An Easter Reflection
Every culture has stories about heroes. It’s almost as if there’s an instinct inside us that knows something has gone wrong with this world and we need someone who’s stronger or smarter than to us to put things right. In the ancient world there were myths about Hercules and Thor. In the Middle Ages, there were legends about King Arthur or Robin Hood. In our day we have stories about superheroes: like Batman, Spiderman, Ironman.
As a kid, my favourite was Superman. I wanted to be Superman. I wanted to be faster than a speeding bullet. I wanted to be stronger than a locomotive. Most of all I wanted his chest, that magnificent Superman chest with the great big red S on it, because I’ve never had the kind of chest that would accommodate such a curvy letter. A less curvy letter, perhaps like an I or a lower-case L.
In Jesus’ day, Israel was waiting for a superman. They called him Messiah, or the anointed One, and they expected him to be a powerful king who would defeat Israel’s enemies in battle and put everything right. The central claim of Christianity is that Jesus is the Messiah, the King who has come to fix this world. He’s the anointed One in whom all our deepest hopes and longings are fulfilled. He’s our true hero. As we approach Easter, it’s good to spend some time focusing on who Jesus is, and what he came to do. Let’s do that by reflecting on a remarkable story in John chapter 11.
This story is about two sisters, Mary and Martha, and their brother, Lazarus. They lived in Bethany, a little village in Judea. And they were three of Jesus’ closest friends. He loved them dearly. So, one day, when Lazarus was seriously ill – with his life hanging in the balance – his sisters send word to Jesus with the message: “Lord, the one you love is sick.” Understandably, Jesus says to his disciples, “Let’s go back to Judea.” But they say, “Rabbi, a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you.” The authorities in Jerusalem want him dead. Jesus knows this, but he heads to Bethany anyway. Let’s pick up the story at v. 17 and see what we can glean from Jesus’ interaction with Martha, Mary, and Lazarus.
Jesus exhorts Martha
17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days.
This is significant. The Jews believed that for three days the soul of a dead person remained near the body “hoping to re-enter it,” but by the fourth day, with the body decomposing, the soul departed. John wants us to know that Lazarus is truly dead. There is no hope for Lazarus.
18 Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Now this is an astounding claim. Jesus is saying, “I am the Lord of life. I am the Source of life. I am God.” A lot of my friends would say, “I really admire Jesus’ teaching: love your enemies, that kind of thing. Jesus was clearly a great moral teacher, but I don’t believe he was God.” In New Zealand today, a lot of people would say that. But it’s not intellectually honest to say that, because if Jesus claims to be God, it demands a much more radical response. As C.S. Lewis famously said, you have only three options. You can either denounce him as a liar, reject him as a lunatic, or fall down and worship him as Lord – because he’s God. They’re your only choices. What you can’t do is say moderately and tolerantly, “He was just a wise teacher.” This story doesn’t allow that, because here Jesus claims to be God, with power over death.
Think for a moment about what that means. If Jesus is God, if he wields power over death, then he can bring good out of every death, out of every difficult and painful experience. Look at a man like Charles Colson. He was a hugely successful lawyer who served as special counsel to President Nixon. But in 1974 he pleaded guilty to charges relating to the Watergate scandal and ended up in prison for seven years. It was the darkest moment of his life. But before going to prison, he turned his life over to Jesus, inviting him to bring something good out of his great failure. Jesus did. Out of the ashes of that man’s weakness and brokenness, emerged Prison Fellowship, the world’s largest prison ministry, which today brings love and support in 80 countries to hundreds of thousands of prisoners and their families. Colson says, “The real legacy of my life was my biggest failure – that I was an ex-convict. My great humiliation – being sent to prison – was the beginning of God’s greatest use of my life.”
What’s your great humiliation? Where are you confronted with brokenness and pain? Look to Jesus. Invite him into that pain. He can breathe new life into that dead relationship. He can give you power to walk out of that addiction. He can transform that situation at work. He can bring good out of your greatest mistake. Jesus is God. But that doesn’t fully explain who he is. Look at what happens in the next interaction.
Jesus comforts Mary
28 After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.”
29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.
32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
35 Jesus wept.
36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
The word translated “wept” does not mean quiet and polite sniffling. It means loud wailing. Jesus breaks down sobbing beneath the weight of Mary’s grief and his own pain. We might think that if he really were divine, he wouldn’t be so emotionally vulnerable. But he is. In Jesus we see divine power joined to human weakness. Jesus, this story suggests, is both fully divine and fully human. No other religion agrees with this. No other religion believes that the transcendent creator, the author of life, became a weak, limited mortal who felt the full horror of death. It’s unique to Christianity, and uniquely comforting.
When I was a student at Carey, I remember reading the work of Nicholas Wolterstoff. He was a professor of philosophy who lost his 24-year-old son, Eric, in a climbing accident. Wolterstoff later wrote a book called Lament for a Son, in which he traced the anguish of his loss as he struggled to come to terms with it. This is what he said:
There’s a hole in the world now. In the place where he was, there’s now just nothing … Only a gap remains … The world is emptier. My son is gone. Only a hole remains, a void, a gap, never to be filled.
I’ve become an alien in the world … I don’t belong any more … I buried myself that warm June day. It was me those gardeners lowered on squeaking straps into that hot dry hole … It was me on whom we shovelled dirt. It was me we left behind … sometimes I think that happiness is over for me.
But he also wrote this:
I found comfort in the realisation that God “did not strike some mighty blow of power but sent his beloved son to suffer like us, and through his suffering to redeem us from suffering and evil. Instead of explaining our suffering, God shares it.” He loves us enough to enter our pain.
It’s this paradox – that Jesus is both divine and human – that, in my mind, makes him so beautiful, so remarkable. He’s the sovereign ruler of the universe, yet absolutely approachable. He’s infinitely powerful, yet incredibly humble. He’s absolutely perfect, yet always gracious. He’s unbelievably strong, yet so tender and gentle. He is Lion and Lamb. God in the flesh. He understands your weakness. He sees your struggle. He feels your pain and grieves with you. But of course, this leaves us with a question. Why did he do it? Why did absolute power have to enter into our weakness?
Jesus raises Lazarus
38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb.
It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39 “Take away the stone,” he said.
“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odour, for he has been there four days.”
40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
The word translated “deeply moved” means “to bellow with anger” or “roar with fury.” Jesus is absolutely furious. He’s outraged. Why? Dylan Thomas once wrote: “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Jesus is raging against death. He’s looking into the tomb, staring into the dark hole of death, and he’s outraged. He did not make a world filled with sickness and suffering and death. He hates these things and the evil that causes them.
So, you might ask, if Jesus is that unhappy with the world as it is, why doesn’t he just sweep all the evil away? Because so much of the misery and death in our world is caused by the evil in our hearts. There is more selfishness and pride in our hearts than we want to believe.
You may have heard about the study that measured how long it takes people to leave a car park. Guess how long it takes the average person to unlock their vehicle, open the door, get in, start the engine, check the rear-view mirror, and leave that parking space? About 25 seconds. But guess how long it took people to vacate their parking space if someone was waiting for the space. About 30 seconds. And if the waiting car honked their horn? Close to 40 seconds. There’s something fundamentally selfish and rebellious about the human spirit. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was right. “The battle line between good and evil runs through the heart of every person.” So, if Jesus had come to earth with the sword of God’s wrath against evil, none of us would have been left to tell of it.
But, as Tim Keller says,
“Jesus did not come with a sword in his hands; he came with nails in his hands. He did not come to bring judgment; he came to bear judgment.”
Later in this chapter, the religious leaders realise this miracle made Jesus more popular than ever. So, they convene a meeting, and decide that it’s “better that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (v. 50). “So from that day on they plotted to take his life” (v. 53). Within a few days Jesus will be hanging on a cross. Do you see the irony! In the words of Keller, the only way for Jesus to bring Lazarus out of the grave, was to put himself in the grave. The only way for Jesus to interrupt Lazarus’ funeral was to summon his own. The only way for Jesus to give us life is to lay down his own life. To take our sin, our evil, upon himself and bury it in the grave.
Some time back I came across this story from Anne Lamott. She writes:
Many years ago, when I worked as a volunteer at a hospital, I got to know a little girl named Liz who was suffering from a rare and serious disease. Her only chance of recovery appeared to be a blood transfusion from her 5-year-old brother, who had miraculously survived the same disease and had developed the antibodies needed to combat the illness. The doctor explained the situation to her little brother and asked the little boy if he would be willing to give his blood to his sister. I saw him hesitate for only a moment before taking a deep breath and saying, “Yes, I’ll do it if it will save her.” As the transfusion progressed, he lay in bed next to his sister and smiled, as we all did, seeing the colour returning to her cheek. Then his face grew pale and his smile faded. He looked up at the doctor and asked with a trembling voice, “Will I start to die right away?” Being young, the little boy had misunderstood the doctor; he thought he was going to have to give his sister all of his blood in order to save her. Yet he was willing.
As was our Creator. In Jesus Christ, God came to our rescue. In his death and resurrection that first Easter, he proved that he can bring life out of any death. So, trust him with that broken relationship. Trust him with that secret addiction. Trust him with that struggle at work. Trust him with that massive mistake. He can bring life out of any death. And one day, at the end of time, he will make all things new. His creation will be perfectly restored. Sickness and sin and selfishness and sadness will be no more. Jesus truly is the Great Hero to which all other heroes point.
Very good John, I particularly liked your main preface about Jesus bringing resurrection life into our deaths and broken ness. Surely this is the greatest Easter message.