I expect that every one of you, whether young or old, has been touched by sickness and death within your family, among your loved ones. Even little children have to say goodbye to grandparents, sometimes to siblings and friends, maybe even to their Mom and Dad. And as you get older, you know well enough that your body isn’t what it used to be. Falls can break your bones so easily. Aches and pains become the norm as you wear out. And diseases that you never knew existed can suddenly become your daily occupation and personal expertise.
The threat of death is all around you. It is not so hard to feel like Ezekiel, that son of man, who was put by the Spirit of God into that valley of dry bones. Endless bones, wherever you look. Death on every hand, in front of you, behind you, and within you. It claws at your flesh and scars the flesh of your loved ones in a thousand different ways which only get worse as time goes by.
Believe it or not, those frailties and ailments are merely the symptoms of a deeper and far more deadly disease. The sickness and death that you experience in yourself and in your loved ones is only the outward consequence of sin. Sin is the sickness that infects your heart by your inheritance from Adam & Eve. Sin is the illness that permeates your flesh and blood from the moment you are conceived. And that cancer of sin, from deep within, is killing you, not just once but forever.
So, what can you do? Where should you look for any help or any hope against this sin and death?
Because you are a Christian, like Mary and Martha, you look for Jesus to help you. And you believe that He can. Not only that, but you believe that He wants to and He will. You go to Him in prayer. You bring your burdens to Him with hope and expectation that He will answer; that He will do something; that He will prevent calamity from striking; that He will fix what has gone bad.
And here is the glorious truth: Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life. Wherever Jesus enters in, death must take a hike. It cannot hang around when He who is the Resurrection and the Life is at hand. He comes with healing for every disease, inside and out. He comes with forgiveness for your every sin. And where there is forgiveness, there is life and salvation for both body and soul.
He does all of this, for you and for all people, in His own flesh, with His own blood, by taking the whole burden and consequence of sin and death upon Himself. He bears it in His Body to the Cross. He feels it all in His flesh, well beyond the deadliest cancer. He suffers it all in His bones, a terrible kind of arthritis. He gives His life and sheds His blood to atone for your sins, and for the sins of the whole world, in order to conquer death and the power of the grave once and for all.
He does it all for the sake of His love. He knows you, and He knows your sins, but He chooses to forgive your sins and save you at the greatest possible cost to Himself, because He loves you.
He loves you, notwithstanding the hurts and hardships that you bear and feel in your life. It is true that He could take away all of your sickness and suffering, all of your disappointments, all of your hurts and heartaches. He could take all of it away. But for His own reasons, and precisely in His love for you, according to His good and gracious will, He does not. Not for now, not yet.
What He has done — by His Word and Holy Spirit, by His preaching and Baptism of repentance — what He has done is take you to be His very own. He has become your Brother in the flesh, and He has borne your sins in His own Body, and He has befriended you to Himself in love.
He has made of you His friend; He has bound Himself to you, and you to Him. Indeed, He shares His Life with you in body and soul, for now and forever. But He does so by sharing His Cross and Passion with you. You share His Resurrection and His Life, because you share His suffering and death as a member of His Body through faith in His Word and Sacraments of the Gospel.
It is from His Cross that He gives to you His Holy Spirit, and by His Cross that He brings you to His God and Father as your own God and Father in Him; not as a guest, nor even simply as a friend, but as a beloved member of the household and family of God.
Therefore, even though you die, yet shall you live, as surely as Christ Jesus Himself has risen from death and the grave to the life everlasting at the Right Hand of His God and Father in heaven.
Do you believe this?
And, if so, what then is your hope? What is your prayer and expectation? Would you desperately pray for Jesus to bring back those you have lost to this poor life of labor? Would you have Him simply preserve and prolong their lives and yours in this valley of sorrow under the Cross?
Now, certainly you should receive your life in this world as God’s good and gracious gift. Your life here on earth, no matter how difficult, is to be treasured as God’s gift and received and lived with thanksgiving. It is not to be despised. So, do not despair, but live by faith in this world.
Only do not regard this body and life on earth as your greatest good and as your highest and best hope. Do not cling so voraciously to your life in this world, nor to your loved ones in this world. Do not despise or demonize the life that God has given to you here, but do not idolize it, either.
For the present time, creation itself is burdened under the curse and consequences of sin — but in the hope and promise, in the eager longing and expectation of the Resurrection, the glorious revealing of the sons of God in Christ, and the coming of new heavens and new earth, the home where righteousness abides forever. Here on earth you are a stranger in a strange land of sin and death. But your true home and family are with the God and Father of your Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, when the Cross is laid upon you and your life in this world, know that God is not out to get you or destroy you. Nor is it the case that He does not care or understand. He surely does. But your God and Father lays the Cross upon you in Christ Jesus in order to work His good works in you. To bring you to repentance and to strengthen your faith in Him alone. To benefit your neighbor, often in ways that you do not understand and may never realize. And to bring forth in you the fruits of faith and love to the praise and glory of your Lord Jesus Christ.
The crosses that you bear are not pointless and empty. They strengthen your faith, and they serve your neighbor, and they glorify the Lord Jesus, because your God and Father in Christ has you and your life, and all of those crosses, and all of your loved ones, in His care and keeping. So it is that your friends and your foes are somehow served by the Cross that you bear as a child of God.
One of my favorite examples is that of the great Lutheran hymnwriter, Paul Gerhardt. The story of his life is enough to bring anyone to tears, the suffering he endured, the death that surrounded him in his family from his childhood until his own death. The Lord surely could have spared him from all of that suffering and sorrow, but He did not. Yet, the Cross that was laid upon him did not destroy him. It strengthened his faith in such a way that, in his hymns, he was able to confess so beautifully his hope and confidence in the Lord Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead.
Thus did the Cross of Christ bear good fruits after its own kind in the life of Paul Gerhardt. So that, not only were those in his own day served and benefitted by his confession of Christ and His Gospel, but even we and many others, four hundred years later and on the other side of the world, are strengthened in our faith and life by that sung confession of the Cross and Resurrection.
The Cross that you bear would likewise bear good fruits of faith and love for your neighbor. And for you, also, that Cross does not finally end in death, but in life with God. For even as you are crucified with Christ Jesus, so are you raised to live with Him forever.
Nevertheless, you may still be tempted to say that, “If only the Lord were here, then I would not have to go through all of this pain and suffering. If only Jesus were here, then I would not have to endure this disappointment, this heartache, or this fear.” As if He were not already at hand!
But in fact, the Lord Jesus comes to your tomb by the way of the Cross. And He is with you by the way of the Cross. It is by His death that His divine Glory is manifested to the eyes of faith.
Has He not told you that, if you believe, you will see the Glory of God? Where? In His Cross. That is the Hour of His Glory. That is the Victory of Christ over sin, death, the devil, and hell.
Consider the Cross that you bear from that perspective — and from that same viewpoint of Christ the Crucified — in the Light of His Resurrection and His forgiveness of all of your sins.
Consider, too, the Cross that was laid upon Lazarus, whom Jesus loved. And by that I mean, not so much that he got sick and died, but that he was called back from his peace and rest to the trials and tribulations of this life. He was called back from his Sabbath Rest to be conspired against. For those who conspired to crucify Christ Jesus also plotted to put Lazarus to death. Why? Because many of the people were believing in Jesus on account of Lazarus. So that’s what he was called back to be and do: To be a sign and testimony of Jesus, and to suffer on account of Jesus.
It was for the benefit of others that Lazarus was raised. He no longer needed anything, but to await in peace the final resurrection of his body in glory at the last. But he was restored to this poor life of labor for his sisters’ sake. And not only for Mary and Martha, but for the disciples, and the Jews, and the nation, and the world — and for you — Lazarus was raised from the dead for the repentance and faith of those who receive the witness of this story to the glory of God in Christ.
Lazarus could not do any of this by himself, and he did not. It was by the Voice and Spirit of Christ Jesus, who called Lazarus out of the tomb by the power of His Word.
Lazarus couldn’t even move. He was all wrapped up in grave clothes, so he didn’t walk himself out of the tomb. The Voice of Christ called him forth. He could not free himself. He could not blow the stone off its hinges, nor could he remove the bindings that held him. It was Christ who raised him, and his neighbors who unbound him at the Word of the same Lord Jesus Christ.
The Voice of Christ Jesus calls you, as well. Not necessarily out of hurt and hardship; these you may well have to bear in this body and life. Sometimes the Voice of Jesus calls you into hurt and hardship for the glory of His Name and the good of your neighbors. But in every case, He calls you from sin and death to repentance and faith in His forgiveness of sins. And by this preaching He brings you out of the grave into newness of life; though for now it is by faith and not by sight.
His Gospel, His forgiveness of your sins, His Holy Absolution. These are His Voice, His Word, by which He removes the stone that otherwise traps you inside of the tomb. His Gospel unbinds your body and releases you from the sin and unbelief that constrain you and prevent you from living. His preaching of forgiveness removes the bandages from around your head and face, your eyes and mouth, so that you are able to see and believe in Him and to confess His holy Name.
It is His Word and Spirit that breathe life into your dried-up, dead old bones, so that you now live. It is His Word and Spirit that cover you with flesh — with His Flesh — and cause His Blood to pump through your veins. It is His Word and Spirit that give you life with God in Christ.
See here, even now, the Son of God puts His own Body and Blood into you. Into your hand. Into your mouth. Into your flesh. He gives to you the same Body and Blood that were put to death in your place and raised again for your justification. He gives His flesh into your mortal body with His forgiveness and His life. So shall you rise, as He has risen from the dead, never to die again.
Listen to His Voice. He is calling you by name. Come forth, and eat, drink. He is here for you, for the forgiveness of all your sins, for the life and salvation of your body and soul forevermore.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.