Last week we began a new series of messages, The Journey to Easter. This week we’re turning to John’s gospel, to a chapter that contains one of the most well-known events from the ministry of Jesus – the raising of Lazarus. While that event is incredibly important, there is another, often-overlooked event that takes place early in chapter 11, and it concerns the disciple Thomas. Listen to what John records in that passage –
1 Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.
2 (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.)
3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”
4 When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.”
5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.
6 So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days,
7 and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”
8 “But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?”
9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light.
10 It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”
11 After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”
12 His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” 13 Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.
14 So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead,
15 and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
16 Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Did you catch the final verse, verse 16? Listen again to those words – Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
We are talking today about defining moments.
Never define yourself – or someone else – by failure.
In one of my previous churches, one of our youth group members was a very good basketball player. In his senior year his school was playing in the final of the regional championship, with the winning team advancing to the state tournament. There were two or three seconds left on the clock and his team was trailing by a single point, and he stepped to the free throw line with two shots. It was a classic set up, and I’m sure he felt quite a bit of pressure. Make a single shot and they would go to overtime; make both shots and he would be the hero who sent them on to the state tournament. The first shot clanged off the rim, but there was still a chance to tie the game. He took his time before taking the second shot, working, I imagine, to shut out the noise of the fans and to calm himself. He bounced the ball a few times, spun it around in his hands, and took the shot. Once again, the shot clanged off the rim and fell short. I can still remember watching him fall to the floor with a look of agony on his face. I imagine there are people who still remind him of that game, and any time he goes to a class reunion it may be discussed. Though he went to college on a basketball scholarship and spent years coaching, it’s still a moment that probably stays in his mind.
As John opens chapter 11 of his gospel, Jesus had begun his journey to Jerusalem and to the final stage of his ministry. As Jesus and his disciples drew near to Jerusalem, they stopped in the village of Bethany, only two miles away from the great city. Bethany was the home of Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus, who had died. We are very familiar with the fact that Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, but many are not as familiar with the context.
When Jesus announced that he would travel to Bethany, there was a palpable sense of alarm among his disciples. Being so close to Jerusalem, they feared, would place them in danger. They reminded Jesus that it was only a short time before that an attempt had been made upon his life in that region, so they were astounded that he would want to return.
But Thomas stood apart from the others in terms of his response. While the other disciples expressed fear and counseled for caution, Thomas speaks up and declares let us also go, that we may die with him. Curiously, John does not describe the response of the other disciples, but in the very next verse Jesus and his disciples have arrived in Bethany.
How many of you know about Thomas’ moment of doubt? All of us, I assume, know the story of Thomas, after the resurrection, declaring that unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it (John 20:25), but how many are familiar with this moment when Thomas said let us also go, that we may die with him?
Here’s a question worth some serious thought – why is it that Thomas is remembered for his moment of doubt, but not his moment of courage and commitment? For centuries, the defining moment in the life of Thomas has been labeled as his expression of doubt, but I believe this verse tells us of a true defining moment in his life. It’s a very telling view into humanity that Thomas would be defined by his moment of doubt rather than his moment of courage.
Never define your life – or the life of another – by a failure. Jesus doesn’t. Where others saw a corrupt tax collector in Matthew, Jesus saw one who could be counted among his closest followers (Luke 5:27-32). People looked upon another tax collector – Zaccheus – as one who defrauded others, but Jesus saw something different (Luke 19:1-10). When Mary annointed Jesus shortly before the crucifixion some saw it as a wasteful act and criticized her, but Jesus saw it as an act of love and said that wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, that also which this woman has done shall be spoken of in memory of her (Mark 14:9).
People will seek to limit you and diminish you by making a failure the defining point of our life – don’t allow them to do so! Jesus won’t do that, so why allow anyone else?
Challenge one another.
Does anyone like to work out alone? Aren’t some exercise machines awful? But aren’t you glad to share the pain and misery? Some things are better when other people are involved. If you go to the Family Activity Center to exercise you have discovered you do better working out when others are around, don’t you? I used to run in a lot of 5K and 10K races, and to keep motivated I ran with a friend, and it pushed me to try harder.
It’s great to have people who will be encouragers to us, but sometimes we need a challenge as well, don’t we? Sometimes we need that encouraging word, telling us we’re going to be okay, but other times we need someone to give us a challenge and say pull yourself together! Get out of the chair and go and do something for someone else! You have a lot to offer; go and offer it! You’re blessed; go and be a blessing!
I love the boldness of Thomas in verse 16. Notice that he didn’t say I’m going with Jesus and I’m willing to die with him. You all do whatever you want, but I’m going. No, he says, Let us also go, that we may die with him. Nice of Thomas to volunteer the lives of the others, wasn’t it? The others could have responded to Thomas by asking who are you to speak for us and who are you to volunteer our lives? But they didn’t, because the next verse finds them in Bethany with Jesus and then on to Jerusalem as well. Sometimes a situation needs that one person who will speak up and challenge others, as Thomas did.
Sometimes we need an encouraging word, but other times we next a push and a challenge. I love this church and I’m grateful to be here. I think we are doing a lot of good work and good ministry, and I will offer encouraging words for doing so well, especially because I know so many people are stretching themselves and working so hard. But there are times when we might say that’s good enough. That’s adequate. Sometimes we need to lay down a challenge to one another.
What will be your defining moment?
The defining moment for Thomas’ life, I would argue, is not when he expressed doubt, but when he expressed his courage, so the next time you are tempted to refer to doubting Thomas – don’t! Call him brave Thomas or courageous Thomas – anything but doubting Thomas!
What will be the defining moment of your life? Will it be a failure that someone wants to pin to you forever? Or will it be the moment you realized that God does not define you by your failure but by your possibility?