Sometimes the same text will yield a different sermon depending on which season of the church year it’s preached on. Take this text, for example — you read it and it looks like Easter, right? Well, Easter certainly is about Christ’s being the Resurrection and the Life, but here, this Gospel is heard during Lent. One of the overarching themes of Lent is Christ defeating His enemies. Thus we see Christ defeating the temptations of the devil in the wilderness, for example. This text teaches that Christ has power over death. He alone is Lord of life and death. Jesus clearly commands Lazarus to become alive again, and just as clearly he is alive. Regardless of what you think of Him, you cannot deny the miracle itself. Jesus really did make a dead man alive with just His Word. As you’ll notice, this only drives the Pharisees on to greater hatred of Christ. In their blindness they plot to kill Lazarus too — what foolishness! They think they can kill Life itself.
One thing that came through very clearly for me, but didn’t really make it into the final sermon, was the power that Christ’s Word has. All He has to do is speak, and it happens. Even death cannot resist Christ’s Word. It has supreme power and always accomplishes what God wants — period. This is intensely comforting for the Christian, and a source of hope and trust.
No other miracle of Jesus highlights His two natures as does this one. This may be said to be the foremost miracle of Jesus, because the details point out so powerfully that He is both God and man. He asks where the dead man is before He raises Him from the dead. He weeps before the tomb of His friend, even though He Himself will give him his life back within moments. Nobody but God could perform this miracle. Doctors sometimes can pat themselves on the back that they revived someone who clinically died in front of them moments before, for instance on an operating table; yet as fortunate as that can be, it cannot hold a candle to what Christ does here. A man dead in his grave four whole days! If he’s been in there long enough to start to smell, he really and truly is dead, dead as they get. Yet Christ gives him his life back! This surely grants hope to all who long for Christ’s appearing.
Another thing to ponder is Martha’s confession. I touch on it in the sermon, but it deserves further comment. She really nails it. She has exactly the right confession — not that Jesus is just a good teacher or a nice guy, someone renowned for His love and gentleness, but that He is the Son of God incarnate, God’s Chosen One to lift off sin and give eternal life to all who look to Him in faith. It’s not enough just to pay Jesus compliments or to say nice things about Him. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, Mormons, and others say lots of nice things about Jesus — but they do not trust in Him as Martha confesses Him to be here, God’s Son, the Savior, the One coming into the world. Without that confession in one’s heart and on one’s lips, it is not possible to be saved — but for all who trust in Jesus as God’s Son and the Savior, they find life and every blessing forever.
Jesus’ prayer right before He raises Lazarus is also fascinating, but we don’t have time to go into that here. Perhaps in the future I’ll post something on that. I invite you to ponder it for yourself — it’s really fascinating exactly what and how Jesus says what He says.
May Jesus grant you true faith in Himself, the only God and Lord of all, this Lenten season. Amen.
17 “On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26 and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
27 “Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”
38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39 “Take away the stone,” he said.
“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”
40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
45 Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him.” (john 11:17-27,38-45 niv)
You hear a lot of people talking about quality of life these days, specifically how to improve it. There’s a few obvious things. Cure sickness. Treat the effects of old age as best you can, or at least relieve someone’s discomfort. Tend to their physical needs. Beyond that, though, quality of life is a fuzzy concept. People will put themselves through great emotional, financial, even physical strain, trying to improve their quality of life. They change jobs, they change colleges, they move, they get married or divorced, all in search of a better life. People spend a lot of time and effort chasing a better quality of life, but sometimes you have to wonder if you’re ever going to get it, or what it would look like if you did.
Know the single biggest thing that detracts from your quality of life? Death. You cannot change it. You cannot control it. You cannot fix it or prevent it. You cannot make it go away or bend to your will. In Psalm 89 it asks, “What man can live and not see death, or save himself from the power of the grave?”, and the question just hangs in the air unanswered, because there is no one who can stand up against death. Death shows up when it pleases, takes whom it wants, and ignores all our pleas and tears to the contrary. Sometimes it gets someone you love in its strong jaws, and nothing anyone can do – not you, not the doctors, not anyone — can get them out. Sometimes you feel those jaws start to close around you. You know that death is coming for you, whether near or far, and the closer it gets, the more your dread grows. We all fear the cold darkness that comes for us. That’s because we’re sinners, and we know in our bones that death is God’s judgment on the sinner. If you never sinned, you’d never die, but we’ve all sinned and therefore we’re all going to die. It’s spiritual algebra for those who aren’t good at math: the soul who sins is the one who shall die. We know that, so death makes us uneasy and unsettled.
That’s why people don’t want to talk about it or think about it. All of life goes on at a frantic pace, people trying to pretend that death isn’t going to get them or that it isn’t waiting for them at the end. They turn on all the lights and turn up the music, they work hard or play harder, running after success or money or pleasure – and what does it get them in the end? None of them can hold off death. People know that and it drives a lot of their actions under the surface. And the devil rubs his hands in glee, because the fear of death is one of his most reliable tools to keep us afraid – to keep us from trusting in God. If he can get us to despair at the thought of death, then sin has won and we are gone. So what are we going to do? Are we just sheep that march down into the grave, and the grave feeds on us, like it says in Psalm 49? How will we live?
Jesus says, “I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies; and he who lives and believes in Me will never die.” He told Martha that four days after her brother Lazarus had died. She was right in the middle of the most intense period of mourning for the Jews. Even if she wanted to forget or to think about something else, she couldn’t. Nobody would let her. Jesus had waited to visit them. He’d heard that Lazarus was sick, and then He had waited an extra two days. Now He finally goes to Bethany to see Mary and Martha. Martha is the first one to come out to meet Him when she hears He’s arrived. She’s more of an active type than Mary, who tended to be more passive and contemplative. Mary sat and thought about things; Martha got up and did things. So Martha gets up and heads out to Jesus, and she says to Him, “Lord, if You had been here my brother would not have died.” She doesn’t mean to rebuke the Lord or to criticize Him. She’s expressing her trust. She knew that Jesus had cured the sick, that He had healed the blind and lame. Jesus helped people nobody else could help. If anybody could have kept Lazarus from dying, it would have been Jesus. Her trust in Jesus means she places no limits on what He can do. She doesn’t know what He’s about to do, but she just waits in willing expectation for whatever Jesus wants to do.
In reply Jesus says to her, “Your brother will rise again.” We often comfort each other at the death of a fellow Christian with words very much like these. It’s often left to those Christians who are less lost in their grief to remind those who mourn of this. When someone you love dies, your sorrow can grow so big it crowds out everything else for a while. That’s how Martha is right now. She’s not angry at Jesus for not coming; she just doesn’t know why he had to die – just as many times we ask why, even when we know why.
It’s worth noting that Martha has a wonderful confession of faith in these verses. She often gets a bad rap for the way she acts when Jesus visits their house, when she lets herself get too busy to listen to Jesus. But here she’s the one who’s stronger in her faith. Martha expresses her confidence in the resurrection, where Mary only says, “If You had been here, Lord, he wouldn’t have died.” Martha was the more active of the two sisters, and here her faith is more active too.
First she says, “I know that Lazarus will rise again in the resurrection at the Last Day.” Martha believes in the resurrection, but it seems far away to her at that moment. She knows she’ll see him again, but to her it’s far away in the future. She believes that he will rise, and she’s content with that, but right now he’s gone from her. They’re separated. In the future they’ll be together again, but until then she has to do without him. That’s what she thinks right then, anyway.
Jesus brings her back to the present. He refocuses her on Himself, because the Resurrection is standing in front of her. Life itself is walking the earth at that very moment, and her brother’s resurrection is closer than she can imagine. Jesus says, “I am the Resurrection and the Life” – and when He says “I am,” He’s reminding Martha that He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Holy One of Israel come in the flesh; the God who created all things, who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were. The God who sees all, whether they are alive or whether death hides them. I am the Resurrection and the Life — I, and no other. There is life in no other’s name, because I am the only Savior. I am the Lord of life and death. All those who trust in Me live forever, because I give them life out of my own indestructible life. Death itself must yield when I give the word, because I am the Lord and there is no other – no, I know not one.
Jesus can talk like this because He knows what death is like. He knows what it’s like to die. Not long after this, Jesus Himself will die. In fact, the raising of Lazarus becomes the catalyst that triggers the Pharisees to finally kill Jesus. He proves who He is so decisively in the raising of Lazarus that it’s too much for them and they step up their efforts to kill Him. About a week after the raising of Lazarus, the Son of Man would go just as it was written about Him. He will lay down His life to pay for all sin and to lift the curse of death. There is no Easter Sunday without Good Friday. Jesus willingly entered into death and then rose to life again so that our own deaths are no longer a punishment for sin. They’re the gateway to eternal life! His death on the cross means that we don’t have to fear death, because the sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the law. Christ kept the law and lifted the curse off of us. Jesus never sinned, but He died bearing our sin and now we have no reason to fear death. We still do, because we’re human and we’re sinners. We’ve never been there and we don’t know what it’s like. Yet Jesus is waiting on the other side, holding out His nail-scarred hands and smiling at us – “Don’t be afraid, My child, I have conquered death for you. You need not fear its terrors anymore. I’ve been there; it won’t be that bad. I promise. My life and My death make it so.” “Since the children have flesh and blood, He too shared in their humanity so that by His death He might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels that He helps, but Abraham’s descendents” – it’s us. Jesus died so He could rise again and give life to our mortal bodies through His Spirit who lives in us and assures us of eternal life right now through our trust in Jesus. Jesus is Lord of life and death, and when we trust that He has defeated death and shut the mouth of hell for us, then His victory is our victory. Jesus’ own death on the cross means that you have life after your own death – life nobody can take away, eternal life.
And see what Jesus uses to bring Lazarus back to life! He uses His powerful Word. He simply calls out, “Lazarus, come out!” and the dead man walks out of his tomb alive. We have that same powerful Word for ourselves. It’s the same Word we hear every week here in church, the same Word we read at home on our own, the same Word we talk about with our children and our grandchildren. It’s the same Word that Jesus used to create the world and that still preserves us today, that forgives our sins and promises us eternal life. So now the question is one that Jesus asked: Do you believe this? Is this your personal faith? Do you stake your life and soul and all things on Jesus’ being the Resurrection and the Life? “Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” Amen.