John 11:25, 26

April 15, 2001 - Easter
Robert B. Ives, Ph.D., Pastor

The Grantham Church

John 11:25, 26

I love kid’s Sunday School stories. Kids get things slightly wrong in the most interesting ways! A little boy, getting out of Sunday School, sees his mom having coffee in the narthex of the church and asks her - in front of her friends - “Mom, how come people turn into wood when they die?”

Mom, “Ah.... What makes you ask that?”

“Well, when Jesus died they put nails into him.”

The next step in this Jesus story is when Tony Campolo describes a worship experience he had in a black church in Philly one Sunday. The pastor preached on the topic, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.” Now the original sermon may have been told in Philadelphia black, but Campolo’s story was told in South Philly reconstituted Italian. And it was a wonderful description of how the horror of Friday’s crucifixion was turned into the joy of Sunday’s resurrection.

The third part of Jesus’ story sounds like this. Tony Pena was a catcher for the Boston Red Sox. Pena grew up in the Dominican Republic where life wasn’t easy and he used to say that the person who influenced his life the most there was his mother. Throughout Santiago, where the Penas lived, kids used to swing old rake handles or anything else that resembled a bat. They were trying to hit a ball a little quicker, a little farther than anyone else.

It was Pena’s mother who taught him and his brothers to play baseball. She also instilled in them a love for the game. When school was out and the chores were done - nice pattern - she would walk them out to the nearby pasture. She’d stand in the rough dirt patch that was the pitcher’s mound and pitch to her sons.

“All right, little Luis,” she’d call in, “this pitch will be right down the middle.”

When it was Tony’s turn she would say, “Okay, Tony, look for this one in on the fists. You have to learn to hit the inside pitch.” Day after day this went on.

Before he left to play baseball in the States, Tony Pena prayed, “God what I want from this life is to be able to help my family. Please help me to do that.” He’d been playing for the Red Sox a year or so and he was back home for the winter and he was driving with his mother through the streets of Santiago. As they were driving, he asked his mother, “What do you think of that house over there? Take a good look at it, Mama.” They stopped in front of the house. And his mother said, “It’s a wonderful house, why do you ask? Are you thinking of buying it?”

He reaches over to his mother with the keys. “I already have, Mama. It’s for you.” And tears began to stream down her face. What Pena said afterwards was, “I thanked God for giving me such a mother.”

Now Jesus did die, nailed to a wooden cross. Jesus did rise on the Sunday after that Friday. And what he said to his followers before he died was that he was going to prepare a house for them and he would come for them and move them into this new house.

Let’s understand our story. We don’t have any trouble believing that a kid in Sunday school would get part of the story about Jesus wrong; and we don’t have any trouble understanding Tony Campolo’s story about Friday and Sunday, nor is it hard to believe that Tony Pena would give his mother a house. What’s hard to believe is that people are raised from the dead.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus had a friend, Lazarus. Lazarus’ sisters sent a messenger to Jesus to tell Him that Lazarus was near to death. Instead of healing Lazarus from a distance - Jesus had done that - or rushing to Bethany immediately, Jesus waited. Several days after Lazarus has died Jesus comes to Bethany.

When Martha heard that Jesus had finally come she went to talk with Him. Martha knew Jesus and knew He could have healed Lazarus. She says in verse 21, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” And then she adds a remarkable expression of her faith in Jesus. “I know that even now, now that Lazarus has been dead for four days, God will give you whatever you ask.” But when she, or any of us, says something like “even now you can do something,” the possibilities we expect of Jesus are limited by our experience. That’s always the problem with faith from our angle. We can’t see beyond our own experiences. In verse 24 we see that Martha shares the traditional belief of the Pharisees about the resurrection. “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

But Jesus promises more than a resurrection in the last days. Now He believed in the resurrection in the last days. To the crowds following Him in John 6 Jesus had said, “I shall lose none of all that (the Father) has given me, but raise them up at the last day.” That would satisfy the Pharisees’ theology, at least, unless they listened carefully, since Jesus was saying He would be the one who would raise the dead.

Jesus offered life to people. Think of the examples of this. He turns water into wine for the celebration of a wedding party. He offers new spiritual life to Nicodemus. He was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He offers the water of life to a Samaritan woman. He gives life to a dying boy, life to a paralytic, life to a blind man. As the good shepherd He gives all His flock life to the full. And here, in this scene in Bethany, He spells out clearly what the life that He gives means. He asks Martha to do that hardest thing of all, to think about resurrection in a new way. Do you know how difficult that sort of thing is?

So Jesus says, in verse 25, “I myself am the resurrection and the life; those who believe in me will live even though they die; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” And then He bluntly asks, “Can you believe that?”

What Jesus wants is to change Martha’s perspective on the resurrection. Her idea of resurrection is abstract. It has to do with the last days, some unknown time in the future. Jesus wants Martha to have a personal belief in Him since He is the only one who can raise people from the dead.

When I preached on this passage in 1980 I said that Martha really didn’t believe, but Mary did. But after thinking about this passage for the past week I’ve changed my mind . Martha shows a remarkable confidence in Jesus. Her words in verse 22, “but even now...” are one hint of her faith. “Even now that my brother is dead, you can do something.” But she isn’t certain what.

Do you have a similar problem? Each person in this church is going to die some day, some soon, some in many years. What are you able to believe about the resurrection of you? Martha’s words in verse 24, “I know that he will rise again on the last day,” express a confidence about resurrection. Jesus is helping her to see that there is no resurrection and no eternal life apart from Him. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. That’s the most important question. When people believe in Jesus Christ, resurrection and life are fringe benefits.

If we look at verse 25, we might ask a question, Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Are resurrection and life the same thing or different things?

1. Resurrection refers to the final resurrection on the last day. The words say that the one who believes in Jesus will live, and notice the next words, “even though he dies”, that is, there will be a final resurrection.

But then, look at Jesus’ words, “he who lives and believes in me will never die.” This kind of living means we experience the life of God, the life of the kingdom now. We don’t have to wait for the last day. Whoever believes in Jesus will experience the life of the kingdom now. Both the present experience of the life of the kingdom of God and the final resurrection are juxtaposed in what Jesus says in John 11.

So what Jesus is asking Martha here is not whether she believes Jesus is about to raise her brother, Lazarus, from the dead, but if her faith will accept the fact that Jesus Himself is the resurrection and the life.

When she says “yes” in verse 27, we can see that she trusts Jesus even though she doesn’t completely understand. Let me give a bit of ancient grammar here. The word “believe” in verse 27, “I believe...” is the sort of Greek verb that means she has believed in the past and she continues to believe.

And then, in a short period of time, she sees Jesus come to the tomb of Lazarus - it is Martha who knows that her brother is clearly dead. She says in verse 39, “there will be a bad odor about him. He will have started to decay.” So Martha has faith, but she is a realist. Sometimes we get the idea that people in the first century believed too easily. They’d believe anything. They lived before the scientific age when proof is demanded. Actually people in the first century were hard-headed and practical the way people who have to work hard all their lives are.

In verse 30 Jesus weeps over Lazarus dying. He’s weeping about death itself and how death is a great enemy. Out of His great love for us, Jesus will bring all of us back from the dead, even though we have decayed. The farther history moves on, the longer Christian people will be buried. They won’t merely stink. They will be dust. But God, in whose mind we were originally held, will remember what we were. And out of His love for what He envisaged us to be, He will raise bodily those who have trusted Jesus.

That’s remarkable. It’s the great promise of Easter.

In one of his zany essays G. K. Chesterton wrote,

“The world was a shock, but it was not merely shocking; existence was a surprise, but it was a pleasant surprise. In fact, all my first views about life were exactly uttered in a riddle that stuck in my brain from boyhood. The question was, ‘What did the first frog say?’ And the answer was, ‘Lord, how you made me jump!’”

If we ask Lazarus that question, what did the first man resurrected from the dead say? his answer would be, “Lord, how you made me live!” That’s what each one of us will be saying at the final resurrection, “Lord, how you made me live.”

In the meantime, though, we are part of God’s new kingdom, and what does someone who has become alive in Jesus’ kingdom say? “Lord, how you made me live!”

Martha could add her own comment that comes from her faith, “after all, he is the resurrection and the life, you know.” What are you saying about that in your life? The real test of our faith comes not only when Lazarus comes forth from the tomb, but when Jesus, who had become wood - as the little boy thought - came forth from His tomb. Jesus Himself is risen. He is the resurrection and the life.

Thanks be to you, God. Death could not hold you captive. We praise you, for today we celebrate the Resurrection miracle in our very lives. Resurrect our relationship with you this day. We want to join in the great alleluias!