One of my favorite novelists is John Irving.
He’s the author of books that are both critically acclaimed and wildly popular, such as The Word According To Garp, A Prayer For Owen Meany, and The Cider House Rules.
Most Irving novels blend high hilarity, deep pathos, and improbable plot twists to craft narratives that are both entertaining and enriching.
And he’s known for something else: he writes the last sentence of his novels first. Once that wording is set, the rest of the novel is ready to take shape. In fact, that process drives The Last Night In Twisted River, one of my favorite Irving novels of all.
And I can’t help but think that what works now for John Irving worked earlier for John the author of the Fourth Gospel, also known as John The Evangelist.
In John 20:31 — not exactly the last sentence, but pretty close, especially if John 21 is a sort of appendix to the rest of the book — John very clearly states his reason for writing Jesus’ story:
31 But these are written that you may believe[a] that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
Everything John includes, then, is for that singular purpose: that you might believe and that by believing you will have life in his name.
I can imagine the inspired author getting that sentence down on
paper parchment, sitting back, and exclaiming, “I’ve got it! Now that I know why I’m writing and where the story is headed, that will determine what I’ll leave in, what I’ll leave out, and what hints I’ll drop along the way.”
And those “hints along the way” interest me for this post in particular. On Tuesday, a friend and I were continuing our study of John (this is why being a pastor is such a good gig), and as part of the prelude to the Lazarus story, we read these words in 11:14-15:
14 So then [Jesus] 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.”
I’ve been reading John for 35 years; I’ve known 20:31 is the thesis statement for 25 years, and yet I’d never noticed that bread crumb John drops through Jesus in chapter 11: so that you might believe. On Tuesday, reading it out loud and in community, it literally leaped off the page at me.
It’s what John Irving’s readers would call a foreshadow.
It turns out John the Evangelist leaves similar clues throughout his gospel:
John 3:15 (often overlooked because of his big brother, the 3:16!): 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,[b] 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”[c]
John 5:24: “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.
John 19:35: “The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe.”
And in case we miss the pattern and the purpose,John makes the same declaration in letter form in I John 5:13: I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.
When you write that last sentence first everything else in the story falls into place. It’s true of novels. It’s true of Gospels. And, in many cases, it’s true of sermons as well.