Tempted to Despair

lazarus-by-anna-cuypers5th Sunday in Lent

John 11:17-27, 38-53


      “I am the resurrection and the life,” says the Lord.  “Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live.  And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die!”  Not even famous John 3:16 compares to those words, these words of Jesus and the hope He brings to a world of despair!  A funeral doesn’t conclude without a reference to these words somewhere along the way.

      Ah…but…funeral sermons have come under flak among us in recent time.  Some Lutheran preachers and theologians have concluded that we funeral preachers are getting people into heaven too soon!  This vocal opposition intends to champion the resurrection of the body.  “That’s what we confess in the Creed,” they declare.  “And, as we confess, the resurrection belongs to the Last Day!”  So, they reason, if the faithful departed are not raised until the Last Day…they can’t be in heaven yet!

      Which only begs the question…well, then, where are they now?  Some suggest the equivalent of the faithful departed crowded onto the front porch of heaven, waiting for the big day when the door is opened.  Others say that the dead are dead, buried, and waiting for the day when the trumpet shall sound, the dead are raised imperishable, and we are changed.  Others get all sci-fi and speak about a sort of cosmic suspended animation…or of disembodied souls floating around somewhere waiting for their bodies to catch up with them on the Last Day.

      But regardless of such variety, they are all agreed on one point: no heaven for you…until the Last Day.  And funeral sermons ought to say as much!

      Yeah…well…fat chance!  What these folks forget in their zeal is that what they’re saying is exactly what Martha says about her dead brother, Lazarus.  “I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the Last Day.”

      But those words are Jesus’ cue for this famous verse.  He doesn’t say that Martha is wrong.  He doesn’t contradict her.  But clearly, by what He says, her response…and the responses of all our contemporary so-called champions of the resurrection…the whole lot of them are a few bricks short of a full load!

      With one simply profound sentence, Jesus tells Martha and all of us that the resurrection…the resurrection of the dead, the resurrection of the body…is not merely some thing that happens some day in the future.  Jesus says, “I am…I am the resurrection.”  “I am…the life.”  And His words change the whole argument!

      Lazarus and his two sisters lived in of town Bethany, a couple of miles outside Jerusalem.  And, as St. John tells it in his Gospel, the three of them were among the best friends Jesus had.  He used to drop in on them whenever He was in the neighborhood.  When He made His entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, it was from Bethany that He left, and it was to Bethany that He returned during Holy Week to take it easy for a few days before His final arrest.

      When Lazarus died, Jesus didn’t arrive on the scene until several days afterward, four days to be precise.  When Jesus got to Bethany He found the sisters still so broken up over their brother’s death that they hardly knew what they were saying.  With one breath they reproached Him for not having come in time to save their brother.  But with the next breath they told Him they knew He could still save their brother.

      Then, for the first and only time such a thing is recorded of Jesus in the New Testament.  Jesus, Himself, broke down.  He had gone out to where His friend’s body lay entombed.  And, then, with a word, He brought him back to life again.

      Interviews with people who have been resuscitated after being pronounced clinically dead reveal that, after the glimpse they all seem to get of a figure of light waiting for them on the other side, they are very reluctant to be brought back again to this side.  But think of Lazarus, when he opened his eyes and saw the figure of Jesus standing there in the daylight beside him…perhaps he couldn’t for the life of him tell which side he was on.

      And in a way, that’s what this whole episode is about!  Back in chapter 5 of St. John’s Gospel, after one of Jesus’ many run-ins with the opposition after healing a man on the Sabbath, Jesus said to the crowd, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears My Word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life.  He does not come into judgment but has passed from death to life.”

      And St. John has been hammering at that very point.  With Nicodemus, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.”  Not just someday…but now in that belief!

      To the woman at the well, “The water that I…give…will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”  Not just someday, but now in her hearing!  To the man born blind, Jesus says, “As long as I am in the world, I am the Light of the world.”  Not just someday, but now!  And today, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God? … Lazarus, come out!”  Every one of them listened to the voice of Jesus.  Every one of them crossed over from death to life…right then and there…because Jesus was there, then.

      Do hear what John is telling us?  What he has been telling us all along the way in this Lenten season?  He is not simply trying to get us to Jesus, to the cross and Easter.  All along the way he has been getting Jesus and the cross and Easter to us in all our troubles!

      With Nicodemus, all of Jesus’ language about being born again, in that baptismal language, there is the death of Jesus and the resurrection of Jesus.  To the woman at the well, the thirsting Jesus, at about the sixth hour, pours out living water, His death and resurrection for her.

      To the man born blind, and all that language of darkness and light, of blindness and sight, of judgment and life, there is the cross.  There is the resurrection.  And now, Lazarus…where Jesus weeps, as He’ll do over Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, where He groans like the Garden of Gethsemane, torn between the Father’s will and the world’s unbelief, between the prospect of life for the world and the cost of that new life.  Cross and resurrection are there!  Because Jesus is there!

      The cross and resurrection are there with Nicodemus, though the event is yet to come.   Cross and resurrection are there for the Samaritan woman, though, again, the event is yet to come.  And cross and resurrection are there weeping and groaning for Lazarus…though not yet had it happened.  Cross and resurrection were there because Jesus was there.

      And that is St. John’s word to us in all our troubles… especially in those moments we are sorely tempted to despair…as when a loved one dies…as when we get a taste of our own death.  When we are tempted to despair, the way out is not by pointing to what is yet to come…the way out comes by pointing to who is present with us…Him who is the living water, the light, the resurrection, the life.

      Oh yes…we want to know what Lazarus might have been doing during those 4 days.  Now we have this movie about a little boy who dies and sees heaven and comes back.  So…does all that make it real?

      St. John would suggest that if we think so, we miss the point!  Like the two sisters: “Lord, if You had been hear our brother would not have died!”  True!  But not as they thought.  Jesus did arrive.  Their brother lived…though he would yet die again one more time.

      John’s point?  “Whoever hears My Word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life!  He has crossed over from judgment, crossed over from death to life.”  And now you hear Him.  And soon you will taste Him.  You have eternal life…now.  You have crossed over from death to life…now.  Though, yes, not yet do you see it.  Indeed, not yet is the Last Day.  And yet, today, now…in your hearing…you have eternal life.

      Of course we pile up our questions and speculations of how and what and where and more!  But St. John makes it simple.  It’s only a matter of who.  And in all of our questions and speculations and debates about death and resurrection…there is only One who who says, “I am the resurrection, and I am the life.”  Are you listening?