John 11:1-27 (Fifth Sunday in Lent—Series A)
“Jesus’ Perspective on Death”
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
April 2, 2017
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text this morning is the Gospel lesson appointed for today from John 11:
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. 10 But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” 11 After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 13 Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, 15 and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” 17 Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. 20 So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
Death. It’s not a topic we are generally excited to talk about. Recently, there has been quite a bit of death confronting us as a congregation. Most people are not comfortable coming face to face with our own mortality. Here are some quotes from various people showing their perspectives on death. “You know everybody is gonna die one day so I don’t worry about it too much.” “I think death is a way to rid you of your worries and troubles.” “Death doesn’t scare me at all . . . I even challenge it. What scares me is the fact that nothing lasts forever and after death in my belief is heaven or hell. Seeing that nothing is capable of lasting forever, what is after heaven and hell? It’s not death, but what’s beyond the great beyond. I wish I was born in China or something so I’d just be a Buddhist and wouldn’t have to worry about [stuff] like this. But alas I’m not.”
How terribly sad it is when an individual looks at death in such a way! Some see it as simply a natural part of life and accept it that way, waiting for death’s finality to come without any hope or comfort. For so many, death is a great unknown, with its results hidden from their fear-filled eyes. Others understand death as the complete end of a person, the final curtain, with nothing more—no life-after-death, no anything. Still, there are folks who believe that you are reincarnated into another someone after death. What kind of hope does that offer? Great, so I die and then have to come back to this world of heartache and pain and do it all over again, until the next time I die and am reincarnated just to do it over again? There’s no comfort, hope, or peace in that understanding either.
Today our Lord Jesus Christ gives us a new perspective on death that is very different from the one’s I’ve mentioned. From Jesus we receive an understanding of death that gives us certain comfort, complete hope, and everlasting peace.
Jesus came face to face with death in our text. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were loved by Jesus. Jesus received word from the two sisters that Lazarus was ill. Yet, Jesus delayed in going to Lazarus! He stayed two days longer in the place where He was staying because Jesus had said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” “Whew!” His disciples must have thought. “That’s good, Lazarus will get better.” But after two days Jesus told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” The disciples still had in their minds that “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” But Jesus had spoken of his death, not taking physical rest in sleep, so Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.”
We seem to have a major contradiction here, don’t we? First, Jesus said, “This illness does not lead to death.” Two days later, the Lord says, “Lazarus has died.” How do we handle this? Option one is that Jesus got it wrong at first. But being the Son of God, we know from the Bible that Jesus doesn’t “get it wrong.” How then are we to understand Jesus’ words? The key to understanding our Lord is found in Jesus’ perspective on death itself.
Jesus says of Lazarus, “Our friend has fallen asleep,” speaking of his death. From Jesus’ perspective, death is no more of a power with no more finality than restful sleep from which one can be awakened. That’s a radical understanding of death, something that, from our human perspective, seems so powerful and final. That’s the perspective from which Mary and Martha approached the death of their brother. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” In other words, “Jesus, death has happened. If you were here, you could have prevented it, but now it’s too late. Lazarus is dead. You can’t undo death. It’s final.”
That’s often our understanding of death. It’s too powerful to defeat. It’s too final. We can do a whole lot to prevent and slow down the dying process, but we can’t stop it. Once death happens, that’s the end, or so we think. It certainly seems, that way, doesn’t it? Lazarus was buried in the tomb. He was dead. Life would continue in this world without him. Isn’t that what we experience? When our loved ones die, life continues here without them. We say things like, “He’s been taken from us” or “She’s gone.” These are phrases of finality. But Jesus doesn’t look at death that way.
For Jesus, death is no more powerful and final than a good night’s sleep. How can He view death in that way? How can you and I even consider beginning to see death in this light? Jesus can, and we can, because of who Jesus is, what He has promised, and what He has accomplished for us.
Jesus said, “It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Martha said to Jesus, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” That’s who Jesus is. He is the true and living God. He is the all-powerful Lord of heaven and earth at whose command the wind and waves cease. He is the Almighty God who alone has authority over life and complete power over death. So when Jesus speaks, He speaks with the full authority and power and wisdom of God. And He speaks His Word for our benefit so that we might come to see death as He does because of what our Lord Jesus has promised.
Martha said to Jesus, “I know that [my brother] will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “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?” Do you believe this? This is the promise of God the Son to each and every one of you. This is the promise of Him who holds the keys of death and the grave (Rev. 1:18). Whoever believes in Jesus as the Son of God and Savior of the world, though he die, yet shall he live in heaven. What’s more, everyone who lives and believes in Jesus will never die because he or she has eternal life. Do you believe it? You can believe Jesus’ promise because He has made good on it by what He did for you and me so that this very precious Word would be fulfilled.
In faith, we look to Jesus, “the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). Jesus went to the cross and experienced both physical and spiritual death for you and for me. Jesus endured the full power of death and hell, separation from God, as He bled and died on the cross for you and me. Jesus became obedient to the point of death so that He could defeat death for us so that death would no longer have any power or finality over Him or us.
Through His suffering, death, and His own resurrection from the dead, Jesus has triumphed over death. We do not worship a dead religious leader. No, we worship a living Lord and Savior who died on the cross for our sins and rose again, forever defeating the power and finality of death so that we would live. It is Jesus who gives you and me eternal life. That’s why you and I don’t need to fear death. That’s why we can see death as Jesus does—defeated and powerless, no more frightening or final than a night’s sleep. We read in 1 Corinthians 15, the great resurrection chapter, “‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:55-57). We have the assurance in 2 Timothy 1:10 that “our Savior Christ Jesus, has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” Finally 1 Peter 1:3 comforts us in the assurance that “according to his great mercy, [God] has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”
This is our holy Christian faith’s perspective on death. Death is a defeated enemy that has no power over you and me who live by faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God’s Son. Jesus suffered death and hell on the cross in our place and rose from the tomb in complete victory. Through the free gift of faith, Jesus gives us His victory over sin and death through the forgiveness of our sins and the eternal life which He guarantees for all who believe in Him. The death of Jesus Christ for our sin and His resurrection to life again has given us Christians the promise that for those in Christ, death is but the door to eternal life. It has no finality and no power because we are in Christ Jesus our Lord. And that understanding of death is what gives us certain comfort, complete hope, and everlasting peace. Amen.