1. Imprisoned by Time

(John 3: 11-15)

  • What time of the day do you like most?
  • How have you changed over the past ten years?
  • What time constraints are on your group meetings? Check up on group punctuality, the time allowed for each session.
  • Pray for people who are aged, especially those who feel lonely or rejected.

We are walking along a corridor with cells along one side. Metal grilles keep the prisoners in, but enable us to see inside. The rooms look much the same-bed, TV, table and chair, vacuum-operated self-flushing toilet and hand-basin. Some prisoners have personalized their rooms by the use of pictures on walls, but one feature dominates every cell. High on the wall opposite the doorway, permanently secured onto the wall, is a large, round-faced clock. Every cell has one, and every clock is identical. They all tell the same time. Why? Is it some grand joke on the prisoners doing time?

The corridor is more dimly lit than the cells, so it is easy for us to see what the occupants are doing while they have difficulty seeing us. The man in the first cell is scraping away at the mortar between two bricks with a light plastic spoon. Face grimly set, he works intently, but makes virtually no impression on the wall. I ask why they do nothing to stop him and am told that the dream of escaping keeps him occupied. His impossible dream keeps him from teaming up with other prisoners who have more practical methods in mind. Clearly his one thought is of escape, but he can’t. The authorities know he can’t. He probably knows that he can’t. But that doesn’t stop him from trying.

The prisoner in the next cell peers out at us through the grilleand invites us to come into his garden. He walks over to a floral bedspread saying , ‘Feel the softness of the petals. Smell the perfume.’ He bends over to take a sniff. He directs our attention to imaginary palms and jacarandas, to rose bushes and to a flowering tibouchina in different parts of the room. He says that there are birds singing in the mango tree and wallabies under the silkyoak. ‘Don’t walk over there,’ he warns. ‘The sprinklers will pop up any minute and you’ll get all wet.’ He doubles up with laughter as he prances around the bare, concrete floor.

By contrast, the next prisoner is a sad and sorry figure. He sits slumped on the floor, shoulders hunched, head between his knees. The warder tells us that he has been depressed from the day he was brought in.

The fourth prisoner is busy at his desk. Reading lamp on, he has books and papers spread out in front of him. He momentarily looks up, squinting at us. The warder tells us that he is using his time in prison to study for a university degree.

Its an allegory, that’s what it is! It represents our captivity to time, for time imprisons us all. Some try to escape, some ignore it, some become depressed by it, while others adjust as best they can and make the most of the situation they find themselves in.

The ancient Greeks spoke of the human spirit being imprisoned in the body like a bird in a cage, and death was seen as the liberation of that bird. But the biblical tradition sees time, not the body, as the imprisoning agent. We are all trapped in the inevitability of ageing. We are surrounded by it. It wears away all things. Nothing remains the same. We use cosmetics in an attempt to cover over its effects. We try to ignore it and, particularly when we are young, pretend that life goes on forever. But we are all captive to time and its effects. We can become depressed about it. We can be overwhelmed by it. Or we can adjust to the reality. But whatever we do, we cannot change its inevitability.

The biblical message does not deny this, but it talks about the possibility of life on a dimension beyond time restraints, an eternal dimension. When Jesus spoke about eternal life, he was talking about life outside of time’s prison.

In this sense the word eternal does not mean endless time, time going on for ever and ever, but rather non-time, beyond time. Jesus, the crucified one, opens up to those who believe in him, life on an eternal dimension.

Luke 10:25-28                          1 John 5:13                          2 Corinthians 4: 16-18

  • How do you feel about the prospect of ageing? What might it mean for you in your Christian life?
  • Do you feel as though you are imprisoned by time? Do you see yourself in any of the above prisoners?
  • What do you now understand by eternal life?
  • John 3:14 treats the story in Numbers2: 5-9 as an allegory. Read that story and talk about the way it is used in John 3:14.

2. Water! Water!

(John 4:7-15)

  • Share stories of the inland. Do you have any desert experiences?
  • Have you ever been in a situation where you were likely to run out of water? What did you do?
  • Do you have any recipes for good thirst-quenching summer drinks? Would you share them? What is your favourite thirst-quencher?
  • Find out whatever you can about Samaria.

Even as he dismounts Fred knows that the others have already divided up most of the search area among themselves. It has taken him longer than the others to get to the roadside tent, but he knows that only a horse will take him where he is going. No use bringing his four-week drive, and he leaves motorbike riding to the younger blokes nowadays.

At around midday Charlie Clarke from Ollarumba had driven into town with word that he had come across a woman and three children suffering from the heat in their beaten up old Commodore sedan stranded by the side of the road. From what he could make out, it seems that the man left the car on foot sometime around mid-morning heading for the rocky ridge away to the east to get water for the radiator. He had not returned. Charlie told the police sergeant and a search was now under way.

The policeman pushes his broad-brimmed hat backwards on his head as he says, ‘Good on yer, Fred. You’ll take the southern sector, won’t you?’

With a grunt, Fred nods his head and gets back onto his horse to head off for the more rugged section of the ridge, the area where only a horse could cope with the terrain. Everyone had assumed that Fred would take that section. This is his country. Fred has worked around here all his working life. He is not fazed by the thought of venturing into that stony, flinty country on a horse, but he is amazed that anyone should leave his car and set off looking for water wearing only shorts, tee shirt and thongs in the middle of summer out here.

From the top of the first rise he sees something white half hidden by gidgee branches and gives out a coo-ee. There is no answer. But he directs his horse down the slope until he sees a rubber thong lying out in the dust near a boulder. Then he catches sight of legs protruding from under a shrub, badly sun burnt legs, and hears a groan, which assures him that at least the man is still alive.

Fred doesn’t jump off horses an quickly as he used to, but it does not take him long to dismount, unfasten the canvass water bag from his saddle and put it to the man’s parched lips. Fred has to jump backwards as the man lunges for the water bag. Firmly, Fred insists on his just moistening his mouth. He helps him sit up. Splashes a little on the sun burnt face. Then pours a little into a plastic mug and lets him drink that. Slowly life returns to the dehydrated city bloke.

Thirst is a recurring theme in the Jewish Scriptures-that thirst which only God can satisfy. The biblical view is that just as someone who is thirsty searches for water, so people search desperately for the Power that gives life. They get themselves into all sorts of trouble as they go looking for that which will satisfy. They look in the wrong places. They put themselves at risk as they plunge off onto stony hillsides in a desperate attempt to get satisfaction out of life. Maybe they don’t realize it, but this is really a search for God. But Jesus has come as a rescuer with water for the thirsty ones. He offers life, true life, eternal life, life arising out of a relationship with the One who is the Fountain of Life. He offers more than just a cup of water in the desert; he sets us down beside a cool, clear, fresh running, mountain stream where life is constantly refreshed.

Psalm 42:1-2                           Isaiah 55:1                                Revelation 21:6

  • What was Jesus referring to when he spoke about living water?
  • Where do you get your greatest satisfactions from in life?
  • Some say that human beings have a god-shaped vacuum in their lives that only God can fill. Would you agree that, deep down, all people have a thirst for God?
  • We live in a spiritual desert. How can we best help the people whose lives are so dry of meaning, purpose and God?
  • Pray for people who are dissatisfied with their lives and pray that they might come to know the satisfaction that Christ can give.

3. Alive!

(John 5: 19 – 29)

  • Talk about cars. What make of car do you own or would like to own?
  • If your group is likened to a carload of people, where are you headed?
  • If someone says that he or she wants to live life to the full, what would you understand that person to mean?
  • When, during the day do you feel most alive? Are you a morning person or an evening person?

The mechanic explains to a group of school children who have accompanied their teacher on a visit to his garage that a motor car needs electricity. His question, ‘Why?’ elicits responses such as, ‘So the lights ‘ll work’, and, ‘For the CD player’. But when he gets the answer, ‘To make the engine go,’ he seems to have heard the answer he was looking for. ‘That’s right,’ he says. ‘The engine only comes to life when a spark causes an explosion in its cylinders, and the spark is caused by ……….’ ‘Electricity,’ comes back to him in chorus.

His next question, ‘And where does the electricity come from?’ is met with a stony silence until one lad confidently announces, ‘The battery!’. ‘No, it isn’t produced in the battery,’ he is told, but the puzzled look on the boy’s face demands an explanation. ‘The battery only stores it. It doesn’t produce it.’

‘Where does the electricity we use in our homes come from?’ That brings forth suggestions about electricity cables, transformers, substations, but the answer he picks up on is, ‘a powerhouse.’ ‘Right,’ he says. ‘The car has to have a powerhouse. Where is the powerhouse?’ Some discussion follows until it is established that the car is fitted with an alternator to generate electrical current that is then stored in a battery. The battery has no life in itself. It has to be charged from a source of electricity such as an alternator. But it is from the battery that the car then draws all its needs for electrical power. If the battery is flat the car won’t go. But if the alternator is not charging, the battery will soon become lifeless.

The image might be too mechanical to do justice to this passage of John’s Gospel, but it helps to bring out the idea that the Son receives life from God the Father and all who are linked to the Son receive their life from the Father through the Son. The battery has no power of its own. It remains charged while it is drawing its life from the alternator. But the engine and all other electrical parts come to life through their linkage with the battery.

We meet up again with the basic understanding that God is the originator of life and that it is through a relationship with God that we come alive. Cut off from that source of life, people might breathe and run and laugh and copulate; they might live under the simplest circumstances or in sophisticated luxury; they might display great creative powers or be terribly destructive; but they cannot know life on the eternal plane which is the level which John’s Gospel regards as most important.

Psalm 36: 7- 9                                Ephesians 2: 4 – 7                        1 John 3: 11 – 14

  • What do you understand by eternal life and how is it different from life that goes on and on without end?
  • What, to your mind, is brought out by referring to Jesus as the Son and to God as Father?
  • What, according to 1 John 3:14, is the clearest proof that we have eternal life?
  • What sort of authority does Jesus Christ have over you?
  • Pray for the families of each person in the group.

4. Plugged In

(John 6: 35-40)

  • Take a bread-roll, have people break it so that everyone has a portion with nothing remaining; then ask them all to eat their portion. Let this symbolize your belonging together as a group.
  • What makeshift arrangements have you made when the power has gone off at your place?
  • Have you ever been really hungry or thirsty? How did it feel and what did you do about it?
  • How do you decorate you house at Christmas?

It’s dark. Terribly dark. All I can see is the silhouette of a large pine tree against the night sky. But I hear voices. ‘We’ve blown a fuse,’ someone shouts. I see a dark figure dart from one patch of shadow to another. There’s another! There seem to be three or four people rushing around in the dark under the trees.

Curiosity aroused, I step closer, but pull up short as I realize there is someone standing right in front of me. A subdued cough catches my attention, and I realize that he too is watching the carryings-on under the big trees.

‘What time is it?’ a strong, but timeworn voice asks.

‘It must be about ten thirty,’ I respond.

‘They have an hour and a half to go,’ he says. ‘We have a contract with the Council to have the Christmas lights on before the beginning of December. My boys have just an hour and a half to fix the problem. The first power point we tried doesn’t work. The owner of the warehouse over there won’t let us take power from his place. The neighbours object to having a generator running in the park. Now we’ve tripped the circuit breaker on another power source. We have one more chance. There’s a power pole fifty metres away. They’re running a lead from there. If that doesn’t work, I don’t know what we’ll do. It’s all very well deciding to illuminate the big pines in the park, but where do we to get the power from?’

 We stood in silence peering into the shadows, my eyes gradually adjusting to the nightlight. Suddenly the old man near me exclaimed, ‘Arhhh!’ with satisfaction and raised his walking stick in salute. A satisfied shout went up from under the trees as they burst into a mass of colourful little lights. It looked like fairyland. A most spectacular effect!

The light globes have to be plugged into the right power source, and similarly the Christian life has to be plugged into the right source of power. Lives ‘plugged in’ to Jesus glow with the light of eternity.

Life on the eternal dimension comes only from God, and it is only through faith that people can enter this dimension. Jesus opened a way whereby people may tap into this source of eternal life so he invites people to trust him and know eternal life even before this mortal life finishes. It is like having an endless supply of eternal life food on hand all the time.

Acts 13:46-48                            Romans 5: 18-21                              1 John 5:11-13

  • What’s the connection between this image of needing an electrical power source and the words of Jesus about being the bread of life?
  • What sort of thirst does belief in Jesus satisfy (John 6:35)?
  • If a person can only come to Christ when given to Christ by God the Father (John 6:37), why should we try to persuade other people about the Gospel?
  • Jesus said that whoever comes to him will never be hungry. In what way have you proved this to be true in your own experience?
  • Pray that your own life may come more fully alive with the life of Christ.

5. Resurrection Now

(John 11:17-27)

  • Tell us about your day. What have you done today?
  • Have you ever had the experience of being told that something you thought was going to happen some time in the future was actually already happening? How did you feel about it?
  • What’s the oddest or most memorable epitaph you have seen on a tombstone?
  • What would you like to have engraved on your tombstone?

‘It’s good news,’ says Dr Railton holding the letter out in his hand. ‘Professor Pomerenke will operate.’

A smile creeps over Andrew’s lips as his head sinks back onto his pillow.

‘Instead of what looked like being a series of ten, twenty operations over a four to five year period, you’ll be able to walk freely in six weeks. I expect you’ll be on your feet the day after the operation. This is a whole new procedure.’

‘No more traction?’

 ‘No more traction,’ said the specialist. ‘And you won’t be needing that wheel chair either.’

‘That’s great news, Doctor,’ Andrew said. ‘I never doubted that I’d walk again. But it seemed such a long way off. Ever since the accident you’ve been assuring me that it would come right, but four or five years looks a hell of a long way off. This is terrific news.’

For the patient with spinal injuries the prospect of a lifetime in a wheelchair looks daunting at first. The idea of having to go through a series of delicate operations over an extended period leaves the patient with hope but recovery looks a long way off. To be told that he will be up and about in weeks is great news.

Jewish people in the time of Jesus believed that, on the last day, God would raise people from the dead. They would then live a new life in God’s realm. Jesus told Martha that they did not have to wait until the last day. Resurrection to new life came through himself, and they could enter this new life right here and now through putting their faith in him.

Walk through a cemetery and you will read signs like Rest in peace or In God’s care. One could be forgiven for thinking that the biblical message promised God’s peace and care only for people who had died. But Jesus, as John presents him, offers eternal life right now in the midst of this earthly life. Through Jesus Christ people are brought into relationship with the source and origin of life. An experience of God’s peace and care does not have to wait until this life has ended. Through Christ it can be our experience right now.

John 4: 35                              2 Corinthians 6:2                                  Luke 11:20

  • What is the difference between eternal life as a present possession and eternal life as something that awaits us in the future?
  • Read 2 Timothy 2:16-18. Why should it be regarded as a heresy to say that the resurrection has already taken place if, through faith in Christ, we have already entered into eternal life?
  • What, to you, is the most important thing about eternal life?
  • Does John 11:25 help you face the reality of death?
  • Pray for people who are tired, bored or frustrated with life.

6. It’s Later than you Think

(John 11:38-44)

  • What dreams do you have for the future?
  • What do you do when you find yourself running late: panic or take it calmly?
  • What is the most important issue in your life right now?
  • Would you like the group to pray for you? What are your prayer requests? You could have a time of prayer straight away or leave it until the end.

‘Dad! Dad! Where are you?’ Jane comes flying down the back stairs.

Her Dad looks up from the Camry he is rubbing down with a chamois. ‘Here, Jane. What’s the panic?’

‘You’ve got to be on your way to the airport in half an hour!’

‘Half an hour?’ he repeats incredulously. ‘The plane doesn’t leave until nine-thirty tonight.’

‘No,’ his daughter announces. ‘I just re-read your itinerary, then I checked your tickets and phoned the airline to confirm it, and it’s nine-thirty this morning. The girl at the travel agent told you the wrong time.’

‘What!’ Richard is stunned. ‘That means we’ve got to be there by 7.30. We’ll never make it.’

‘Yes, you will. Mum has the luggage packed. All you have to do is change.’

‘But breakfast!’

‘Forget about breakfast! You can get something at the airport.’

‘But I haven’t finished the car.’

‘I’ll finish it after I take you to the plane. Just hurry upstairs and get changed.’

Angrily Richard throws the contents of his yellow plastic bucket onto the lawn and rushes upstairs to get confirmation from his wife that they had been misled as to the time of departure. He blames himself for not checking the tickets more closely.

‘Well, don’t waste time getting into a tizzy about it now,’ his wife advises. ‘Have your shave and get ready.’

Phew! What a panic when someone thinks he has twelve hours yet before his overseas flight departs only to be told that he has to be ready in half an hour. One’s whole outlook is changed. Action has to be taken promptly. There is no time for a leisurely preparation. It’s all happening now.

And that’s what Jesus was trying to get across to his compatriots. They all believed that God would bring about a resurrection of the dead at the end of time, but he signified that the end-time resurrection had arrived. Its time is now, not in some distant future.

And that puts a different complexion on things. We cannot go living our lives with some hope that eventually at the end of world history or at the end of our own personal history we will then enter eternal life. Eternal life is now. The life of the resurrection is on offer right here in the midst of this life and it is Jesus who brings this about.

Forget about rewards after you die. Stop dreaming about eternal life. Grab hold of it now. As you enter into a trusting relationship with God through Jesus Christ the end-time life is yours. Eternal life is now. Unbind your Lazarus and let him go.

Deuteronomy 30:19-20                        Luke 12:35-40                              Ephesians 1:3-14

  • How do you react to the thought that eternal life is for now and not only for the future?
  • What, for you, is the most important thing about eternal life?
  • If we can enter into the life of God’s kingdom now, what do we look forward to when we pray ‘May your kingdom come’?
  • What do you think about the idea that the story of the raising of Lazarus illustrated the point that eternal life is for the present time and not only for the future?
  • Pray for each person in your group, their families and their prayer requests.