes, no rugged individualists, no lone wolves…only people who will be awfully lonely because they were too cool to say “I need Jesus Christ”.