If I Should Wake Before I Die: An Easter Sermon (Matt. 28:1-10; John 11:1,17-45; 20:1,11-18, 30-31)
- Michael Milton President of the Charlotte campus of Reformed Theological Seminary, Contributing Editor of Preaching magazine
- 2009 30 Mar
The Rev. Lloyd Ogilvie, the retired Chaplain of the United States Senate, tells the story of a young father who had been working long hours and spending far too much time away from home. He came home late one night, just in time to peek in and see his little son on his knees before his bed. It was one of those tender moments you don’t interrupt. He listened to the child’s prayer:
“Now I lay me down to sleep; I pray the Lord my soul to keep; If I should wake before I die…”
The little boy, not recognizing his mistake, kept praying. As the child got up, the father came in and tucked his son into bed. That night, as the father lay in bed, he couldn’t stop thinking about the way things were, and his son’s prayer kept repeating over and over again in his head:
“If I should wake before I die…”
How is it that you could wake before you die?
There once was a man who woke before he died. His name was Lazarus. For you see, Lazarus lived and then died. Then he awoke, and of course, though it is not in this part of the Bible, he died. So Lazarus awoke before he died.
There are some here on this Easter Sunday who desperately need to awake before you die. Believers in Jesus Christ, but whose lives are moving at such breakneck speeds, are missing life itself. Or may be you are like Martha and Mary, the mourning sisters of Lazarus, who are laden with fear, anxiety, confusion, bitterness, and you need to wake up and live before you die! There are others who do not believe at all. Easter is a reason to put on new spring clothes, or to make an annual pilgrimage to a church. We are glad to have you here. If you are not a follower of the risen and reigning Jesus Christ, you too need to be awaken before you die!
How do we wake before we die? Well, to put a profound truth simply, we are awakened through Christ, for Christ, and in Christ.
Let me explain the Scriptures this way:
1. We are awakened to new life through Christ’s coming.
There was only death and mourning and hopelessness before Jesus came to raise Lazarus from the dead.
After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him” (John 11:11-15).
This scene is similar to several other events in the Bible. Once, as we learn in the Old Testament book of 2 Kings 4, there was a couple who wanted a child but had none. So the prophet Elisha prayed and they were given a boy. What a treasure he was to them. But one day their little boy went out into the field to help his father. This miracle child had sunstroke and died. Elisha the prophet was called for. He went into the room of the dead child and we read:
“He went in, shut the door on the two of them and prayed to the LORD. Then he got on the bed and lay upon the boy, mouth to mouth, eyes to eyes, hands to hands. As he stretched himself out upon him, the boy’s body grew warm. Elisha turned away and walked back and forth in the room and then got on the bed and stretched out upon him once more. The boy sneezed seven times and opened his eyes” (2 Kings 4:33-35).
This amazing story of new life points to that One who would actually do this for all of us forever! And Jesus Christ is that One. He is the One that Job hoped for when Job said in the pit of suffering and was even condemnation by his so-called friends, “I know that my Redeemer lives and in the last day he shall stand upon the earth!”
Jesus is that Redeemer of Job and of all who, like Job, call upon Him.
In the Gospel of John 11, Jesus spoke to the fear of a grieving sister, in the presence of a mourning community, and in the face of death itself:
“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies, and whoever believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?”
There can be no awakening, no new life, no eternal hope until Jesus comes to you. Here is what this means: We cannot awaken ourselves. We cannot transform ourselves. Only God Himself, who breathed life into Adam, who brought order from chaos, when He moved across the face of the deep, in Creation, can make a new person. Oprah cannot do it. Dr. Phil cannot do it. We need what Martin Luther called an “alien force” to come in to our dead existence and awaken us to life. The Lord Jesus Christ who came to awaken Martha and Mary to His divinity, who declared Himself to be the resurrection and the life personified, did in fact go to the Cross for your sins and He did rise again from the dead! Whoever receives Him will be awakened unto new life forever!
When Jesus said, “I AM the resurrection and the life…” He defined how we must come to Him to be saved from our sins and the punishment for them. We come to Jesus, the unique God-Man who is the Promised One of God who died for our sins and rose again from the dead. Peter put it like this in his preaching in the Book of Acts: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12, NIV).
Now the temptation for most of us is not that we believe Buddha is one alternative way, and that Confucius is another way, but rather that we think we are another way. By that I mean we feel we must contribute something to our own transformation. If we want to lose weight, we get on a diet program and do it. If we want to straighten our finances, we go to a financial counselor, or we load all of our data into Quicken. We feel we must do something. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that He has done it for you. God required that His law be kept perfectly. And we have all broken His law. None of us can keep it no matter how hard we try. But Jesus kept it for us. The Bible says that God will in no way clear the guilty. The Bible says that we sin because we are sinners. We are born with a predisposition to break God’s law. The punishment for our sin was taken by Jesus Christ on the cross. So, as we often say around here: Jesus lived the life we could never live and died the death that should have been ours.
He IS the Resurrection and THE LIFE. There is no other way. Jesus Himself said: “I am the way, the truth and the life, no man comes to the Father but through Me.”
And Paul wrote: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9, ESV).
Grace is the key theological word of the Bible. Grace is God doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Grace is God’s riches at Christ’s expense. And grace is something more. Someone has said rightly: “The essence of the doctrine of grace is that God is for us.”
If you have not received Him as the resurrected and living Lord, I would invite you to receive Him this very moment. Whoever calls upon Him will be saved. God comes to you just as you are. You don’t clean up and then come to Christ; you come the way you are. Any further work will be done by the Lord Himself.
Thank God. Jesus came. We are awakened through Christ.
2. We are also awakened to new life by Christ’s Word.
Jesus spoke into the gloom of Martha’s sadness and Mary’s great grief and disappointment with the Word of resurrection. My beloved the Word of God is needed not just for those who have not heard, but is needed over and over again by those who have. The burdens and heartaches of this life can eat away like acid rain on the faith of the believer. Our faith is encouraged through the Word of Christ. It is for this reason that we are told not to forsake the assembling of ourselves with other believers. We need Christ’s Word to enter our world. This day, it is good to hear again that our Lord Jesus is new life personified. He is life. To have Him is to have everything. To miss Him is to miss everything. And yet so many of even those who believe miss Him. A.W. Tozer said that if we will know God, we must spend time with him. Robert Murray M’Cheyne said: “I ought to spend the best hours of the day in communion with God. It is my noblest and most fruitful employment, and is not to be thrust into any corner.”
The great Word of this passage is Jesus’ Word to the man who had been dead for four days: “Lazarus, come forth!”
The great Word we long for in this world is the Word Jesus brings. And the Word of Jesus is in His Word. We do not separate our Lord Jesus from His Word, the Bible. From these pages this morning comes the truth that will set you free from death’s domain: “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.”
And this leads us to our final consideration of this thought:
3. This passage teaches us that we can be awakened to new life in Christ’s own life.
Jesus’ coming to us leads to His Word coming to us and that leads to a flowering of new life. In fact, John wrote: “…You may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31).
Here is what I mean. This message is, again, about being awakened to new life in Christ, that we too may not only live life now to the fullest, but that we will live even when we die. For Jesus said that if we believe in Him we will live even though we die. Now Lazarus was raised. In John chapter twelve, there is a dinner party at Mary and Martha’s house. Lazarus is there reclining with Jesus at the Table. What a party! But the truth is, of course, Lazarus died again. Because he was in Christ he woke up to eternal life.
“En Christos”-in Christ was one of the Apostle Paul’s favorite expressions. He used the words “in Christ” over eighty times in his epistles! And what comfort to know: Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).
And what resurrection hope is ours when we know: For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive (1 Corinthians 15:22).
To be in Christ is to be redeemed by Him completely.
I love the first question and answer to the Heidelberg Catechism. It asks the question: “What is your only comfort in life and death?”
And it gives this Answer based on Scripture: “That I am not my own, but belong body and soul, in life and in death to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. Christ has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to Him, Christ, by His Holy Spirit assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for Him.”
What a magnificent affirmation of faith for a Resurrection Sunday! If you are in Christ you have been saved, and are completely identified with Him: in life, in death, and in resurrection. So if you are awakened today, you will be awakened by Jesus Himself when you die. For when you die your soul will go immediately to heaven to be with Christ. Your body, though it may return to the elements here, is not forgotten by Jesus. He will come again, in triumphant glory, and give you a new body just like His. A body that will live forever.
You have been redeemed forever if you are in Christ. Have you? Have you received Jesus Christ as Lord? Is He your Savior?
My first car was an old white Ford that had a bad exhaust pipe that kept coming undone. About the time when I would hit second gear, it would hit the pavement and make a horrible noise, with sparks flying everywhere. I would have to stop and reconnect the pipes. I burned my hands several times doing this. So, I kept a baseball glove in the back floorboard of that old car and whenever it fell apart, I would just grab that glove and get out of the car and use it to protect my hand against the red hot pipe, and put it back on. One time I had to go to a football banquet and had a girl went with me. I will never forget the look on this poor girl’s face when I stopped at a red light. First, the thing made this awful noise. She got pretty embarrassed. Then, in a tuxedo, no less, I reached back, got my glove, opened the door, popped out and dropped to my stomach, reached under the car and reconnected the exhaust pipe. I got back in and gave one of those looks like, “What…?” My old car and I had quite a reputation at school. But funny thing, no girls ever wanted to ride in that car. One day Aunt Eva had someone who wanted to buy that car “as is.” He bought that old white Ford and made something new out of it and drove it all over town for years afterwards.
To be in Christ is to have been redeemed by Jesus “as is.” He makes something new out of your life. He will never let you go. Even though you die, because He is the resurrection and the life and because you have been redeemed by Him and are in Him, as one of His own, you will live forever.
This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
So we have learned that spiritually dead unbelievers and spiritually broken believers can be awaken by Jesus through His coming, By His Word, and in His life.
The question of the day is not “Is the resurrection true?” No. The question of the day is posed by Jesus: “Do you believe this?”
Once I heard a prominent attorney say that he had investigated the whole matter and he believed that Jesus rose again from the dead. He believed it in his head, but not in his heart. The question Jesus is asking is a question that would lead to a complete surrender to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in your life. Have you yielded to Him in this way?
Let me ask it this way: How many Marthas and Marys will need to hear again that Jesus is the resurrection and the life and that lost causes, broken dreams, and crushed spirits can be redeemed by trusting in this risen Lord? How many dead men, dead in sin and guilt, need to hear the voice of the Lord of Life call them to come forward and live?
I once knew a man who was alive but dead, a man who talked as if he followed the Lord, but whose life had not been redeemed. He was entombed with his doubts, with his anguish, with his heartaches, and even with his own religion. I know that Lazarus well. I am that man. I was like some of you. I had heard the Gospel. But I had missed it. In so many areas of my life, I had not yet started to live. By the unmerited grace of Jesus Christ, I was awakened before I died. And now I will live after I die.
If you wake before you die, through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, you will wake after you die, through the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Let us go to Him now.
Author's note: I want to give credit for my title and this story, which I have adapted here, to Dr. Lloyd John Ogilvie, If I Should Wake before I Die: A Message of Hope, Ventura, CA: Regal, 1974.