170402 John 11:17-27, 38-45

Last Updated on Monday, 03 April 2017 Written by Pastor Pagels

Text: John 11:17-27, 38-45
Theme: A Sneak Preview Of Easter Sunday

Last Thursday night over 200 members and friends of St. Matthew's went to see the new Martin Luther movie, A Return To Grace, recently released to coincide with the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. I enjoyed the documentary style format and the fact that every word Luther spoke was taken directly from his writings and lectures. But I was a little surprised by what I liked most about the film. The movie was supposed to start at 6:30 pm, and it started right at 6:30 pm because there was not a single preview.

Does that annoy you as much as it does me? You pay good money to see a movie, but before it starts you have to watch the previews of about a half dozen other films. And some of the previews are so long you don't need to see the actual movie because it feels like you already have.

Previews are supposed to pique our interest, but sometimes they have the opposite effect. Previews are designed to give people a glimpse of a story, to make them want to see more, but too many previews or too much information can turn a person off.

Would you like to see a preview that does what previews are supposed to do? Do you want to read a story that makes you want to read more? Then I encourage you to open up your Bibles to John 11. In today's sermon text the Lord gives us a glimpse of his glory and more importantly...


I. Comforting words
II. Powerful deeds

The setting for this account is Bethany, a small town just a couple miles east of Jerusalem. Bethany was the home of sisters Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus. Jesus had made a special trip to visit them because Lazarus was sick, but when he arrived it was too late. Lazarus was dead. In fact, he had been dead for four days (an important bit of information for later).

As soon as Martha heard that Jesus had arrived she went out to meet him, but this was not the happy reunion she had hoped it would be. Martha started the sad conversation: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died" (21). Martha was understandably upset. She was mourning. She was grieving. And it sort of sounds like she was blaming Jesus for her brother's death...until we hear what she said next: "But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask" (22).

Martha was familiar with Jesus' miracles. She believed that he could heal her brother because he had healed so many others. And then there were those extra special miracles, a widow's son, a ruler's daughter. They weren't sick. They were dead, and Jesus brought them back to life. Could Jesus, would Jesus do the same for Lazarus?

Jesus' answer was "Yes," but not in so many words. His actual response to Martha was: "Your brother will rise again" (23). Martha believed Jesus' words, even if she didn't totally understand them. Even though her heart was breaking, it was still full of faith when she replied: "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day" (24).

Martha was comforted by the fact that one day she would see her loved one again, but Jesus' words were intended to give her immediate comfort. He wanted her to know that the Last Day is not just a vague event that may or may not happen in the distant future. He wants us to know that the resurrection of the dead is not just some abstract spiritual truth. It is tangible. It is real. And for Martha it was, or I should say, he was standing right in front of her.

Jesus declared: "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die" (25, 26a). There is a reason why these words are read so often at funerals. They are filled with hope. With these words Jesus makes it clear that death is not a dead end. For the Christian death is the gate to a new life, a better life, eternal life in heaven.

"Do you believe this" (26b)? That was the question Jesus asked Martha. With this question Jesus wasn't beginning an interrogation. Instead he was saying: "Martha, I want you to believe this. I want you to believe in me. I want you to believe that you have absolutely nothing to fear."

Martha's response indicates that she did believe. She said: "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world" (27). Martha didn't need Jesus to perform a miracle for her. Martha didn't need Jesus to do anything for her. His words were enough. They comforted her. They reminded her who Jesus was (the Christ, the Son of God) and what Jesus had come into the world to do.

The account could end right here. Martha's confession of faith is enough to give this story a happy ending, but this is not the end of the story. Jesus hadn't come all the way to Bethany for a funeral visitation. There was some unfinished business to attend to. There was still a dead body in the tomb. And there were other mourners besides Martha Jesus wanted to reach.

A little later Jesus asked to see the tomb of Lazarus. Not because he wanted to pay his final respects. Not because he was looking for closure. In fact, as soon as Jesus reached the tomb he asked that it be opened.

Martha objected: "But, Lord, by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days" (39). Four days without the benefit of modern embalming. Four days with only limited protection from the elements. Four days of natural decomposition. Martha had said her goodbyes. She didn't want to remember Lazarus this way. And she probably didn't want Jesus to see Lazarus this way either.

But the Lord would not be swayed. He looked at Martha and said: "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God" (40)? And then he looked up to heaven and prayed: "Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me" (41,42).

Jesus didn't need to pray this prayer out loud. Jesus didn't really need to pray this at all. He and the Father were one, but not everyone enjoyed the same kind of relationship with God. Jesus offered this prayer for their benefit, and what he did next was for their benefit as well. "Jesus called in a loud voice, 'Lazarus, come out'" (43)! And he did! Lazarus walked out of the tomb, bandages and all. Alive!

It was powerful. It was undeniable. It was a miracle, but it wasn't the only miracle that took place in Bethany that day. John reports that "many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him" (45). Jesus brought a dead man back to life, and that one resurrection led to many other resurrections. Jesus' miracle confirmed his message. And through that message the Holy Spirit created spiritual life. We don't know the exact number, but we do know that many people saw what Jesus did and heard what Jesus said and believed.

And that brings us back to the question Jesus asked Martha. It is an important question, an intensely personal question, a question Jesus asks every one of us to consider today: "Do you believe this?" Sometimes believing can be challenging. Like Martha, we have problems. And like Martha, we ask God to help us with our problems. But sometimes it feels like God doesn't share our sense of urgency. Sometimes it seems like when God does finally get around to helping us, it is too little or too late.

Believing can also be challenging on an intellectual level. The Bible is full of miraculous accounts, but did they really happen? Should we accept them as fact, or should we put them in the same category as myths and fairy tales? These stories may have helped people get through the dark ages, but our modern world is much more scientific than that. Our understanding of the Bible is more sophisticated than that. And from our own personal experience we know that dead things stay dead.

There are lots of people, including lots of people who call themselves Christians, who look at miracle accounts like the one before us today and say "I don't believe this, and that's okay. I don't have to believe that Jesus walked on water or that he turned water into wine. I don't have to believe that Jesus healed the sick or raised the dead. I don't have to believe in miracles to believe in Jesus."

But if the miracles in the Bible aren't true then what in the Bible is true? If Jesus didn't raise Lazarus from the dead is it possible that Jesus didn't rise from the dead either? And if Jesus didn't rise from the dead where does that leave me?

The apostle Paul entertained that last question, and you aren't going to like his answer: "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins" (1Corinthians 15:17). Without miracles our faith is pointless. Without the miracle of the resurrection our future is hopeless. If Jesus is still dead, so are we.

So what can we do? We can't deny our doubts. We can't erase our sins. There is nothing we can do to avoid the deadly consequences of our sins. But there is one thing we can do. We can look ahead. We can project our Christian calendars out two weeks from today. We can turn a few pages ahead in John's gospel (to John 20) for a sneak preview of Easter Sunday.

And what do we find there? An empty cross. Another empty tomb. With the eyes of faith we see our living and forgiving Lord. We see that the One who called himself the Resurrection and the Life has defeated death forever. There is no doubt. There is no reason to be afraid because Jesus lives. And because he lives so will we. Amen.

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Compelled by the love of Christ, St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church and School seek to reach out to our families, community and world, using Law and Gospel to make disciples, growing and nurturing them in their Christian faith and life.


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