Sunday Sermon: Overhearing the Gospel

 |  Sunday Sermon

Text: John 11:41-42
Series: “The Prayers of Jesus”

Have you ever found yourself in a conversation where you suddenly become aware that someone was listening in, someone you weren’t intending to hear what you were saying? The polite word for that is “eavesdropping,” which is an interesting term, don’t you think? It sounds so relaxing, so pleasant. “What have you been doing today?” “Oh, I’ve just been eavesdropping.” It just sounds so leisurely.

Of course, we normally associate the term with nosy people. But can you not also acknowledge that there have been times in your own life when you have found yourself in some place surrounded by people – a restaurant, a classroom, an airplane terminal (back when we felt comfortable flying) – a place where you couldn’t help but overhear what was being said?

I don’t know about you, but I always feel a bit creepy when I’ve unintentionally been on the listening end of any eavesdropping taking place. And yet, on the other hand, I also have to say that there have been those situations when I have been better for doing so – because I overheard a newsworthy happening I otherwise wouldn’t have been aware of, or a helpful hint on how to fix something around the house, or a good joke, or a compelling story.  I know the old saying: “Nothing good was ever learned from eavesdropping, so mind your business and let others mind theirs.” But is that necessarily true? I’m not so sure, and for that matter, neither is Jesus.

Case in point is this story that’s before us this morning from John’s gospel where Jesus is praying to God and expressing his gratitude that all of the people around him are listening in.

The 11th chapter of John is a turning point in the Fourth Gospel. It marks a transition from what has been called the “Book of Signs” to the “Book of Glory.” In the first ten chapters, John recounts seven signs that represent Jesus as the Word of God that had become flesh to reveal to us the very glory of God. And in the 12th chapter, we see a transition to how that divine glory becomes even more explicit in the death and resurrection of Jesus, as Jesus makes his way into Jerusalem for the last days of his life upon the earth.

In our text this morning, Jesus is about to perform the last of the seven signs, which will be the raising of Lazarus from the dead. You know the story. Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, has fallen ill. But when the two sisters send word for Jesus to come to their home in Bethany, just on the outskirts of Jerusalem, inexplicably, Jesus waits for three days. Perhaps that number is a big hint that something special is about to take place. Regardless, when Jesus does decide that it’s time to go, his disciples voice their concern over his safety, and theirs. After all, it is no secret that the religious leaders in Jerusalem have not been happy at all with all that Jesus had been saying and doing. But Jesus tells them that they must go to Bethany so that the disciples might believe in him, which I’m certain at the time made no sense to them at all.

When they arrive in Bethany, Lazarus has been dead for four days, which is an indication of how dead he really was. The sisters are now beside themselves with grief since as women with no status in their first century world, with their brother’s death their future is most definitely up in the air. Martha goes out to meet Jesus to tell him that she had wished he would have come sooner. But then she also confesses her faith that God will give Jesus whatever he asks, which is a great testimony to her faith. Martha tells Mary, who goes out to meet Jesus also, and tells him the same thing.

Meanwhile, there are bystanders who have been eavesdropping on the conversation. They have come to show their support to Martha and Mary, and now Jesus presses them into service as he orders them to roll away the stone from Lazarus’ tomb. Martha flinches at the command because she knows how long her brother has been in the grave, but Jesus assures her that if she will only believe, she will experience nothing less than the very glory of God.

It's at this point that Jesus prays. “Father,” he begins, another indication of the special intimacy Jesus enjoys with God. “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the bystanders, the people who are eavesdropping in on our conversation. I said this for their benefit that they may believe that you sent me.”

What’s interesting about this prayer is that Jesus does not pray for himself. It is not a prayer of petition, a prayer where he entreats God’s help for some pressing matter, even a matter as pressing as a dear friend who’s been dead for four days. It’s not that Jesus didn’t desire God’s help; it’s more that his entire being had already been so committed to God’s glory that there was never a moment when he saw himself as anything other than God’s agent of eternal life. In other words, unlike us, who move from a state of awareness of God to one where we’re oblivious to His presence, or, to put it another way, where we move from a state of non-praying to praying, Jesus’ heart was always one with the Father. That’s why he prayed, “I knew that you have always heard me.”

But in this case Jesus is overjoyed that these bystanders are listening in, which is why he prays on their behalf. He prays that they will make the connection between his person and God’s power. He wants everyone to share in his relationship to the Father, and so his prayer points the bystanders to the source of his power and his intimacy with God. He wants them to believe that he is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and that God sent them so that they, like Lazarus is about to receive, have life in his name.

Someone has observed that the difference between good news and bad news is not so much how the news comes to you but instead where you happen to be once you get the news. So, where are you this morning with respect to the news that Jesus is praying for you to hear?

Some of you may be like Martha and Mary. You’re broken. You’re helpless. You’ve been confronted with some situation that has caused your future to be in question and you’re scared to death. What you need to hear is how Jesus is thanking God for how he is about to move in the midst of those who need him most, and as Lazarus was brought forth from his tomb, so you may be delivered from your despair so that in the face of your darkness you will know the light that the darkness will never overcome.

Others of you are like the bystanders. You’re somewhat oblivious to your need for Jesus or, at least, the depth of your need for Jesus. You admire Jesus. You believe what the Scriptures teach us about Jesus. You’re even like the vast majority of people in this community who would even go so far as to say that they believe that God raised Jesus from the dead. But you’ve never believed “into” Jesus. You’ve never depended upon Jesus like your life depended upon you doing so. You’ve never placed the good news of Jesus as the center of your life, which is why your everyday life is so bereft, so lacking any real encounter with the glory of God that draws you into fellowship with Him. What you need to hear is that Jesus is praying that the eyes of your heart will be sufficiently open to see your need for Jesus and to believe in him and to find abundant life through your having done so.

One of the books that revolutionized by understanding of preaching back when I was in seminary was a book titled Overhearing the Gospel. It was written by an Emory preaching professor, Fred Craddock, who himself had been influenced by a quote he came across from the 19th century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who said: “There is no lack of information in a Christian land; something else is lacking, and this is something which one person cannot directly communicate to the other.” Craddock runs with that quote to say how in our postmodern world, people don’t want so much to be preached at, as in former days, as they want to be allowed to listen in on faith stories and in a supernatural way to be caught up in them. Therefore, Craddock contended, people should overhear both your sermon and your life as you are talking to God rather than preaching to them.

So, if the difference between good news and bad news is where you happen to be when you get the news, get close to Jesus, and hear how he prays to the Father. After all, he’s doing so for your benefit and ultimately for your salvation so that whether you hear him in helpless or hopelessness or information overload, you might by means of your eavesdropping come to understand the reason God sent him into the world, into your world, and by so doing come to behold the very glory of God.