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“I AM the Resurrection and the Life — February 19, 2017”
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I AM the Resurrection and the Life

John 11:1-6 and 17-44
February 19, 2017
Rev. Laurel Neal

Download the PDF document format of this sermon: I AM the Resurrection and the Life.

John 11:1-6 (NIV)

The Death of Lazarus
Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) So the sisters 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.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days,
John 1:17-44 (NIV)

For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and[is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.

John the Baptist Denies Being the Messiah
Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.”
They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”

He said, “I am not.”
“Are you the Prophet?”
He answered, “No.”
Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”
Now the Pharisees who had been sent questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”
“I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”
This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing. John Testifies About Jesus
The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”
Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”

John’s Disciples Follow Jesus
The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”
When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”
They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?”
“Come,” he replied, “and you will see.”
So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.
Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus.
Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter). Jesus Calls Philip and Nathanael
The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”
Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida.

I
Twenty-five years ago, a man named Jerry Sittser and his family were driving home to Spokane after dark. They’d been attending a Native American powwow in Idaho. Jerry, a religion professor at Whitworth, was driving the family minivan. Buckled into the car with him were his wife, Lynda; his mother, Grace; and the Sittsers’ four children: Catherine, age 8; David, 7; Diana Jane, 4; and John, who was 2. On a lonely stretch of highway, Jerry noticed an oncoming car driving extremely fast. Approaching a curve in the road, Jerry slowed down — but the other car didn’t. It jumped its lane and crashed head-on into the Sittsers. Within several minutes, Jerry had watched his wife, his mother, and his 4-year-old daughter die at the scene. His other three children were terrified, but only one was physically hurt. “I remember the feeling of panic that struck my soul as I watched Lynda, my mother, and Diana Jane all die before my eyes,” Sittser writes. “I remember the pandemonium that followed — people gawking, lights flashing from emergency vehicles, a helicopter whirring overhead, cars lining up, medical experts doing what they could to help. And I remember the realization sweeping over me that I would soon plunge into a darkness from which I might never again emerge as a sane, normal, believing man.”1

II
Imagine, if you will, that the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ took place, not in the 1st century, but the 20th. That his ministry took him to the vicinity of western Idaho on a fall evening in 1991. That he came to visit Jerry Sittser in the painful and chaotic days that followed that terrible accident. Imagine, Jesus coming through the front door of a home in Spokane — to visit a heartbroken husband, father, and son. A 41-year-old college professor, now a widower and single parent. Imagine, Jesus speaking to Jerry Sittser the very words he spoke to Mary and Martha following the death of their brother Lazarus: “I AM the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live…and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Imagine this — because Jesus might just as well have been in Spokane as in Bethany. Speaking these words to Jerry Sittser rather than Mary and Martha. Because — in whatever century we care to name — death is real. And in whatever place we care to name, death destroys the lives of the living as well as the dead. Because death has the power to plunge people into darkness — the kind of darkness from which we might never again emerge as sane, normal, believing people.
So imagine it, if you will. Imagine Jesus walking into Jerry Sittser’s kitchen at 7:00 a.m. — as Jerry fixed breakfast for his three surviving children. Imagine Jesus stopping by Jerry’s office at Whitworth in the middle of the day. Or the Sittser laundry room late in the evening as Jerry folded mountains of clothes. Or stepping into the Sittser living room at 2:00 in the morning — where Jerry sat in darkness, listening to Fauré’s Requiem, and going over the accident again and again in his mind. Or coming to the cemetery — where Jerry and his children sometimes went to talk about the accident and the three people who had died. And imagine Jesus saying those words. Saying them quietly and gently, but with authority: “I AM the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live…and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

Those words might not mean very much to us — in a story as remote from ourselves as the story of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. But when we dare to think of our own stories, they take on greater significance. They are, in fact, words most of us need to hear. Because, like Jerry Sittser and like Jesus himself, most of us are on personal terms with grief.

III
What, then, does Jesus mean when he claims to be the resurrection and the life? As with all the I AM statements in John’s gospel, Jesus declares that he himself is God. And as God, Jesus declares that life — not death! — has the last word. No matter how things may seem to us when someone we love dies, or when we ourselves are dying, death is not the last word. No matter how things look and feel to us — when a career dies, or a marriage dies, or a way of life dies, death is not the last word. No matter how things look and feel to us — no disability, limitation or mistake, no accident, abuse, or loss of any kind will have the last word in our lives. Because the good news of the gospel is that Jesus is resurrection and life. In him, life — not death! — has the last word.

Now it’s true that we undergo many experiences that make this difficult for us to imagine. Death, in all its forms, is so powerful — it’s so painfully and unrelentingly destructive — that we usually feel as though life can never be good again. Death always asserts itself as the last word. And always does its best to have the last word. But just look at Lazarus: wrapped up for burial and tucked away in a tomb — dead for four days by the time Jesus arrives. This is significant. By the 1st century, there was a belief in Judaism that a dead person’s soul hung around, near the body, for three days, hoping to reenter it. But once the body began to decay, the soul would depart.2 In other words, by the time Jesus arrived in Bethany on the 4th day, everyone knew that Lazarus was truly and irreversibly dead. Even so, Lazarus’s death was no obstacle to the life-giving power of God, manifested in Jesus — for Lazarus walked out of his tomb alive that day.

IV
Yes…I know. Jesus hasn’t raised any of our loved ones from the dead like this. And we’ll only be disappointed if we expect him to. After all, Jesus didn’t raise Lazarus from the dead as a favor, or a concession, to these dear friends of his. Or even because of his own broken-heartedness. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead in order to demonstrate that he possesses the power of LIFE — and that life is more powerful than death.

It’s natural, certainly, to doubt that this is so. And when I doubt like this, Jerry Sittser is one of the people I look to. A man robbed in an instant of three generations of his family. Left alone with three young children to raise. By his own admission, plunged into darkness—“into a black hole of dread and oblivion”…of frustration…bewilderment…exhaustion…and pain. In Jerry Sittser’s story, neither Lynda, nor Grace, nor Diana Jane is brought back to life as Lazarus was. But Jerry has experienced — just 350 miles from where we’re sitting right now — the same power of life that Jesus demonstrated in Bethany. Three years after the accident Jerry wrote these words: “…the grief I feel now is sweet as well as bitter. I still have a sorrowful soul; yet I wake up every morning joyful, eager for what the new day will bring. Never have I felt as much pain as I have in the last three years; yet never have I experienced as much pleasure in simply being alive and living an ordinary life. Never have I felt so broken…yet never have I been so whole. Never have I been so aware of my weakness and vulnerability; yet never have I been so content and felt so strong. Never has my soul been more dead; yet never has my soul been more alive. What I once considered mutually exclusive — sorrow and joy, pain and pleasure, death and life — have become parts of a greater whole. My soul has been stretched.” “Above all,” he continues, “I have become aware of the power of God’s grace and my need for it. My soul has grown because it has been awakened to the goodness and love of God. God has been present in my life these past three years, even mysteriously in the accident. God will continue to be present to the end of my life and through all eternity. God is growing my soul, making it bigger, and filling it with himself. My life is being transformed. Though I have endured pain, I believe that the outcome is going to be wonderful.”

V
Now, when I hear those words, here’s what I think: I think they’re remarkable. I think they’re as much a demonstration of Jesus’ life-giving power as raising Lazarus from the dead. Maybe more so. Because, after all, the dead are already safe, and secure, and alive in Jesus Christ.

Whereas we, just like Jerry Sittser, are left here — holding the bag. And what’s in that bag is death. Whatever kind of death it is — we find ourselves plunged into darkness, where death asserts itself as the last word. And whenever death asserts itself as the last word — as it always does — most of us end up feeling powerless and hopeless in the face of it. That power death has to destroy our lives and rob us of hope? I want you to know something. That power arouses like nothing else the sorrow of God and the anger of God. We see that in this passage. Jesus weeps over Lazarus’s death and over the anguish it causes in others — and Jesus also responds to Lazarus’s death with anger. I’m not sure why our translations don’t reflect this, but they don’t. Jesus isn’t merely “deeply moved” and “troubled” in verse 33; he’s angry. In fact, the Greek word here means to quake with rage. And in verse 38, as Jesus approaches the tomb, he again is “deeply moved.” But this time, the Greek word refers to the way a horse snorts in agitation or fury. So Jesus is deeply moved with anger — indignant (and maybe even “roaring”) in the presence of death. Furious about death’s power over Lazarus — and also furious about death’s power to have the last word in the lives of the living.

I don’t know about you, but it helps me to know that Jesus is angry: not at people who mourn — but at death and at the power of death. And then I can see that two miracles occurred in Bethany that day: one was removing Lazarus from the tomb — and the other was removing the hopelessness from Martha’s soul.
As I read the book Jerry Sittser wrote about all this, what really struck me was his openness to the power of life in Jesus Christ. For instance, soon after the accident, Jerry had a dream of the setting sun. “I was running west,” he says, “trying desperately to catch [the sun] and remain in its fiery warmth and light. But I was losing the race. The sun was beating me to the horizon and was soon gone. I suddenly found myself in the twilight. Exhausted, I stopped running and glanced with foreboding over my shoulder to the east. I saw a vast darkness closing in on me. I was terrified of that darkness. I wanted to keep running after the sun, though I knew that it was futile, for it had already proven itself faster than I was. So I lost all hope, collapsed to the ground, and fell into despair. I thought at that moment that I would live in darkness forever.” Jerry told his sister about this dream. She told him that “the quickest way for anyone to reach the sun and the light of day is not to run west, chasing after the setting sun, but to head east, plunging into the darkness until one comes to the sunrise.” “I discovered in that moment,” Jerry writes, “that I had the power to choose the direction my life would head, even if the only choice open to me, at least initially, was either to run from the loss or to face it as best I could. Since I knew that darkness was inevitable and unavoidable, I decided from that point on to walk into the darkness rather than try to outrun it, to let my experience of loss take me on a journey wherever it would lead, and to allow myself to be transformed by my suffering rather than to think I could somehow avoid it. I chose to turn toward the pain, however falteringly, and to yield to the loss, though I had no idea at the time what that would mean.” Jerry did, in fact, plunge into that “black hole of dread and oblivion” — of bewilderment, exhaustion, and pain. But he also plunged into that darkness with hope. Believing, however faintly, those words of Jesus: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live…and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” That openness eventually brought Jerry face to face with both the sun — s-u-n — and the Son, s-o-n. He’s experienced the power of death in all its intensity — but he’s also experienced the power of life. He’s been crushed — and he’s been raised to new life in Christ. “Loss can diminish us,” he says; “but it can also expand us. It depends on the choices we make and the grace we receive. Loss can function as a catalyst to transform us. It can lead us to God, the only One who has the desire and power to give us life.”
Just this week I did something I often do: I listened to a sermon by Tim Keller from Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. It was just the next sermon in my podcast queue — but it turned out to be an archived sermon Keller preached the Sunday after 9/11. And he offered what, to me, is a helpful image about grieving death and, indeed, all our losses. Here’s what he said:
The love and hope that comes from God — and the love and hope that comes from one another — has to be rubbed into our grief the way you have to rub salt into meat, in warm climates, or [the meat] will go bad. [Our] grief is either going to make [us] bleaker and weaker — or it could make [us] far more wise and good and tender, depending on what [we] rub into it…3

VI
So imagine it, if you will. Imagine that the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ really isn’t limited to a faraway village in the Middle East 2000 years ago. Imagine that God is still as fed up with death today as he was that day in Bethany. And imagine that God has already demonstrated his life-giving power to those who have died. But while you’re at it, imagine that God is still “deeply moved.” Still indignant whenever any of us gives death the last word in our lives. If any of us has done that — if we’re in the process of letting that happen to us — then maybe we should go home and order Jerry Sittser’s book (called A Grace Disguised); and read it, and begin to think about our own losses in a new way. Because death is real. And it does have great power. But Jesus is the resurrection and the life. And he has the last word over every death and every loss. Even ours.

1 Jerry L. Sittser, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.
2 Gary M. Burge, The NIV Application Commentary: John. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000, 315.
3 Timothy Keller, “Truth, Tears, Anger, and Grace,” a sermon preached at Redeemer Presbyterian Church (NYC) on September 16, 2001. New York: Redeemer Presbyterian Church/Gospel in Life Podcast,