Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

Text: John 11:38-44
Deeply moved once more, Jesus went to the tomb, which was a cave with a stone placed at the entrance. "Take the stone away!" Jesus ordered.
Martha, the dead man's sister, answered, "There will be a bad smell, Lord. He has been buried four days!" Jesus said to her, "Didn't I tell you that you would see God's glory if you believed?" They took the stone away. .... (Jesus) called out in a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" He came out, his hands and feet wrapped in grave cloths, and with a cloth around his face. "Untie him", Jesus told them, "and let him go".

Life in place of death

Life is precious, but most days I take life for granted. I seldom think about not living, and because there are few obvious threats to my daily living, I simply assume that life will go on without much effort on my part.

But every now and then I'm brought up with a jolt.
A young person dies in a senseless car accident.
Someone my own age dies of cancer.
I attend a funeral.
And suddenly death is no longer remote, and life is very precious.

The Russian novelist, Feodor Dostoyevsky, has given a vivid account of his own confrontation with death. In December, 1848, when Dostoyevsky was 27 years old, he and 43 other students were arrested by the Russian secret police. They were accused of plotting against the Czar, of treason against the State. The police took them to the Semyonovsky parade ground, where they were lined up and the verdict delivered against each one of them: Sentenced to be shot.

The students were stripped, and given the white shirts of condemned prisoners. They were then forced to stand for 20 minutes in the biting winter wind. The temperature was 20 degrees below freezing point. A priest invited them to make their last confession. He offered them a crucifix and they kissed it, eagerly and desperately, as though it was the only thing that could save them.

Dostoyevsky kept thinking, "This is impossible. This isn't happening to me. They can't mean to kill us!" But nearby was a cart, its coffins covered by a tarpaulin.

Then, the first three prisoners were taken to three posts. Their hands were tied behind their backs and blindfolds were placed over their eyes. Soldiers took their places opposite each post and prepared their rifles. Dostoyevsky estimated that he would be in the third group to be shot. This would give him about five minutes before he'd be taken to the post and blindfolded.

He said farewell to the prisoners on each side of him, and thought of his family, and his brother, Michale. Then he began to reflect on his own life. Here he was a living, thinking, feeling being. In three minutes he'd be a nobody, a nothing. His thoughts raced. He imagined some sort of last minute reprieve.

"What should I do if I were not to die now?" he wondered. "What an eternity of days I would have, [compared to a few minutes] and all mine! I would count up every minute, so as not to waste a single instant". The thought became such a burden he couldn't bear it, and he wished they'd shoot him quickly and have it done with.

And then there was the fear - the dryness in the mouth; the choking in the throat; the numbness of arms and legs.

And then, when the soldiers had actually lifted their rifles, there came a shout across the square, galloping horses, a soldier with a white handkerchief. He brought a gracious pardon from the Czar. Four years' imprisonment in Siberia and four years' of military service. The cart was uncovered. It contained not coffins but convict uniforms. The sentence of death had been only a threat - a lesson not to be forgotten.

And it never was forgotten by the 44 men on the parade ground. They all suffered effects from the cold, and one of those blindfolded went mad. Years later Dostoyevsky would wake in the middle of the night with the words, "Sentenced to death", echoing in his head.

The reality of death and its inevitability remained with him all his life. "The certainty of inescapable death, and the uncertainty of what is to follow, are the most dreadful anguish in the world", he concluded to his friends.

Read any biographical work on Dostoyevsky and you will find how his experience of the closeness to death affected him for the rest of his life.

Today in our Gospel lesson we see how death affected the life of Jesus’ dear friends, Mary and Martha. Their brother Lazarus was ill and they sent a message to tell Jesus that Lazarus’ condition was serious. But Jesus doesn’t come straight away. There is no doubt that Jesus loved Mary and Martha and Lazarus dearly, but he deliberately stalls for two days, and so by the time he gets to Bethany, Lazarus had already died, in fact, the funeral has already happened and the body of Lazarus had been in the grave for four days.

Life is precious. Dostoyevsky discovered just how precious it was when he only had a few minutes left.
Eli Wiesel said this about life in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, "You should know that no one is as grateful as a person who was there. We died more than once. But now, every hour is an hour of grace. Every smile, every word, is something we didn't expect". Life is precious and death is an enemy that takes away what is precious to us.

The Bible says that death is an enemy. No one likes death. No one wants it. And yet it comes. Dostoyevsky realised he escaped death once, but ultimately it is inescapable. And he feared it's coming, calling it the "most dreadful anguish in the world". Lazarus had his life cut short, he was not as fortunate as the young Dostoyevsky, there was no galloping horseman to save him from death.

I believe there is a tinge of rebuke and regret in Martha’s words that Jesus had taken so long to get there. She said, "If you had been here, Lord, my brother would not have died!" And who can blame her for feeling upset. After all, it was her brother who had died, and the text leaves us in no doubt that Lazarus and his sisters were very close. Jesus sees the tears and the grief, and he weeps with them.

Jesus weeps not because he is sad that Lazarus had died. He made a point earlier to his disciples that death of Lazarus was only temporary. He had told his disciples that there was a purpose behind the death of his good friend. He wanted them to realise that he really is the Son of God (John 11:4). He says, "Lazarus is dead, but for your sake I am glad that I was not with him, so that you will believe" (John 11:14, 15).

Jesus weeps with Mary and Martha because he knows what pain and sense of loss death brings.
His tears are tears of compassion – he can see how much the two woman are hurting and how deeply the death of Lazarus has affected them.
He shed tears of sadness because of the power that death has and the terrible suffering it causes. He weeps because it’s not right that a life is suddenly cut short.
He hates death as much as anybody else.
He weeps because he knows that that the raising of Lazarus will lead to his own death. His enemies will be even more determined to get rid of him.
He weeps because of the grief and pain that his own death will bring into the lives of those whom he loves, his own mother, the disciples and other friends.

Perhaps he wept because of the lack of trust in those who had gathered to mourn Lazarus. Yes, they knew that Jesus healed the sick, the blind, the paralysed and even brought people back to life, but unlike the daughter of Jairus and the widow’s son at Nain, Lazarus had been in the grave for four days. He was already decomposing. It was beyond their wildest imaginations to think that Jesus could raise a person in such a condition. As far as those gathered at the grave that day were concerned, death is death. When it comes, it is final, absolute, the end.

Jesus shouted, "Lazarus come out" and a dead man – a once dead man walked out from the tomb; has hands, feet and face still bound up with the linen burial cloths.

Mary and Martha saw death as the "most dreadful anguish" to use Dostoyevsky’s words. That is, until the wandering rabbi came to their house. A word from him, and death let go of its hold of its victim.

Death can still be a fearful thing today, even though our death may not be as imminent as Dostoyevsky’s as he stood in line waiting to be shot by a firing squad, or we may not be suffering the loss of someone near to us at this moment, as Mary and Martha did. But the good news of our Gospel reading this morning is that Jesus is the Lord over death, he is more powerful than this "most dreadful anguish".

A few years ago, a letter was sent to a deceased person by a Department of Social Services. It read as follows:
"Your social security cheques will be stopped in March because we received notice that you passed away. We extend to you our condolences. You may reapply if there is a change in your circumstances."

Unless your name is Lazarus, the likelihood of circumstances changing is somewhat unlikely. But because of Jesus our circumstances after death do change.

Death may be cruel.
It may be an intruder and an enemy.
It may cause us terrible grief.
It may create fear and anxiety in our lives.
But in spite of all of this, it has been defeated. In the cross of Jesus, God dealt with the cause of death, sin. Jesus took our sin upon himself, as well as the death we deserve for our rebellion against God.

Jesus died. But he came alive again. His resurrection was an announcement to the whole world that death has been swallowed up in victory. There is now nothing to be afraid of. Now on the other side of death there is the glorious hope of life, eternal life, life in heaven, a blissful life, a perfect life. This life is something to look forward to, not with fear, but with confidence.

Death is no longer just the end of the old, but the beginning of the new, the new life that God began in us at our baptism. It is just at this point that our Christian faith becomes completely relevant. Through the victory of Christ's cross we are assured of life forever.

If you are ever in doubt about your place in heaven remind yourself of your baptism and your connection to Christ's death and resurrection.
Remind yourself of your place in the family of God, that you have a loving heavenly Father.
Listen to God’s Spirit reminding you through the promises of the Scriptures that we have a Saviour who is ready to comfort us, make us calm and sympathise with us just as he did for the sisters at Bethany.

When our last hour comes, we are certain that we will not walk alone but walk in the presence of our loving Saviour. Jesus assures us, "Those who believe in me will live, even though they die; and those who live and believe in me will never die".

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
13th March, 2005

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