Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Seventh Sign

In Nomine Iesu
St. John 11:1-45
April 2, 2017
Lent 5A

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus~

In the Gospel according to St. John, Jesus performs seven “signs,” seven miracles. The very first of these signs took place at a wedding at Cana in Galilee. You remember it. The wine ran out and Jesus saved the day by turning ordinary water into the finest of wines. The first sign took place at a wedding; but the last sign—the seventh sign—took place at a funeral in a cemetery. There Jesus raised his friend,
Lazarus, from the dead to show that He is the resurrection and the life.

Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. Those siblings were friends of Jesus. Remember when they had welcomed Jesus into their home—how Martha got overwhelmed in the kitchen, while Mary just sat at the Savior’s feet listening? It was only natural, then, that when Lazarus got seriously ill, the sisters sent an urgent message to Jesus: “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” They hoped, and perhaps expected, that Jesus would come quickly. But He didn’t. In fact, there was little to no urgency on the part of Jesus. He seemed almost nonchalant about the whole thing and lingered a few days longer before going to visit his friends.

The delay makes almost no sense to our ears. If we get notified that someone we love is sick and dying, we make plans to visit. We drop everything. We rearrange our lives so that we can say our goodbyes and share some good memories. It’s the decent, respectful thing to do. Jesus, of course, could have visited and done a lot more than share good memories with his friends. He could have healed Lazarus—could have saved his life—could have rushed right over to that house He knew so well and spared them days of tears and grief. But He didn’t. Jesus intentionally waited and did nothing. He told His disciples that the illness “does not lead to death.” Even when Jesus knew that Lazarus was dead, He seemed to downplay the whole thing, saying, “He’s fallen asleep; and I’m going to awaken him.”

That’s how it is with Jesus. Death is merely a sleep from which He awakens us. To our eyes—to our reason and senses—death is the end, the last word, the final exit. It’s over, curtains, kicked the bucket, pushing up daisies, dead and gone. Jesus let his best friend die. And He goes so far as to say, “I’m glad—glad I wasn’t there—so that you may believe.”

Mary and Martha, however, were not glad that Jesus wasn’t there. In fact, they were angry. When Jesus finally arrives four days later, the sisters aren’t terribly happy with Jesus. Martha ran down the road to meet Him: “If you’d been here—if you’d come when we called you—my brother would not have died.” You can hear the anguish in those words. Jesus had healed so many people—strangers, children, foreigners, Samaritans. Why wouldn’t He take the time to heal His best friend? Why didn’t He do anything?

That’s our question too. We want an activist, interventionist Jesus—a superhero Jesus—who drops whatever He’s doing to fly to our assistance. Jesus on demand. What we get instead is the Jesus who delays—who does nothing—who even makes light of our death as if it were nothing more than a Sunday afternoon nap. We get understandably upset when the people we depend on don’t return our emergency calls. Double the upset when it’s our Savior; and triple it when He’s supposed to be our friend—who loves us.

Despite Martha’s frustration and grief, there’s still a glimmer of faith there. Martha says, “Even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” At this point, for Martha, Jesus is just someone who has a special “in” with God. God listens to Jesus. Jesus can channel and apply the power of God in special situations. But Jesus is so much than that. And He wants Martha to know and believe that. “Your brother will rise again,” He says. “I know that he will rise again on the last day,” she says, probably reciting what she had learned back in Sabbath School. But Jesus wants her to see Him as the object of all her faith and hope. And so He tells her plainly: I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.

Next, comes the question: Do you believe this? Does Martha believe that this Jesus, with whom she is angry to the point of tears, is the source of the resurrection and the life—that He holds the keys to the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting? Martha certainly believes something: “Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” But does she realize that this Christ must suffer and die for the sins for the world? Does she realize that to defeat death, Jesus Himself must die? Does she realize that to bring us resurrection life, the corpse of Jesus must first be laid in the tomb, and rise again on the third day?

Jesus’ question is for you, too. Do you believe this—that Jesus is the resurrection and the life—that in Him you will never die? It’s one thing to trust that Jesus can heal your sicknesses or change your water into wine. It’s quite another to trust Jesus with your death. Jesus could have rushed right over to heal Lazarus. He could have spared Mary and Martha their grief—could have spared Lazarus the agony of dying. He could have saved the day. But Jesus wants to give you more. He wants you to see Him as the one—the only one—who can save you from death. So what does He do? He allows his friend Lazarus to die of his illness. He doesn’t fly to the rescue in your life every time you get a new diagnoses or suffer some setback. He leaves things as they are in our lives, and then He asks, “Do you trust me? Do you trust me when I hear your prayers and do nothing? Do you trust me even when I let you die?”

In this seventh sign, so strange and wonderful, Jesus shows us that His ways are not our ways, and His thoughts are higher than ours. His help and His healing will come, but not always at the time we desire or in the way we desire. Death, however, is never His desire. And in this seventh sign Jesus backs up His Word with His deeds—He practices what He preaches. Jesus weeps. Jesus goes to the tomb. Jesus commands the stone to be rolled away. Jesus prays to His Father. Jesus cries out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus comes out, alive again. All it takes is a Word: Death must obey its Master. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Trust Him and you will live in spite of dying.

Beloved in the Lord, someday what happened to dear Lazarus will happen to you. At the sound of the trumpet, in the twinkling of an eye, the Lord Jesus will call you from your grave. Dust and decomposition are not the final destiny of your flesh and blood. Jesus has destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. Jesus destroyed death by submitting to it Himself—on the cross, as your substitute, bearing all your sins. “Do you believe this?” Jesus wants to know.

This seventh sign—the raising of Lazarus—the greatest and grandest of Jesus’ miracles—it had other, more grave, implications. We heard 45 verses from John chapter 11 this morning; but we would have to read on into chapter 12 to hear the rest of the story. For Jesus, the raising of Lazarus essentially signed His own death warrant. His enemies, who were already jealous, would now be sufficiently enraged to plot His death. This seventh sign was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Now Jesus would be killed.

And what about Lazarus? What became of him after he was raised by Jesus? In today’s world he could have signed a book deal worth millions. He could have sat down for an interview with Barbara Walters or Bill O’Reilly. I certainly would tune-in to watch that. But all we know for sure is this: As the Pharisees plotted to kill Jesus, so also did they plot to kill Lazarus (John 12:10). And that makes perfectly good sense, in an evil sort of way. Of course, they had to kill Lazarus! He was a walking, talking, living, breathing witness whose every breath and heartbeat was a testimony to the power and glory of Jesus Christ, the resurrection and the life, the Son of God.

In this way, you aren’t so different from Lazarus. You also are a witness for Jesus. You too are a walking, talking, living breathing “sign” for the Savior. Your words and your deeds bear witness to Christ and to the truth of His teaching—the sanctity of life, the sacred gift of marriage, the creation of the world. When you were baptized, you died. And in that baptism you were also raised with Christ. You, therefore, are a little Lazarus—you died and were raised in baptism. In you, as in Lazarus, the sinful world sees Jesus. So there’s a price on your head too. You too are a target. Don’t expect smooth sailing. But rather, take up your crosses, live as witnesses, let your light shine—all for the sake of Jesus who loved you and gave Himself for you.

What’s the worst that could happen? You die? Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Learn with Lazarus that your life is in the Lord’s hands. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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