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Sermon Lent 5A, “Jesus Conquers Death”

Pastor Gary Wong March 29, 2020

John 11:17-27, 38-44

17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. 21 "Lord," Martha said to Jesus, "if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask." 23 Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." 24 Martha answered, "I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day." 25 Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26 and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" 27 "Yes, Lord," she told him, "I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world." 38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39 "Take away the stone," he said. "But, Lord," said Martha, the sister of the dead man, "by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days." 40 Then Jesus said, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" 41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, "Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me." 43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, "Take off the grave clothes and let him go."

Dearly beloved friends in Christ,

Our country is no stranger to serious sicknesses. In the 1950s, we battled the Asian flu. In the Sixties it was the Hong Kong flu. The worst epidemic that has ever hit our nation was the Spanish flu of 1918. Many, many people got sick; sadly, many people died. The latest disease to invade our shores is a coronavirus named COVID-19. A lot of us are concerned about this unseen enemy. Many people are wondering, “Am I going to get this disease? Is someone close to me going to die? How long is this pandemic going to last?” Only God knows the answers to those questions; and it is to God and his Word that we turn for comfort and encouragement in this difficult time. My dearly beloved brothers and sisters at Zion and Courtland—do not be discouraged. Do not lose hope. Be strong and courageous and take heart. Jesus has conquered death!

Today’s lesson is St. John’s account of Jesus raising Lazarus to life. Deadly diseases were commonplace in Jesus’ day. In fact, disease and death have been an inescapable part of life ever since the fall into sin. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden, they brought sin and death into this world. Each and every one of us was infected with this deadly disease when we were conceived in our mother’s wombs. Every day we display sin’s symptoms in our thoughts, words, and actions: selfishness, envy, pride, bitterness and anger, just to name a few. Because we are sinners, all of us will eventually die.

Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, certainly was not immune to sin or its consequences. In Chapter Eleven of his Gospel, St. John tells us that Lazarus was suffering from a serious illness. Meanwhile, Jesus was teaching about the kingdom of God and healing the sick on the other side of the Jordan River where John the Baptist had been baptizing and calling people to repentance. When Lazarus’ sisters found out where Jesus was, they sent this message to Jesus: “Lord, the one you love is sick” (Jn. 11:3). We aren’t told the specific sickness from which Lazarus suffered, nor do we need to know. It is safe to say that whatever disease he had, Martha and Mary had exhausted all of their resources to heal their dying brother to no avail. It was a desperate situation. But when these sisters learned that Jesus was nearby, they turned to him for help and hope. They knew that Jesus was a miracle worker. They believed with all of their hearts that Jesus had the power to heal any and all kinds of sickness. Yet, these sisters did not use their friendship with Jesus to pressure Jesus to come. They didn’t arrogantly demand that Jesus heal their brother. Rather, they simply told Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick” (Jn. 11:3). Mary and Martha were confident that Jesus would do the right thing at the right time. What a beautiful expression of faith!

What was Jesus’ response when he heard the news about his sick friend? Jesus declared, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it” (11:4). John tells us that Jesus loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus. Yet, when Jesus heard the news that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days. By the time Jesus arrived at the outskirts of Bethany, a day’s journey from where Jesus had been, Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she interrupted her mourning and went out to meet Jesus while Mary stayed at home. According to John, the first thing Martha said to Jesus was, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (Jn. 11:21). There is no anger or resentment in her voice. Martha was not accusing Jesus of not caring enough about her brother that he didn’t immediately drop what he was doing and rush to Bethany to help Lazarus. While she didn’t understand why Jesus didn’t come right away, she still expressed her unwavering faith in Jesus.

Martha’s confidence in Jesus came out in her next statement: “I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask” (Jn. 11:22). Martha had such faith in Jesus that, even though Lazarus had been dead for four days, she was confident that Jesus could restore her brother to her. She didn’t know how Jesus was going to pull off this miracle; she did know that Jesus had a close relationship with God. Martha knew that Jesus was a man of prayer. On every occasion and circumstance, Jesus never failed to pray to his heavenly Father. Equally important, his heavenly Father never failed to hear and answer his Son’s prayers. Jesus told Martha, “Your brother will rise again” (v.23). How did Martha understand Jesus’ statement? Without hesitation, Martha said, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (v.24). What a beautiful confession of faith!

The Bible clearly teaches that God will raise from the grave everyone who believes that Jesus is their Savior from sin. God’s Word also teaches that the resurrection of all believers will take place on that glorious day when Jesus returns from heaven to judge the living and the dead. By faith, Martha believed that her brother would rise on the Last Day. Jesus had raised Martha’s hopes in this regard when he had said, “Your brother will rise again” (v.23). Jesus would now speak the most comforting, reassuring words that anyone who is facing his own or someone else’s death could hope to hear: Jesus declared, “I am the resurrection and the life” (Jn. 11:25).

Of Jesus’ seven “I am” statements that are recorded in John’s Gospel, “I am the resurrection and the life” is probably the most comforting and encouraging one for our situation. It speaks to our hearts. It dispels our worries and fears as we face the fallout and uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic. Jesus identifies himself as the great “I AM” of the Bible. Jesus was, is, and always will be God from all eternity. Jesus, along with the Father and the Holy Spirit, created the world and everything in it out of nothing by his all-powerful Word. Jesus gives us life and he sustains and preserves our lives with that same Word. When the world fell under the curse of death, Jesus, out of his love for us, came to earth to remove that curse and save us from our sins. Contrary to what some people believe, we don’t have an uncaring, far away God who won’t lift a finger to help us in times of troubles. Rather, we have a God who loved us so much that he took on human flesh. Jesus is able to sympathize with our weaknesses and troubles because he is, as we confess in the Nicene Creed, “fully human.” Jesus felt pain. He experienced hunger and thirst. He got tired and worn out from his labors. Jesus felt joy and sadness.

John tells us that when he arrived at Lazarus’ tomb, “Jesus wept” (v.35). Jesus wasn’t shedding fake tears; he wasn’t putting on a show. His tears were real; his grief was genuine as he mourned the death of his friend. It is the same grief that you and I feel when someone who is close to us dies. We are sad because we have suffered a huge loss. We grieve because we know that we will not see that individual again on this side of heaven. You know, it’s okay to be sad when someone dies because death isn’t natural. After all, God made us to live forever. The good news is that while we could do nothing to avoid death, God could; and he did. Jesus came to rescue us from sin, death, and the power of the devil. Jesus lived a perfect life in our place and then gave up his life on the cross to pay for our sins. On Good Friday, he died the death we deserve. But on that first, glorious Easter Sunday, Jesus took up his life as he triumphantly rose from the grave. Through faith in Christ, we, too, will live. Paul declares, “Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:56).

Jesus did more for Martha than simply comfort her with the promise that Lazarus would rise on the Last Day. Martha would not have to wait for Judgement Day as Jesus would fulfill his promise that “Your brother will rise again” that very day. When Jesus was at the entrance to Lazarus’ tomb, he said, “Take away the stone” (v.39). Martha tried to stop him, reminding Jesus that her brother’s body was bound to have a bad odor because he had been dead for four days. Jesus then pointed Martha to his promise that Lazarus’ sickness would not end in death, but that his sickness would be for God’s glory. Jesus then called out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” (v.43). John tells us that the dead man immediately came out of the tomb. Because of his love for mankind and to give glory to God, Jesus brought Lazarus back to life.

With Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus proves that he, the Lord and Giver of life, has the power over death. Martha and Mary must have been overjoyed when Jesus reunited them with their brother who once was dead. Jesus gives us even greater comfort when he says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, there are many unknowns. We don’t know who is going to get infected. We don’t know how long it will last. We don’t know when there will be a vaccine or cure. Yet, you and I don’t have to worry about any of those things. We know that Jesus has taken care of our biggest problem. Jesus has cured us of our sins by his perfect life and innocent death. Everyone who believes in Jesus has eternal life and will live in the heavenly home that Jesus has already prepared for us.

So, what can we do to cope with COVID-19? We can pray. We can pray for our leaders, health care workers, our families and friends and those who have been affected by this virus. We can show love to our neighbors with acts of kindness (such as calling a shut-in or getting a senior groceries) and pointing them to Jesus. We can obey our governmental authorities and follow their guidelines to keep everyone safe. But while we are practicing “social distancing”, let’s not distance ourselves from God’s Word. May your hearts be filled with peace and joy from Jesus who said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (v. 26). Jesus has conquered death! Amen.

May the peace of God that transcends all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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