Text: John 11
Date: Lent V + 4/17/11
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI
We have been following the pathway of Lent, the spiritual walk that leads to the full Easter faith, joy and hope of being a disciple of Jesus Christ, a Christian. That path always begins by the Word of God entering your hearing, getting the attention of your heart, and working that first work of awareness of your need, awareness of sin and the desire for forgiveness and life. It is the divine work of repentance—not only the awareness but also sorrow over sin, and then the gift of faith that looks to God for the mercy and grace of forgiveness. We have seen that work of the Holy Spirit in the examples of Nicodemus the Pharisee (John 3), a Samaritan woman at a well (John 4) and a man blind from birth (John 9). In each of them we have seen ourselves: that is, our innate inability to understand spiritual things, the need for a new birth, for living water, for new eyes to see the grace and glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Now, today, we have the final Lenten witness in the person of Lazarus of Bethany. His problem, however, is not lack of understanding or thirst or sight. His problem is that he is dead. As with the others we are also like dead Lazarus. St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians says of all, “and you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked.” Then he adds the good news, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Eph 2:1-2, 4-5). As physical death means the cessation of all bodily functions—all feeling, breathing, thinking—the separation of the soul from the body, so spiritual death is having no impulse for or responsiveness to God, separation from God. Because of sin—not just sinful acts, but the condition of corruption of the heart—even though we are born physically alive into this world, we are, at the same time, spiritually stillborn, spiritually dead.
Death is not a friend. It is not right. It is not good. It is not according to God’s original intention for you. Death is called in scripture the “last enemy” (1 Cor 15:26). It is “the wages of sin” (Rom 6:23). The principle is “you sin, you die.” Likewise, therefore, it is also true, “you don’t sin, you don’t die.” The Bible says, “All have sinned” (Rom 3:23), therefore all die (Rom 5:12). However, there is one, Jesus, who did not sin (Heb 4:14). Therefore He did not have to die. But He did die, and quickly. For it was your sin and mine, our sin, and the sin of the whole world that killed Him. For He took it on Himself as the only pure and perfect sacrifice that alone took away the sin of the world and its curse. Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, therefore, sin no longer has the power of death.
It was the power of death that Jesus confronted in a town called Bethany that day. For death not only took His friend Lazarus to the grave, but it caused no end of grief to his sisters Martha and Mary and, indeed, to all their friends. It was because of all their weeping, because of what death was doing to everyone there that Jesus, too, was “deeply moved in His spirit and greatly troubled,” and wept. How is it said in the letter to the Hebrews, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses” (Heb 4:15).
The raising of Lazarus from death testifies that Jesus is the God “through whom all things were made” (Creed). He is the Lord of Life. So is His promise to all who belong to Him, “whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live;” “this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (Jn 6:40). This is the faith that believes in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.
Maybe more difficult than faith in a Last Day of the resurrection of all flesh, however, is the faith that believes that eternal life and fellowship with heaven begins even now while we still make our way through the valley of the shadow of death. Notice the word order when St. Paul says, “For I am sure that neither death nor life…will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39). Which is more threatening? Death or life? The power of death is at work even before we are sent to the grave. Therefore your Holy Baptism, while it is God’s pledge of resurrection and eternal life in heaven after you die physically, is also the power of God by which the Old Adam in us and all sins and evil desires die daily, and a brand new you rises to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. Jesus said to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” And Martha acknowledged the creed saying, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” And that is true. But then Jesus surprised her, or we should say deepened her understanding, faith and hope, saying, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Not only do those who believe in Christ have the promise of resurrection on the Last Day, but also, “everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die”! For the baptized, physical death has become but the gate to our joyful resurrection. But for now we are crucified with Christ so that it is no longer we who do the living but Christ who lives in us. And the life we now live in the flesh we live by faith in the Son of God, who loves us and gave himself for us (Gal 2:20).
The raising of Lazarus from the dead was “the last straw” that broke the patience of Jesus’ enemies. “So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.” Next week, Holy Week, we gather on Sunday to the cheers and Hosannas of the triumphant entry into Jerusalem. But then, suddenly, we hear the entire Passion according to Saint Matthew and are brought down to the most intense contemplation of our Lord’s suffering and death. Like the first disciples, there will be little time to comment as we witness our Lord’s words and acts on Maundy Thursday, the night in which He was betrayed, and then gathered around the cross on Good Friday.
The Vigil of Holy Saturday is when the catechumens are baptized and we are renewed in the same faith. Only then, when we have died and rise again, are reborn by water and the Spirit, in the living water of God’s Word, are enlightened by the eternal light of Christ, do we rejoice in “the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body, by the power than enables Him to subdue all things to Himself” (Philippians 3:21; LSB Agenda, Christian Burial).
The words of blessing will be said over you at your grave and we hear them even now: “May God the Father, who created your body; may God the + Son, who by His blood redeemed your body; may God the Holy Spirit, who by Holy Baptism sanctified your body to be His temple, keep you to the day of the resurrection of all flesh” (LSB Agenda, Christian Burial).