Seward United Methodist Church
Tuesday, January 25, 2022
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Eternal Life Transcends Death

John 11:17-24

The story of the raising of Lazarus takes up this whole chapter in John, and we haven’t heard it all. It begins with Lazarus falling ill, and his sisters Mary and Martha sending word to Jesus about the illness. But Jesus is nowhere nearby. He is on the other side of the Jordan River, in the region called Perea, a 20 mile journey each way. So by the time the messengers arrive and find Jesus, at least a full day has passed.

And then, after Jesus hears the news, he delays his departure two more days. Then they make the day’s trip to Bethany. Lazarus must have died soon after word was sent, because by the time Jesus arrives, he has been dead for four days, which is a significant number.

Jesus comes to Lazarus’ home town of Bethany. Bethany is very close to Jerusalem, only about two miles to the east, on the other side of the Mount of Olives. When Jesus arrives, there are many mourners there from Jerusalem.

The typical Hebrew custom of burial and grieving was a very intense experience. According to their traditions, a dead body had to be buried by the end of the day. After the burial, there would be a week of very intense mourning. The grieving family would eat very little. They would stay at home except to go and mourn at the grave. They would not work at all. They sat on the floor. They would weep and wail and grieve very openly. And the custom was that everyone in the village, and even from surrounding villages, would come to grieve with them.

After that first week, things would calm down a little. But they would continue to grieve for an entire year. It was only after the full year was over that they would cease to wear clothing that expressed their grief. For a full year they would not engage in any kind of partying or joyful expressions. It was all around a serious grieving ritual.

When Jesus comes to town, true to her form, Martha goes to meet him. We meet Mary and Martha elsewhere in the Gospels, and we find that while Mary is quiet and contemplative, Martha is a “woman of action.” And so she is the one to go and greet Jesus.

She says, “If you’d been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. But even now, I know God will give you whatever you ask.” Her statement expresses all kinds of emotions. There’s some anger. She’s angry at Jesus for not coming sooner. But she is also hopeful and confident that he can do something now.

Jesus says, “Your brother will rise again.” It was the most common Jewish belief of the day that God would raise up the righteous dead on the last day. Not all Jews believed that, but most did. But Mary takes Jesus’ words to be just another polite condolence. That was a very

common thing to say to a grieving person, the equivalent of us saying today, “He’s in a better place.” She thinks Jesus is just being polite. “Yes, I know some day he’ll rise.” She doesn’t understand yet what Jesus intends.

So Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live again. And whoever believes in me has eternal life and will never perish.”

This is the heart of the story. You could even say it’s the heart of the whole Gospel of John. It’s one of the most important things Jesus ever said. For one thing, it is one of the great “I AM” statements in John’s Gospel, where Jesus identifies himself as God and reveals what he will do. Jesus is saying that he is the source of life.

“Those who believe in me will die, like everyone else, but rise again. They have eternal life and will never perish.” This is the great truth to be found in this story: Eternal life transcends death. Death is not a barrier to eternal life. Eternal life is not something out there that we look forward to “some day.” Eternal life is a present reality. If we belong to Jesus today, we have eternal life today. Death is not an obstacle because if we have eternal life, at the moment of the death of the body, we are instantaneously transferred from the old life into the new.

This is critically important. Without it, just what is the value of all the promises Jesus gives us? He promises to give us peace and joy and hope and rest and abundant life. If he has no power over death, then those are just temporary promises. If he has no power over death, those things won’t last. But if he does have power over death, they are the most wonderful promises ever given.

“Do you believe this, Martha?” She says she does. But as we’ll see, there is still something lacking in either her faith or her understanding.

What about you, church? Do you believe that Jesus has power over death?

Martha goes to get Mary. And when Mary hears that Jesus has come, she runs to meet him, and the crowd follows after. She falls at his feet, and it may not come across in English, but in Greek, her words are more emotional than Martha’s were. She is distraught. She is more outwardly emotional than her rather stoic sister, and it shows.

At this point, there’s something odd in the story. Jesus becomes angry. Why? Why in the world is Jesus angry? Three possibilities have been suggested. One is that John simply means that he was deeply moved. But that’s not likely. The word is clear. He was angry. The second possibility is that Jesus is angered by the false display of emotion by others in the crowd. It was customary to share in grief, but of course, there would always be some who

were just “politely” grieving. The third possibility, and the one I like the best, is that Jesus is angry about death. He is angry at the painful ravages of death on the human spirit. I think that’s the best choice.

And then Jesus weeps. That’s a profound little statement. Is it just because he is “also fully human?” I don’t think so. I think it’s a profound statement about God. God weeps with his people. The first people to receive John’s Gospel were mostly Greeks. And the Greeks believed that God had no emotions. They believed God was completely detached from humanity. Because, they said, if our actions could influence God emotionally, then we had some measure of control over God. So they understood God to be completely distant from human beings. But they were wrong. God cares about his people. God feels our pain and grieves with us and rejoices with us.

They come to the tomb, which would be a small cave, carved into a hillside, with a stone rolled across the entrance. Jesus says, “Remove the stone.”

At this point, we see Martha’s faith or understanding is lacking. She says to him, “We can’t do that. It’s been four days. He’s going to stink by now!”

It was common belief among the Hebrews that after a person died, their spirit stayed close to the body for three days. But after three days, the spirit left the body.

Now that belief, of course, could have some natural explanation. Sometimes a person might slip into a coma, and seem to be dead for a few days even. But then they wake up. The Hebrews would say that their spirit re-entered the body.

But on the fourth day, there was no more hope. And I think that’s the reason Jesus delayed his return for two extra days. He has come to show his power over death. Now Jesus raised people from the dead at least two other times: The son of the widow of Nain and Jairus’ daughter. But in both those cases, the person had just died. And so they would be easier to explain away. Some people believed that a sorcerer could use magic to coax the spirit back into the body during those first three days. But they believed nothing could be done for a person dead for four days. Only God could give life to the “truly” dead.

In Jesus’ prayer, he doesn’t even ask God to raise the dead. He thanks the Father that it has already happened. This miracle had to happen to demonstrate Jesus’ power over death.

Jesus says, “Lazarus, come out!” He fulfills the promise he made in John 5:28, that the dead in their graves would hear the Son of God’s voice. And Lazarus comes out. And Jesus is victorious over death and the grave.

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