Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Moth, the Flame, and the Christian

(A sermon based on John 12:9-11 preached at the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, GA on Sunday, July 17, 2011)

I once had an e-mail exchange with Norman Greenbaum. You may not know who Norman Greenbaum is. He’s a musician who recorded a lot of material over the years but who is best known for one song, “Spirit in the Sky,” which was a hit in 1970. Imagine how I, an 11 year old Christian boy, living in Barnesville and listening to rock music on WQXI FM out of Atlanta, was stunned to hear lines like these coming out of my radio:

When I die and they lay me to rest
Gonna go to the place that's the best
When I lay me down to die
Goin' up to the spirit in the sky
Goin' up to the spirit in the sky
That's where I'm gonna go when I die
When I die and they lay me to rest
Gonna go to the place that's the best.

Prepare yourself you know it's a must
Gotta have a friend in Jesus
So you know that when you die
He's gonna recommend you
To the spirit in the sky
Goin' up to the spirit in the sky
That's where you're gonna go when you die
When you die and they lay you to rest
You're gonna go to the place that's the best.

I would have been even more stunned had I known then as I know now that Norman Greenbaum was not a Christian. Still, all these years later, that song is still being played on radio stations and is quite often used in motion picture soundtracks.

In my e-mail to Greenbaum, I told him that it was good to be remembered for one thing. If in a lifetime a person produces something good and positive and is remembered for that one thing, that’s good.

Lazarus is remembered for one good thing, too, but what a thing it is. He was raised from the dead by Jesus Christ. After he had been in his tomb for four days, Jesus came along and called his name and the next thing he knew he was standing in the sunlight wondering what that had been all about. If Lazarus had children, he certainly had a story to tell them.

But Lazarus didn’t have to tell anybody about that amazing occurrence for word about it to get around. Plenty of people had seen it and, people being what people are (they’ll talk plenty about things that don’t happen, after all), the word spread. Overnight, Lazarus went from being an unknown small-town fellow to a major tourist attraction. Had he lived today, there would have been a major motion picture with all the marketing tie-ins: Lazarus Happy Meals, Lazarus souvenir cups, and Lazarus action figures. And, of course, you could have visited Lazarus’ website at

But what happened to Lazarus happened then, not now, so it was by word of mouth that his story was spread, and lots of people were coming to see him. And people remembered. We still remember.

Lazarus is remembered not for something that he did but because of what Jesus did to him. Lazarus was dead, but Jesus caused him to be alive. Jesus gave Lazarus new life. How many people can say that?

Well, come to think of it, a whole lot of us can. All of us who have experienced the grace of God have been given new life by Jesus. All of us who have been saved have been given new life by Jesus.

Lazarus had to see the world in a different way after he came out of that tomb. I’ve talked with people who have come back from the brink of death and they assure me that they view life differently. Lazarus had been four days past the brink when he came back. No wonder people wanted to see him. I suspect that the word that got around about Lazarus was not just that he once had been dead but now was alive; I suspect that the word also was about how he had changed. I suspect that the word was not just about how Jesus had enabled Lazarus to overcome his death; I suspect that it was also about how Jesus had enabled Lazarus to live a different kind of life.

We who have been given new life by Jesus Christ are to know a different kind of life that is characterized by lots of realities: growing love, increasing trust, expanding grace, a bent toward forgiveness, and a concern for anybody who is “other,” to name a few. In other words, the new life given by Jesus is a life that is joined to his. For the rest of his life, Lazarus would be associated with Jesus.
No one would ever again think of Lazarus without also thinking of Jesus. For Lazarus, that association with Jesus made all the difference.

Also, the association of Lazarus with Jesus caused him to have an influence on the people with whom he came in contact. Many people were coming to believe in Jesus because of Lazarus. That’s the way it works, you know. In Lazarus’ case, people could some to see Jesus and him and what had happened to Lazarus contributed to their decision to believe. Ever since Jesus ascended to his Father, people have been coming to Jesus because of what they see in his followers. Our influence derives from our association with Jesus.

That association with Jesus can be dangerous, though. I would go so far as to say that it should be dangerous. The authorities plotted to put Lazarus to death in addition to Jesus exactly because of his influence. Radical discipleship leads to radical influence that leads to radical reactions. By “radical influence” I mean the kind of influence that comes from the living of a life that is truly joined to the life of Christ and thus exhibits his characteristics, characteristics that run counter to the ways of our culture. People with eyes to see and ears to hear will see Christ in such living and will be drawn to him through it. Other people will resist, sometimes with serious resistance. Those are “radical reactions” either way.

Lazarus was put in a precarious position by his association with Jesus. So are we, if we’re doing anything about it. That precarious position does not come just from the reactions of other people. It also comes from the very nature of discipleship, which by its nature is radical. When it’s real, we are drawn to it in all of its glory. That means giving our lives up, laying ourselves out, putting ourselves at risk, all for the sake of the Christ who gave his life for us and for the sake of other people, for whom he also gave his life.

But it’s worth it. It’s worth it because a life lived joined to Christ is a life worth living. Living such a life means being willing to risk ourselves for the glory of it all.

“Where the heart is, the feet don’t hesitate to go,” says a Togo proverb. That’s true even if the heart leads you to challenging and dangerous places. Does your heart reflect a new life given by Jesus that results in such close association with him that your feet willingly carry you to challenging places?

One day I came across this poem by Don Marquis.

the lesson of the moth

i was talking to a moth
the other evening
he was trying to break into
an electric light bulb
and fry himself on the wires

why do you fellows
pull this stunt i asked him
because it is the conventional
thing for moths or why
if that had been an uncovered
candle instead of an electric
light bulb you would
now be a small unsightly cinder
have you no sense

plenty of it he answered
but at times we get tired
of using it
we get bored with the routine
and crave beauty
and excitement
fire is beautiful
and we know that if we get
too close it will kill us
but what does that matter
it is better to be happy
for a moment
and be burned up with beauty
than to live a long time
and be bored all the while
so we wad all our life up
into one little roll
and then we shoot the roll
that is what life is for
it is better to be a part of beauty
for one instant and then cease to
exist than to exist forever
and never be a part of beauty
our attitude toward life
is come easy go easy
we are like human beings
used to be before they became
too civilized to enjoy themselves

and before i could argue him
out of his philosophy
he went and immolated himself on a patent cigar lighter
i do not agree with him
myself i would rather have
half the happiness and twice
the longevity

but at the same time i wish
there was something i wanted
as badly as he wanted to fry himself

Lazarus’ association with Jesus put him in a very precarious position. The life he was compelled to lead because of what Jesus had done for him put him at risk. But can you imagine that he would have had it any other way? Can you imagine that he for one moment thought that it was not worth it? Don’t you think that Lazarus thought it was the most important thing in the world that he had found something that was so vital and so beautiful that if it burned him up it was worth it?

Hear this: the beauty of Christ consumes us. The beauty of our new life in Christ draws us like the flame draws the moth. It takes all that we are. It takes all—but it gives so much more.

2 comments: said...

Thank you.

john said...

enlightening on " the light"