Monday, April 11, 2011

Lent 5 of Series A (John 11:17-27, 38-53)

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” That was what Martha said when she met Jesus that day. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Her words echo our own whenever we lose a loved one. Why didn’t you provide healing, why didn’t you save? Martha doesn’t say this out of stubborn unbelief, but instead she questions Jesus because she believes. She trusts her Lord, her Savior, her friend. She knows that He can heal, she knows that He has healed many people before, and she can’t figure out why He didn’t heal here. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” These words sound like an accusation, and in a certain sense they are. This is the cry of those who are mourning to the God who heals the sick. This is the cry of faith, a cry that cannot understand why death has invaded our lives. But Martha doesn’t stop there. No, she moves from that cry to a statement of firm confidence. “But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Martha is teaching us how to pray. She encourages us to cry out to God in sorrow and suffering, but this prayer doesn’t spiral off into unbelief. Instead, we find our rest, our confidence in God’s love and mercy, knowing that despite the sin and death that swirls around us, we have a God who has us in His embrace. We cry out to the God who has promised to care for us, holding Him to those promises and placing our lives into His hands. We cry in boldness, for we have a God who sympathizes with our sorrow, a God who became man.

“Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb.” Why was Jesus deeply moved? What caused Him such sorrow? Jesus was sorrowful because He was coming face to face with the consequence of man’s sin and rebellion. Because of sin, death came into this world, and it is a scourge, a blight upon this earth, and no one is exempt. Jesus mourns because it was not supposed to be this way. Death was to have no place in God’s perfect creation, but sin intervened, and sin can have only one consequence. Jesus looks at His dear friends, Mary and Martha, who have lost their brother, another friend, Lazarus, and He mourns with them. “And He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to Him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus wept.” Jesus wept. The shortest verse in the Bible shows us Jesus’ humanity, but more than that, it shows His compassion for His mourning people. Death is a tragedy, and Jesus shares our sorrow, our grief; Jesus weeps with us.

But God did not become man simply to share in our sorrow. Jesus took on human flesh to do something about the scourge of death. “I AM the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, even though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” He proved this by raising up His friend. “Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’” Martha protested, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” She still didn’t understand what was happening, that the One who called Himself the resurrection and the life was proving it right before her eyes. “When He had said these things, He cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’” He who was dead is now alive! Death has met its match, for the Son of God has power even over death! The powerful Word of Jesus brought life back into a dead man, and he came forth from the tomb, restored to his sisters, restored to his friends.

Jesus had a much bigger point to make than the end of sorrow for Mary and Martha. Our Lord didn’t spend the rest of His ministry traveling from funeral to funeral, raising people from their coffins. Even Lazarus himself would someday die again. Jesus raised Lazarus that day to demonstrate that death had met its match, that the destroyer of death stood upon this earth. “I AM the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” The raising of Lazarus was a preview of Jesus’ own resurrection on the third day. Death was only dealt a temporary blow that day at the home of Mary and Martha; on Easter Sunday, Jesus proved that death is now destroyed, that just as it had no hold on Him, so it will have no hold on those who are joined with Him. Yes, we still die, we will still mourn. But as Jesus says, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” Even though we die, we will live. Death may intrude into our lives in this sinful world, but it has no permanent hold on us. Lazarus’ resurrection demonstrates that the resurrection and the life has come to destroy death; Jesus’ resurrection proclaims that you and I too will be raised, as the Lord told Ezekiel in our Old Testament lesson: “And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land.” We will not die forever, for we are joined with the One who conquered death.

What wonderful news! The resurrection and the life has shown up on the scene, and He has come to conquer our greatest enemy! There seems to be only one proper response to such a miracle, such a triumph. “Many of the Jews, therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what He did, believed in Him.” Surely all of humanity, which has been under the tyranny of death for so long, can rejoice that someone has finally come to defeat our greatest enemy, right? “But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.” The Pharisees were not impressed by this victory over death. “So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the Council and said, ‘What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let Him go on like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” In the face of victory over death, the very triumph of the Son of God over our ancient enemy, the religious leadership can only think about the things of this world. They fear persecution and a loss of status, both for their nation and for themselves. The Jewish people may be under foreign rule, but at least they have some measure of independence. What if even that is taken away? The chief priests and the Pharisees like things the way they are. They enjoy their high status in the eyes of the people, they love their power and authority. Jesus threatens to destroy their prominent place just as surely as He has destroyed death.

Today we look back at those Pharisees and shake our heads. If death itself has been defeated, shouldn’t you follow the One who has brought that victory, whatever the consequences? Surely all the other concerns of this world pale in comparison to eternal life. If Jesus has defeated death, then we should boldly follow Him and proclaim Him as the resurrection and the life. These are easy words to say within the four walls of a church. How often do we put them into practice in our lives in this world? Do we speak of Christ’s resurrection victory to those around us? We all know those who do not believe in the victory of Jesus over death: friends, co-workers, neighbors, and even family. Have you declared the message of Easter to them? Or do you fear, like the Pharisees, for the things of this world? Your reputation, your friendship, and your family relationships all seem to be in danger if you proclaim the victory of Christ. Do you fear a loss of status in the eyes of others? Do you fear ridicule or even persecution? Our world tries to tell us that our faith is a private thing, something to be kept hidden and inside, and we as Christians have all too often bought into this. But if the message we have to proclaim is that of victory over death, how can anything keep us from proclaiming it? This is a message that all people need to hear, for all people live under the threat of death. As Christians, we aren’t pushy, and we seek the right time to proclaim this message, but we finally must speak, for this message is life and death: Christ’s death and our life.

The Pharisees refused to proclaim the victory of Jesus over death, and instead they sought to put an end to Him. “But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.’” God used this man, seeking to destroy Jesus, to proclaim to us the meaning of Christ’s death. Caiaphas was only looking out for the status of the Pharisees and the place of their nation; what God had in mind was much more universal. “It is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” It is better for us that Jesus die for all people, for we are all sinful, we all deserve death. Without the death of Jesus, all people perish eternally. But Jesus died for us, in our place, taking our sin upon Himself. Even our sin of failing to proclaim His victory was placed upon His shoulders and He shed His blood for them. His death was for our advantage, for our good because it was in our place. Now all people will not perish eternally; no, instead all those joined to Jesus will live forever. “I AM the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” Death is defeated by Jesus’ death. It is better that Jesus should die for us, in fact it is the greatest good that we can ever imagine. His death has conquered and destroyed our greatest enemy, and now, even though you die, yet you shall live. The raising of Lazarus has proved it, for Mary, Martha, me, and you.

So I ask again: Why was Jesus deeply moved when He stood at the tomb of Lazarus? Indeed it was in sorrow over death, the enemy He had come to conquer. But could it also be that Jesus saw in the tomb of Lazarus the path He must trod to win that victory, the path of suffering and death? Did Jesus see His own tomb in the tomb of Lazarus? He was sorrowful, He was deeply moved, but as in the Garden of Gethsemane on Maundy Thursday, Jesus was not deterred. He had come to defeat death, for you and for me, and nothing was going to keep Him from dying in your place. Thanks be to Jesus that He gave us His life for us! In the Name of the Resurrection and the Life, the One who through death defeated death, Jesus Christ, our crucified and living Lord, Amen.

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