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Believing and Living 
By Dr. Todd B. Jones

APRIL 10, 2011

Believing and Living
John 11:1-45

We have been traveling through this Lenten season with the Gospel of John as our guide. Do you remember that what we call "miracles," John calls "signs," and that all John's signs point to Jesus, to tell us something important about who Jesus is? Today we turn to the story of Lazarus, in some ways the most astounding of all the signs John offers. In fact, this is the seventh of seven signs that John includes, and it may well be the most powerful and telling of all.

But before we turn to the raising of Lazarus from the grave, an act that ironically will hasten Jesus' own death, let us step back and begin with the shortest verse in the Bible. Many of you Biblical scholars have even memorized this verse: "Jesus wept." John cares about signs that speak to us about who Jesus is, so let us not miss this one: "Jesus wept." When Jesus finally got to Bethany and encountered Mary weeping, and their friends and family weeping, Jesus was "greatly moved" and "deeply disturbed." And in the midst of all this human grief and sorrow, "Jesus wept."

This passage makes all kinds of important theological claims about who Jesus is, but let us not miss this one: Jesus was human. Among all other claims we make about Jesus, let us never lose sight of what we call the incarnation. "The Word became flesh." Jesus was "fully human." This is an emotionally profound testimony to the truth of the incarnation itself, of Jesus being truly one with us to the point of sharing our human need for friendship and our grief at the loss of a dear friend. John tells us that those who saw this marveled, "See how He loved him!" The Greek word they use here for love is "philia," the common everyday Greek word for "friendship" or "human affection" or "brotherly love." "Jesus wept" because His heart was broken over the death of His friend, and He wept because He was moved by the sorrow and grief and tears of Mary and others. John Donne said, "God clothed Himself in a vile man's flesh so He might be weak enough to suffer." Athanasius called this "the wonderful exchange." "He became what we are that He might make us what He is." "Jesus wept." Do not think for a moment that God is indifferent to your sorrow and suffering. Whenever we weep, and I pray it is often for you, know that Jesus weeps with you.

Secondly, please note that Jesus brings life out of death. John goes to the greatest of lengths to make the point for us that Lazarus is really dead. Lazarus does what we all of us shall certainly one day do; he gets sick and dies. Nowhere does Christian faith or Christian theology deny the reality of death. Here Lazarus is said to be dead and in the tomb four days. What modern translations refer to as an "odor" or a "stench" is put even more vividly in the King James Version: "he stinketh." Death stinks, and Christian faith never pretends we can avoid its stench. This is true in the Creed, where we say Jesus was "crucified, dead and buried." Any one of those three words would do, but the Church insists on all three, to drive home the reality of Jesus' death.

But with Jesus death is forever transformed. Paul would say that "death is swallowed up in victory." With Jesus, death is real, but it never has the last word. The last word always belongs to Jesus.

Here Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb; He calls him from death to life. And in doing so, Jesus offers a word that is central to His very identity: "I am the resurrection and the life…." Wherever Jesus is, He is always the One who brings life out of death. Here we see it demonstrated dramatically and powerfully. It prefigures and points to how God will raise Jesus' corpse from death to life on the first Easter. But wherever Jesus is present, He has the power to bring life out of death. Out of so many of our little deaths Jesus has brought newness of life. How many of our hearts have been broken and as good as dead, yet Jesus brought life to them once again?

As a young pastor in Columbia, South Carolina, a woman twenty years my senior invited me to walk alongside of her as she was dying. She showed up in church one Sunday and handed me her card on the way out of church, asking me to call. I saw she was wearing a wig, and she was pale and labored in movement. We began to meet every week, just to talk and pray. The first time I prayed for her, I included a prayer for her healing. She thanked me and said, "I don't believe I am going to get better, though I do believe God will make me whole. But I am still alive, and while I am, I assume Jesus still wants me to be His disciple. Help me to follow Jesus all the way to my end."

I will always believe that this woman knew that Jesus brings life out of death. She understood the meaning of this story. She knew that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, and that life is more powerful than death. I knew in that moment that death had no final hold on her. Jesus brings life out of death.

Finally, to see who Jesus really is, to believe in Him, is to live. That is the question Jesus asked Martha. "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. Do you believe this?"

Faith is always the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, but it is always centered upon Jesus, upon who He is and what He does. John Calvin said that "faith is the principle work of the Holy Spirit," and "faith binds the believer to Christ." This is the core identity of Jesus. "I am the resurrection and the life," Jesus says, "everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"

The whole point of John's Gospel is this "living faith." Do you recall what one New Testament theologian said was the theme of the whole Gospel? "But to all who received Him, who believed in His name, He gave power to become children of God" (John 1:12). "To believe" in John's Gospel is always tied to Jesus, and it always appears as a verb in John, not as a noun. Faith is something you do. More to the point, faith is something you live. Believing and living are always linked in John's Gospel. "Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die." Jesus gives life, and to believe in Him is to find life and to find it more abundantly. It is to receive life even in a world where we are surrounded by death.

Do you hear what Jesus is saying here? You do not have to wait for a promised resurrection in the by and by. Eternal life, the life that Jesus gives, begins not at the end of time, nor even at the funeral home or hospice bed. It can begin right here, right now, and it can exist on both sides of the grave. Death, to be sure, will come for us, but not a death that can separate us from God, not a death that can stand up to Jesus' life! "Though they be dead, yet shall they live." We have Jesus' word that the love of God runs deeper and truer than sin and death.

Listen to Fred Craddock's word on this passage: "A story of a death in a family is told as a narrative about Jesus' own passion, and Jesus' own passion is told as a narrative about a death in the family. When anyone's story and Jesus' story are so interwoven, it is not simply a literary display; it is a presentation of the Gospel."

May our lives be so tied up in Jesus' life, and our stories so interwoven with His, that the Gospel comes to life in and through us.

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