Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

Text: John 11:3-4
The sisters sent Jesus a message: "Lord, your dear friend is sick."
When Jesus heard it, he said, "The final result of this sickness will not be the death of Lazarus; this has happened in order to bring glory to God, and it will be the means by which the Son of God will receive glory."

“In the midst of life we are in death”

A prayer at the opening of the committal part of a funeral service held at the graveside or the crematorium begins like this,
“We are all born weak and helpless.
All lead the same short, troubled life.
We grow and wither as quickly as flowers; we disappear like shadows.
In the midst of life we are in death”.

Those gathered have reached the point where they must lay to rest the earthly remains of their loved one.  We are all born into this world weak and helpless and we leave the same way.  We all endure similar troubles during the short time we are here.  Like a flower we are tall and beautiful one day; and wither and die the next.  That all sounds very gloomy but it’s reality. 

Some have accused Christians of burying their heads in the sand of their faith and denying that death is painful and worrying and fearful.  We are people who love and care and need other people and when death comes close to us, it does sting us with a sharp barb.  Death affects us deeply.

The pain is especially severe when someone has died unexpectedly through accident or sickness and his/her bright future has been brought to a sudden stop here in this life. 
From our perspective this is a tragedy;
it is terribly painful;
we grapple to find answers;
we are overwhelmed with grief;
we wonder what is the purpose behind this person’s death;
we suddenly feel insecure because we are reminded that life is a fragile thing and not to be taken for granted.
“In the midst of life we are in death” the opening words of the Committal service remind us. 

In the Gospel reading Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem where he will face his own death, when he gets a message from Mary and Martha that their brother, Lazarus, is dangerously ill. There’s clearly some urgency in the message and an expectation that Jesus would come as quickly as possible but for some reason he takes his time.  By the time he gets to Bethany, Lazarus has been in the grave for four days.  Jesus is too late; the funeral is over and all there is to do is join those who are grieving.

We could well ask: why doesn’t Jesus interrupt what he is doing and rush to be with Lazarus and Mary and Martha?  In answering this let’s remember, when John writes his gospel, he is always telling us something to emphasise what he said in his opening verses to his Gospel account, namely that Jesus is the Word made flesh. He existed in the beginning; he was with God and that he was God.  Through him God made all things; not one thing in all creation was made without him (John 1:1-4).

A point that John makes is that in these final weeks Jesus is in charge of his earthly life.  His enemies might think they are in charge but they are not.  They will fall in line with God’s plan to save all humanity.  In John’s Gospel this is Jesus’ last miracle and sickness and death will not side-track Jesus and take charge.  He assures the disciples that Lazarus will be okay and at the right time, God’s time, “he will get well” “in order to bring glory to God” (11:4) and “so that you will believe” (11:15). 

We don’t know what Jesus was doing during those four days but it is certain that death was not going to dictate who he was going to serve and where he was going to be in these final days.  It will not control Jesus’ now and it will have no power over him in the future when he will rise from the dead and once and for all break the power of death to hold down all those who believe and trust in him.

When he finally gets to Bethany we hear of the only time Jesus goes to a cemetery.  He sees how death has affected the people who have gathered to mourn the death of Lazarus.  In fact, as was customary the mourners were engaged in loud wailing and weeping.  We are told that Jesus was deeply moved by what he saw – the words here indicate he groaned or sighed and was deeply troubled.  He weeps.

We aren’t told why he wept but being like us we can put ourselves in the same situation and maybe understand his tears.
His tears are tears of compassion – he can see how much the two woman have been hurt by death and the loss of their much-loved brother, Lazarus. 
He sheds tears of sadness – death has done its worst again and cut short a life. 
His tears are human tears – in a few days, death will do its worst to him as he hangs on a cross. 
He weeps for those he loves – his own death will bring the same sadness into the lives of his own mother and those he loves.
But above all, he weeps for those standing around him in that cemetery and for his enemies.  They had heard him speak about the Kingdom of God breaking into their lives and they had seen the power of God over evil and sickness and death and they will even witness more in the days ahead, but he knows they will remain firm in their disbelief.  We hear in the following chapter (John 12:37) “Even though he had performed all these miracles in their presence, they did not believe in him” and those that did believe were too frightened to speak up because they were afraid of the Pharisees. “They loved human approval rather than the approval of God” (John 12:43).

As you know Jesus shouts, “Lazarus, come out” and a dead man – a once dead man walked out from the tomb; has hands, feet and face still bound with the linen burial cloths. Lazarus is revived, resuscitated, brought back to life – doubtlessly a miracle since he had been in tomb four days but one day in the future he will die again.  Jesus has made another promise and this sign as John likes to call Jesus’ miracles tells us that Jesus is the God who gives life, eternal life.  To use Jesus own words, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). 

Jesus is saying that we will all have to die physically.  These bodies will die. At what age and what will be the cause of our dying is only known to God.  We know that human bodies will fail in due course because of old age and we know that sickness and accident will take people from us when we least expect it.  God is not the cause of sickness and death but when it comes, he promises that those who live and believe in Jesus will never die.  There is life beyond the grave. Paul says, “But the truth is that Christ has been raised from death, as the guarantee that those who sleep in death will also be raised” (1 Cor 15:20).

As Jesus contemplated what death had done to his dearest friends, Jesus knew what death will do to him and the affect it will have on those close to him.  Jesus himself knew that he will rise from the dead on Easter morning but that doesn’t take away the horrors of death or should I say terror of dying one bit.  I think for many of us it’s not so much death itself that scares us, after all, we know that beyond death there is eternal life and the joy of heaven.  What scares us the most is what will happen to us leading up to our death. We might wish for a gentle falling asleep into death and dread a long, slow, painful, withering away. 

In the end, our bodies and minds will take us down a path that we don’t have a great deal of say about, but whatever that journey might be, Jesus our friend and Saviour takes that journey with us.  Even when everyone else thinks we aren’t aware of their presence anymore, Jesus is totally aware of us, and embraces us, and holds us close to himself until we take our last breath and we enter that life he promises in today’s gospel reading.  He is our resurrection and life.

This is our comfort also when we are the ones experiencing grief like Martha and Mary and later the disciples.  We are glad Jesus took that road to Jerusalem, detouring via the cemetery at Bethany and reminding us that death does not have the last word.  We are glad that even though dying for Jesus was about as horrible and terrifying as it could be, and he knew just how bad it would be beforehand which would have made it even more difficult and all the more tempting to turn around and head away from Jerusalem, and yet he went through with it just for us so that we could be free of the eternal death that is the result of our sin.

When death and sickness are tearing us apart emotionally, spiritually, physically and doing its worst and we feel wrung out and tortured, there is
One we can trust,
One we can turn to and who understands what it’s like to endure pain and death and to grieve and weep,
One who gives comfort, peace, hope and confidence. 
There is the One who is the Resurrection and the Life.

In 1991, Conor Clapton, the four year old son of guitarist Eric Clapton accidentally fell to his death.  This absolutely devastated Clapton and eventually he wrote a song to express his grief.  I don’t know much about Clapton but his faith did get him through some low times in his life.  This song expresses the turmoil grief can bring and the last lines give a hint of the peace that faith in Christ gives.  The song is Tears in heaven.

Time can bring you down,
time can bend your knees.
Time can break your heart,
have you begging please.

Beyond the door
there's peace I'm sure,
And I know there'll be
no more tears in heaven.

In conclusion, let me return to the prayer at the beginning of Committal service
“In the midst of life we are in death.
To whom can we go for help, but to you, Lord God?
You know the secrets of our hearts;
mercifully hear us, most worthy judge eternal;
keep us, at our last hour, in the consolation of your love”.


© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
6th April 2014

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