Cruce Tectum

Cruce tectum, hidden under the cross, a blog for Epiphany Lutheran Church, Dorr, Michigan

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Location: Moscow, Idaho

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Fifth Sunday in Lent

Fifth Sunday in Lent (A)
March 9, 2008
Text: John 11:1-53

It is a little strange, isn’t it, to be talking so much about resurrection as we near the climax of Lent. It is such an important point to hold that there must be death before resurrection, Good Friday before Easter Sunday. But we also must always keep in mind that Good Friday is not the final word. The final word is Easter Sunday. So the two go hand in hand, death and resurrection. The death of Jesus Christ on Good Friday as the sacrifice of atonement for our sin leads to His resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday as He emerges from the tomb, the Victor over sin, death, and the devil. But it is an interesting reversal in our text today, where Jesus’ miraculous raising of Lazarus from the dead ends with the chief priests and Pharisees plotting to kill Him. And anyone who knows how this story plays out knows that the chief priests and Pharisees are successful in their devious schemes. As we will hear next week on Palm Sunday, which is also the Sunday of the Passion, how quickly the cries of “Hosanna to the Son of David” give way to cries of “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”

The chief priests and Pharisees believe they need to destroy Jesus, because Jesus shouldn’t be raising people from the dead. Only God can raise the dead, and the chief priests and Pharisees don’t believe Jesus is God. And if the people really believe Jesus can raise the dead… if they really believe Jesus is God, then there will almost certainly be political trouble. Caesar will send his armies on the offense against Israel as a rebellious nation. The casualty count will be colossal. The chief priests and Pharisees will lose their power. Thus unbelieving Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, unwittingly prophesied, “it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish” (John 11:50; ESV). And of course, Caiaphas is right. It is better. In fact, it is God’s eternal plan of salvation that one man, the God-Man, Jesus Christ, should die not for the nation of Israel only, but for the sins of the whole world, “to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad” (v. 52).

The million-dollar question in the case of the chief priests and Pharisees, Mary and Martha, Lazarus, and you and me, is posed by the Prophet Ezekiel in our Old Testament lesson this morning. “Son of man, can these bones live?” (Ez. 37:3). In other words, can the dead really be raised? And if so, who can raise them? Who will bring life to these dry bones? Martha answers the question of whether the dead can be raised in the affirmative in the Gospel lesson. She confesses, “I know that [my brother Lazarus] will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24). She’s right, he will. But Martha fails to answer the question of who can raise her brother. She fails to make the connection between the resurrection of the dead and the One who has power to raise the dead, Jesus Christ, Son of God. In fact, Martha and Mary and even the crowd confess that if Jesus had been there, Lazarus would not have succumbed to death. But even believing Martha and Mary fail to recognize Resurrection Personified in the person of Jesus. “I am the resurrection and the life,” says Jesus. “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (vv. 25-26).

But our Lord is not just engaging in empty rhetoric. He backs His Word up with action. For remember, His Word always accomplishes what it says. It is not like our words, which may or may not be fulfilled. His Word is fulfilled every time. When Jesus calls on the dead to rise from their slumber, they do. So it is that Jesus comes to the tomb of His dear friend Lazarus. He is overcome by grief for His people’s slavery to death, that even His beloved friend is ruled by this last enemy to be defeated. He weeps over what sin has wrought in the world. He commands that the stone be rolled away. Martha still has not put two and two together. “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days” (v. 39). How slow even we Christians are to comprehend the resurrection power of Jesus. How slow even we who love Jesus and believe in Him are to trust His resurrection power in the midst of grief and pain. Lord, if only You had been here. But now it is too late. Now there is the odor of death. There is nothing more You can do, Lord.

How slow even we Christians are to recognize that all things, including death, work for the good of those who love Jesus and are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28). Sometimes Jesus purposely delays His help just to make this very point. “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” says Jesus to our hearts of stone (John 11:40). Be not doubting, but believing. “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.” But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to raise the dead, He cries in a loud voice to the dead man, “Lazarus, come out” (v. 43). And Lazarus comes out. The Word of Jesus always accomplishes what it says. The Lord of life stands in human flesh before the tomb of His dear friend and calls him forth, linen strips and all, from the grave. He dispels the odor of death with the breath of His mighty Word. He bestows life where once death reigned. He bestows His life-giving Spirit where once there was only dead, rotting flesh. He who has the authority to lay down His life and take it up again also has the authority to bestow life on the dead. It is a foreshadowing of His own resurrection. It is a foreshadowing of the resurrection of all flesh on the last day and the eternal salvation, body and soul, of all believers in Christ, the very resurrection Martha confessed. Out of death springs forth life. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). That which is sown perishable is raised imperishable (1 Cor. 15:42).

This resurrection promise is for you. Jesus died for you, more than that, was raised from the dead on the third day, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. The Father has exalted Jesus to His own right hand and given Him the Name that is above every name. But Jesus will return again. He will come back to judge. And on that day He will call all the dead forth from the graves, just as He called Lazarus. In fact, Lazarus had to die again after Jesus raised Him in our text. His resurrection was but a foreshadowing. But on that Day when our Lord returns He will call forth Lazarus from the grave once and for all. And He will call us as well, along with all people. The souls of all the dead will be reunited with their bodies. Then those who did not believe in Jesus will be cast, body and soul, into the lake of fire prepared for the devil and his evil angels. But those who believed will be made perfect, body and soul, and brought to live eternally in a new heavens and a new earth. For they are joined to Christ. They are baptized into Him. They are united to Him by faith. His death is their death. So also His resurrection is their resurrection. Christ’s victory over death is their victory over death. And this is the promise for you even in the face of death. Christ is risen. Therefore you, too, shall rise, and live with Jesus and with your loved ones who are in Christ, in perfect bliss, beholding the face of your Savior for all eternity.

But the promise is not just a future reality. The physical resurrection comes in the future, when Jesus comes again. But spiritual resurrection has already taken hold of you. Jesus has already said to you, “Dear Christian, come out! Come out of your bondage to death! I have burst the bonds of death in my own death and resurrection. What is mine is yours. Arise and live before me in righteousness and purity.” That is what St. Paul is talking about in the Epistle lesson. You no longer need to walk according to the old sinful flesh. You can crucify it, for Jesus’ death is your own. Now you can walk according to the Spirit, in holiness and righteousness. You have been given new life, for Jesus’ resurrection is your own. “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace… You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you” (Rom. 8:6, 9). And the Holy Spirit does dwell in you. He is imparted to you in Baptism. He is imparted to you every time you come into contact with His means of grace, the Word and the Sacrament. The chief priests and Pharisees walked according to the flesh, in unbelief, but by God’s grace, you walk according to the Spirit in faith. The Spirit is the One who creates and sustains faith in your heart, even in the face of death. In fact, He is the One who creates and sustains faith in the future resurrection from the dead on account of Christ’s resurrection. “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (v. 11).

So… “Son of man, can these bones live?” Yes, they can. “Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live” (Ez. 37:5). Jesus breathes His Holy Spirit on the dry bones of sinners and re-creates them as His living, flesh and blood servants. And that is the good news that can sustain you through Good Friday. There must be death before there is resurrection. But death is not the end of the story. Our risen Lord Jesus is the end of the story. And He is the resurrection and the life. He is your resurrection and your life. If you believe in Him, even though you die, yet shall you live. And whoever lives and believes in Him shall never die. The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. And He has authority on earth to raise the dead. Therefore dry bones, arise, come forth from the grave. Your Savior is calling. Come and live in Him, for He is your life and salvation. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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