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11.06.16 The Hope of Resurrection John 11:1-6, 17-27, 38-44 Sermon Summary

by on November 7, 2016

Death leads us to experiences of grief and anxiety. God helps us by providing the hope of resurrection.

Summary Points

  • When death is either welcome or unwelcome
  • When death is definitely unwelcome
  • Ways we avoid death, and why John calls us to face it
  • The hope of resurrection—what it is, what it isn’t
  • The way this hope accompanies our lives
  • Questions for discussion and reflection

In the ancient world death was almost always unwelcome. The mortality rate among children was as high as 40%, and the likelihood of dying in one’s prime was higher than it is now. Today we have successfully reduced these numbers, and we have also prolonged life. (Some wonder if we haven’t just prolonged death.) We’ve been so successful that, at least conceivably, death today may be something we welcome.

Death as the end of life may be unwelcome or welcome. But the Bible also talks about death as the great opposer of life. As such it is the enemy of God. And death from this perspective is always unwelcome.

The death of Lazarus presents both kinds of death at the same time. It was the end of his life, which caused grief. But it was also an attack upon God. Death makes it appear that God does not triumph over sin. This causes us anxiety. Against our grief and anxiety stands the hope of resurrection.

John 11 wants us to face the reality of death. Our natural response is to try to deny death. We have active efforts to forestall death—exercise, surgery, brain puzzles, cleansing protein drinks, for example. And we have passive efforts to avoid it—mostly by keeping busy with work or entertainment.

We even use theology to avoid death. Most of the church skips from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, rarely accompanying Jesus through his Passion Week. We have come to call funerals the “witness to the resurrection.” And too often we try to shortcut the journey of grief with theologically sounding bromides.

But John wants us to really face death, so that we can really have hope. Consider how he hammers on this death nail:

  • Martha and Mary send for Jesus because of the seriousness of Lazarus’ illness
  • Jesus tells his disciples plainly that “Lazarus is dead.”
  • When Jesus arrives, Lazarus has been in the tomb already four days
  • Mary and Martha tell Jesus, “My brother would not have died.”
  • In response Jesus says, “Even though they die . . .”
  • There is the stench of a decaying dead body
  • When Jesus calls to Lazarus, John reports that “the dead man came out.”

What John is doing is calling us, as humans, to muster the courage to face death, both death as the end of life, and death as the enemy of life, the enemy of God. He calls us to face death squarely because he wants us to experience the hope of resurrection.

Resurrection is a large and recurring theme. Elsewhere on this blog you can search for Easter sermons, or sermons on heaven, hell, and the afterlife. Look for example here and here. In this sermon I want to limit our focus to the hope of resurrection.

It’s important to remember that we’re talking about Jesus’ resurrection, not Lazarus’ resuscitation. They are different things. Lazarus will die again. One could argue that Jesus didn’t do him any favors. Regardless of how spectacular the resuscitation of Lazarus is, John 11 is really about Jesus’ resurrection and the hope we have because of it.

If nothing else, Jesus’ resurrection proves God’s power over death as the end of life, and God’s power over death as the enemy of life. In other words, the hope of resurrection is hope in God.

The hope of resurrection is uniquely Christian hope. Jesus’ resurrection is both a continuation of his life yet something new. He has a similar body, but obviously different. Some people recognize him, others don’t. He bears the scars of his crucifixion, but he can enter and exit locked doors and appear and disappear upon will.

Christian hope is not just hope for a better earth. Nor is it a hope for heaven as the escape from earth. In other words, it’s not a hope for heaven “on” earth or heaven “after” earth, but a “new heaven and new earth.” Something familiar, but something new. In a word, the hope of resurrection is the hope of transformation.

The hope of resurrection is an act of humility. We don’t know what the future holds, especially with regards to heaven and an afterlife. The Bible only gives us symbolic representations of existence after death (despite the popularity of books claiming to know more). But whatever the future holds, we have hope that it is good because we believe it belongs to God. In humility, we don’t claim to know more than this hope.

And the hope of resurrection has a narrative quality. It moves and develops, there are conflicts and resolutions. As you grow in faith, you can look back and see how the narrative of your own life has evolved with regards to hope. Many people start their Christian journey motivated by the hope of an afterlife. Then they experience some disorientation with painful experiences, questions, and doubts. But as Lewis Smedes says, hopes may die, but hope does not. It returns, and we discover that the hope of an afterlife has evolved to the hope of resurrection.

This narrative quality of the hope of resurrection is why John 11 is told the way it is. There is a crisis, followed by prayer and waiting. The disciples don’t understand, and Jesus arrives too late. There is a stench, and Lazarus is raised. Jesus commands that he be unbound and let go. As we’ve discovered together in the past few weeks, there are many truths to be found in the narrative of John 11.

Like the parables of Jesus, the truths of John 11 aren’t limited to historicity. John 11 invites us to faith in more than the hope of an afterlife. This is a story about God’s power over death. It invites us to faith in the hope of resurrection, to help us with our grief, to help us with our anxiety, to give us courage to live our lives now. It’s a story inviting us to have life before death, because in this life, even with the reality of death, we have the hope of resurrection.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • What are some of the ways you find yourself avoiding death? What does it look like in your life to face death squarely as John demands us to?
  • How does the hope of resurrection address your feelings of grief and anxiety? The Presbyterian Brief Statement of Faith begins, “In life and in death, we belong to God.” How does this conviction relate to hope, grief, and anxiety?
  • How has your Christian hope changed through your life? Can you share your story with someone whose hope is fading?
  • When you open yourself up to the parable-like character of John 11, what other truths come to your mind?

 

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