Why God Comes Near – Understanding Advent Through the Story of Lazarus
Part 3 – Radical Realignment
I am committing my three Advent blogs in an effort to draw us into a story that may seem as far from the Christmas story as one can get. I’ve been meditating on the curious story of the raising of Lazarus from John 11. I say curious’ because much in the story seems nonsensical. However, I believe there is much here that can teach us about the nature of God and help prepare us for the celebration of His coming as the child of Bethlehem.
What does it mean that death itself has been overcome? That is the question we must ponder in these few days before Christmas. This is where the story of Lazarus is so helpful in our Advent journey.
We started by asking when does God come near and concluded that it is always at the right time when the chaos of sin seems to have won the day. We then asked how God comes near, and we considered how Jesus entered into a world of pain and embraced it both in Bethany where He wept for death and in Bethlehem where He came in the crudest of ways to bear a broken humanity and defeat death once and for all.
In this third movement of the story, we seek to understand not only when God comes near, and how God comes near, but why God comes near. In the story of Lazarus, God’s coming culminates in the miraculous raising of Lazarus from the dead. It’s Jesus‘ display of His ultimate power over even death itself. In the Christmas story, it’s the beginning of a 30 year journey to the cross. With the first cries of the infant child in Bethlehem, death is on notice. We know how the story unfolds. In Scripture we follow Jesus through His life, we sit with Him at the table at the last supper, grieve with Him in Gethsemane, anguish with Him on the cross and rejoice on Easter Sunday at His resurrection.
We know how the story goes, but do we understand its true power for our lives? We will miss the end of our Advent journey and the celebration of Christmas if we don’t reflect deeply on what it means for us personally that death itself has been overcome. This is hard for us because we live in a time-bound world that is marked by birth at the beginning and death at the end. Look around and consider how much of our existence is formed and influenced by this ‘birth-to-death’ reality. Consider all the ways we try to cheat death. How many products and programs are there that promise to keep us alive longer, offering near immortality if we will take the right pills, do the right exercises, or follow the right spiritual practices?
Everywhere we look death is the enemy. It marks the ultimate end to our story on earth. It is every person’s cruel destiny. This birth-to-death worldview shapes our experience so profoundly that it’s difficult for us to comprehend and apprehend the radical nature of what began in a stable in Bethlehem. You see, Jesus didn’t just overcome death for us, He invites us into a life that is as radically countercultural as one could imagine. He pulls us out of a birth-to-death reality and invites us to live as citizens in a new kingdom; the kingdom of God where our death is behind us and all we have ahead of us is life.
Let me say that again, and let it seep deep into your spirit. Jesus came to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God. In His life, death and resurrection, from the incarnation to the ascension, this new kingdom of God opened up for us citizenship in a world that stands in stark contrast to the one in which we used to live. We are now people who have already died. Colossians 3:3 says, “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” Paul is talking to us. We have died. Death is behind us, not ahead of us. And if we have died, if our lives are truly hidden with Christ in God, that means that as we look to our future we do not see death on the horizon. For us, as children of the king and citizens of His kingdom, all we have ahead of us is life. Our life on earth will end one day and simply transform us to life eternal. Both are part of the kingdom of God, now provisionally and then in full.
What would it mean for us this Christmas to truly embrace this reality that our death is behind us and all we have ahead of us is life? Perhaps we will worship the baby Jesus in a new way. Perhaps we will be amazed at the truth that when God comes near, it is always at the exact right time, in exactly the right way, entering into our pain and chaos and bearing it in himself. And it is always for the right purpose. He comes not only to overcome all that sin and brokenness brought into the world, but to redeem us into a new life with a promise that always points toward His third and final coming.
With this future in mind, we will conclude our Advent meditations with a picture of this last great act of God. For we know the day will come and is coming when God will one more time draw near. But this time it will be with a trumpet and a shout. At just the right time, He will return and once again take up the chaos, brokenness and sorrow of the world and bring all things to their final conclusion. The kingdom of God will be established in full where there will be no more sorrow or weeping. It will be a day when, “Your sun will never set again, and your moon will wane no more; the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end” (Isaiah 60:20).
We live for the abundant life now and the ultimate life ahead, when we will see with our own eyes what John foretold in Revelation 22:
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lambdown the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.
As we stand at the manger in a few days, let’s remember that this little babe of Bethlehem is the coming Savior who says to you and me this Christmas, “Come!” “And let the one who hears say, ‘Come!’ Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life” (Revelation 22:17).
Because God came near at Christmas, this is the life ahead of us, this is the promise, this is the hope, and this is why we sing,
“Joy to the world the Lord is come,
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room
and Heaven and nature sing.”