Sermon for March 26, 2023, Fifth Sunday in Lent

John 11:28-44 (Fifth Sunday in Lent—Series A)

“Confident in the Face of Death”

Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT

March 26, 2023

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Our text is from today’s Gospel Reading recorded in John 11:

28And after she had said this, she went away and called her sister Mary, saying privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling you.” 29And as she heard, she rose quickly and went to Him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come into the village but was still in the place where Martha had met Him. 31Therefore, the Jews who were with her in the house and who were consoling her, when they saw Mary, that she rose up quickly and went out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb in order to weep there. 32Now Mary, as she came where Jesus was, when she saw Him, she fell at His feet, saying to Him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33Then Jesus, as He saw her weeping and the Jews who had come together with her weeping, was deeply troubled in spirit and He agitated Himself 34and He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to Him, “Lord, come and see.” 35Jesus wept. 36Then the Jews said, “See how He loved him,” 37And some of them said, “He who opened the eyes of the blind, was He not able to bring it about that this man also might not have died?” 38Then Jesus again, deeply troubled in Himself, came to the tomb. Now it was a cave and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man said to Him, “Lord, now he stinks, for he has been dead four days.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41Then they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up His eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42And I knew that you always hear me, but on account of the crowd standing around I said this, in order that they might believe that you sent me.” 43And after He had said these things, He cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44And the dead man came out, his feet and hands bound with strips of cloth and his face wrapped in a face cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him and release him to go.”

          Death is a reality. It is a reality that makes us uncomfortable. We don’t like to talk about death and dying. We don’t want to think about planning in advance for our own funerals or for those of our loved ones because it is disconcerting. So death is a reality that we often choose to ignore. But death cannot be ignored. Sooner or later, we will all face the death of a family member or friend. And if Jesus does not return before, then we will face our own physical deaths.

          Now we must rid ourselves of the popular notion that death is simply a natural part of life. There is nothing “natural” about death. Death is the punishment for sin. Paul says it so plainly in Romans 6, “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23 ESV). Even in the days of Martin Luther, there were people who pictured death as something natural. On October 20, 1532, the great Reformer preached, “The heart and wisdom of no man have hit upon the idea that death is the penalty for sin, but all men have thought and held that it is our natural lot, just as a dog or a pig or any other animal dies or as the sun rises and sets, grass grows and withers, and all things are perishable by nature and pass away as they have come. But Scripture teaches us that our death does not come about in a natural way, but that it is a fruit of, the punishment for, the sin of our father Adam, who so flagrantly violated the exalted Majesty that he and all his descendants who are born on earth must be the prey of death forever; and no one on earth can escape or prevent this calamity.”[1]

          With this proper understanding of death, we can then recognize Jesus’ anger and indignation at death itself as He approached the tomb of Lazarus. John 11:33-38, “Then Jesus, as He saw her weeping and the Jews who had come together with her weeping, was deeply troubled in spirit and He agitated Himself and He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to Him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, ‘See how He loved him.’ And some of them said, ‘He who opened the eyes of the blind, was He not able to bring it about that this man also might not have died?’ Then Jesus again, deeply troubled in Himself, came to the tomb.” Jesus is not displaying mere grief at the death of Lazarus. To be “deeply troubled” describes our Lord’s feelings in terms of a very strong expression of inner turmoil and distress which is associated with anger and great displeasure. Jesus, the Creator of life, is confronted with the reality of death as a power and a final enemy. When Mary and the Jews are weeping in their grief, Jesus recognizes the effect of death. And there is nothing natural about it. It is an “alien power which brings to [nothing] the life of man, [breaks] human relationships, and elicits the pangs of sorrow, grief, and despair. . . . Jesus now confronts death in the death of Lazarus.”[2]

          It is sin and the death that sin brings that causes such indignation and outrage in Jesus. He shed tears as His heart went out to those who mourn. Death and the grave bring loss and the pain of separation, indicative of the pain of separation from God Himself that sin brings to all people under the tyranny of death. Troubled in spirit and agitated in Himself at this enemy death, Jesus at once asked, “Where have you laid him?” Jesus’ outrage against death that has plunged His friends into such grief will be turned against this death itself by forcing it to give up its prey. By the power of His almighty Word of life, Jesus commands, “Lazarus, come out!” And death is undone! Physical life has returned to the four-day dead body of Lazarus of Bethany. He comes forth from the tomb, wrapped in the linen burial cloths. Then Jesus commands once more, “Unbind him and release him to go”—to go and live with Mary and Martha again!

          Dear Christians, it is not only the death of Lazarus that Jesus has undone. He has undone your death also. For it is Jesus who died not only physical death, but also the spiritual death of hell for you, in your place, as your once-for-all sacrifice for sin. On the cross, Jesus suffered the pains of physical death and hellish separation from the heavenly Father that you and I and all people should have experienced. He endured eternal death for you and me in the God-forsaken blackness of Good Friday so that you and I would have eternal life. From Matthew 27, “Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour.And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Matt. 27:45–46 ESV). Carolyn Brinkley writes in her devotional book Bearing the Cross, “Seeing the King of creation hanging naked on a tree, the sun refuses to shine. All of creation is in chaotic horror. The black of night descends. The prince of darkness reigns. The Savior bears the curse of our sin. He pays the price of our abandoning God that began in the Garden of Eden and continues in our lives today. He bears the wrath of God that we deserve. . . . Rather than killing the sinner, He places our sin and guilt on His Son. The almighty God turns His back on His sinless, obedient Son and offers Him as the perfect sacrifice meant to redeem all of mankind. On the cross Jesus suffers the punishment of hell for us. He is forsaken by His Father so we will never be forsaken.”[3] Not even death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Savior.

          By His cross and resurrection, Jesus has won for us the forgiveness of our sins. And where sin stands forgiven, there is eternal life and salvation and NO DEATH. We have been redeemed from sin, death, and the power of the devil by the blood of Jesus shed for us. And because Jesus is the Risen Lord, our resurrection and eternal life are guaranteed. What was it that Jesus promised 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”  (John 11:25–26 ESV). The apostle Paul, writing by the inspiration of God the Holy Spirit to the Corinthian Christians, picks up this very theme in chapter 15, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:20–26 ESV).

          Death is now mortally wounded by the gift of eternal life given to you through Baptism. You have the forgiveness of sins. You have eternal life. It’s yours right now by grace through faith. Your physical death is not your end or your destruction. For you who believe, death is but the gate to life for your soul in the paradise of God to await the final victory. The Lord Jesus Christ, who gave up His life into death and the grave, who stared death in the face in victory on Easter morning as the Risen Savior, will come again in glory and put the last enemy to death. The death blow to death itself will come when our Lord Jesus raises the bodies of the dead on the Last Day and gives everlasting life in resurrected body and soul to those who believed in Him who is Resurrection and Life. Jesus promises, “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19 ESV).

          Through His death and resurrection, Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, has vanquished the power of death. Because of the gift of faith in Christ, you who have received the forgiveness of sins also have the gift of eternal life. Death has no power over you (Rev. 20:6). Christ Jesus has taken away the sting of death and the power of death with His Resurrection. Jesus’ victory is your victory. This is our confidence in the face of death. Jesus lives. The victory over sin and death is won.

Now in Christ, death cannot slay me,
    Though it might,
    Day and night,
Trouble and dismay me.
Christ has made my death a portal
    From the strife
    Of this life
To His joy immortal![4]

     [1] Ewald M. Plass, What Luther Says (St. Louis: Concordia, 1959), 363.

     [2] William C. Weinrich, John 7:2-12:50, Concordia Commentary (St. Louis: Concordia, 2022), 621.

     [3] Carolyn S. Brinkley, Bearing the Cross: Devotions on Albrecht Dürer’s Small Passion (St. Louis: Concordia, 2012), 112.

     [4] Lutheran Service Book 765:5. Text: © 2004 Stephen P. Starke, admin. Concordia Publishing House. Used by permission: LSB Hymn License no. 110000752

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