April 1 & 2, 2017 Lent 5
John 11:17-27, 38-45
Dear friends in Christ Jesus,
You are leaving the church building. The funeral is over. The burial is next. Ahead of you walk six men who carry the coffin that holds the body of your son. Your only son. You’re numb from the sorrow. Stunned. You lost your husband, and now you’ve lost your son. Now you have no family. If you had more tears, you’d weep. If you had any more faith, you’d pray. But both are in short supply, so you do neither. You just stare at the back of the wooden box. Suddenly it stops. The pallbearers have stopped. You stop.
A man has stepped in front of the casket. You don’t know him. You’ve never seen him. He wasn’t at the funeral. He dressed in a polo shirt and jeans. You have no idea what he is doing. But before you can object, he steps up to you and says, “Don’t cry.” Don’t cry? This is a funeral. My son is dead. Don’t cry? Who are you to tell me not to cry? Those are your thoughts, but they never become your words because, before you can speak, he acts. He turns back to the coffin, places his hand on it, and says in a loud voice. “Young man, I say to you, get up!” “Now just a minute,” one of the pallbearers objects. But the sentence is interrupted by a sudden movement in the casket. The men look at one another and lower it quickly to the ground. It’s a good thing they do, because as soon as it touches the sidewalk the lid slowly opens.
Sounds like something from the sci-fi channel. It’s not. It’s right out of the Gospel of Luke. “He (Jesus) went up and touched the coffin, and those carrying it stopped. He said, ‘Young man, I say to you, get up!’ The dead man sat up and began to talk.” What’s odd about that verse? You got it. Dead people don’t sit up. Dead people don’t talk. Dead people don’t leave their coffins. Unless Jesus shows up. Because when Jesus shows up, you never know what might happen. Look at how he raised Jairus’ daughter, too.
That brings us to today’s sermon text. A woman named Martha hoped Jesus would show up to heal her brother Lazarus. But Jesus didn’t. Then she hoped he’d show up for the funeral, or at least to bury Lazarus. He didn’t. By the time he made it to Bethany, Lazarus was 4 days buried and Martha was wondering what kind of friend Jesus was. When death strikes a family member today, are we like Martha? Do we sometimes question, “Where are you, Jesus? What kind of friend are you?” Today, it is time for all of us to “See God’s Glory in Death.”
Jesus, in our text, is now approaching the village of Bethany. Lazarus has been dead for 4 days. Martha hears that Jesus is at the edge of town, so she storms out to meet him. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Can you hear the hurt in those words? Hurt and disappointment. The one man who could have made a difference didn’t, and Martha wants to know why. Maybe you do, too. Maybe you’ve done what Martha did. Someone you love ventures near the edge of life, and you turn to Jesus for help. You, like Martha, turn to the only one who can pull a person from the ledge of death. You ask Jesus to give a hand. But no response. Your loved one gets worse, and then dies!
Martha must have thought, “Surely, he’ll come. Didn’t he heal the paralytic? Didn’t he help the leper? Didn’t he give sight to the blind? And they hardly knew Jesus. But Lazarus was his friend. We’re like family. Doesn’t Jesus come to Bethany now and then and spend the weekend? Doesn’t he eat at our table? When he hears that Lazarus is sick, he’ll be here in a heartbeat!” But the knock at the door never came. Jesus never appeared. Not to help. Not to heal. Not to bury. And now, four days later, he finally shows up. The funeral is over. The body is buried, the grave is sealed. And Martha is hurt. Her words have been echoed in a thousand cemeteries. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
“If you were doing your part, God, my husband would have survived.” “If you’d done what was right, Lord, my baby would have lived.” “If only you’d heard my prayer, God, my arms wouldn’t be empty.” The grave unearths our view of God. When we face death, our definition of God is challenged. Which, in turn, challenges our faith. Which leads me to ask these questions: Why is it that we interpret the presence of death as the absence of God? Why do we think that if the body is not healed then God is not near? Is healing the only way God demonstrates his presence? Sometimes we think so. And as a result, when God doesn’t answer our prayers for healing with a yes, we get angry and resentful. Blame replaces belief. “If you had been here doing your part, God, then this death would not have happened.” It is distressing that this view of God has no place for death.
But don’t be tricked. At the death of a Christian, Jesus is very near. He has a heart for your hurt. Look how he wept at the distress of Mary and Martha. Please understand too, he didn’t raise the dead for the sake of the dead. I sometimes have wondered why in Jesus’ ministry he only raised three people from the dead. Could it be because he got no volunteers? Could it be because he knew he was doing them no real favors by bringing them back to this earth? Could it be the last place you’d want to be, after spending time in heaven, is to come back to this earth?
Jesus raised the dead for the sake of the living. And thus he says in our text, “Lazarus, come out!” Martha was silent. The mourners were quiet. No one stirred as Jesus stood face to face with the rock hewn tomb and demanded that it release his friend. No one stirred, that is except for Lazarus. Deep, within the tomb, he moved. His stilled heart began to beat. Wrapped eyes popped open. And a mummied man in a tomb sat up. And what happened next?
“The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.” There it is again. Did you see it? The dead man came out. What’s wrong with this picture? Dead men don’t walk out of tombs. What kind of God is this? He is the God who holds the keys to life and death. He’s the kind of God you want present at your funeral. All power is given to him in heaven and on earth. At the gravesite he won’t let you down. Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Yes, like Lazarus, the dead will rise again. The Sadducees who lived in the days of Christ denied the resurrection. They held that there was no life after death and that death was the end. Even so today there are groups of individuals who seem to think that man is nothing more than an animal, that there is no life beyond the grave, that death is simply the end. Our risen Lord gives us a blessed assurance, “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.”
The whole problem that we have with death is that it not natural. Death is a part of nature today, but God did not intend for us to die from the beginning. God did not create us to die. Death is in this world because of sin. The Bible clearly tells us, the wages of sin is death. Since we are sinners we can’t avoid death. We don’t like to talk about death because we know that death is exactly the punishment that we deserve for our sins. Even worse, we know that it means we will need to stand before God to account for our sinful lives. We know exactly what the eternal consequence of our sin will be, eternal death in hell.
But Jesus calls himself the resurrection and the life. He backed up his claim with his actions. He came into this world and took the world’s sins to the cross. By his death he paid for them. Believing in Jesus, all of your sins are forgiven now. Death is now conquered. Jesus not only displayed his power over death by raising Lazarus from the dead after he had been in the grave for 4 days, he showed that in an even more awesome way on Easter Sunday when he raised himself from the dead after withstanding the attacks of the devil and facing the very punishment of hell itself for our sins. He truly is what he said he is: the resurrection and the life.
Therefore, he will truly give life to all who believe in him. Christians will live again. As glorious as it is, Christ not only promises his believers a resurrection; he even goes a step further in our text and asserts that Christians never really die. “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” This is no just beautiful poetry. Our blessed Savior meant every word. Those who believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior from sin and have put their hope in him never really die.
We have to remember that people are made of two parts. When God created Adam he first formed his body out of the dust of the ground. That was one part. Then God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and he became a living soul. That was the second part. Every person born into the world is made of these two parts, body and soul. Death is nothing more nor less than the separation of the two, the time when the body returns to the ground from where it came and the soul returns to God who gave it. The soul of the unbeliever goes to eternal damnation in hell, the soul of the believer to the eternal glories of heaven. Death for the believer is simply a change of place, a most wonderful experience. As soon as a believer closes his eyes in sleep here they are already open on the other side, beholding the Lamb of God on the throne and all the holy angels surrounding him.
The same voice that awoke the boy near Nain, that awoke the daughter of Jairus, that awakened the corpse of Lazarus, the same voice will speak again on the Last Day. The earth and the sea will give up their dead. Jesus is the resurrection and the life indeed. See God’s glory in death! It is your glory in heaven. Amen