Sunday, March 9, 2008

JESUS’ GREATEST MIRACLE

Sermon Preached at Uganda Christian University
Lent 5, 9 March 2008
Text: John 11:1-44


We have been looking in the Gospel of John at some of Jesus’ “signs,” those things which John wrote in order that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

Let me begin with some observations about miracles in general. I would like to argue that miracles by definition are extraordinary events but they are extraordinary in a certain way. They are in a sense extensions of the ordinary that reveal something new and important about God and His world.

Let me start with the first great miracle: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” from nothing. Surely this is an extraordinary act of God. God did not need to create the world. He willed to create it out of his abundant love. There are immense complexities about the birth of the universe and our planet Earth, about the emergence of life from non-life, and about the unique creature man, homo sapiens, in the image of God, possessing body and soul.

In one sense, all the miracles of the Bible are extensions of the first miracle of creation. They involve the stuff of creation acting under some of the laws of energy and motion. St. Augustine, on of the first Christian philosophers, noted that a miracle is not contrary to nature, but only to our knowledge of nature; miracles are made possible by hidden potentialities in nature that are placed there by God (City of God, XXI.8.2). Looking at it from another perspective, one might say that everyday events in our world are miracles made cheap. This is a truth worth noting in our daily prayers: we exist from moment to moment by the will of God and should look for new and surprising things to break forth in God’s world from God’s Word.

It is also true that miracles intervene in human affairs like a thief in the night. You do not see them coming beforehand, and immediately after they become welcomed into nature. C.S. Lewis put it this way: “The moment [a miracle] enters Nature’s realm it obeys all her laws. Miraculous wine will intoxicate, miraculous conception will lead to pregnancy… miraculous bread will be digested.” (Miracles, p. 64). Lazarus returned from the dead immediately returned to everyday life, including a future death.

Miracles, however, are not the same as everyday events. In fact, just the opposite: miracles are noted when everyday events are not everyday, when there is something unusual about them. People marvel at – they “admire” miracles, which is the meaning of the word. Repeatedly in the Gospels, people respond to Jesus’ miracles thus: “They were all amazed and glorified God, saying, "We never saw anything like this!" (Mark 2:12).

This brings us today to Jesus’ Greatest Miracle: the raising of Lazarus. This is Jesus’ greatest miracle because in it He chose to display the power of the Resurrection. We hear at the beginning:

So the sisters Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus, "Lord, the one you love is sick." When he heard this, Jesus said, "This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it." (verses 3-4)

To understand this, we must realize the urgency of the situation. Mary and Martha lived in Bethany, a village just outside Jerusalem. Jesus was in Galilee, more than a full day’s walk. But Jesus did not respond urgently to the warning. He waited for two days before leaving. This is a very strange response toward someone you love, and it says clearly that Jesus did love Lazarus and his sisters. Jesus, however, saw the potential in Lazarus’ dire illness to show forth the glory of God.

A second theme which appears at the beginning of this story is the threat to Jesus’ own life, as His disciples warn him:

"But Rabbi," they said, "a short while ago the Jews tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?" Jesus answered, "Are there not twelve hours of daylight? A man who walks by day will not stumble, for he sees by this world's light. (verses 8-9)

Jesus is saying to them that a person cannot live out his life in constant fear. Some people live to be 90 or 100; others live to be 25. The important thing is to walk in the light, in the fullness of life. Jesus knew that the hour of His own fulfillment was coming. Indeed in Lazarus death and return to life, He saw His own hour coming.

As they made their way toward Lazarus’ home, Jesus told the disciples in advance that it was too late:

"Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up." His disciples replied, "Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better." Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. (verses 12-13)

As so often happens in the Gospels, Jesus speaks something on one level and the disciples hear it on another. In this case they misunderstand the words “Lazarus has fallen asleep.” Jesus’ comment reminds us of another occasion when He was summoned to the house of a ruler of the synagogue, whose daughter was deathly ill. Before he arrived, word came that the girl was dead. “"Why are you weeping?” he said. “The child is not dead but sleeping." (Mark 5:39). And he took the little girl by the hand and said “Arise!” and she got up alive. In this case, we are not completely sure whether the girl actually was dead or just seemed that way. Again, some miracles seem to streamline nature’s own healing processes.

But in the case of Lazarus, there is no doubt. “So then he told them plainly, "Lazarus is dead…” Jesus goes on to explain why he delayed going: “and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” (verses 14-15). Jesus’ miraculous signs were not performed for his own sake, as idle tricks, but with specific purpose – to lead people to faith. That is also why John has recorded some of them.

By the time Jesus and his disciples arrived at Bethany, the mourning rites were already well underway. I am sure you can identify with the problems people in Uganda have when a person dies up-country and the relatives live far way, maybe even overseas. In Lazarus’ case, they were required to prepare the body and put it in the tomb, because for Jews the dead body was unclean and needed immediate burial. Nevertheless the mourning was in full swing. But as the dearest friend of the family, when Jesus arrived, Martha rushed out to him.

It is interesting to note the reactions of the two sisters. Martha was the practical one. In this case her practicality led her merely to wish that Jesus had come sooner. "Lord," Martha said to Jesus, "if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (verse 21). Then Martha blurts out: “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask." Was she really calling for Jesus to raise the dead, or was this a kind of pious wish? Jesus deflects her question, reminding her of the Jewish hope of general resurrection of the dead, saying,

"Your brother will rise again." Martha answered, "I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day." (verse 24)

At this point Jesus makes one of those amazing “I” statements that dot the Gospel of John:

"I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" (verses 25-26)

Martha, full of wonder replies:

"Yes, Lord," she told him, "I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world." (verse 27)

Did Martha really know what Jesus was saying? I rather doubt it. Like many other disciples, she grasped part but not all of Jesus claims. Perhaps she understood him to say that He would come as Messiah at the end-time when the dead were raised.

We know that Jesus favoured the other sister Mary as a model of faith. In this case, Mary had the same words for Jesus as her sister: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." (Probably the sisters had agreed on this.) But in addition, Mary fell at His feet and wept. This act of sorrow in the face of death, along with those who were with her, brought forth our Lord’s own heart of compassion.

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. "Where have you laid him?" he asked. "Come and see, Lord," they replied. Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, "See how he loved him!" (verses 34-36)

“Jesus wept” is the shortest sentence in the New Testament. It has been a word and a portrait of comfort to many who grieve because they know their Saviour has grieved before. But I think we are to see in Christ’s grief a greater agony, the agony of the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus was weeping for Himself, for the cup of suffering which lay a mere two weeks ahead, in which he would bear the sins and griefs of the world. An old hymn puts it this way:

When Jesus wept, the falling tear
in mercy flowed beyond all bound;
when Jesus groaned, a trembling fear
seized all the guilty world around.

Fear seized the guilty world, as darkness covered Calvary, but it was a fear to be succeeded by the joy of Easter, a world unburdened by the Empty Tomb.

Even as He wept, some questioned His power, no, His love. "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?" (verse 37). It was now time for action, earth-shaking action.

Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. "Take away the stone," he said. "But, Lord," said Martha, the sister of the dead man, "by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days." Then Jesus said, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" So they took away the stone. (verses 38-41)

No doubt about it, Lazarus was dead, dead and decaying in the tomb. This was to be no resuscitation. It was to be pure miracle. And part of the miracle was to be the miracle of faith kindled in the hearts of Mary and Martha and all like them who trusted Jesus.

Then Jesus looked up and said, "Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me." (verses 41-42)

Jesus did no work apart from His heavenly Father, and for the sake of us, he prayed to Him. Yet I have called this Jesus’ greatest miracle because I think it was Jesus who initiated it, indeed it was by His word that Lazarus came forth. On Easter Day, it would be the Father Himself who raised His Son from the dead.

When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" 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." (verses 43-44)

Jesus, shout “Come out” and his command “release him” reminds us of another rather different occasion, where Jesus called out of the possessed man a legion of demons and commanded them to depart. Jesus is not just commanding Lazarus to come, he is commanding sin, death and the devil to go and let go their hold on Lazarus – and us. That is the miracle of redemption foreshadowed here and accomplished in the Cross.

The revival of Lazarus was an act of new creation. Cells that have died cannot be recovered. The must be reconstituted. Bodies that have begun to decay can only be reborn. The American poet John Updike describes the first Easter this way:

Make no mistake if he rose at all
It was as his body;
If the cells dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit,
The amino acids rekindle
The church will fall.
(“Seven Stanzas at Easter”)

Updike is here defending miracle, the miracle of Easter, the miracle of Lazarus. The philosopher Wittgenstein once said that “a miracle is, as it were, a gesture that God makes.” It is a sign, a loving sign, as in a father beckoning his child to his arms. Before the tomb of Lazarus, the Lord Jesus Christ gave the greatest sign of His earthly life, calling Lazarus to the arms of his family.

It is a sign, but it is also an act of creative power, of new creation. Many religions have had myths of rebirth, and the Jews held hope that a day would come when the dead would be raised. But never before had a dead man actually come back alive. Now one had, and shortly another greater One would come forth from the tomb.

“I am the Resurrection and the Life.” Jesus’ mighty miracle testifies to His power. It also testifies to His identity, the Great I AM, who formed the universe, the Word made flesh, the only Son of the Father. He is the Resurrection and the Life because He is also the sin-bearer, who went to the Cross not for his own sins but for those of the world. And as he took away our sins, so also he can give us new birth and new hope. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation,” St. Paul says. When we speak of being “born again” of water and the Spirit, we are saying specifically that we have a new existence, a new nature, within us. This new nature is not yet perfected or manifest to the wider world, but it is nevertheless new in a way that Lazarus was not. Lazarus came forth from the tomb only to die again. It is not so with Jesus Christ. As St. Paul puts it: “For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him” (Romans 6:9). Likewise, if we are in Christ, we shall not die. The wages of sin have been paid, the last enemy Death has been conquered. Our outward bodies will waste away, but our spirits shall be alive and reclothed in glory on the day when He comes to fulfill all things.

There is one final aspect of the miracle of Lazarus. It is the miracle of faith. Verse 45 says: “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him.” Jesus intended this miracle to be a sign to others, indeed a sign to all peoples and all generations. And John the Evangelist saw to it that this miracle was recorded “so that believing, you and I might have life in His Name.” Embracing Jesus is as much a miracle as the raising of Lazarus. Yet it is a miracle that happens and has happened daily since that first Easter Day and around the world, wherever the Gospel has been preached. Many of you have experienced that miracle in your own lives and hearts. For those who have not, Jesus’ offer remains alive for you: “Come out from your tomb! Come out and receive new life! Come out and share in the miracle of new birth!”

My brothers and sisters, we are approaching that holy time of year when we recall the mighty acts of God – His suffering and death and rising again. Let us prepare our hearts by considering the raising of Lazarus, who came out of the tomb released and alive so that we might share in his risen life. AMEN.

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