Fifth Sunday in Lent (A)
March 29, 2020
Text: John 11:1-53
The Lord knows exactly what we need to hear this morning, doesn’t He? I know these are the Scriptures you need to hear, because these are just the Scriptures I need to hear. The prophet opens his mouth and the Spirit blows through a valley of dry bones, and behold, a rattling. Sinews and flesh and the breath of life. The dead are raised to stand on their feet (Ez. 37:1-14). Jesus opens His mouth, and at His Word, the four-day-old rotting corpse of His dear friend Lazarus is raised and made healthy and whole (John 11). He is unbound and freed from more than just the linen strips of the grave. Death itself cannot keep captive one who belongs to Jesus Christ. “(I)f Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:10-11; ESV).
We are the dry bones in the valley. Laid waste by sickness and death, the crafts and assaults of the devil, and our own sin, we are dead, rotting. Dust you are, and to dust you shall return. What can we do about our situation? What can any dead man do? Nothing. Be dead. So the Lord sends His prophet to open his mouth and preach: “Thus says the LORD God” (Ez. 37:9), and the Spirit comes in His Word to give life to the dead.
“Spirit,” “wind,” and “breath” are all the same word in Hebrew (ruach), and in Greek, for that matter (pneuma), so there is a play on words in our reading form the Prophet Ezekiel this morning. The breath comes, like a wind. It is the Spirit of God, just like on Pentecost (Acts 2). “I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live… Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD” (Ez. 37:14). The preaching of the Word, which incidentally comes on the breath of the preacher, is an enlivening wind, the breath of life. The Spirit Himself, whom we confess to be “the Lord and giver of life” (Nicene Creed), breathes Himself into you by His Word and raises you from death to life. That happens spiritually now. You are no longer spiritually dead when the Word takes hold of you. It will happen bodily on the Last Day. That is the Promise that sustains you all the way through the Valley of the Shadow and out the other side again. “I am the resurrection and the life,” says Jesus. “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26).
But it sure doesn’t feel like we’re free from death. It sure doesn’t feel like we’re alive, especially in dark days like these. How can this Promise be true?
This may be one of the strangest passages in Holy Scripture, but there is deep comfort in it for anyone who has ears to hear: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was” (John 11:5-6; emphasis added). Did you hear that? Because Jesus loved Lazarus and his family, He purposely did not come and heal His friend. He let Him die. Then the disciples are all confused when Jesus says Lazarus has fallen asleep, and when He tells them bluntly, “Lazarus has died,” He actually says, “and for your sake I am glad that I was not there” (v. 14). What on earth?! Martha, and then Mary, rightly say in their grief and resignation, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (vv. 21, 32). And many in the crowd lament, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” (v. 37). Lord, if You had been here… He was purposely NOT there! He could have kept Lazarus from dying, but He didn’t. Why? Why, Lord? Why did You let this happen?
So that you may believe (vv. 14, 42).
Where is God in the coronavirus? Where is Jesus when we need Him? Why hasn’t He delivered us already? Why do so many have to suffer? Why do so many have to die? Why do we all have to isolate and face this thing alone? Why do people have to lose their jobs? Why is society coming apart at the seams? Why can’t our political parties work together on a solution? Why, God? Where are You, God? Are You sleeping? Are You unaware? Don’t You care that we are perishing?
Where was Jesus when Lazarus died? Was He really so far away? He knew exactly what Lazarus was suffering. He knew exactly when Lazarus died. And this was all to serve God’s purpose in saving His disciples, saving Mary and Martha, raising Lazarus from the dead, saving you and raising you. Where there was sickness, where there was death, Jesus came. And then what? When He saw Mary weeping, and her companions weeping, “he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” (v. 33). Jesus is with us in our grief. He is troubled by it. He weeps with us. And then, when they show Him the tomb, “Jesus wept” (v. 35). “See how he loved him!” (v. 36). And then, coming right up to the tomb, Jesus is deeply moved again (v. 38), as He orders the stone to be taken away (v. 39). Jesus weeps over our death. Oh, He knows what He will do about it. He does not weep in hopelessness or helplessness. He weeps because He loves us. He weeps because death is not what He intended for us. God did not create us to die. Sin did that. We did that. Here on the threshold of the tomb, He who created us weeps over our fallenness. Does He care? You bet He does!
Okay, so if He cares and He weeps, why does He bring us to this point of helplessness and nothingness and death? Because He loves you and He is showing you that apart from Him you are nothing but dead, dry bones rotting in the valley. He is bringing you to the end of yourself. You can do nothing, finally, to save yourself. You can do nothing about death except be dead. He is stripping you of your idols. Government is good, but the government will not save you. Just more dry bones acting like they can give life to dry bones. Doctors and nurses are wonderful (and boy do we pray for them in these days as they are on the front lines of the battle against this pandemic). But they won’t save you. None of them has a cure for death! Money can’t save you. Nor can the things money can buy, like toilet paper and hand sanitizer, much as those things are helpful. Rich people with triple-ply and sanitized hands still die.
Jesus brings you to death so that He can bring you to life. So that you believe in Him and live. “See now that I, even I,” says your God, “am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal” (Deut. 32:39).
So Jesus stands weeping outside the tomb of the one He loves, the one He let suffer and die, and He opens His mouth and cries out with a loud voice: “Lazarus, come out” (John 11:43). And what happens but these bones live. The Spirit breathes life into the stinking corpse and the man who was dead comes out, hands and feet still bound with the linen strips, face still covered with a cloth. And Jesus commands: “Unbind him, and let him go” (v. 44).
Jesus opens His mouth today and unbinds you from sin and death. He forgives you all your sins. And He speaks His enlivening Spirit into you. You were spiritually dead. But Jesus prophesies to the breath and behold, a rattling. He raises you to life, to faith in Him, breathing His Spirit upon you in His Word. He clothes you with Himself, with His resurrection life in Baptism. You have eternal life already now by Baptism into Christ, albeit this life is now hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). On that Day when He comes again in glory with His holy angels, He will raise you bodily. He will come right up to your grave and cry with a loud voice, “Beloved, come out!” And that is what you will do.
For Jesus knows what it is to be bound in death. He went to His death, willingly, on the cross, for you, as the sacrifice of atonement for your sins. He suffered. He died. Like Lazarus, He was buried and His tomb was sealed by a stone. And all who loved Him wept. But see, that is what He does, ultimately, about our suffering. He suffers it. That is what He does, ultimately, about our death. He dies it. And then the Third Day. Lazarus’ resurrection pointed to this very moment. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.
In the midst of grief and death, Jesus speaks His Promise: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” What a breath of fresh air! What a breath of the life-giving Holy Spirit! The Lord brings us to life by His Word. He loves us! He cares for us! He is in our suffering with us! And He who died, and who is risen from the dead, raises us. Do not lose heart. Do not fear. Jesus lives! So do you in Him. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.