A Funeral Interrupted

Christ Covenant Church
Jon Marq Toombs
28 August 2016 / Ordinary Time
John 11:17-44

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In last week’s episode of John’s Gospel, Jesus received an urgent message from some beloved friends that their brother was suffering with a terminal illness. Instead of rushing to his friend, Jesus waited two days.

He told his disciples, “This illness is not for death rather for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” (John 11:3-4 ESV) Yet, after two days, he told his disciples that his friend Lazarus had in fact died of the illness.

And now that he was dead, Jesus decided to go to him. Not to attend his funeral, but to wake him up from his sleep.

All this came as a shock to the disciples; and as we will see, it also came as a shock to Lazarus’ sisters.

Our sermon text is John 11:17-44.

If you are willing and able, I invite you to stand and listen to God’s Holy Word.

Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “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. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

The word of the Lord.

May God add his blessings to the reading, preaching, and hearing of his word. All the church says: Amen. You may be seated.

Lazarus lived and died in the village of Bethany. Bethany meant house of the poor. Lazarus meant God helps. But in this story, at least for a few days, it looked like God did not help this sick man dying in the house of the poor.

In this story, death came to Lazarus and left his sisters mourning, grieving, and wondering “Where was Jesus? What was he doing? Why didn’t he come?”

Notice that both sisters blame Jesus for their brother’s death: “If only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

In moments of grief and sorrow, it is not uncommon for people to say such things.

I have heard people cry out in hospital rooms, funeral homes, and church sanctuaries, “Why did God let this happen? Why didn’t he answer our prayers? What did we do to deserve this?”

We ask such questions in the wake of death because (from our point of view) nothing is worse than death.

To us, death is the worst thing that can happen to anyone. But not to Jesus.

From Jesus’s point of view there is something far worse than death — that is dying in your sins as an exile from the Lord.

Last summer I spoke at a memorial service. A brother of the man who passed away told me that what made him more sad than anything else was that his brother was not walking with the Lord when died and that he had not walked with him for many years. This weighed so heavily upon his heart, that he asked me to tell everyone present the truth about that so that they would walk with the Lord in life and in death.

Death is bad, but there is something far worse than death. Sooner or later death comes to us all, so make sure that you trust and obey Jesus Christ before you die.

Now, I must point out that even in the wake of death Martha held out some hope that Jesus could still do something. “But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”

To which Jesus replied, “Your brother will rise again.”

After consoling Martha and Mary with a powerful message of grace and truth, Jesus visited Lazarus’ tomb — not to pay last respects or perform burial rites.

He went to perform a sign.

As he had told his disciples a few days earlier: “I go to awaken Lazarus” (that is, to rouse him from the dead). And as he had just told Martha, “Your brother will rise again.”

Jesus was about to do something that no one expected. But before we see what he does, let’s pause and think about this situation.

Jesus’ friend Lazarus had succumbed to a terminal illness, and Jesus was nowhere to be found. But that was not the end of his story.

As Jesus had said, the illness did not end in death, but in life. That seems to contradict what happened because Lazarus died.

But keep in mind that after Lazarus passed from this life, his spirit entered the afterlife by means of death. As the Shorter Catechism says,

Q: What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death?

A: The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection.

So, for four days Lazarus basked in the glory and majesty of life after death in the presence of the Lord, even while his body decayed in the grave.

Lazarus’ body was resting in the tomb, but his spirit was rejoicing before the throne of grace.

Now keep all that in mind as you watch Jesus make his way to the tomb.

It is possible that Jesus’s spirit was deeply troubled within him — not only because of what the sisters and the mourners had lost, but also because of what Lazarus was going to lose.

Now, when Jesus reached the tomb he commanded his disciples to remove the stone that covered the entrance. Martha protested and warned him that since Lazarus had been dead four days there was a bad odor.

The ESV really cleans that up. I prefer the more realistic way the King James Version puts it: “He stinketh.” That’s what the Greek says. Actually, the verb is 3rd Person Singular Indicative, so it can mean either “He stinks” or “It stinks.”

Either way, opening the tomb of a decomposing corpse was ill advised. Martha was already grieved by the death of her brother; she did not want to be embarrassed by the stench of his decomposing body.

Nevertheless, Jesus insisted and the tomb was opened.

While the stone was being rolled away, Jesus lifted up his eyes to heaven and prayed. Put another way, he looked up at his Father and carried on a living conversation with him.

NT Scholar Tom Wright suggests that Jesus had already been praying for Lazarus’s life – during the two days he waited near the river before he ever came to Bethany. I am inclined to agree with him.

Unlike us, Jesus’s prayer was not an after-thought, a last ditch effort, flare prayer. This moment has been on his heart and mind for a few days.

Notice that his prayer was to the effect that whatever happened next, the Father would use it to cause people to put their trust in him. And that is my prayer for you now.

After he prayed, he turned to the open tomb and shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus! Come out!”

And the dead man came out, still wrapped up like a mummy — but he was alive.

Now, it’s so easy to blow through that story and not think about the details. But we need to slow down and think about what just happened.

Right before Jesus called his name, Lazarus was a dead man. His body was decomposing in the grave, but he spirit was delighting in glory. When Jesus called his name, the dead man heard him, his decaying body was remade and renewed, and his spirit returned to it, and he obeyed Jesus and came out.

No more stench. No more sickness. No more sorrow.

Lazarus was born again, born from above, by the power of the resurrection and the life of Jesus Christ.

And Jesus told the people standing nearby to unwrap him and set him free.

So what happened?

Jesus interrupted a funeral by waking Lazarus from his sleep, by raising him the dead.

Now, we skipped over something in this story that is crucial to knowing and understanding Jesus Christ. In the shortest verse in the Bible John tells us simply and plainly,

“Jesus wept.”

Why did he weep?

Most scholars say that Jesus wept to show that he was really and truly a man like us, and that death affected him like it affects us.

Others say he wept to show that he was a sympathetic man, that he was a man of sorrows acquainted with grief.

And all that is true. But that barely scratches the surface. We can do much better than that. I want to suggest two more reasons why Jesus wept.

One reason Jesus wept because he knew what was about to happen to the dead man Lazarus.

When Jesus called Lazarus from death to life, he was also calling him from Life to death. The mere thought of calling Lazarus back out of eternal bliss into a world broken and damaged by sin was even more troubling to his spirit than losing his friend to sickness, or watching his sisters grieve, or hearing the mourners wail.

From that point of view, the question we ought to ask is not, Why did Jesus let Lazarus die? Rather, the question is, Why did Jesus raise from Lazarus the dead? If he had already gone to a better place, a better state of existence, a better communion of people, why bring him back to this world?

The answer (to all these questions) is: “It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it and so that all who follow Jesus may believe unto eternal life.”

Another reason why Jesus wept is because Jesus saw his own future in Lazarus’s death and burial.

He saw what his own death would do to his friends and loved ones, and how they would weep and wail; he saw what his own tomb would look like from the outside, and how his grave cloths would fit tight on his body and bind his wounds; he saw what passing from life into death and back into life would.

Jesus wept because he knew that his time was running out, his hour was near, and that he would soon walk through the valley of the shadow of death just like every other man. Why?

For the glory of God and the good of the world.

For the past twenty years, nearly every funeral sermon I have delivered has touched on this story of Jesus and Lazarus for one simple reason:

In this story, Jesus makes a tremendous truth-claim that, if true, gives us every reason to hope and to find true comfort in life and in death; but if false, gives us every reason to despair and wallow in misery in life and in death.

Jesus said, “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. Do you believe this?”

This truth-claim is simply a summary of all that he has been saying and doing throughout the story.

In him was life and that life was the light of men. (1:4)

“This is how God loved the world: he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (3:16)

“Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live…Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment. (John 5:25-29)

For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. (6:40)

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. (6:47)

It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. (6:63)

I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. (10:10)

I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. (10:28)

Sadly, the cold hard fact is that death comes to us all in one way or another.

When I started my first ministry I had never attended a funeral in my life — although I had lost people I loved.

A beloved uncle was taken away from us by cancer. A lovely friend unexpectedly took her own life in a closet. Another sweet girl accidentally crashed her car into a tree on Spring Break.

But it was in my first years of ministry that death truly became an unwelcome guest, an enemy, a nemesis.

I will never forget the first time I watched someone pass from this life before my waking eyes, or the time I held the hand of an elderly woman while she gasped and took her last breath and her hand fell limp in mine. Or the time an elderly woman called me before sunrise to help get her husband off the floor. When I arrived he was cold and lifeless. I can still see the tear-filled eyes of my old friend AJ — half smiling, half crying at the end — although he was ravaged by cancer he believed that he was on his way to meet the Lord.

As long as I live I shall never forget seeing a young father cling to his lifeless baby, and rock him in his arms; and I will never forget hearing his wails echo throughout the emergency room as he begged God to bring him back and not take him away.

And I remember that we have walked through life and death together. We have bid farewell to your spouses, mothers, sisters, and friends. In the past few years you have helped my family bury three grandparents and an uncle.

Death is an unwelcome guest that comes to us all.

It feels risky, but I want to share a secret with you.

Every time I do a funeral service for a believer, I hope and pray that the funeral will be interrupted by the voice of Christ shouting, “Wake up! Live! Come out!” — interrupted by the glory of Christ shining upon the one he loves.

So far that has not happened — not yet. But the hour is coming when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.

Again, this feels risky, but I want to share another secret with you.

Every time I teach and preach, I hope and pray that death will be interrupted by the Spirit of Life and call my hearers by name, “Wake up _____; Rise from the dead!”

There was a time, many years ago, when I thought gospel ministry was like doing patient care in a hospital. I thought ministers where like doctors working among sick people in a hospital, and that it was my job to convince sick people to take their medicine so that they could get well.

All that changed about fifteen years ago.

By God’s grace I saw in the scriptures that things are much worse than that. The world is not a hospital full of sick people who just need to take a “gos-pill” — the world is a graveyard full of dead people who need the resurrection and the life. Ministers are not like doctors trying to convince patients to takes their meds. Ministers are like prophets praying and preaching in a graveyard full of dry bones.

Can these bones live?! God only knows.

In this story, Jesus went down to the graveyard the way Ezekiel the prophet went down into the valley of dry bones. Like the prophet, he first prayed to Heaven, then he preached to the dead, and the Spirit breathed life into the slain.

As Calvin put it:

Christ does not come to the sepulcher as an idle spectator, but as a conqueror preparing for a contest; and therefore we need not wonder that he groans again; for the violent tyranny of death, which he had to conquer, is placed before his eyes. (Calvin on John 11:38)

And with a word the resurrection and the life destroyed death and darkness.

In this story we see a prime example of effectual calling and irresistible grace.

The physical resurrection of the dead man Lazarus is a type of the spiritual regeneration of dead sinners, “a picture of the grace of God calling a dead sinner to life.” (Boice)

In both cases the dead are raised to life; those who stink are refreshed and renewed; those who sleep are awakened.

In both cases, the dead are called by name and raised from death to life, not by the flesh, but by the Spirit. For the flesh counts for nothing, but the Spirit gives life.

Just as Lazarus was dead asleep in the tomb until the moment Jesus called him by name, so we were dead asleep in the darkness of our sins until the moment he called us by name.

Just as Lazarus was awakened by the voice of Jesus and brought out of death to life, so we were awakened us by the voice of Jesus and born anew from death to life.

Just as Lazarus was called from darkness to light, and from bondage to freedom, so we were called from darkness to light, and from bondage to freedom, by the Spirit of Christ, through the preaching of the gospel.

Now, why was all this even necessary? Why did Lazarus have to get suffer and die and rise again?

So that you might believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and have eternal life in his name.

Do you believe Jesus is the resurrection and the life? Do you?

If you believe you will see the glory of God.

Pastoral Prayer (Psalm 16)

Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the LORD, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight. The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names on my lips. The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance. I bless the LORD who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I have set the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption. You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

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