Immanuel Lutheran Church, Hamilton, Ohio
Pastor Kevin Jud
April 2, 2017
A cemetery is a bleak place to visit in the winter. There are a lot of trees and shrubs and plants, but life retreats in winter: green disappears, the lawns turn brown, leaves fall, and branches look like deadened sticks hovering over the gravestones standing silent sentry. It all seems dead, but looks can be deceiving. Spring will come and the warmth will cause the cemetery to bloom and grow. Those winter trees and shrubs and lawns are not dead forever; they are merely dormant, waiting for the sun to bring them back to life.
With Spring, the Lord teaches us an important lesson: what is true for the trees is also true for the people of God who rest from their labors. The Son of God comes to bring them back to life.
The Son of God arrives at Bethany late. His friend Lazarus has been ill for a while, but Jesus has delayed coming. Now Lazarus is dead, buried in the tomb for four long days. Ancient rabbis taught that the soul of the dead hovered over their bodies for three days, then departed for good. Lazarus isn’t just dead: he’s gone.
Lazarus has two sisters, Mary and Martha. Martha goes out to meet Jesus; and she gives a curious confession of faith. She says, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” She’s absolutely right: she knows that Jesus has the power to heal, and that He could have saved Lazarus while he was still alive. At the same time, though, it appears she sees Jesus’ power as weaker than death: she thinks that while Jesus can heal people who still have life, He cannot give life where there is none left. She goes on to say, “But even now I know that whatever You ask from God, God will give You;” but her words throughout this text indicate she’s put limits on the “whatever.” She does not believe that Jesus can bring Lazarus back to life.
Jesus tells her otherwise. He says, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha thinks she knows what He means, so she says, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Here is something that we too may say in error: the Last Day will raise nobody from the dead. The Last Day is simply the last day. It is Jesus who raises from the dead, because Jesus is the Conqueror of death. The dead will rise on the Last Day because that is when Jesus raises them.
This is what He proclaims to Martha: “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?” She responds, “Yes, Lord; I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” She doesn’t know what all that means. But she trusts that Jesus is the Savior.
Jesus goes to the tomb, deeply moved and weeping. This is your Savior, who weeps with His people. Even though He knows that He will soon raise Lazarus from the dead, He still hurts with Mary and Martha because they hurt, and they are His beloved children—as are you. He arrives at the tomb and commands that the stone be taken away. Martha objects—Lazarus is dead, and his body has begun to decay over the past four days. Why make that any more evident?
Jesus’ answers: “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” Jesus cries out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” And Lazarus comes out of the tomb. Just like that; just because Jesus spoke and told him to.
That’s the glory of God on display: Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life. Where He is, life is, because He gives life; and He gives life by His Word. He speaks and tells Lazarus to live, and Lazarus lives again.
Of those who hear and see the miracle, many believe; but some go and tell the Pharisees what Jesus has done. The Pharisees ask “What are we to do?” They are afraid: “If we let Him go on like this, everyone will believe in Him.” Can’t have that: sinners just can’t put up with people believing in the Son of God, who gives them eternal life. The Pharisees think they have a legitimate fear, though: they’re afraid that if everyone believes in Jesus, it will provoke the Romans to wipe them out as a nation. Jesus might have proven that He’s greater than death, but that doesn’t mean He’s greater than Caesar and his armies. The Pharisees are blind: if Christ is greater than death, wouldn’t he also be greater than Rome?
Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life. Where He is, life is, because He gives life; and He gives life by His Word.
And even if it were God’s will that Rome level Jerusalem, wouldn’t it be better to give up a city on earth in order to follow the One who raises the dead to everlasting life?
No. Not to the Pharisees, anyway. They would rather sacrifice Jesus in order to hold onto a place that they’re eventually going to lose anyway. That is the nature of sin, to clutch at what you can’t keep in order to rob you of what you can’t lose.
It’s Caiaphas who voices this: he says, “It is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” Sacrifice the One to save the many. That’s their decision. It’s very practical.
Unwittingly, it’s also very prophetic. From here on out, the Pharisees actively plan to put Jesus to death, believing that they’ll save the nation by killing the man. They have no idea. God will use their evil for the good of all. When their plan is finally carried out on the cross, the death of Jesus won’t serve to get Him out of the way, dead and gone. The death of Jesus will be the Sacrifice for the sins of the people—all the people, both Jews and Gentiles. Because He dies on that cross for the sins of the world, and because He rises again on the third day, His promise rings out to all the world: “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.”
Many of you mourn right now. This past year, we’ve said goodbye to so many here at Immanuel and in our families. I pray this text brings comfort. Christ has died and Christ is risen from the dead. He is the Conqueror of death. He is not the Resurrection and the Life only in the past, as if He retired from that after raising Lazarus from the dead. He is not the Resurrection and the Life only in the future, on the Last Day. He is the Resurrection and the Life now. Now, and forevermore.
Where Jesus is, life is. That’s what Jesus is about: and whenever He is present forgiving sins, He is also present giving life. At your baptism, Jesus declared, “Come out! Come out of the bondage of sin, for I make you My beloved child this day! Come out of the darkness of sin, for I am the Light of the world! Come out of death, for I am the Resurrection and the Life—and I make you alive forever by water and the Word.” Your resurrection at the font was a greater miracle than the one of Lazarus at the tomb: Jesus gave physical life back to Lazarus’ body, but Lazarus’ body would die again. Jesus has given eternal life to you and you have it forever. Unless the Lord returns, your body will eventually die. Your soul will not: you are alive forever, and on the last day the Lord will raise your body up, too.
Where Jesus is, life is. And whenever He is present forgiving sins, He is also present giving life. His Word gives life. He spoke to bring Lazarus back from death. He put His words in Ezekiel’s mouth, and those words made dry bones alive. This day, He speaks to you, “I forgive you all your sins.”
Where Jesus is, life is. And whenever He is present forgiving sins, He is also present giving life. This is true at His Supper. He is present, giving you His very body and blood—and He gives it for the forgiveness of sins. He gives it to keep you alive—for where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.
This is true for you. It is also true for those you mourn who died in the faith. Those who died in the faith are not dead, because the Lord is not the Lord of the dead but of the living. Their bodies rest in the grave, but they live even now with Christ in heaven. You have His promise: “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.” It is true for the saints who have gone before us, and it is true for you.
Be on guard, then, against the devil’s temptations. Beware of the error of Martha, who thought that Jesus’ power was great but limited, really only good for working wonders where life remained. She thought Jesus weaker than death instead of greater; and she thought Jesus weaker than life rather than being life.
You are forever tempted to think Jesus is only good for helping you out in this life. Thinking Jesus is only good for this life robs you of hope for eternity and will bring disappointment because this life is hard. Jesus did not come to make life a little sweeter on your way to eternal death and the grave. He has come to deliver you from eternal death and the grave.
Beware also the sin of the Pharisees, who would rather kill Christ and forfeit life in order to cling to a nation they couldn’t keep anyway. There is a great temptation to hold on to sins rather than repent and be forgiven. Sins like greed, lust, pride and immorality can make you believe it would hurt too much to give them up. You’d rather hold on to the sin than to follow Jesus. “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” Repent, because the Lord of life has died your death and is risen again to forgive you. He is present to forgive you.
Where Jesus is, life is. Do not despair, repentant people of God. Whatever sins you have clung to in the past, He has died for them all; and He promises “everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die.” This promise is for you and it is for all the penitent people of God who have died in the faith.
In the springtime, a well-managed cemetery can be a pretty place. The lawns turn green, the trees leaf and the flowers bloom as the sun restores life with light and warmth. It can be a lovely garden. But the renewed foliage is only a hint, only a shadow. Martin Luther once said that, for the Christian, a cemetery is not the final resting place of the dead; it is not a place of dry bones. It is a place of planted kernels, sown seeds. Those who died in the faith are alive with Christ even as they await the resurrection of their bodies on the Last Day when the Lord will call His people from the grave. For Christ will return in glory; and where Jesus is, life is. He is the Resurrection and the Life, and He has given that life to you, because you are forgiven for all of your sins. Amen.