Video of the Divine Service here.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Wouldn’t it be great if Lazarus could speak to us today? We have 53 verses in John 11 and at least 17 verses in chapter 12 where Lazarus is mentioned or talked about, and he never says a single word. We don’t know where he was for those four days; we don’t know how he felt about coming back from where he was; we don’t know how he felt about living again in this world of sin and sickness and death; we don’t know how many more years he lived. Those are the sorts of questions we would ask, and maybe one day we will have the answers to them, but not today. Lazarus will not speak to us today. Only Jesus will speak to us today; and it is to Him only that we should listen.
Jesus does two sorts of things in the Gospel of John: He speaks, and He does signs. John never calls them miracles. They are certainly miraculous, but they are much more than mere miracles. They are signs. They point, like all signs, beyond themselves to something deeper, something more important, something more profound. So Jesus heals a man born blind, and that’s good. The man receives back his physical sight. But this is a sign that points beyond itself—as Jesus interprets it for us—to sight that has nothing to do with your physical eyes. Those who refuse to see their sin cannot see Jesus as the one whom the Father has sent to take away the sin of the world. They are blind, and their guilt remains. But those whose eyes Jesus has opened by washing and the power of His Word, can truly see, whether their physical eyes work or not. And, one day, Jesus will recreate physical eyes, too.
Jesus makes water into wine at a wedding, and that’s good. Jesus gladdens the hearts of men with His good, created gifts. But this is a sign, pointing to the fact that Jesus is the author of creation, and that He has entered this creation in order to remake it, to restore it, to fix it. Jesus makes much more wine than this wedding party will ever be able to drink, because the day is coming when Jesus, the Bridegroom, will gather His bride and a feast will begin that will go on forever, and the good wine and food will never run out.
Jesus feeds five thousand people, and that’s good. Their stomachs are filled and their physical needs are taken care of. But this is a sign that Jesus is the true bread that comes down from heaven to give life to the world. Jesus is true bread and true drink. Whoever believes in Him, whoever eats His flesh and drinks His blood will not die—unlike those who ate physical bread, or even manna from heaven—but, instead, will live forever, because he has true Life.
Jesus heals a ruler’s son, and that’s good. The man asks Jesus to come and heal his son because he’s about to die. Jesus says, “Unless you see signs and wonders, you will surely not believe.” The man simply says, “Come down before my child dies.” Jesus says, “Go; your child will live.” And the man goes down to his house and he sees the sign: his son is alive. But John tells us the man believes, not because he saw a sign, but because of the Word which Jesus had spoken to him. And his whole family, including his son, believes.
And here, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. He gives Lazarus back to his sisters, Mary and Martha. That’s good, because death is bad. Death is not natural. Death is an intrusion into God’s good creation, tearing apart bodies and souls. Death is an enemy to be destroyed. Here, Jesus punches death in the face, and gives Lazarus back his life. But this, too, is a sign—maybe the greatest of the signs. It points beyond itself to something deeper, something more important, something more profound. This sign points to who Jesus is and to who you are in Christ. This sign is the last straw for the Pharisees and the leaders of the Jews; it’s no coincidence that from this day on, they plotted how to put Jesus to death. Jesus gives life to Lazarus, and they want to put Him to death. It’s a sign: Jesus will go on to Jerusalem, via the house of Mary and Martha and Lazarus. And there will be another death, another grave, another corpse laid in a cave, another stone rolled in front of it. But there will also be another stone rolled away; there will be grave-clothes left in that tomb, and the one who had died will be unbound and free. The man Jesus, like the man Lazarus, will rise from the dead. But because the raising of Lazarus is a sign and not yet the fulfillment, the new life of Jesus is beyond the new life of Lazarus. Lazarus is restored to physical life but, presumably, like those Jesus heals, Lazarus will die again. But when Jesus rises from the dead, it is the life of the new creation. Death no longer has any control over Him; death no longer is lord over the body in which He became sin for us. He cannot die any more. And because Jesus will not die again, those who are in Christ will not die, either.
Jesus says to Martha, “Your brother will rise.” And she says, “I know he will rise at the last day.” It’s easy for her to believe in a far-off resurrection. But when Jesus says, take away the stone, she says, “He’s already been in there four days and the corpse will stink.” Apparently, a resurrection on the last day, when Lazarus will be dust, is easier to believe than a raising after four days of decay. And I wonder if we’re not too different from Martha. We confess every week that the bodies of the dead will be raised, but does that have anything to do with what Jesus is doing now? Jesus says to Martha, “Eternal life is not just about the last day.” And it’s not just about one day in the year when we dress in nice clothes and come to church. The only reason to celebrate Easter, the only reason that there will be a resurrection on the last day, is because Jesus is “the Resurrection and the Life. Whoever believes in Me,” He says, “even if he dies, he will live. And whoever lives, believing in Me, will never die. Do you believe this?” Do we believe that Jesus’ Life is our life now, which extends beyond death into the new creation? This is the purpose of the signs of Jesus: that we might believe that Jesus is the one whom the Father has sent. Martha confesses, “Yes, Lord. I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” In fact, this is the whole purpose of John’s Gospel. He says in chapter 20: “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book.” He says later that if everything Jesus did were written down, he supposes that not all the books in the world would be able to contain them. “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and by believing, have life in His Name” (20:31).
Christ has indeed granted us life in His Name. And yet death still confronts us with all its force. And we ask with the Jews at the tomb of Lazarus, “Could not He, who restored sight to the blind man have made this one not die?” Could not He, who raised Lazarus from the dead, have made this one, my loved one, not die? And the answer is the same as it was for Lazarus: I am the Resurrection and the Life; whoever believes in Me, even if he dies, shall live; and whoever lives, believing in Me, will never die. Do you believe this? We fear death more than anything else; we think death is the most serious, the greatest separation, final and forever. But for Jesus, death is no more serious, no more separating, no more final than waking a sleeping man. Not even death can separate you from the Love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord, because you have been joined to the One who has already passed over from death to life, and so you have passed over from death to life and you will not come into condemnation.
Lazarus may have died again, but he did not die. He believed. And it was Jesus who gave Him that real life, beyond mere physical life. So it is for you: you live now, because you are in Christ. Paul says, “Don’t you know that all of you who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore, you were buried with Him by baptism into death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, you also might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6). Your death is over and done with, and Jesus gives you the signs to prove it. Water is the first of those signs, in which Jesus’ words point beyond mere water to the work of Jesus by means of the water. This is how He makes you not die; this is how He makes your loved ones not die. By crucifying you with Himself, who is the Life; by clothing you with Himself, who is the Life; so that you will never die, even if you die. The ultimate and final sign in the Gospel of John is the cross. St. Paul says that Jews ask for signs and Greeks seek wisdom. Well, God has a sign for the Jews and for the Gentiles. He has wisdom for Gentiles and Jews. It is Christ on the cross, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Greeks. But Christ crucified is exactly what we preach. And we are about to see that sign, as we follow Him to the gates of Jerusalem next week, and then to the upper room, and to the Garden, and to the victory of the cross, which is proven by His resurrection.
This is your entire life! Every week that we do what the Church has always done, we enter through the gates of Jerusalem, singing “Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna! Save us, O Lord! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!” We go to the upper room and hear Jesus say, “This is My Body and Blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.” We come up here, before Christ on the cross, and He puts His broken Body and shed Blood into our mouths, our bodies, our souls. And every single Lord’s Day, we rejoice in the resurrection. Christ has given us these signs for our life on this earth: He holds them before our eyes in life and in death, so that we hear and believe the Word which Christ has spoken to us. I don’t know how long Christ will wait, but I know that it doesn’t matter. You live and death has no hold on you. And when He comes to your grave—should you die before He returns—He will cry out with a loud voice, “Lazarus! Come out!” And you will.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 3/30/17