“I Am The Resurrection And The Life”
The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / March 19, 2006
In my younger years, I enjoyed playing the game of chess. For a time, I was even a member of a chess club. In terms of strategy, I found that chess players generally fall into one of two categories.
The first kind of chess player focuses intently on using just a few of his pieces in order to go after a couple of his opponents’ key pieces. I call this kind of opponent ‘The One Move At A Time Player’.
The second kind of chess player has a more far-reaching vision for the game. This chess player seeks to position all of his men in a particular way very early in the game. This player is not interested in early game conflict and is often misjudged by a novice player as being overly tentative. I call this kind of opponent ‘The Big Picture Player’.
I have found this second kind of chess player—‘The Big Picture Player’—to be the most difficult to play against.
Now, I recognize that an analogy that suggests that our lives are like a chess game is not entirely appropriate. Nonetheless, I do see some helpfulness in examining these contrasting perspectives and comparing them with the contrasting perspectives of humanity in general and the Lord Jesus Christ.
What we find in the Gospels, time and time again, is that the perspective of human beings is limited. Like a novice chess player, human beings are presented in Scripture as being incapable of seeing the big picture—our vision for the future tends to be stunted by a preoccupation with the present. Furthermore, our understanding of what is possible tends to be limited by what we have already experienced.
We see this limited perspective in Martha as she goes out to greet Jesus following the death of her brother, Lazarus. Martha says to Jesus, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:21).
It is not that Martha is altogether devoid of faith. Martha articulates, in this account, her conviction that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (11:27). In addition, Martha evidently held the conviction that Jesus could heal the sick. However, Martha’s perspective is limited in at least two ways. First of all, she says to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died”. Martha’s perspective is that Jesus is too late. Martha’s view is that Jesus needed to arrive by a particular time if Lazarus was to be healed.
Secondly, Martha’s perspective was limited in terms of space. She says, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died”. Martha’s view was that the healing of Lazarus could only take place if Jesus was physically present. Perhaps she had not heard the account when Jesus healed a centurion’s servant without even being in the presence of the ailing servant (Lk. 7:1-10).
I do not mean to unduly criticize Martha here because I reckon that we would have likely said much of the same. By pointing out Martha’s limited perspective, I mean to highlight the limitations of your and my perspectives as they relate to God’s working in our lives and in this world.
Like a novice chess player, we tend to be fixated on a few things, while lacking awareness that God has all things in view. I am grateful that this analogy breaks down. Life is not a competition in which God is our opponent. Quite the contrary! The Lord is our Shepherd. And how does a prudent sheep respond to the leading of the shepherd? The prudent sheep submits—ignoring her natural instinct to go her own way, the prudent sheep trusts that the shepherd knows what is best.
Thankfully, this is what Martha does. After lamenting that Jesus did not arrive to their house in time, she nonetheless confesses to Jesus, “Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give you” (11:22).
Friends, here is a demonstration of why faith is so vital. On this side of heaven, our view of God, our view of justice—our view of the way things are—will inevitably be limited. For this reason, our posture before God must be the posture faith, understanding that there is much we cannot see, and believing that God is capable of accomplishing what needs to be done. This is Martha’s posture.
And what a merciful response Jesus gives to Martha, “Your brother shall rise again” (11:23). Jesus responds to Martha’s faith with a blessed promise—Lazarus will live again. Even still, Martha’s perspective remains limited—she can’t seem to overcome her conviction that the time of opportunity to heal Lazarus has passed, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day”, she says to Jesus (11:24).
We see a measure of optimism in Martha’s response, but her optimism is tempered by her view of reality. That’s our temptation, isn’t it? In attempting to be guided by reasonable expectations, we run the danger of settling for less than what is possible.
There is a wonderful story about baseball great Ty Cobb’s optimism for what is possible. When Cobb was 70 years old a reporter asked,
‘What do you think your batting AVG would be if you were playing these days?’
Cobb, who was a lifetime .367 hitter, replied, ‘About .290, maybe .300.’
The reporter asked, ‘Is this because of the increased travel, the night games, the artificial turf, and all of the new pitches?’
‘No’, said Cobb, ‘It’s because I’m 70.’
Now admittedly, Ty Cobb probably wasn’t being realistic about his abilities to hit at age 70, but at least he wasn’t in danger of limiting himself by having too small of a perspective on things.
I submit to you that the perspective of many Christians in our day is more like Martha’s perspective than we want to admit. We possess a modicum of faith in Jesus, but our view of what Jesus can accomplish through us is quite small. We imagine that church growth is limited by demographics and the natural ordering of things. We imagine that Jesus’ influence has been harnessed by popular opinion and political correctness.
And then we, like Martha, have our limited notions shattered by Jesus, who says, “I am the Resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die” (11:25, 26).
It’s probably not a wise idea to rank the importance of Jesus’ statements, but surely you would agree that this is one of the most profound claims made by Jesus during His earthly ministry. Jesus declares that He possesses authority over life and death.
“Do you believe this?” He asks Martha. Jesus has promised a most wonderful benefit and then He links the enjoyment of this benefit to belief. And this question isn’t simply for Martha—this question is for you and for me.
Notice how Jesus is not calling for an ambiguous, general, kind of belief from us, but rather He asks quite specifically, “Do you believe this?” . . . ‘Do you believe I am who I say I am, and do you believe that I possess the power to bestow life in the face of death?’
As I trained to be a minister in the early 1990s, the thing I found most difficult was the need for me to regularly deal with death. This difficulty stemmed from my childhood as I struggled to cope with my father’s death as an eleven year-old. I still struggle quite a bit with death—I don’t think death is something a person can easily get used to. Many of you gathered here this morning know exactly what I mean when I say this.
And while I regard death as one of the most difficult aspects of my vocation, I must confess that my eventual response to death is the reason I am standing here today. As confusion and sorrow battered a young Bryn MacPhail, I was awoken from my grief by these words, “I am the Resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die” (11:25, 26).
Do you believe this? To help Martha’s belief, to help along the faith of those grieving with Martha, Jesus determined to provide a foretaste of the Resurrection. Jesus determined to bring Lazarus, four days in the grave, back from the dead (11:39).
But before He does that, we see Jesus respond to death in a very human way: the apostle John records that, at the tomb of Lazarus, “Jesus wept” (11:35).
There are not enough words on this earth to describe the profundity of that statement. The second member of the Trinity, the Creator of the Universe, the Saviour of the world, weeping at the grave of a friend. This is the One who has authority over life and death . . . Jesus knows that in a few minutes Lazarus will be alive again, and yet at the sight of His friend’s dead body, in the midst of a gathering of mourners, Jesus expresses His grief.
As a man, Jesus shares our grief . . . but, as the Son of God, Jesus does not share our limited perspective. As He orders the gravestone removed, Jesus persists in His attempts to expand Martha’s perspective, “‘Did I not say to you, if you believe, you will see the glory of God?’ . . . (And Jesus) cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come forth’ (And) he who had died came forth” (11:40, 43, 44).
Lazarus would eventually die again, some day in the future we presume—but the lesson should not be lost on us. Jesus demonstrates a power over death. Through His own Resurrection and Ascension, Jesus demonstrates a permanent authority over death. For this reason, the grief of a believer is different—the grief of a believer is tempered by hope.
Again the benefit promised is tied to belief—the benefit of eternal life is for “he who believes in Me”, says Jesus. In other words, the grand point in all of this is that Jesus should be believed in. Pray, study the Bible, speak with others about Christ—whatever fosters and furthers your belief in Jesus, do that as often as possible.
A secondary point in all this has already been alluded to: Our perspective of what Christ is capable of doing, and what He is willing to do, needs to be expanded.
Jesus shattered Martha’s expectations. Martha’s perspective was confined to the natural and normal ordering of things. Martha’s vision of the future was stunted by her preoccupation of the present.
I think we can be like that sometimes.
What about as a congregation? Could it be that we sometimes miss out on what Christ wants for St. Giles Kingsway in the future because we remain unduly fixated on the present? Could it be that we even miss out on what Christ wants for St. Giles Kingsway in the present because we are fixated with moves we have made, and strategies we have employed, in the past?
In addition to buttressing our belief in Jesus Christ, the raising of Lazarus should serve as a powerful reminder that we worship a God “who is able to do abundantly beyond all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20).
As such, our approach in prayer and our approach in public service should heed the well-known Christian maxim, ‘Attempt great things for God; expect great things from God’ (William Carey). Amen.