Sermon on John 11:1-53
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
April 10, 2011 (The Fifth Sunday in Lent, Series A)
I need to admit something. This Gospel lesson has me a bit puzzled. For most of my ministry I’ve followed the old one-year series of readings which Lutheranism has followed for most of its history, the series on which Luther and the other reformers preached, having inherited it from the united western Church of the middle ages, the series that CFW Walther, the first President of the LCMS preached, and which is found in our Synod’s 1941 worship book, The Lutheran Hymnal, as well as being one of the options given in our most recent worship book, Lutheran Service Book. These past few months serving as your vacancy pastor have been the first time I have used the three-year series in a long while. And so, as I said, when I looked up the Gospel lesson for today, I was confused. Why read a section of Scripture which tells us and shows us how Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life, on the fifth Sunday in Lent, immediately before we enter Holy Week? It certainly made picking the hymns more difficult, as most of the hymns listed as being related to this text in Lutheran Service Builder, the electronic version of our hymnal, are Easter hymns which contain the word alleluia, a word which we customarily don’t use in worship during Lent. Not to mention that it seems to break the mood of Lent in general, previewing as it does the fact that Jesus not only can raise the dead, but that He Himself is the Resurrection and the Life, and so death itself will not be able to hold Him captive either. When you look at it from a thematic perspective within the Church Year, this Gospel lesson seems totally out of place.
But when you look at it from the perspective of the history of Jesus’ progress toward Jerusalem and toward His own death on Good Friday and resurrection on the first Easter Sunday, it makes a lot more sense. You see, this was the event that finally convinced the religious leaders in Jerusalem once and for all that He needed to die. They couldn’t simply try to discredit Him or make Him look foolish any more. Bethany was not far from Jerusalem, and many from Jerusalem knew Lazarus had died, and now saw him walking around alive. There was no longer any way to convince the people that Jesus wasn’t who He claimed to be: the Son of God, the promised Messiah, come to rescue the world from sin and death. Now the only course of action left to the Sanhedrin, if they wanted to hold on to their power over the people, was to eliminate Jesus entirely, by finding a way to have Him executed.
It’s kind of ironic that it was precisely by demonstrating that He is the Resurrection and the Life, the One over whom Death itself had no power, that He put Himself in a situation where His own death became inevitable. It shows just how perverse was the thinking of the Jewish leaders of the time. They had to have figured out by now that Jesus really was who He claimed to be. That’s what made Him so dangerous. You can’t argue with or discredit the true Messiah. You can’t simply ignore or publicly embarrass God Himself. It’s precisely because He really was who He said He was that the chief priests wanted Him dead. It’s precisely because He represented God’s own condemnation of their leadership that they needed to get Him out of the picture.
And we are no different than they were. It’s precisely because Jesus is God Himself in human flesh that we would rather He stay safely away from us. We may call on Him now and again when things aren’t going so well for us, we might like to think of Him as an example for how to live an upright and moral life, or as a great teacher, or any of a thousand other things. But to have Him come to us and take away from us any illusions we may have about our ability to please God on our own, to have Him come to us, not only to insult us by telling us even our best good works are filthy rags as far as He is concerned, but to give us salvation as a free gift and thereby destroy any hope we thought we had of pleasing God on our own, is simply intolerable. And yet that’s what He does. He comes to shatter any illusions we may have had that we are in any sort of control over our own relationship with God. He comes to show us that only He who made us can restore us to the perfection we were meant to be. He comes to take away any power we thought we had over our own lives. And so we, with the chief priests, want Him dead, gone, and away from us.
But you can’t keep the one who is the Resurrection and the Life dead. That’s the thing about God. He’s God. Even death itself is not an obstacle to Him, because He’s the one who made life in the first place. Jesus is the Word the Father spoke at the beginning of creation, the Word that is so powerful that it speaks into existence what it says. He is the life-giver, the one who sustains us and gives us everything we need to support this body and life. He became man precisely so that He could die, but He’s still God, and so death itself is fatally poisoned by the attempt to swallow Him. He spoke creation itself into existence, His word speaks Lazarus out of his tomb, free of whatever disease killed him, and free of the decay that ravaged his body afterward. His word speaks life into us again, despite our wish that He leave us alone here in this tomb of an old, sin-filled world. You can’t keep God dead, since He is life.
And so we who have become part of Him can’t be kept dead either. The old, dead Adam in us thinks he can hold onto life by killing the Son of God, but he only ends up getting himself crucified with Him in the process. He only ends up getting himself drowned in the water and blood that flowed from Jesus’ side, in which we were washed in Holy Baptism. And since we joined Him in His death, we also join Him in His resurrection. We also sit with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, not at their home in Bethany with the Sadducees looking on and gnashing their teeth, but in His home, where He is the host and the meal, where Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and all who have died in the faith gather, with the angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven, praising God eternally, eating His body crucified and drinking His blood shed for us. We eat and drink the Resurrection and the Life, and receive eternal life itself in the process. Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +