Lent 5a

Preached: April 10, 2011

Jesus, the LIFE, Battles Death
John 11:17-27, 38-44

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The Word from God through which the Holy Spirit shows us our Savior is John 11.

Then Jesus came and found [Lazarus] in the tomb for four days already. (Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother.)

When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she met him, but Mary kept sitting at home. Then Martha said to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will grant it to you."

Jesus says to her, "Your brother will rise."

Martha says to him, "I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the Last Day."

Jesus said to her, "I am the Resurrection and the Life. Whoever believe in me will live, even though they die. And everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"

She says to him, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the One who comes into the world." (John 11:17-27)

...

Then Jesus, again feeling indignation, comes to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was laid over it.

Jesus says, "Remove the stone."

Martha, the sister of dead man, says to him, "Lord, he already smells, since it's the fourth day."

Jesus says to her, "Didn't I say to you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?" Then they removed the stone.

Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, "Father, I thank you that you heard me. I know that you always hear me. But I have spoken because of the crowd standing around, in order that they may believe that you sent me."

When he had spoken these things, he called out with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" The dead man came out with linen strips tying his hands and feet, and his face was wrapped with the facecloth. Jesus says to them, "Undo him and let him go." (John 17:38-44)

This is the word of our Lord.

Dear friends in Christ, fellow saints washed clean in the blood of our risen Savior:

A. The LIFE pursues his mission against death's darkness

The fight of the century was brewing. The buzz was in the air. Crowds were gathering. In one corner was the Grim Reaper, that scythe wielding skeleton, robed in black, hooded in darkness, Death itself. His opponent? No one less than the LIFE, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Son of God, the Coming One.

Jesus could have chosen a lesser opponent for this round. He did not have to wait until death had seized Lazarus' body. Mary and Martha had sent him word that their brother was sick. Jesus replied, "This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it" (John 11:4 NIV1984). Notice that Jesus pointed to the final outcome. Death wouldn't end up winning. But he doesn't say that Lazarus wouldn't die in the meantime.

Jesus could have been there to heal the sickness. Wouldn't that have been an easier opponent? How many other sicknesses, even leprosy, hadn't he cured? Even if he had hurried and arrived a few hours late, it wouldn't have been the first time he raised someone who had died shortly before. Do you remember the daughter of Jairus or the son of the widow of Nain?

But he waits two days before he starts out. By the time he arrives Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days already. His body would have started to decay. He'd stink like rotting meat. Death seemed the sure winner. But Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. Even before he left, he knew and told his disciples that Lazarus had already died, for he knows all things.

Why go then? There was only trouble waiting for him the closer he got to Jerusalem, and Bethany was only two miles away! The Jewish leaders had already made attempts on his life. So Jesus had left and gone to the other side of the Jordan River. That's why he wasn't nearby when Lazarus got sick. Why go back now that he's already dead? Wouldn't they all end up dead like Lazarus?

But remember what Jesus had said. Lazarus sickness and death was "for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it" (John 11:4 NIV1984). He reminded Martha of that at the tomb when says to her, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God" (John 11:40 NIV1984). Jesus knew his mission. He knew why the Father had sent him and why he had come into the world. In about three months he, the LIFE, would face death eye to eye as he hung on the cross. He would face not only physical death with all its pains of body in gruesome crucifixion but also the god-forsakenness that brings the terror of hell. He would feel the full sting of death brought by sin. For he became sin for us. He carried all the sins of the world. Jesus knew his mission.

Compared to that ultimate battle at the cross, this was but a preliminary bout at Lazarus' tomb. Yet how God's glory, his gracious, saving glory, shines for the crowds from Jerusalem to witness who had come to console the grieving sisters! How this again affirms that Jesus is God the Son, the Christ, the Coming One sent to defeat death's darkness! How this shows his mission! And how he foreshadows his own Easter victory as he stands at the tomb, and the stone is rolled away, and he calls out in a loud voice for all to hear: "Lazarus, come out!" (John 11:43 NIV1984). He, Jesus, is the LIFE!

Never lose sight of Jesus' mission, dear friends. He did not come to make death our friend so that funerals become parties. Just as it robbed Mary and Martha, so death still robs us of our loved ones. We will not see them again in this life. As fond as our reminiscences might be, they cannot replace the person. Memories don't live on forever. When Jesus saw how death had hurt his dear friends ,tears came to his own eyes. Indignation filled his heart, indignation against death. How could death treat them so brutally, so heartlessly!

Don't lose sight of Jesus' mission. He came to defeat death, not to turn it into our friend. "I am the resurrection and the life" (John 11:25 NIV1984), he declares. He is the anti-death. He, the LIFE, battled death to the death and won the victory. That was his mission. See his Easter victory foreshadowed at Lazarus' tomb. Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life. So although death is still our enemy, it is no longer an enemy to be feared by you who believe.

B. Our faith boldly lives the LIFE's victory, Jesus' victory

Don't pass those last words too quickly, "you who believe." Jesus told Martha, "He who believes in me will live, even though he dies" (John 11:25 NIV1984). How many thousands die each hour without faith in Jesus? How many people that were brought up in a church no longer believe. Or maybe although they still faithfully go, their church seldom if ever proclaims Jesus' mission to conquer death by taking away our sins, so they no longer look to Jesus as their Savior, but only as a role-model of love or an inspiration of hope. How many still know about Jesus but their faith has died no longer producing fruit that gladly listens to his word and lives for his glory? How many of these are people do you know, maybe even loved ones or members of our congregation? They might still talk about heaven and about hoping to get there some day. But you look at their lack of connection to Jesus and wonder whether they still have faith. For faith wants to be close to Jesus, listening to his voice in word and sacraments, bearing his fruit in our lives. No fruit means no faith. They're a dead tree. They need to hear God's warning through you: “Without faith death brings you hell.”

For the unbeliever, including those whose faith dies from malnourishment, death is hell -- a real, unending, ceaseless hell -- no matter how many nice sounding words are said about them at the funeral. We dare never use Jesus' words here to make a conscience comfortable in its unbelief. Sin damns. They need to see the terror of death, its hopelessness, so that they turn to the One who came from God, who alone battles death in victory: Jesus, the LIFE. How much each one of us needs his victory!

Jesus, the LIFE, freely gives you his victory. That's what faith believes. So faith, our faith, lives the LIFE's victory, Jesus' victory. "[W]hoever lives and believes in me will never die" (John 11:26 NIV1984), Jesus says. Faith and life in Jesus are tied up together. Faith is a living, moving, active power. It's not a "get-out-of-hell-free card" that simply sits around until we need it. Faith lives the LIFE's victory, Jesus' victory.

First, this living faith focuses on Jesus. Notice Martha's confession. When Jesus asks, "Do you believe this?" (John 11:26 NIV1984), she doesn't give a vague answer, "Yea, I hope to be in heaven some day." Most religions have some sort of hope for the afterlife: Muslims have their paradise. The ancient Norse had Valhalla. The Buddhist and Hindu speak of Nirvana. Even the atheist hopes for an end to existence. None of that is saving faith.

But Martha's faith, like ours, focuses on Jesus. "I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world" (John 11:27 NIV1984). How different than a fuzzy hope wishing for peace after death!

Faith confesses Jesus as the Christ, the Anointed One. He alone is the anointed Prophet who makes the Father known. He alone is the anointed High Priest who offers himself as the Lamb to atone for the sins of the whole world. He alone in the anointed King who battles death and Satan to win the victory for you. He is the Christ, the Anointed One.

Faith confess Jesus as the Son of God. For who other than God himself could work such a great salvation for us? Who but God the Son, who is with the Father from all eternity, can make the Father known? What but the blood of God could ransom and redeem all sinners? Who but the almighty God could conquer Satan and death? Yes, how God was glorified as Jesus stood there at Lazarus' tomb and prayed for all to hear, so that they could clearly understand that he and the Father were one in will and purpose, one God! How the Son was glorified, true God from true God!

Faith confess Jesus as the Coming One, who came into the world just as the Lord had foretold. He came into our darkness to bring us the light of life.

Such faith, dear Christian, your faith, cherishes Jesus as much, much more than a "get-out-of-hell-free card." Our faith lives his victory each day, every day, not just the day of our death.

Think of a fearless toddler. Though his legs are wobbly, he barrels forward. Heedless of danger, he might touch a hot stove, play with a sharp knife, run out into the street. That's why parents keep their eyes open. But consider that toddler's boldness in living, exploring, doing. Some of that boldness may come from ignorance. He doesn't realize how easily he can get hurt. But how much of that boldness doesn't come from trust? He trusts that Dad will catch him when he tells him to jump. He trusts that Mom's kiss and hug will make any owie go away. So he lives life with that boldness and daring.

Jesus' battle against death and his victory gives your faith that boldness. For he is the LIFE. Now, I'm not talking about a physical recklessness as a toddler has. Our God has given us a mind and common sense to protect our bodies. But I'm talking about a spiritual boldness to live for Jesus, to pursue him without self-regard, to take up our cross and follow him. For he has battled death and won. See Lazarus come out of the tomb. "[W]hoever lives and believes in me will never die" (John 11:25 NIV1984), he promises. Trust his promise with a toddler's faith.

Think of what that promise means. As you follow Jesus, the LIFE, living for him in faith, then you have nothing to fear no matter what the enemies of Christ might do to you, no matter what kind of ridicule or embarrassment they try to heap on you, no matter whether they take your property or possessions, yes, even if they take your family and your life. For they cannot take the LIFE, Jesus Christ, from you. Even death submits to him when he calls his people out of the grave on the Last Day.

So don't let your decisions and choices be driven by fear or worry. "What will others think? What if I don't have enough saved up? What if life isn't as fun and exciting as I want it to be? What if others become angry when I stand up for Jesus?" Rather say with Martin Luther: "Take they our life, Goods, fame, child, and wife. Let these all be gone they yet have nothing won. That kingdom ours remaineth." Yes, the kingdom is yours, for Jesus, the LIFE, battled death the last and greatest foe. He battled death and won the victory for you. That was his mission. Now live for him in faith. Amen.

The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Pastor Gregg Bitter

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
859 5th Street
Hancock, MN 56244
(320) 392-5313

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