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The Day of the dead living

John 11:1-44

     A number of years ago, at the university I served, I had a lunch with several of our doctoral students from different countries in East Africa.  (I’ll show a map here.)  They all were pastors in their home countries and we began talking about how challenging it is to preach on Easter Sunday morning after you’ve been in your church for a while.  One of our Kenyan students began sharing how in the cultural legends of many of the Kenyan tribes, there is a belief in what they call “the living dead.”  That is, when a person dies, many people think his spirit remains around the village for a good while.  The pastor said that in his church, the most effective Easter sermon he had preached had started with him talking about that cultural belief.

     I told him that starting a sermon like that in America would make people think of one of the scariest movies ever made, i.e., “The Night of the Living Dead”, a film in which dead bodies came to life and began terrorizing a Pennsyvania farm community. (Show a picture here.)  I said that this would have the opposite effect of the joy and hope I want the Easter message to bring about.  And all the pastors with me that day quickly said, “No, no!  You’ve misunderstood. The point of this belief is not the the “living dead” terrorize their families and neighbors.  No, it’s just to reassure their loved ones that they’re still alive.  People in our country want to know whether death is the end of everything.  Of course, that question gives us the chance to talk about Jesus and the resurrection.”

     And then the pastors said to me, “Now that we’ve been here in the USA several years, we think this message is needed here too.  We find most people here don’t seem to deal well with death and dying.”  The students said with a smile, “Someday, President Waybright, when you are struggling with how to drive home the Easter message to your people, maybe you will remember our lunchtime talk about the living dead – and use it in your church.”  So here we are this Easter 2015

     My East African brothers that day even pointed me to the text I should speak from, i.e., John 11:25-26.  These are words Jesus spoke in the context of the death of one of his closest friends – and just before his own death. Look at what he said: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he be dead, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”

     Look at Jesus’ words carefully.  Do you see that he’s talking about two kinds of life and two kinds of death?  Jesus speaks of a person being physically alive needing to believe because he is spiritually dead (“whoever believes in me, though he be dead, shall then live…”).  And Jesus also suggests that a person can experience physical death but still not be dead (“whoever believes in me shall never die”).

     Those two verses contains the two basic themes that every person should think about at Easter: 

1) Is death the end?  For those who have experienced the death of a loved one, Jesus wants you to know that physical death is the end of things.

2) Am I really living?  For those who are physically alive but sense something is missing in your life, Jesus wants you to know what that something is that is missing. 

     It may be of no surprise that the answer to both is centered in the person and work of Jesus – the one who is the resurrection and life.  That’s what I’ll talk about today: The dead living – that I’ll call hope for those who mourn.  The living dead – that I’ll call hope for those who are dead right now.

#1.  The Dead Living  (Hope For Those Who Mourn – or, Death Is Not the End)

     Many of us have faced issues related to death in the lives of our families or friends over the past year.  I know that Chris and I have.  With the death of my father recently, I realized that, even though I preach about death and dying often, the actual experience of it is very, very hard personally.  Listen to me: sorrow in the face of death is real.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  People of faith and people with no faith feel sorrow deeply when death comes to a loved one.  But, Jesus tells us that he came into this dying world so that in the midst of life’s sorrows – even the sorrow related to death – we can have hope.  Jesus declares that Christians who lose loved ones still have sorrow – but it is a sorrow with hope.  To that end, Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me, though he be dead, yet shall he live.”  Sorrow is real.  It is real indeed.  But, I declare to you: the hope we find through trusting Jesus is real too.  For, Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!

      Let’s look at the story in John 11 that leads to Jesus saying these words.  Have you ever noticed the strange way the story opens?  Lazarus, Jesus’ close friend, is seriously ill.  His sisters, Mary and Martha, send word to Jesus, "Lord, the one you love is sick."  But, when Jesus hears Lazarus is sick, he stays where he is two more days.  Why? Why on earth then does Jesus delay?

     There can only be one reason.  Jesus had some purpose in mind in this matter that went far beyond simply seeing Lazarus recover from his illness.  If Jesus had only been interested in seeing Lazarus get well, he would have gone immediately to heal him.  Or He could have healed Lazarus from afar because distance was no barrier in Jesus' healing ministry.  But physical healing is always temporary, isn’t it.  God does heal.  We’ve experienced that at LAC – but Jesus came to do something that lasts longer than physical healing.

     The key to this is what Jesus says in v. 4, "This sickness will not end in death."  That's not a very good translation of that verse.  I’m quite sure that a better translation is this:  The ultimate purpose of this sickness is not death but for the sake of God's glory.

     You see, Lazarus did die physically and, in that way, the sickness did end in death physically. But the point that is being driven home is that, for the one who trusts in Jesus, even the “end” we call physical death end is not really the end.  This is the message of Easter!

     You see, for a Christian, death is not a shameful or fear-filled defeat.  No, we know death is a transition to something better, i.e., the unrestricted presence of God. It is wonderful to live here in Southern California.  But, we who belive in Jesus are convinced that it is “far better” to be with the Lord.

     That brings us to what happened to Lazarus.  On the surface, the story of Lazarus has much in common with the first Easter morning, i.e., with Jesus’ own resurrection.  There is a tomb, a stone to be moved, and the confusion of the witnesses.  But there is a major difference between Lazarus' resurrection and that of Jesus in John 19‑20.  John is very careful to record it.

     In John 11:44, Lazarus came out of the tomb with his graveclothes on.  But, in 20:5 when Jesus rose from the dead, he left His graveclothes in the tomb.  Jesus was not so much coming back from the dead as He was passing through death to a new quality of life with a new body, a life which physical barriers could no longer hinder.  But that wasn't Lazarus' experience here.  He didn't pass through the tunnel of death to a new life in the unrestricted presence of God.  Lazarus was drawn back out through the same entrance he went in through.  Lazarus had been raised but only one day to die again like any other man. 

     And in his return, Martha and Mary, the mourners, were no doubt thrilled to have him back.  But I wonder whether Lazarus was as thrilled.  I wonder whether he was glad about re‑entering the land of the living -- or whether now he thought that this would better be called “the land of the dying”.  The Bible is clear that life on the other side of the tomb is not less than what we experience here – but more than and better than.   

     That's the first message of Easter.   Death is not the end. Our Lord is lord even over death.  So, for the believer, death leads not to something worse – but to something better by far. That hope is available to all of us – but it is experienced only for those who are alive in a second way.  That brings us to the second theme.

#2:  The Living Dead  (Joy for those who are Dead – or, Life Really Begins with Jesus)

     Look again at what Jesus says in v.25.  There is something quite striking about it: “Whoever beieves in me, even though he be dead (which is the way that should be translated), yet shall he live.” Jesus is saying that a person can believe when he's dead?  Of course, a physically dead person can't believe.  But, it’s clear Jesus isn't talking here about physical death.  He’s saying something that most of us know intuitively, i.e., you can be physically alive and at the same time be spiritually dead.  According to Jesus, many people are alive ‑‑ but dead to God, having no relationship to him.  Maybe you are ‑‑ or the person sitting next to you.  You might be sitting next to a spiritual zombie right now!

     Jesus is speaking about one of the main things that has drawn people to him all over the world.  He’s saying human beings can be alive physically but have a deep sense that something very important is missing.  In fact, he says that the most important thing may be missing. Without coming alive to the reality of God, Jesus says that nothing else in this world will satisfy you completely.  Here’s the point:  The Bible consistently says that you and I are were made to know God and that nothing else can take his place.

     What is it like when this something is missing?  I find films and books trying to get at this in different ways.  The Pixar movie, The Incredibles, opens with Bob and Ellen Parr (really Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl) and their three children all being miserable with their lives.  They are alive but not really living... They know something they are made for is missing.  Jesus says this longing in our hearts is like that –but even bigger.

     What is it like?  Tsega Worku, our Director of Counseling Ministries, told me it’s like what takes place in many marriages. He said, “Couples are often in a marriage that is dead!  There is no life in the relationship.  They don't enjoy each other though they are not necessarily mad at one another… Their relationship is not hot, cold, or warm.  It's just DEAD!  Something is missing and they don’t quite know what it is.”  Jesus suggests that the longing in our hearts is like that – but even bigger.

     What is it like?  I think quarterback Tom Brady nailed it in a candid post Super Bowl interview when he said, “Why do I have three Super Bowl rings and still think there's something greater out there for me? I mean, maybe a lot of people would say, ‘Hey man, this is what is. I reached my goal, my dream, my life.’ Me, I think, ‘God, it's got to be more than this. I mean this isn't, this can't be what it's all cracked up to be.’” 

     To all these questions of something missing in life,  listen again to the astonishing claim Jesus makes: “I am the resurrection and life.”  He is saying, “When I become the Lord of your life, the rest of those things you find are missing begin to find a solution.” 

     Notice what leads up to his words.  Jesus said to Martha, “Martha, your brother will rise again.”  Martha says, “I know, I know – he will rise again in the last day”  But, Jesus says, “I am not talking only about the future, Martha.  I’m talking about right now. Martha, I am the resurrection and the life."  I am the Lord of life now.  If you don’t know me Martha, you cannot really live now.  I am the one who fills your inner being – guides your life, leads you in your family and marriage relationships, and helps you to find meaning in your career.  I am the life.  Believe in me, and begin to live now.” 

      Jesus is not saying that when you believe in him, all the other struggles immediately go away.  Jesus is saying that he is foundation of life on which all the other parts of your life are to be built.  He becomes the eternal foundation that puts all the temporary things that most people live for into the right place in our lives.  Jesus is saying in this passage, "In me, the life of the world has arrived.  If physical death comes, then you will have eternal lfe that cannot be taken away.  And, when you’re looking for how to live now, you find it when you bring me into your life."  That’s what Jesus is claiming.

     And his words confront all of us this Easter morning 2015.  He’s saying that when you do not live for him, you live for things that will not last:  Your business perhaps. Your hoped-for success or pleasure.  There are many things that we think are “the life.”  Jesus says that living for other things will leave you empty.  But, have him at the center of your life, and you can live well whether you have those things or not.    

     And, Jesus is surely not saying that leaving him out of your life will mean that you have nothing to do.  Sometimes people have too much to do – and they can’t quite figure out why they’re doing all this stuff.  Their schedules are full of appointments and activities.  But there's no sense of lasting purpose to all they do.

     It’s much like what the young man feels when he first falls in love.  He says, “I never really lived until I met you!”  The love of a person can change everything.  Well, thake that to an infinite degree.  The one who loves you so much that he gave his life for you says, “When you know me, you will find that everything – everything – in life changes.  “I am the resurrection and the life.”

     This is the message of Easter:  Jesus brings hope in the face of the worst things this world can throw at you – even death itself.  1) Those who die live eternally.  And 2) Jesus brings life to those who have found no lasting purpose in life.  The dead can live bercause Jesus is the resurrection and the life.

     At the gravesite that day, Jesus called in a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!"  That's how Jesus does it.  That's how Jesus raises the dead.  Jesus calls by name, "Lazarus!"  It's intensely personal.  Maybe He's calling you now. Perhaps you've come here surrounded by family and friends but you feel as if the message is just for you.  You know something is missing.  He’s calling you.  When He calls, you must come. 

     Notice too the power: "Come out!"  And Lazarus is able to come.  And let me tell you: You too can come out of your old life and start again.  There is hope in Jesus for a new beginning.  You can get rid of the graveclothes of old habits that have always tripped you up and hindered you.

     But when Jesus calls, you know you must believe.  Is He calling you?  Is He calling you? Isn't it time that you move out of the realm of the “dead living” and into the "living living"?  You can!  Do it like Martha did:  V.25-27: Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he be dead, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”  She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe…”

     And I tell you, that moment, she began to really live…


To His glory,

Dr. Greg Waybright
Senior Pastor


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