The Call of Christ

What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on 15th January 2012 at London Road Methodist Church in Horsham, West Sussex. It is based on John 1:43-51.

Audio of this sermon is available at the foot of this page.

I met Claire, my wife, on February 16th 2008. I was visiting Katie, a friend from university, who lives in Belfast. Katie, who I suspect may have been match making, invited Claire to join us for dinner in the evening. I was blown away by Claire’s beauty the moment I saw her. By the time I left Belfast, I knew I wanted to be with her. Unfortunately, though, Claire lived in Belfast and worked very long hours as a hospital doctor. I lived in Sussex and worked long hours and six or seven day weeks as a teacher in a boarding school. No matter what I wanted, it just seemed impossible that it could work out. Finding time to meet up would be incredibly difficult. Flying backwards and forwards between Gatwick and Belfast would be incredibly expensive. There was no way it could work. I pondered it long and hard but ultimately decided that it would not work, so it was pointless thinking about it.

Of course, in the end, it did all work out, but that’s another story!

Why am I telling you this? Well, sometimes we meet a person who has the potential to transform our lives. In order for that transformation to take place, though, we usually have lots of considerations to make. Do we make time in our busy lives for this person? Do we allow them to disrupt our regular routine? Or do we turn our back and just carry on as we are.

In today’s reading we witnessed two people who encountered someone who radically changed their lives the moment they met him. Philip and Nathanael both encountered Christ, and, whilst both ultimately decided to follow him, the way they reached their decision to give up their own lives and follow Christ was markedly different.

Today we will consider the way in which Philip and Nathanael responded to their encounter with Christ. We will reflect on whether we see anything of ourselves in Philip and Nathanael. And we’ll reflect on what a life following Christ might mean. We’ll do so under three headings – follow me, come and see, and finally, a question: what will we see?

So to our first point, then: follow me.

The first person we witnessed encounter Christ in our gospel reading today was Philip. What is noticeable straight away is how John describes their encounter. Today we often speak of “seekers,” people who have not committed their lives to following Jesus, but are looking for him with the possibility that if they find him, they will follow him. Looking at this encounter in our reading, however, it seems that when we speak in this way we might have got things the wrong way round. Take a look at John 1:43. It is not Philip who was seeking. It was not Philip who found Jesus. No, John is very clear in his writing that it is Jesus who found Philip.

It is worth remembering in our faith lives that it is not true that it is we who are seeking Jesus, it is not us who is looking for God. Rather, God is seeking us out. He loves all his people and is desperate to have a relationship with us, to get to know us. The question is – will we be open to his approach?

Philip was most definitely open to Jesus’ approach.

Without any introduction whatsoever, Jesus said to Philip, “follow me.”

Jesus’ command hit Philip right between the eyes. For Philip there was no question about what to do. He immediately dropped everything to follow a man that he had only just met.

For Philip this single moment represents a life changing decision, yet his response was instantaneous. He could justifiably have said, hang on, this is a rather big step you’re asking me to take. Do you really want me to follow you? Do I really have to decide now?

Philip could have responded by replying, “but I don’t know anything about you!”

He didn’t, though.

Philip could have come up with hundreds of different reasons why he shouldn’t follow Jesus.

He didn’t though.

Jesus commanded him to follow, and he did.

There was something so powerful about the very presence of Jesus that Philip unquestionably dropped everything to follow Jesus.

I wonder if you can identify with Philip here? We all have our own conversion stories. I wonder if yours is like Philip’s? Was there something about Jesus that struck you instantly that meant you had to drop everything and follow him?

Philip’s particular conversion is magnificent because there is something truly supernatural about it. There is nothing that we, as mere humans, could do to effect an experience like Philip’s. Philip encounters Christ and is immediately transformed. His life is immediately changed.

Did you hear Jesus’ call, “follow me,” and surrender your whole life to him?

Perhaps you’re here today as a non-Christian, trying to find out more about this Jesus that we worship. Maybe you would describe yourself as a seeker. If that’s you, then reflect on the way in which Philip came to follow Jesus. Philip was not looking for Jesus. Philip did not set out to find Jesus. Instead, Jesus set out to look for Philip and found him. In the same way, Jesus is out looking for each of us. If we’re open to him, as Philip was, he will find us, and he will ask us to follow him.

Are we following Jesus? Have we responded to his call of “follow me?” Like Philip, have we dropped everything and surrendered our lives to respond to his call?

Let’s move on to our second point: come and see.

Whilst Philip’s response to Christ was immediate and unquestioning, not everyone’s response is quite so dramatic. The second person we met in our reading was Nathanael. His decision to follow Christ was rather different to Philip’s, because his conversion did not start with Jesus, but with a friend.

That friend was Philip.

Philip was so excited about finding Jesus that he immediately had to go and find his friend Nathanael. Philip’s excitement was bubbling over, and there was nothing that he could do to contain it. He just had to share his faith.
I wonder if we feel the same way? If we know and love Jesus, does our excitement at finding our saviour lead us to seek out our friends to tell them about Jesus? Does our passion for Christ bubble over when we’re with our friends to the extent that we cannot help talking about him?

If it doesn’t, why is that? Do we truly know Christ? Do we honestly follow him? Have we really surrendered our whole lives to him?

Let’s look at the kind of guy Nathanael was. It quickly becomes apparent that he was rather different to Philip.
Nathanael was a devout Jew who took his faith very seriously. He knew his scripture, and had previously been spotted by Jesus sitting beneath a fig tree, a common place for Jewish people to sit, ponder the scriptures and pray.

He was also clearly an intellectual sceptic.

Philip began his introduction to Jesus by stating that “we have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law and about whom the prophets wrote.” Philip knew that the way to share Jesus with his friend, the devout Jew, was by appealing to Jewish scripture.

On hearing Philip’s introduction, though, Nathanael remained sceptical. On hearing that Jesus comes from Nazareth, he responded, “can anything good come from there?”

Perhaps this was first century inter-town rivalry. Or perhaps Nathanael, as a scholar, knew that the prophecies of the Old Testament point to the Messiah hailing from Bethlehem.

Perhaps he would have responded differently if he had known that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

Philip’s enthusiasm was not diminished by Nathanael’s cynicism. Far from it. Instead, he urged his friend to “come and see!”

He knew that if Nathanael encountered Jesus for himself, he could not help but be transformed. He knew that if Nathanael was to encounter Christ and experience the passion and excitement of knowing Jesus, just as he had done just moments before, Nathanael would have to leave his intellectual comfort zone and place himself before Christ. If he was to know Christ, Nathanael would have to meet Christ and experience Christ.

I wonder if you have ever attempted to bring someone to faith, perhaps a friend or a family member, who has responded in the same negative, cynical way that Nathanael did initially. Nathanael sneeringly responded to Philip that no good could possibly come from Nazareth. At that point, Philip could have argued and debated with Nathanael, telling him that he was wrong, that Jesus is good, that Jesus is worth following. Instead, Philip instinctively knew that they only way that Nathanael would come to know Christ for himself would be by encountering him face to face, so he invited him to “come and see.”

Rather than engaging in fierce arguments and debates with our non- Christian family and friends, we would be much better off inviting them to “come and see,” to come and meet Jesus for themselves.

How do we enable someone to meet Christ for themselves today, though? How do we emulate Philip’s invitation to “come and see?”

Since Christ dwells in all who truly believe, if we are true Christians then we can introduce people to Jesus through the way that we live, the things that we do, the words that we say. We can also invite our friends to groups like Alpha or Christianity Explored where they can have the opportunity to encounter Christ in his word and to ask questions.

Nathanael deserves credit, because he took Philip up on his invitation to “come and see.” Nathanael was an honest sceptic who was willing to follow the truth, wherever it might lead him, so he did go with Philip to meet Jesus.

Philip was absolutely right to invite his friend Nathanael to come and see. Nathanael does encounter Jesus, and as Philip suspected, he immediately dropped everything to follow Jesus.

What immediately hit Nathanael about Jesus was that Jesus already seemed to know him. Nathanael was stunned by Jesus knowledge of him.

On seeing Nathanael approach, Jesus commented, in verse 47, “here truly is an Israelite in who there is no deceit.”

Nathanael was shocked, because Jesus seemed to know him already. This was more than a casual, “haven’t I met you somewhere before?” Jesus did not just recognise Nathanael’s face. He knew what was on his heart. Unfortunately, from reading the Gospel account we don’t really know what it is about Jesus’ greeting that so shocked Nathanael, but clearly there was something. Some have speculated that Nathanael, whilst he had been studying God’s word under the fig tree, may have been reading about Jacob’s encounter with God in the desert. Jacob could have been said to have been deceitful, since when he encountered God in the desert he had left his home after deceiving his father and cheating his brother out of his birth right.

When Nathanael first met Jesus, he was shocked because by Jesus’ reference to him being “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit” by which Jesus could be making a direct comparison between Jacob and Nathanael. Clearly if Jesus did know exactly which text Nathanael had been studying, be would have been a little surprised!

Whatever it was about Jesus’ statement to Nathanael, it clearly stunned him because Jesus displayed knowledge of Nathanael’s thoughts which, if Jesus was an ordinary human, there was no way he could know.

Nathanael, in a state of some shock, asked Jesus, “how do you know me?”

Jesus replied, in verse 48, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

Nathanael was absolutely gobsmacked by this response. Jesus seems to have not only seen him whilst he was under the fig tree, but seen into him, seen what he was thinking, seen what was on his heart.

At this, Nathanael’s scepticism withered away. He now knew that this man Jesus was special. How else could he have known so much about him? He recognised that Jesus had supernatural knowledge. It was the only way that Jesus could know what he had been thinking.

In response, Nathanael immediately declared, “rabbi, teacher, you are the Son of God; the king of Israel.” His thinking was immediately changed. Indeed, Nathanael’s very world was changed by the recognition that Jesus was the Son of God.

If we will only “come and see” Jesus for ourselves, he will transform our lives too. If we recognise that Jesus is the son of God, our thinking will be changed, and our world transformed.

If we encourage our friends to “come and see” too, the same will be true for them. If they genuinely encounter Christ they will respond in the same way that Nathanael did.

What is it that makes following Christ such an exciting proposition, though? What is the reward that awaits Philip, Nathanael, the rest of the disciples, and us too, if we follow Jesus?

The answer to that lies in Jesus’ response to Nathanael’s declaration of faith, and it is that answer to which we will now turn our attention in our third point.

It is in the next part of our reading that Jesus addresses the question we may ask, if we come and see, what is it was shall see?

After Nathanael’s recognition that Jesus is the Son of God and King of Israel, Jesus told his new disciples that they would see incredible things if they stick with him.

Jesus took Nathanael and the others back to the passage in Genesis that Nathanael may have been studying whilst sitting under the fig tree. In that passage Jacob, who had been forced to leave home, lies down to sleep and sees a vision. In that vision, he saw a ladder, with its foot on the ground and the top reaching heaven. On the ladder he saw angels of God going up and down it. Above it he saw God, who promised him that he would give Jacob and his descendants the land on which he was lying. All people, God promised Jacob, would be blessed through his offspring.

In his promise to Jacob, God once more demonstrated his love for his people. Previously, people had tried to reach up to God at the Tower of Babel, and been punished by God. Now, though, God was himself reaching out once more to his people in the hope that they would come to know him and establish a positive relationship with him.

A ladder, though, is temporary. When a new house is built a ladder is used temporarily to link two floors. Once the house has been completed, the ladder is removed, and is replaced with a permanent staircase.

Here, in our gospel reading, we see Jacob’s ladder replaced with something much more permanent; the Son of Man himself, Jesus, the Messiah, the promised one of God. Through Jesus, God’s blessing has been opened up to all peoples, made permanent and everlasting. Jesus pioneers the new way in which the living God will be present and with his people. Jesus is the Son of Man who opens heaven to all who believe and trust in him.

This is the message, then, that Jesus had for his first disciples, and that he has for us today. As he turns to Nathanael and says, “you will see greater things” than merely Jesus’ supernatural reading of his hopes and fears, he is saying to Nathanael, his disciples and to us, that if we follow him, we will see truly astonishing things. Jesus’ power stretches beyond mere insight. What we will see with Jesus is the reality to which Jacob’s ladder and the Jewish scripture that Nathanael knew so well had been pointing.

Jesus shows us what happens when heaven and earth are bridged.

He shows us what it is like to be in God’s kingdom.

Why?

Because if we follow his example and live to serve, to love and to hope, we will see God’s kingdom built here on earth.

Jesus’ reading of Nathanael’s thoughts pales into insignificance against the true wonders of God’s heavenly kingdom.

If we follow Jesus, we too will see God’s kingdom. We too will see the greater things that Jesus promised his disciples.

No matter how we respond to Jesus’ call on our lives, we will witness miracles in our own lives, in those around us, and in the world in which we live.

No matter whether we respond as Philip did, unquestionably accepting Jesus’ call, trusting instantly in his word, or whether, like Nathanael, we have questions that can only be answered by an encounter with Christ, we are a part of God’s new kingdom.

The question today is, will you respond to God’s call? When Jesus asks us to follow him, will we do so? Will we accept that call on our lives?

And if we will, how will we respond to that call?

Will we be eager to rush out and tell our friends about Jesus?

Will we want to bring them to Jesus so that they can have an encounter with him for themselves?

Will we urge our friends to come and see Christ for themselves, as Philip did Nathanael?

Whatever we do, let’s ensure that we respond to that call and play our part in building God’s kingdom here on earth in the here and now.

The Way, The Truth and The Life

What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on 22nd May 2011 at London Road Methodist Church in Horsham, West Sussex. It is based on Acts 7:55-60 and John 14:1-14.

Audio of this sermon is available at the foot of this page.

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.

Jesus: The Resurrection And The Life

What follows is the text of a sermon I preached today at Effingham Methodist Church in Surrey. It is based on Ezekiel 37:1-14 and John 11:1-45.

Audio of this sermon is available at the foot of this page.

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.

Amen.