New Beginnings: First Day
Topic: New Beginning Scripture: Ezekiel 36:24–36:30, John 11:32–11:44
It’s that time of the year again. That wonderful, weepy, relieved, nervous, exciting time that rolls through each August. Back to school. Like me, you’ve likely seen the barrage of adorable kids on front porches holding signs marking their First Day of a new school year. And added kudos to students like Robert Schwalm who went the extra mile and made his own sign, even as a sophomore at Normal West. Social media is flooded with these pictures whether it’s your kids, your grandkids, or your friends’ kids. Even though it happens every year, there’s something exciting about the First Day of school.
Whether it’s your little baby going off to kindergarten for the first time or your not-so-little baby heading off into their first year of college, we make an effort to stop and take a moment to witness and remember that first step into something new. And it’s not just with school that we do this stuff. It’s funny, I think buying a house is the only adult version of the porch photo I can think of. We snap a picture with the SOLD sign as we get ready to begin the next chapter of our lives in that new house. When we start a new job, granted, our spouse likely doesn’t have us pose on the front porch with a chalkboard, but regardless, we make our own effort to capture that moment as a sort of Polaroid in our memory. We might commemorate it with a nice dinner or some other celebration. Those moments, whether it’s a new year in school, a new job, or a new home, they mark something important. A fresh start, an important example of growth, a new beginning.
And that’s exactly what we’re going to be talking about with this new message series. For the next 3 weeks, we’re going to be looking at 3 specific New Beginnings that we find offered within Scripture and that I believe God both desires and fosters. When we look at the full witness of Scripture, Old, and New Testament, we see New Beginnings are a huge part of God’s presence in this world and with us. So, let’s start there, with us, and the new beginning that God offers to each and every one of us. From there, we’ll move outward by looking at the church next week and wrap up the series with this wide and beautiful world. When we turn through the pages of the Bible, we can find several individual stories of new beginnings. All of them inspiring and all of them revealing how, when God entered their story, they stepped out into the First Day of the rest of their lives. People like Moses, Mary, and Paul. But there’s one person’s story that stands out in a powerful way. That’s because, for this person, the presence and love of Jesus literally gave him the First Day of the rest of his life. I’m talking about Lazarus, who we read about in John’s gospel. We’re in John 11:32-44.
This is such a powerful moment in the ministry of Jesus. At this point in John’s gospel, we’ve witnessed Jesus heal the blind, walk on water, and feed thousands with what was essentially a single sack lunch. But…this is something else entirely. Jesus literally raised a person from the dead. A life that had been claimed by death and extinguished is sparked back into existence by the very presence and command of Christ. I’ve said this several times in the past when we’ve explored the miraculous and supernatural events recorded within Scripture, but it bears repeating: We do the power of Jesus and our own identity as Christ-followers a disservice if we do anything less than marvel at what we find here in John 11. We also risk blinding and deceiving ourselves from the transformative truth that the story of Lazarus is our story. That Christ bears the same love for us as He did for his friend. That Jesus wants to call us out of the same spaces of darkness, separation, and emptiness that he called Lazarus out of.
What unfolds in our text this morning is important for so many reasons. We find Jesus placed within this context of very human, very normal relationships. The Savior that we worship with our lives and sing songs about and pray to, got the call that so many of us have had to endure. “Your friend is very sick. Get here quick.” We see Jesus grieve and cry over the passing of Lazarus. We see Jesus interact with Lazarus’ sisters in their own different and personal expressions of grief. This really is one of the most relatable, intimate, moving moments in all of Christ’s life on earth.
But our focus this morning is on both Jesus and Lazarus, and by extension - on us and Jesus. Lazarus died. He stopped breathing, his body became cold, he was wrapped in the grave linens, placed in the cave that was His tomb, and the stone was put in place to close off both the resting place and the story of Lazarus. And four days went by. This wasn’t a crisis that needed to be fixed. This was a tragedy that needed to be mourned. And, by all accounts, this was where Lazarus’ story would end. But Jesus.
After wiping away His tears, Jesus approaches the resting place of his friend and stands there. He says to move the stone away. As Christ-followers of the 21st century, we might have a certain familiarity with rolling away stones from graves. That is absolutely not the case here. Martha raises practical concerns. “But, Lord, by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.” Jesus’ question to her about belief is enough to have the stone rolled away. And then Jesus does two things. First, he prays. Jesus prays to His father and in that prayer, He thanks God, Jesus reminds everyone of the intimate relationship that exists between Him and His father, and Jesus prays for the belief of all those gathered. Second, Jesus shouts. The translation I read from says “Jesus called in a loud voice” but make no mistake this is a shout. Remember, this account is actually written originally in Greek, not English. This Greek word, kraugazo, is only used a handful of times by John in his gospel. The crowds cheering for Jesus on Palm Sunday, the times where the crowds shouted for Jesus to be crucified, and this moment when Jesus shouts to Lazarus to come out of the tomb. This wasn’t a meek and mild request from Jesus. It was a powerful proclamation. And then, the unthinkable happens. Lazarus, the dead man, walks out still covered from face to foot in the grave linens. Jesus tells those present to remove the grave clothes from Lazarus and to let him go…out into the First Day of the rest of his life.
This message series is all about New Beginnings and, as we start with the new beginning that is possible for each individual person, Lazarus might be the best biblical example we can find. I’ve thought about this but really can’t wrap my mind around what Lazarus’s days were like after that. What does life look like, feel like, after you have literally been dead? We celebrate new jobs and new houses, we capture the milestones of kids starting a new school year, but this is an entirely different sort of First Day that just takes us to a whole other level. And here’s the most powerful, most wonderful, most miraculous truth about this new beginning that Jesus gave Lazarus: Jesus offers it to each and every one of us.
I love the way R. Alan Culpepper puts it in his book Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel. He says, “What Jesus does for Lazarus is meant to reflect the giving of resurrection life to every believer.” This account should do more than inspire us, it should interlock with our own story, with our own hearts. That’s because this kind of new beginning is something all of us, every human being, needs. People love to joke about the pastor boring people to death with their sermons but I’m 99% sure all of you are alive right now. And I don’t think any of us have ever witnessed a moment like that found in John 11. But the truth remains the same. Jesus wants to give each and every one of us new life, a fresh start, our own First Day of the rest of our lives. In fact, based on what we find in our passage, I’d say it’s something Jesus is extremely passionate about.
None of us are locked inside tombs but that doesn’t mean we’re not trapped within our own dark spaces of lifeless and fetid isolation. We don’t have to be behind a stone to feel completely shut out from the rest of the world. We don’t have to be wrapped in grave linens to feel bound and restricted to the point of paralysis. Those experiences are all too common. Kept secret but all too common. The darkness of depression, the constricting chords of anxiety, the crushing weight of hidden trauma, the self-assumed odor of our own uselessness and lack of value. Even the screaming silence of feeling like we have no real true purpose can hold the same weight as the silence found at a grave. That is not the life Jesus wants for us, for you or for me or for anybody, and it is that life that Jesus labors against and defies.
Just like Lazarus, our new beginning, our First Day, is something Jesus 1) prayed for and 2) shouted into existence. Jesus prayed for all of us as believers in John 17. His disciples then, all who have followed Jesus since, and all who follow Jesus today. Jesus, just like with Lazarus, spoke to His Father on our behalf. And just like with Lazarus, Jesus expelled a shout of strength with the power to conquer death. On the cross, mere seconds before His own death, Jesus declared, “It is finished.” All the brokenness, all the deception, all the darkness, all the waywardness, all the inherited evil, and all of it was finished. And, by the power of Jesus, so is the life we might have been or maybe are right now living that is defined by anything other than the truth, grace, and love of our Savior.
So what do we need to do, my friends? It’s pretty simple. We need to do like Lazarus. We need to walk out of that darkness and that ruin and toward the voice that calls us. This can come in a moment, like the countless conversion experiences many of you may have had or witnessed or it can be a slow, steady awakening. If we’re lucky, Jesus later calls us to be like those who helped Lazarus and we have the chance to play a part in Jesus’ work of giving new life and real purpose to another. But this reality of a new beginning, of new life, is something Jesus made possible for everyone, something that our Savior offers to everyone, and it’s something that all of us were made for and wait for. Christ’s work on the cross makes it possible for all of us to experience our own brand new First Day.