“The Last Sign: Life out of Death
Today, with the story of the Raising of Lazarus we have come to the end of the Book of Signs, which comprise the 1st half of the Gospel of John. Chapters 2 through 11 contain 7 signs – beginning with the story of Jesus turning the water into wine, there are several healings, including the story of bringing sight to the man born blind, the feeding of the 5000 and then we conclude with this amazing story of Jesus raising Lazarus. In between these signs we also have several encounters that include important teachings of Jesus – these include Jesus’ calling the disciples, Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, Jesus encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well and Jesus’ discourse on the Good Shepherd (which is actually his interpretation of the 6th sign, the story of bringing sight to the man born blind.) We have covered a lot. So what have we learned from these signs? Together as a group we can point to several important things that we have learned from these signs, that are also affirmed in Jesus’ encounters and discourses.
1.The signs begin the process of helping us to SEE who Jesus is. Of course we already know this from the Prologue – Jesus is God in the flesh, God incarnate, God “tenting” among us. But it is not enough to be told this, John wants us to see for ourselves. John wants us to see the overflowing abundance of God’s love and grace, as shown in the 1st sign when Jesus turns a lot of water into a lot of wine – or when Jesus feeds a crowd of 5000 with only 5 loaves and 2 fish. Through all of this we begin to SEE that Jesus IS the Light of the World; Jesus IS the Living Bread from Heaven; Jesus IS the Living water; Jesus is the way, the truth and the life; Jesus IS the Gate of the Sheep; Jesus is the Good Shepherd; Jesus is the I AM – Jesus is God come into our midst.
2.The signs are also an invitation to Come and See – to follow and to enter into a relationship with God through Jesus. For God loves the whole world so much that God sent the Son to reach and love and invite. Therefore Jesus invites us to be born anew of the spirit in him; Jesus invites us to drink of the living water and affirms that God doesn’t dwell in any particular place, but rather dwells everywhere; Jesus calls us and in hearing Jesus we see and we follow and we serve. For Jesus calls us to relationship.
3.The signs engender and strengthen our faith. And remember, faith is not a mental activity – faith is a life-style, it is a way of acting and relating to others. For John, faith is relationship with God and with others – a relationship that is grounded in love. And this relationship is NOW – not only tomorrow, or some time in the future – it is NOW. “For God so loved the world, that God sent the only begotten son, so that all who believe may not perish but have eternal life.” God sent the Son, God is enfleshed in the Son so that all those who are in relationship will experience the gift of Eternal Life NOW in the midst of their lives.
And so, we then approach this final sign before we enter into the Book of Glory – that is the story of Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection. Jesus gets the message that his friend Lazarus is ill but instead of leaving immediately he “tarries” and by the time he arrives in Bethany, Lazarus is not only dead, but already buried – 4 days ago! He is greeted Martha on the outskirts of the village: “If you had been here my brother would not have died!” This outburst is filled with anger and hurt, but Jesus responds by simply telling Martha that her brother will rise again. Well, yes of course, way off in the future on the last day, right? She replies. That is when we will all rise again, but it doesn’t really help this situation now! Have you noticed that in every one of the stories we have looked at someone spouts popular wisdom or close-minded thinking and Jesus completely rejects it and turns it around? How can one be born again? Where should the true worship of God take place? Is this man blind because of some sin? My brother will rise on the last day way off in the future, right? And in every case Jesus rejects and turns these questions around. In this story, Martha, and we the readers, assume that Jesus is pointing Martha and Mary towards hope in the future resurrection, to a heavenly time way off in the distant future. After all what else can we say at this point, right? Lazarus is dead now, and there is nothing to be done. But this is not what Jesus is saying: “I am the resurrection AND the life!” He says! This is not an exclusively heaven-focused faith at all – there are implications NOW for life – for your life Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ life, and for our lives too! You can be born anew NOW; we worship God everywhere NOW; God doesn’t zap people, rather God loves and calls; and Resurrection is NOW!
This is the challenge of this story: the Gospel is not only about a future, distant heaven; in fact, the Gospel is not primarily about going to heaven at all. The Gospel is about living life in the Kingdom HERE and NOW in the midst of our everyday lives. “…The promises of God we announce are not only about life eternal with God or even about God’s forgiveness at the last day. Rather, the Gospel teaches us that our relationship with Jesus should make a difference now, make things possible now, open up opportunities and options now, transform relationships now. The promises of God are present tense, not just future.”
So then, what difference does the Gospel make in your lives here and now? For Lazarus it meant being restored to the community and his family; for Mary and Martha it meant having the relationship with their brother restored; for the others who witnessed this event it meant a restoration of relationship and a new calling! Do you notice the theme of the restoration of relationship? Yet again this is central to the proclamation of the Gospel. The Gospel is about the restoration of relationship – with each other and with God.
It also does not mean that we will not have struggles and difficult times and grief and loss. That is all part of life. Things won’t always go the way we want and we will have hard times and we will have struggles with our health and those whom we love will sometimes complete their lives and die. The promise of this is two-fold – First, death and grief and loss and struggle never have the last word – there is always hope and life is always stronger than death; and 2. Our faith, our relationship in Jesus means that we can count of God’s presence with us in the midst of everything we must go through. God will not abandon us – God is present with us throughout everything.
But there is a calling here too. Jesus tells the community to unbind Lazarus and to let him go. The community is called upon to participate in this action of God’s. Restoring life and breath was God’s work through Jesus, but it would have been kind of a useless exercise if Lazarus had been left to languish in the cave swaddled in his linen shroud. Other hands were needed to continue and complete the work.
And those hands are ours. Like the other stories we have experienced in the last weeks this story comes back around and looks squarely at each of us demanding we consider this important question: what difference does it make?!? What difference does it make in your life here and now that Jesus is not only the resurrection but also the life? That Jesus has come so that we might have life and have it abundantly? That we are called to make a difference, to open the tombs of those who are trapped in darkness; to unbind those who are tied up in the shrouds of hardship, poverty, hunger, loss, illness and so on; to free those who are imprisoned by addictions and obsessions and all kinds of other death inducing situations? To what response is Jesus calling you?
I began with a listing of some of the things we have learned from the signs in the first part of the Gospel of John. There is one more…
The signs all show us “Grace upon Grace” – Abundant grace – Grace beyond comprehension. What does Grace upon Grace look like, smell like, taste like, sound like?
It looks like 1000+ bottles of the absolute best wine that are served in the midst of broken relationship – in the midst of loss and failure! It looks like a man swaddled in the linen of the grave coming to the entrance of that grave alive.
It tastes like the most exquisite and expensive wine ever created and it tastes like 5 barley loaves and 2 fish and is served just at the moment when we are most desperately in need – and there is plenty for all!
It smells like the most intoxicating sweetness you have ever experienced and comes when the stench of death and struggle and loss and brokenness are looming large.
It sounds like the voice of Jesus speaking to us – “Go and wash – Come and See – Come Forth and follow me!”
And not only that, but it also comes unearned, undeserved, with no string attached, completely unconditional.
Grace upon Grace – Super-Abundant Grace! This sign and all of these signs are for you – this amazing abundant gift is for you!