He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.”
Have you ever seen the hit Channel 4 show ‘Grand Designs’. I’m quite a fan. I love watching the houses progress from drawings to real homes. One of the things that always strikes me as I watch the buildings take shape is how dangerous building sites are. As someone who has an issue with heights, I worry particularly when the builders climb up ladders and walk around upper floors on just the beams. You certainly wouldn’t get me up there! I’m always relieved when the floors are boarded, and when the rickety ladders are replaced with solid staircases.
If you read yesterday’s Daily Reading, you might remember that we looked at Jacob’s vision of a ladder linking heaven and earth. In today’s verse, we see that ladder replaced with something much more permanent. Jesus explains that ‘the Son of Man’ is now the link between heaven and earth. ‘Son of Man’ is a term that was first used in the Old Testament book of Daniel to refer to one “who was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Daniel 7:14). It is also a name that Jesus often applied to himself, an indication of his messianic role.
Jacob’s vision of a ladder confirmed that God still wanted a relationship with the people he created, despite their sinful nature. He showed Jacob that he was still reaching out to his people, and that heaven and earth were still connected. Now, two thousand years after Jacob’s dream, the ladder that Jacob saw was being replaced. God was still reaching out to his people; he was still keen that heaven and earth should be interconnected. Now, however, that connection was being established through something more permanent, more solid, than a ladder. The link now is his son, Jesus Christ.
Here in John 1, right at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus suggests to his disciples that it is through him that mankind can be reunited with God. It is through him that people can know God. It is through him that we can be saved. He is new the link between people on earth and God in heaven. What’s more, this new way to heaven is permanent. Once that connection between the heavenly realms and the earth had been established, it was secure for all time. Even 2000 years after Jesus spoke these words, Jesus is still in place as the link between heaven and earth. We can still know God through Jesus. We can still be confident that we will get to heaven through Jesus.
Give thanks today for Jesus, that he established a permanent connection with heaven. Thank God for sending his son to be amongst us, and to die for us. Praise God that through Jesus we have been saved and can have a relationship with him!
Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Have you seen some of the ridiculous claims manufacturers put on the side of bottles of so-called sports drinks? These drinks claim that they will rehydrate you for longer, or faster. They’ll make you faster or more focused. One brand even suggests that by drinking their particular product you’ll be lured into trying sky diving, or water skiing or any number of other crazy sports! The one thing that they never claim is that if you drink their product, you’ll never be thirsty again. Indeed, it would just be impossible for such a claim to stand up. If such a product existed the manufacturer would quickly go out of business.
This is just the claim that we find Jesus making in today’s verse. He says that whoever comes to him will never be hungry or thirsty again. When we see people starving around the world, and read about the millions on our planet who don’t have access to clean water, does this claim really stand up?
The kind of bread and water that Jesus offers is not literal, physical food and drink. He is, he tells us, the Bread of Life. The appetite that he will satisfy is not for the food that we might eat and the water that we might drink, but our spiritual cravings. St. Augustine famously spoke of a “God-shaped hole” within all of us. For many, that hole manifests itself as a sense of emptiness, a feeling of lack of purpose, and a striving to find meaning of some kind. But that hole, like a missing piece in a jigsaw puzzle, is a very precise shape. There is only one piece that will fit, there is only one thing that will go into that hole. Until the hole is filled, though, we will hunger for that missing piece.
In today’s verse, Jesus says to us, “look, I am that missing piece! The spiritual longing you feel, I will quench. If you follow me, your spiritual hunger and thirst will be satisfied.” If we strive to follow Jesus, we will, spiritually, never hunger or thirst again. As we live out the Christian life, we will discover purpose and meaning that cannot be found anywhere else.
Today, give thanks that Jesus is that missing piece in the puzzle of our lives that fits the God-shaped hole within us all. Give thanks that he alone quenched our spiritual hunger and thirst, and pray that as we strive to follow him more closely, we will feel increasingly satisfied.
55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. 2 My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4 You know the way to the place where I am going.”
5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
8 Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
9 Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.11 Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. 12 Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.
What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on 22nd May 2011 at London Road Methodist Church in Horsham, West Sussex.
There’s been a lot of talk this week about the rapture. Harold Camping, the leader of an organization called Family Radio, proclaimed that at 6pm on Saturday 21st May, 200 million Christians would be raptured, with those who had not been saved would remain on earth until God destroyed the planet on October 21st. Camping’s pronouncement gained worldwide attention. Christians and atheists alike mocked his claim, and are likely to continue to do so for many more months ahead. Whilst we need to be wary of people who prophesy the end of the world, it does spur us on to think about heaven, and that is what we’re going to be considering today.
Over the next twenty minutes or so, we’ll look at three points from John 14. You may find it helpful to have the passage open in front of you.
Firstly, we’ll see that even if the end of the world failed to come yesterday, one way we can be confident that we will go to heaven. Secondly, we’ll see that the only way to heaven is through Jesus, and finally, we’ll look at what our response to Jesus should be and the importance of prayer as we seek to live out the rest of our lives here on earth.
Let’s straight away turn to our first point, then.
Obviously we all know what happens when we die. We go to heaven. That’s what we’ve been taught, and, if we are Christians, that’s what we believe.
But do we really?
It’s one thing to believe that God was responsible for creation; we can look around us, and for many of us it makes sense that God must be behind it all.
It’s one thing to believe the words of the Bible and to accept that Jesus existed, that he did amazing things, and that he fulfilled scripture written thousands of years before.
But believing in an afterlife is hard. How can we be confident that we are going to heaven? How can we be confident that heaven even exists?
We can be confident because Jesus assures us that it is true. If we turn to John 14, we can see that Jesus says to his disciples, “my father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?”
Jesus’ disciples are upset because he has told them that he is leaving them. He shows them, however, that it is better for them that he does leave, because he is going to his Father’s house to prepare a place for them, and for all believers.
We need not worry about whether we’re going to heaven because the Son of God has personally prepared a place for us in his Father’s home.
He says to his disciples, would I have said that to you if it wasn’t true? Would I lie to you? Of course not, so trust me. Trust that I am going ahead of you to prepare a place for you in my father’s home.
What’s more, we need not fear about there not being room for us, either. Jesus assures us that his Father’s house has many rooms. There is room for all believers.
You might have heard that story in which a man has to travel for a census with his pregnant wife. When he arrived, all the hotels and inns were full; there was no space anywhere. In the end, he and his wife had to spend the night in a stable, where his wife gave birth.
I speak of course of the birth of Jesus. Jesus arrived amongst us in a stable because there was no room for him. When we arrive in heaven, though, there will be more than enough space for us. We won’t be turned away. We won’t have to stay in a lean-to bolted onto the side of heaven.
Jesus doesn’t just promise his disciples that there is a place for them in heaven. He also assures them that he will personally come back for them when it is their time to join him.
“I will come back and take you to be with me,” he says. He will personally meet us and take us to his heavenly Kingdom.
We don’t need to worry about whether we’re going to heaven, or how we’re going to get there. There’s no protracted interview prior to entry as some imagine. If we know and love Jesus, he has personally invited us to his father’s home, and he will personally escort us to there.
If we trust Jesus, if we follow him, we can be more certain of one day arriving in heaven than we can be of arriving back at our homes later today.
Perhaps, like Thomas in verse 5, though, we’re still not sure of the way to heaven. So our second point is, how can we know the way?
Our answer to this question comes loud and clear in verse 6. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
But look closely at that incredible statement. Jesus didn’t say, “I will show you the way.” He said, “I am the way, and the truth and the life.” Others have claimed to show people the way to heaven, indeed, that’s what we should be striving to do. Jesus, though, is the only person who can claim that he IS the way.
How can we know, though, that Jesus really is the way? This is unpacked in the next part of this verse.
We can be confident that Jesus is the way because he is also the truth. Jesus shows us the truth about God. He shows us what God is like. When we look at Jesus, we see God, because Jesus is God. In our reading today, Phillip asks for assurance that Jesus really is the way by asking to see God. “Lord,” he says, “show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Show me God, he says, and I will believe.
How often do we hear that said today? If I could see God, I would believe. How can I believe in a God that I cannot see?
Jesus, probably a little exasperated that his disciples still didn’t get it, replied in verse 9, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How do you say, ‘show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?”
When we look at Jesus, we see the Father, we see God. Anyone who has seen Jesus has seen God. Because Jesus is the earthly revelation of God. When people complain that they can’t believe in God because they can’t see him, we need to point them to Jesus. In the four Gospels we have a record of Jesus’ life, of his miracles and his teaching. When we look at the heart of Christ, we see the heart of God revealed. Looking at Jesus we see not just him, but God himself.
Jesus asks his disciples, and us, not just to accept what he says, but to look at the evidence he has provided us with. Having witnessed all that he has done, he tells his disciples to “believe on the evidence of the works themselves.” Look at all I’ve done, he says. He fed five thousand people with just five loaves and two fish. He healed the lame. He cured lepers. He made the blind see. He raised the dead. He walked on water. He calmed a storm.
Look, he says to his disciples, and to us. How can you have witnessed all the things I’ve done and not believe that it is God at work. Weigh my claim up against all that you have seen. I. Am. God.
We shouldn’t let our hearts be troubled, we shouldn’t be worried, because when we measure Jesus’ claims against his actions, his claims make sense. If Jesus is God, when he assures us that he has prepared a place in heaven for us, and he will take us there, we can be confident that he is speaking the truth.
A little later in this same chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus goes even further than this. He says, “I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.”
Just as the Father is in Christ, Christ is in us, and we are in Christ. Since Jesus is the earthly manifestation of God the Father, when we look at our fellow Christians, we see God. When we see the work of a faithful servant of God, we see God himself at work in our world.
This leaves us, as Christians, with an awesome responsibility, but we’ll pick up on that point again shortly.
For now, though, we can trust that Jesus is the way, because he is the truth. He is God, he points us to God, and he shows us what God is like.
We can also be confident that Jesus is the way because he is also the life. Jesus died on the cross yet rose again three days later. He is the life because he defeated death. He is the life because it was through him that all life came about in the first place.
By dying and rising from the dead, Jesus demonstrated once again that he is God. If he is God, if he could raise himself from the dead, if he could raise Lazarus from the dead, if he was responsible for giving life in the first place, we can be confident that he is the life.
We can be confident that Jesus is the way to eternal life in heaven because he is also the truth, and because he is also the life.
Our third point today considers what our response to this wonderful news should be. We find that response in verse twelve, when Jesus states that “whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these.”
This, then, is how we follow the way. This is how we respond to Christ’s personal call to join him in his Fathers home. By doing the works that Jesus had been doing. These works are not how we get to heaven; Jesus, as we have seen, has already secured our place in God’s home. Rather we do these things to continue Christ’s work, to continue the spread of his gospel, and to continue to bring people to him. These are the greater things that Jesus says we will do; what could be more important than winning souls for Christ, than showing people how they can gain eternal life.
The way for Jesus ultimately took him to the cross, to death, all alone, abandoned by those he loved, humiliated in front of huge crowds.
Many others too, who have sought to follow the way and continue Jesus works, have discovered that the path to heaven has led them also through pain, suffering, and perhaps even death. In our reading from Acts we saw how one of the members of the early church, Stephen, was stoned to death simply for offending the religious authorities. For Stephen, the way led to a brutal death at the hands of enemies of Christ.
Maybe we won’t have to pay that ultimate price, but Jesus still demands our lives. Whilst there are plenty of examples of Christians who have died for their faith, we are all called to live for our faith.
Today it is Aldersgate Sunday, when we remember the conversion of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist tradition. Wesley oversaw a powerful movement that sought to do the good works that Jesus had been doing.
During his lifetime, John Wesley travelled 250,000 miles on horseback. He gave away £30,000, and he preached more than 40,000 sermons. He formed societies, opened chapels, examined and commissioned preachers, administered aid charities, superintended schools and orphanages, and wrote extensively.
When Wesley died in 1791, he died poor, having given away almost everything he earned. But he left behind a Christian movement with 135,000 members and 541 itinerant preachers.
Wesley didn’t die for his faith, but he did live for his faith. Wesley is a good example to us of what it means to do the works that Christ has been doing. As a result of his efforts, the Methodist Church around the world is still doing these “greater things;’ witnessing to Christ and winning souls for him.
We are by no means alone in doing the things that Jesus did. Jesus told us in verse 12 that he was “going to the Father.” He went to the Father so that we might pray to him. He assures us in verse 13 that “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and you will do it.” When we pray, Jesus will support us as we seek to continue his works.
There are two keys to understanding this section of the passage. Firstly, Jesus says, “I will do whatever you ask in my name.” We need to consider what it means to pray in the name of Jesus. It means more than simply concluding our prayers with the words, “I ask this in the name of Jesus Christ.” It means aligning our will with his. We need to look back at the “evidence of the works” that Christ performed. We need to study his teaching.
There are plenty of examples of Jesus teaching people the importance of being humble, of turning the other cheek, and of supporting the poor and sick. These then, are the kind of things that we should be praying for.
Secondly, Jesus says that he will do whatever we ask, “so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”
Our prayers, then, should be orientated towards glorifying God. Our prayers should focus not on how we can get power, or money, or glory, but on serving God.
This does not mean that we should not pray; Jesus tells his disciples on many occasions that praying is a good thing to do. God wants to hear what is on our hearts and minds. We should bear in mind, though, that our prayers may not be answered in the way that we expect. Our prayers will be answered in a way that gives glory to God.
Finally, then, let’s try to draw together what we’ve learnt today. The first is that we can be absolutely confident that we are going to heaven, because Jesus has personally prepared a place for us in his Father’s home. Secondly, we can be completely confident that Jesus is the way to the Father, because he is also the truth and the life. And thirdly, we need to consider our response to this. With the aid of Jesus through prayer, we need to ensure that we are living out a life that continues the saving work of Jesus when he walked amongst us.
1 The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”
4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”
7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.
9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.
11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”
Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) 3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”
4 When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” 5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, 7 and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”
8 “But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you,and yet you are going back?”
9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. 10 It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”
11 After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”
12 His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” 13 Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.
14 So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, 15 and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
16 Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 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?”
27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
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!”
37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
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 odor, 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.”
45 Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on April 10th 2011 at Effingham Methodist Church in Surrey.
What fantastic weather we’ve been having! All week we seem to have been blessed with warm and sunny days, evidence that spring is finally here. Yesterday I drove through the Surrey hills and after the cold bleakness of winter it was wonderful to see dandelions in the verges, the horse chestnut trees coming into leaf and the bluebells starting to appear in the woodlands. Everywhere we look we see signs of new life. We couldn’t even miss it on television, with BBC 2 showing ‘Lambing Live’ all this week. It’s hard not to be in a good mood with all of this happening around us.
My week came crashing back down to earth on Friday, though, when I received a letter in a brown envelope. Straight away my heart dropped. Brown envelopes are never normally good news! I was right to be concerned. When I opened the envelope I found a letter instructing me that I need to complete a tax return. What a way to put a downer on an otherwise great week! As I put the letter down, I was reminded of the words of Benjamin Franklin, who famously remarked that there are only two certainties in life; death and taxes. I might have been thinking joyfully about new life, but here was the confirmation that none of us can escape paying tax!
In our readings today, we’ve heard a lot about life and death. We saw the dry bones in Ezekiel that came to life. We saw the death and resurrection of Jesus’ close friend, Lazarus, in our gospel reading. We’ll return to this crucial idea shortly, but first there are a couple of other things in our passages that our worth reflecting on.
Firstly, the idea that God acts in his own time, and in his own way. This is perhaps the most striking feature of the first part of our gospel reading. Lazarus, Jesus’ friend, falls ill and his sisters, Martha and Mary waste no time in sending word to Jesus that the one he loves is sick. We might expect on hearing this that Jesus would straight away dash back to Bethany to be with his friend, and, bearing in mind all that he has done so far during his ministry, heal him. Actually, Jesus does nothing of the sort. He stays exactly where he is for another two days before heading back to his friends.
Why does Jesus leave his friends to wait? Why doesn’t he respond to their implicit plea to return quicker?
This is something that we might have felt at times too, this waiting for God to intervene in our lives or to help us. The truth is, though, that the Christian life is often one of waiting. It can look to us, humans so obsessed with time and seeing things done when we want them, that God is being neglectful. There are some big questions that we can ask that seem to suggest that God neglects us.
Why did it take so long for God to address the fall?
Why did it take so many years for the messiah to arrive?
Why hasn’t Jesus returned yet?
Why hasn’t God answered my prayer yet?
Why has my best friend still not turned to Christ despite my constant praying?
The truth is, of course, that God is not neglecting us, he is just not responding to us quite as quickly as we might wish. God takes a different outlook on the trials and tribulations that we are going through. We are largely unaware of the circumstances that surround the events in our lives and the lives of others, as well as the consequences of them. God, on the other hand, has a totally different conception of time. Whilst we want things done right now, God, who has a broader perspective, might take a different view. It might seem that God is exposing us to real hardship by not responding right now, but perhaps that is all for the best. We cannot know the true impact of what we are doing or not doing, saying or not saying, on the lives of those around us. What might seem like an incredible hardship to us might be a real blessing to someone else. If we believe that God works through all things for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose, as Paul states in his letter to the Romans, God works through our hardships and uses them for the good of all his people. He is not ignoring us or abandoning us, he is working through our lives for the benefit of his kingdom.
The consequences of Jesus delaying his return to Bethany are clear in our reading. Lazarus dies, and, when he does return, Martha and Mary are distraught. We might even be able to see a little anger in their words when they both say to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” even if they follow this statement up with a really striking example of faith, “but I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
If we track back a little, Jesus explains to his disciples why he is delaying his return. In verse 14, John records Jesus saying, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so you may believe.”
Jesus is not ignoring his friends, but he is not going to be browbeaten into acting in someone else’s time. He intends to act in his own time, in a way that will give maximum glory to God. He doesn’t intend to heal Lazarus, he has something even more significant planned, that will lead to many more people accepting that he is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God.
When we pray, it is worth bearing this in mind. Jesus did not neglect his friends, and he won’t neglect us either. He might not respond to our demands straight away, but we can be confident that he will respond, just in his own time, and at a time that brings maximum glory to the kingdom.
The second point to observe in both our Old Testament and Gospel readings is the extent to which God is a God of action. On Ezekiel 37, the prophet was taken to a valley full of dry bones. The miracle that ensued demonstrated that God was not just a God of words, but is also a God of action. Many Jews were getting despondent around this time and beginning to lose faith in God, but this miracle showed that their trust in God was well placed. If he could restore life to a jumble of dry bones, how much more could he do for his people! God also has good news for the Jews, he will open their graves and “bring them up from them.” Coming on the heels of this incredible miracle, there was no reason whatsoever to doubt in God’s ability to follow through on his promises!
Jesus was undeniably a great teacher, but if that was all he was, then it’s unlikely that we’d still be talking about him today. It’s also unlikely that Jesus would have ruffled so many feathers in first century Palestine. We can see in verse eight that Jesus had already been angering the authorities; the disciples say to him, “but Rabbi, a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you.” Clearly Jesus had already made his presence felt, and it seemed risky to return. The disciples seem unhappy about letting Jesus head back into a place where he could encounter violent opposition once more. Jesus knew the cost, however, and returned anyway. He knew the miracle that he was about to work, and he knew the consequences of it: ultimately it would lead him to the cross and his own death. He also knew, however, that it would be the sign that many who doubted Jesus’ identity needed to convince them of his divinity. How could anyone fail to believe that Jesus was the Son of God after witnessing this miracle? As we’ve already established, Jesus was completely correct; verse 45 records that, “many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.”
It’s often said that actions speak louder than words, and in the case of Jesus, this is indeed the case. Many people at the time would have been most shaken by Jesus’ actions, the big miracles like the healings, but also the way he lived his life, choosing to eat with tax collectors for example. Teaching can be ignored, but these actions always prompted an enormous response. The same is true today. Stop someone in the street and ask someone about Jesus and they’ll almost certainly tell you about the feeding of the five thousand, or Jesus walking on water.
It’s true of us, too. We can tell all our friends about our faith, but what will provoke the greatest response is our actions, the things that we do that set us apart from the rest of the world. Perhaps we dedicate our lives to charity work. Maybe we adopted children. Perhaps we are generous with our time. Whether they’re large or small, it’s these actions that grab people’s attention, and make them reflect on why we live our lives in this way.
Of course, it is the resurrection of Lazarus, a man who had been dead for four days that drew the most attention to Jesus in this passage, and that has the most significance for us today. One of the first things that Jesus says to Martha on his arrival in Bethany is to tell her that her brother will rise. Martha, like many Jews at the time, believed in a resurrection on the final day. She trusts that Lazarus will rise again at that time. Jesus, though, has something much more immediate in mind. He follows up Martha’s statement by telling her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
This is an incredible statement to make. Martha responds by saying, “yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
Martha’s faith appears unshakeable. Even at this very difficult moment, whilst she is mourning her beloved brother, she believes completely in Jesus.
But what about us? What if Jesus asked us this question?
I’m sure that we’re all thinking, of course I’d answer yes, of course I’d answer the same way that Martha did. But what if we’re completely honest to ourselves? If we were responding completely privately, to no one but ourselves, could we still say yes? Or would we answer, well, probably, maybe, possibly, perhaps. I’d like to believe but there are so man things that are preventing me from saying yes.
Perhaps it’s worth looking a little more closely at this statement. The first thing to note is that Jesus doesn’t say that he will resurrect or give life. He says that he is the resurrection and the life. He is the embodiment of it. It is the word of God that brought creation into being, and, the Gospel writer John makes it clear at the beginning of his Gospel that Jesus is that word, the word made flesh. Jesus is life; it is he who gave it, and it is he who continues to give it. All he needs to do to resurrect Lazarus is to call him out of his tomb, and he came to life.
It’s also interesting that Jesus draws a distinction between resurrection and life in his statement. In chapter five of John’s gospel, Jesus says, “an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” Jesus makes it clear here that everyone will be resurrected from the dead, not just Christians. The difference comes in what happens after the resurrection; all those who have done good and followed Christ will be given new life, whilst all those who have done evil and neglected Christ will find themselves subject to judgment.
Returning to Jesus’ statement in today’s reading, Jesus tells us that those who believe in him will live, even though they die. Physical death is something that comes to us all; it is, after all, one of the two certainties of life according to Benjamin Franklin. The life that Jesus is talking about is spiritual life. This is the life that we gain as soon as we place our trust in Christ, the life that comes when the Holy Spirit fills us. This is the life that comes to is when, as some Christians like to say, we are “born again.” This is the life that will never die. Our bodies might expire, die and be buried, but our spiritual life will never die.
Can we really believe this? It all just seems too fantastical to be true.
We can believe it because of what we read in the Bible. We saw in Exekiel how God restored a jumble of bones to life. We see in our Gospel reading that Lazarus, who was dead, was raised to life at the word of Jesus. And we can believe it because of what the resurrection of Lazarus foreshadows, the resurrection of Christ. If we believe what we read, and we accept the testimony of people like Martha and Mary, and of course Lazarus himself, then we can believe that even though we die, we will live. If we believe that God brought creation into existence, and gave life to the very first humans, then why should we not believe that Jesus can give us new life too?
We’ve barely scratched the surface of this incredible story today, but there are three points I’d like us to take away today:
Firstly, that God acts in his own way, and in his own time. God does not neglect his people. At times we might get impatient with waiting, but God always comes to those who love him and who call to him for help. Just as Jesus did not immediately rush to be with Martha, Mary and Lazarus, however, God might not rush straight to our aid. God responds to his people in the way that is most beneficial for his kingdom, but he hears us, and delights in coming to our aid.
Secondly, Jesus is best seen through his actions, as are we. Jesus made the greatest impression on those who knew him by what he did. Similarly, what we do has the power to have a tremendous impact on those around us. We therefore need to ensure that we are being active in our faith, and strive to live out the gospel practically.
Finally, we saw the amazing miracle of Lazarus’ resurrection. We know that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, and by believing in him, we are given new life. Jesus tells us that those who believe in him will live, even though they die. We might physically die, but spiritually we have been reborn, and will never die.
Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.”
What follows is the text of a Lent Reflection I led at St. Andrew’s Methodist Church in Horsham on 6th April 2011.
Last summer I was lucky enough to spend some time in western America. My friend Clive and I had three weeks driving through California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona. One of the places we visited was Death Valley, the hottest place on earth. We arrived at our hotel in Death Valley at about midnight, but even then, the heat was striking. When we climbed out of our air conditioned Jeep, we were immediately hit by a wave of intense heat.
The next day, whilst exploring Death Valley, the heat struck us even more. When we reached Badwater, we went for a short walk. I say short, it was no more than a few hundred yards across the surface of Badwater Basin, the lowest place in America. Just walking that short distance was quite painful. By the time we returned to our car we felt totally dehydrated and desperate for a bottle of water. I quickly became aware of how hard life must have been for the early pioneer settlers travelling across to the Pacific coast. There’s just no way that anyone can survive in those kind of conditions for very long without a supply of water.
We don’t often have the kind of weather in the UK where we can dehydrate so quickly. Jesus, however, living in Palestine, would have known exactly what it was like. In today’s verse, Jesus is clearly suffering. Hanging on a cross in the scorching middle eastern heat, on top of a hill, it’s really not surprising that Jesus calls out, “I thirst.” Water is a basic human need, and here in this verse we see the humanity of Christ. He might be fully God, but he is also fully human. Like the rest of us, he needs water. Symptoms of severe dehydration can include:
Chest and abdominal pain
Jesus was not just losing water as a consequence of his exposure to the heat of the day, however. He was also losing fluid through the wounds to his head caused by the crown of thorns, to his back from the scourging he had been subjected to, and to his feet caused by the nails that held him to the cross.
In psalm 69, the psalmist exclaims, “I am weary with my crying out; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.” Earlier in John’s gospel Jesus applied words from this psalm to himself, and this lament is surely one that Jesus could have cried out. Nailed to the cross in intense pain he has become tired; the effort of crying out in pain has parched his throat, and he is waiting, waiting, to fulfil God’s plan and die, so that he might be raised again.
For Jesus, though, there was much more to this statement than simply needing a drink. In making this statement, I thirst, Jesus is fulfilling scripture. In psalm 22, the psalmist cries out , “my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust.” The Psalm speaks of God bringing the writer to the place of death, and Jesus, filling the plan of salvation that God has preordained finds himself in exactly the same place.
This is no accident. Jesus is consciously fulfilling the program the Father had set for him. This is affirmed in the verse we’re looking at today; John explains that he firmly believes that Jesus’ simple statement was intended to fulfil scripture. He adds, “Jesus, knowing that all was completed…” This links back to Jesus’ prayer in chapter 17 of John’s gospel, when Jesus declares: “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do” (17:4). Jesus has methodically gone through all that God required of him, and perfectly carried out the commission that God had assigned to him.
He might have been fulfilling God’s plan, but there is no doubt at all that Jesus’ body, exposed to the elements, was suffering intensely.
Throughout the Bible, and in the psalms in particular, we see another use of the word “thirst.” In psalm 42, the psalmist exclaims, “my soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” For the psalmist, a relationship with God is as necessary as water. Water might quench a physical thirst, but in his mind there is only one thing that can quench a spiritual thirst: God.
This is an image picked up earlier in John’s gospel when Jesus meets the woman from Samaria at the well. Jesus tells the woman, “everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I give him will become in him a spring of water, welling up to eternal life.” Jesus quenches and satisfies the spiritual thirst that is in us all. We may try and satisfy our thirst in other ways, but it will only be quenched by a relationship with Christ.
Now, here on the cross, we see the one who offered living water, which would mean never thirsting again, crying out, ‘I thirst’. In a spiritual sense, just as humans all thirst for a relationship with God, he thirsts for a relationship with us. God wants a relationship with us so much that, even though we turn our backs on him, he sent his son to die in our place, to pay the price for our sin, so that we might once again be brought close to him. Even dying on the cross, Jesus feels that longing. When he cries out, “I thirst,” it isn’t just for a drink of water, but a statement of his love for us. He thirsts not just for water, but for us. He thirsts for a relationship with us.
Jesus was thinking of us on the cross. He was reaffirming his commission to die for us. Even the pain he was being subjected to did not cause him to doubt what he was doing. Jesus on the cross was thinking of us, of you and me, of everyone who knows him, and everyone he wants to know him.
Julian of Norwich wrote on this theme:
The same desire and thirst that he had upon the cross (which desire, longing and thirst, as to my sight, was in him from without beginning) the same hath he yet, and shall have unto the time that the last soul that shall be saved is come up into bliss. For as verily as there is property in God of truth and pity, so verily there is a property in God of thirst and longing… which is lasting in him as long as we be in need, drawing us up to his blessing… The longing and the ghostly thirst of Christ lasteth and shall last until Doomsday.
The thirst that Jesus felt on the cross is the thirst that God has felt ever since humans turned their backs on him in the Garden of Eden. He thirsts for a relationship with all of his people, and will do so until the end of this creation.
How do we respond to Jesus’ thirst? Do we turn our backs on him? Do we, as the soldiers did, offer him poison? Or do we affirm that yes, we want a relationship with him too.
As he thirsts for us, can we say that we thirst for him? Do we want to know him, love him, serve him, be with him? Can we say the words of Psalm 42 and really mean them?
“As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.”