Sermon: Signs

04.06.2014         Preaching Text: “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” (John 11:4)

Today’s reading from John sounds decidedly odd to modern ears, and for a number of reasons. For starters, it tells the story a healing, something that confounds human logic and experience. Lazarus is dead, and his body has been laying in a tomb. It’s not as if his heart was resuscitated with an electrical shock. No, he has been dead for days.

Since the Enlightenment some 500 years ago, we Westerners have been trying mightily to explain away all supernatural phenomenon as the mythological imaginings of a primitive, pre-literate, pre-scientific age.

No single group of individuals approached this task with as much enthusiasm as a gaggle of philosophers and theologians in 19th century Germany. Out of this intellectual school came all manner of naturalistic explanations for what the Bible otherwise presents as pure supernatural fact.

The idea came to be that all biblical musings of the supernatural sort served historically as mere way stations along the path of human development and progress. Religion, having had an important role to play for primitive man in terms of explaining the unexplainable, was now being supplanted by an emergent, enlightened philosophy based on superior knowledge. Supernatural religion, in other words, was being rendered obsolete, inevitably to be replaced by something more in accord with reality.

Then again, this confident prediction that religion would eventually fade away has proven problematic. The human aspiration for things supernatural has proven altogether stubborn and insistent.

Worldwide, for example, Christianity is growing exponentially – in Central and South America, Asia, as well as in Africa. In fact, it has been estimated that Christians may soon constitute the single largest segment of the Chinese population. Today there are more Presbyterians in Ghana than all of Scotland (its founding nation) and the United States – put together!

Here in the United States, the appeal of religion suggests more a tale of two cities, as Dickens might put it. Here, Christianity is growing rapidly in certain quarters while languishing in others. But the idea that religion is going away has proven largely false.

Why? There remains within the human heart a residual and profound desire for a supernatural God, no matter how effectively that desire has been squashed or explained away. The sudden influx of crowds to church after 9/11 is illustrative. Something deep within the human soul yearns for its Creator, a Creator who exists whether we recognize him or not.

Another equally puzzling aspect of today’s story, assuming we accept the veracity of the biblical account, is why Jesus delays his visit to Lazarus, who, we are told, is near death. Why, if Mary and Martha are correct that Jesus could have stopped it, did he wait?

“This illness does not lead to death;” Jesus tells his disciples upon receiving word of Lazarus’ condition, “rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

Huh? He then waits two more days before finally leaving for Bethany!

When he finally arrives, he says this to Lazarus’ sister, Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

This, again, makes little sense mostly because we miss Jesus’ larger point. We are focused on Lazarus’s healing. Perhaps we imagine it as ourselves in need of healing, or someone we love. It is the healing of that specific person that concerns us.

But if we listen carefully to Jesus’ words, the healing has to do with something more than Lazarus’ health (or ours). It instead has to do with God’s glory being revealed.

Last Sunday we went to our daughter’s church in upstate New York. The pastor told a story about a young man, an 18-year-old local boy, who was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor.

At the suggestion of a friend, a local Catholic priest was brought in to perform the anointing of the sick. According to the pastor, the tumor disappeared the next day. As a result, the boy and his family, previously unchurched, joined the priest’s church.

The pastor pointed out that, biblically, the point of Jesus’ various healings is not solely to remove disease or illness (though it is that), but to witness to God’s power to save, as our text suggests. Jesus never set out to be a mere “miracle worker.” Rather, his “works” were to be understood as signs pointing to God. The main purpose of a healing, then, was to point people to him, and thus to God.

The pastor explained the whole idea of a sign. When you’re travelling on the New York State Thruway, he said, and you see a sign for Buffalo, you don’t stop at the sign. The sign points instead to the place you intend to go.

Thus, only after Lazarus has died does Jesus travel to Bethany. His delay, in light of what we’ve said, now makes perfect sense. He waits for Lazarus to die so he can reveal the glory of God by raising him from the dead.

The idea is that if others can witness this, they too will believe that which Jesus tells Martha, that they too might know salvation and eternal life, born of the resurrection.

“Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him,” says John at the conclusion of our narrative. Jesus’ purpose, in other words, is not just to raise up one sole individual (in this case a close and beloved friend), but to save and raise up the entire world. Amen.