5th Sunday in Lent (A)
March 26, 2023
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The text that I have chosen for this morning’s sermon is the Gospel from St. John.
Since about the 5th century BC, stories have circulated about the Fountain of Youth. The Greeks, Spanish, Arabians, and the tribes of the Caribbean each told of a special water which would heal, rejuvenate, extend the life of all who drank of it. We no longer believe in the Fountain of Youth, but we’re in a pursuit of a longer life through eating right, exercising, taking medication, and having medical procedures. All of these are good and we should take care of ourselves. However, with all this chasing of a long life, what have we learned? You can’t stop death. No matter how hard we try, we’re all going to die. It’s been said that death is the great equalizer because we’re all the same when we’re dead and gone. I don’t agree, not at all, because we Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the Master of Death.
The account of the raising of Lazarus is a familiar story but did you know Lazarus wasn’t the first to be raised from the dead by Jesus? Jesus raised the son of a widow who’d been dead for a day. He also raised a girl who had been dead for hours. Lazarus was different because he had been dead four days. Christ’s opponents could call the other two raisings into question, but not Lazarus’ passing. He was as dead as dead could be. Some of those at the tomb said of Jesus: “Could not He who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”
That was silly question because of course He could’ve. Jesus didn’t even have had to make the trip to Bethany. A simple word from Him would’ve healed Lazarus instantly. Mary and Martha evidently believed the same thing. They both said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” They knew Jesus had the power to heal, but He didn’t make it in time. I wonder what drove Mary and Martha’s statement: anger that Jesus dawdled because He got the message soon enough or was it sorrow accompanied by a deep faith? Either way, He wasn’t there. Human love would’ve had Jesus rush to Lazarus’ side. Divine love though has its own time. Jesus took His time for a good reason. He says, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.”
Had Jesus simply healed Lazarus, the effect wouldn’t have been the same. What Jesus was about to do was going to blow people’s minds. He was going to prove that He is God, the Master of Death. He said to Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” And when He prayed at the tomb He said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.”
What Jesus said was true, many of them did come to believe that Jesus was the promised Savior. Others though, still wouldn’t believe. And after the Pharisees heard what Jesus had done, they didn’t race to see Him, they made plans to put Him to death! Jesus has performed a miracle of divine power, and still, they want to kill Him. How blind do you have to be?
The disciples didn’t get it either though. Jesus taught them on more than one occasion: “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And when He is killed, after three days He will rise.” Matthew tells us that the disciples didn’t understand and were afraid to ask Jesus what He was talking about. Jesus also referred to Himself as Jonah who was in the belly of the fish for three days. He described His resurrection as the destruction of the Temple and how it would be rebuilt in three days. Jesus is telling everyone that He came to die, but not just die! He came to show Himself to be the Master of Death.
We see the truth of this our text. The Pharisees were afraid that Jesus was going to start a rebellion, either intentionally or inadvertently, so there was only one option: get rid of Him. John tells us that the High Priest Caiaphas said: “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.” There it is! The Great Substitution! Jesus dying instead of Lazarus. Jesus dying instead of you. This is why Jesus came – He died so your sins would be forgiven. He died so that you would not endure eternal death. Physical death is a reality. Eternal death is nothing for the Christian!
Since the first Good Friday, the Jews have worked pretty hard to deny their responsibility for Jesus’ death and you can’t blame them. It’s their role in the Passion of Jesus that a lot of antisemitism finds its roots. Now it’s true they were the ones who unjustly arrested Jesus and turned Him over for crucifixion. They were not however responsible – this was God’s plan all along. Jesus says, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” No one killed Jesus, He died when He decided to die. That’s deep, right? Did you catch all the verse though? He says, “I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.” Jesus won’t stay dead! If He stays dead, Lazarus stays dead. If He says dead, you stay dead. Just as He promised, He was a more perfect Jonah who left the stomach of the earth alive. He laid down His life and then He rose again by His mighty power to put Death to death. He lives, so we live! Lazarus had to be unwrapped after the stone was rolled away. Jesus unwrapped Himself, remember how the wrapping was folded neatly and then He left the tomb without moving the stone!
Now comes the unpleasant part; talking about death at a more personal level. It’s been said that everyone knows that they’re going to die, they just don’t believe it. When you’re younger you think it will never happen and as you age, you don’t give it much thought. But you all know that death can come at any time and in any number of ways. Is this something that you fear? Maybe you fear the dying part or what will happen to those we leave behind. Maybe you don’t fear your own death, but you do the death of those whom you love. It’s understandable if you’re afraid, we’re human after all. We’re not just humans though, we’re also Christians. We’re redeemed through the blood of Jesus, and we’re free from death because of Him.
Now please know that grief is normal. When Martha came to Jesus in grief and Mary fell at His feet, Jesus didn’t scold them. It was the opposite in a way, for when He saw the grief of His friends He wept. He wept because He saw the pain inflicted on His loved ones by death. We’re told by John, who witnessed the raising of Lazarus, that Jesus was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. The word John used means that Jesus huffed. He was sick and tired of the toll death takes on His creation. He huffs when you grieve. He sheds tears that match yours. It would be easy to say, “Then why doesn’t Jesus stop death more often?” Jesus can and does heal, but when He doesn’t we don’t concentrate on the death of our loved one but on Jesus and the resurrection of the dead.
Paul says in I Thessalonians, “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” We have Christian hope, the sure and certain faith that the resurrection of Jesus proves beyond a doubt that we will all be raised from the dead! And there will be a glorious reunion among all the saints in Heaven.
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: If you ever attend a funeral service where the preacher doesn’t mention the resurrection of the dead, you did not hear a funeral sermon. In eighteen years, I’ve conducted 107 funerals and in every, single one of them I have shard Christ’s promise that death is only temporary. It’s a temporary separation from our loved ones, it is not, ever, separation from God. Did you know that the word cemetery comes from the Greek word for “sleeping place”? Death for the Christian is falling asleep in the Lord, and your body will sleep until you hear the voice of Jesus.
Saint John writes, “When He had said these things [His prayer], He cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out.’” This wasn’t just a holler. It was a cry of command! It was the powerful voice of God bringing Lazarus to life and out of the tomb. When it is time for your resurrection, you too will hear that powerful voice of your Savior.
Saint Paul writes, “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” (I Thess. 4:16-18). What a day that will be! The day that death is killed once and for all! The day that grief, loss, anger, and regret will be destroyed. This is what Jesus means when He says, “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. Do you believe this?”
Despite her grief, Martha answered Jesus question with a bold statement of faith. She says, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” May you, by the power of the Holy Spirit, make this same bold confession when facing death, whether it’s yours or someone else’s. Death is a reality, but it’s not a permanent reality. The reality is that all those who die in the Lord, rise to eternal blessedness. We will rise because Death isn’t our Master! Christ is our Master and He is the Master of Death.
Now the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen