The one thing we all know for certain is that we are going to die. And most of us have doubts about death and life after death. In two weeks time we will be celebrating Jesus' triumph over death on Easter day. So by way of preparation for that we are focussing on the raising of Lazarus from the grave. (John 11)
Lazarus had two sisters, Martha and Mary, and they lived in the village of Bethany which is just over the Mount of Olives, an easy walk from the city of Jerusalem. Jesus often came to stay in their home, and he obviously loved the two sisters and their brother very deeply. So naturally when Lazarus became seriously ill the sisters sent for Jesus to come and heal him. But he seemed to be in no hurry to come.
When Jesus finally arrived Lazarus had been dead and buried four days. Friends were still coming to the house to comfort the two sisters in their bereavement. The sisters were very upset and they both reproached Jesus for not coming. "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."
The tomb was a cave with a large stone over the opening. When Jesus told them to remove the stone, they warned him "Already there is a stench because he has been dead four days." After a brief prayer Jesus shouted "Lazarus, come out!" And we read that "The dead man came out, his hands and his feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face still covered."
To understand what happened we could picture death as a deep dark tunnel. Till they dug the chunnel between France and England the longest tunnel for automobiles used to be the Mont Blanc Tunnel which takes you eleven kilometres under the Alps from Italy into Switzerland. The Swiss explain the beauty of their country by saying that when God had finished creating the world that was where he kissed it.
The problem was that when Lazarus went into the tunnel of death he came out again the same side. He never made it to heaven. And he reappeared with the same kind of body as he had when he went in. Eventually he got sick again and died, and people mourned for him and had a wake for those who were left behind.
Now I want you to picture the year 1965 when the Mont Blanc tunnel was completed. An Italian man is with the group of people invited to drive into the tunnel for the first time. His wife is very apprehensive, and wonders if he will ever get out alive. The man turns back half way, and his wife is delighted to have him home safe and sound.
Now imagine that he drives straight through and visits the beautiful country on the other side. His wife decides he is gone for ever, and calls her family and friends to come and mourn with her. But suddenly coming over the Alps (you remember Mary Poppins flying through the skies) the woman's husband comes back from Switzerland. But now his body is different. He can come through doors, eat with the family, join her for a walk, and go here and there as he chooses. That is how Jesus' resurrection from the dead on the other side of the tunnel is totally different from Lazarus coming back to this life with the same body as he went in. Jesus described his own resurrection at the last supper the evening before he was crucified. "I go to prepare a place for you." But Thomas said "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" Then Jesus gave him three stupendous facts about the resurrection. "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Jesus is the WAY through death, he is the TRUTH about death, and he is the LIFE that we need beyond death (John 14:6).
Instead of grasping those three facts people choke on the end of the verse. "No one comes to the Father except through me." Radio preachers tell us that unless someone makes a decision to accept Jesus as their personal Saviour they are condemned to eternal damnation. That suggests that all who haven't heard about Jesus go to hell.
But Jesus didn't say that. Abraham, and Moses, and David, and many others went to be with God without ever hearing about Jesus of Nazareth. A loving God didn't send his Son to say "get lost" to babies who die in infancy. Jesus never suggested that ignorant and retarded persons are excluded from heaven because they do not understand how God gets them there. Many who never expected it will find themselves loved into heaven. But Jesus' point is that nobody, and he means nobody, can find a way into heaven except through the way Jesus himself opened up for all of humanity.
What our text says is that everyone who wakes up surprised to be in heaven will discover that it was only through Jesus the Son of God that they came. That is why we focus on the three key words, WAY, TRUTH, and LIFE.
We have already noted that Lazarus went into the tunnel of death but he came out again out this side with same body as when he went in. But Jesus went into the tunnel and came out again with a body suited for heaven. We now need to add the tunnel was not ready made. Jesus had to open up the way through.
In the Old Testament they used the word sheol for the abode of the dead. It was a dark shadowy place where you waited so to speak in cold storage. Some of the Jewish people of Jesus' day believed with the Pharisees that there would be a resurrection. Others like the Sadducees believed that sheol was the end.
I believe that when Jesus died and went into sheol or hades he opened up a way out. Those who had died before were freed for heaven. "At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised . After the resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many" (Matthew 24:51-53).
From that moment death was no longer a terminus but an entrance porch. Which is why Paul explained "Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" (1 Corinthians 15:54-55) So Jesus is the way through death, and none of us get to heaven except through the way he has opened up for us.
He is also the truth (John 14:6) about death and life after death. Nobody can figure out that truth alone. There are reports that some have gone into death on the operating table and seen the light at the end of the tunnel. That would be a similar experience to that of Lazarus. But no one has seen the glory of heaven on the other side. We will explore what we can imagine of that in the sermon on Heaven. What the disciples did see for forty days between Easter and Ascension Day was Jesus' resurrection body. And that assures us that God can also give us a resurrection body. We think more about that in another sermon on Resurrection.
Which brings me to the word life (John 14:6). As we know there are various kinds of life, or levels of life in our world. Plants have botanical life. Animals have zoological life. Humans in the image of God have Adamic life. And we know that all those kinds of life must die. What Jesus revealed was another kind of life which he called eternal life. It comes by the resurrection of our body. Daffodil bulbs have to be buried for their resurrection life to appear in the spring. Caterpillars have to go into a cocoon and they resurrect as butterflies. And of course both daffodils and caterpillars need to have their resurrection life before they die.
The resurrection life or eternal life that Jesus gives us is already ours before we die. It is given as freely as the sunshine to any who responds to that light. It is true that some can reject the love of God and choose the lonely darkness of eternal death. In the explanation that follows John 3:16 we are told that "This is the crisis that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light" (John 3:19) But for all who respond to the Sun of Righteousness the resurrection body that they will need for heaven is theirs already.
Jesus is the way through death, the truth about death, and the life that breaks out of death. Which explains why he said to doubting Thomas at the last supper. "I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Thomas wanted absolute proof of that by putting his finger into the nail prints and his hand into Jesus' side. And Jesus said "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe" (John 20:24-29).