10 April 2011

Death Is Not Your Friend, But Jesus Is

If He had not come at all, nobody would have blamed Him. The sisters, Mary and Martha, would have been deeply disappointed, yes, but they and everyone else would have understood. It was risky for Him to come, given the recent attempts on His life. After all, discretion is the better part of valor. So it would have made sense to His friends and loved ones, to His disciples and the crowds, if He had stayed away and grieved the death of Lazarus at a safe distance.

Or, if He had chosen to come right away, but He simply hadn’t gotten there in time, well, that happens, and anyone could sympathize with the frustrated effort. Sometimes you make it to the death bed before your loved one dies, and sometimes you don’t. As a Christian, you live by faith, you love as best you can, and you commend yourself, your family and friends to the mercies of God. It is good to be reminded that you can’t be everywhere; you can’t be in two places at once. And of course you should know that life and death are not within your hands, in any case.

But if Jesus had been there, surely He could have done something. His presence would have made a difference. Given all the good that He had done for so many others before, He certainly could have healed His friend Lazarus and spared his sisters the hurt and pain of his death. In truth, He could have taken care of everything and made it all better. And, actually, He would not have had to make the journey to be there, in order to answer the call and to help. A simple Word from Jesus would have healed Lazarus from whatever distance.

Jesus could have done a number of things that would either have made sense or made a difference. But He didn’t. Instead, He deliberately chose to wait, to remain where He was and do nothing for His friends in Bethany, until after He knew that Lazarus had died. He purposely lingered and allowed death to have its day, and only then did He go — putting Himself and His disciples at risk, when it all appeared to be so pointless. Yet, Jesus says that He is glad He wasn’t there.

It’s not that He doesn’t care. We are told, and the story makes it clear in many ways, that Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. They were His friends, actually, which is an amazing thing — not unlike the wonder of His childhood and the fact that He grew and increased in both wisdom and stature. Truly He loves everyone, perfectly so, but He also had friends in His life on earth. He has a human personality, and so there were those with whom He shared a special bond, with whom He was closer and more familiar than He was with others.

But being a friend of Jesus doesn’t mean special perks and privileges in this life on earth. Rather, it means bearing the cross after Him, and dying with Him. It is a risky thing in its own right, in other words, to be associated with Jesus and close to Him. It’s liable to get you killed, as likely as it is to get you anything else.

So Lazarus has died, and that seems to confirm the inevitability of death. It puts Mary and Martha in the same position that many or most of you have found yourself in. Your dearly departed is dead and buried, and you grieve and mourn for a time, but you also begin to move on. The relatives, neighbors and friends come to sympathize and to share in your grief for a little while, and then they go home, and you return as best you can to what’s left of your life and your routines.

As a Christian, you hear and receive the comfort of the Gospel, the hope of the resurrection on the last day. You know it and believe it, you confess it yourself, and you cling to it. But the words may or may not have any bearing on your feelings, from one minute to the next. You want to rejoice and be happy that the one you love has gone to a better place — if, indeed, that person departed in the faith and hope of the Gospel — but whatever joy and peace you have in that, must compete with the sadness and the emptiness that are left in the place where a person used to be.

Maybe you struggle with guilt over your mixed feelings, as though you were doubting or denying the Gospel, or even jeopardizing your loved one’s salvation by your sorrow. Or maybe you’re just weary of being told what you already know and believe — that he or she is with the Lord in heaven — when, in fact, you miss him or her, and it hurts. Without abandoning the faith or giving up your hope in the Gospel, you still cannot deny that death has intruded and done violence to God’s good gift of life. It’s not “natural,” and it’s not right.

So, again, if you have mourned such a loss, you can relate to Mary and Martha, to their words and actions. You can imagine how they felt and some of what they were thinking. And your heart goes out to them when the Lord Jesus shows up four days after the fact — four days too late.

“Thanks for coming, Jesus. Thanks for your sympathy, really. But what good does it do now? What difference does it make? If you had been here then, our brother would not have died.”

But now what?

Death is the culmination of sin, the definitive outcome of “mortal life.” It is relentless and unstoppable. Whether you deny it, resist it, run away from it, or try to embrace it, you cannot escape it. Nor can you undo it when it comes. You cannot raise your family, friends and loved ones from the grave; far less can you raise yourself. And that very futility, the finality of death and the grave, overshadows your entire life on earth. Your pace may be fast or slow, frantic or relaxed. You may be cautious or careless or tread a moderate path. But your flesh and blood, your heart, mind and body are subject to death. You are dying even now. You are mortal.

Such are the wages of sin, the curse and consequences of sin, which is hostility toward God. You are mortal, weak and dying, because you are conceived and born at enmity with God. You are turned away from Him, and turned inward upon yourself, so that, instead of receiving the living and Life-giving Spirit of God, you are consumed by your own hunger. You breathe your own air until you are poisoned by its lack of oxygen and its stench of death. You suffocate inside the sealed tomb of sin and death, from which you cannot set yourself free.

Little wonder that you so often feel trapped and hopeless — and how foolish when you suppose that you can handle it, as though you could survive and get by on your own. For you are among those dried-up dead bones littering the desert down in the valley of the shadow of death. The death and burial of your mortal body, in time, will simply bring to a head what is already true of your flesh and blood, your skin and bones. Already now the ravages of sin and the havoc that it wrecks upon your life on earth, in all of your relationships, is the aroma of that vast graveyard with all its sorrow and despair. Hope must surely perish there, where you are finally cut off completely.

But now it is into that death valley that the Lord Jesus strides, in the footsteps of so many sons of Adam and daughters of Eve before Him. From the waters of His Baptism, the Son of Man enters into the wilderness of sin and death, in order to take His stand in the midst of all those dried-up old bones. So has He come to find you there, as He came to find Lazarus when he was four days gone, a rotting corpse, stinking of death and decay.

Now death itself suffers an intrusion, and its own violence is turned back upon its head. For Life Himself has entered in, where He had no need to go. His own love compels Him, nothing else. Here He befriends the whole world of sinful mortal men at their worst and most helpless. He does not intervene to spare His friends from the pain of death, but He approaches death Himself, in order to reconcile the world to His God and Father. He invades the tomb in order to empty it, to raise the dead and give them life and bring them to God in faith and love.

It is not the death and resurrection of Lazarus that accomplishes this great salvation, but this Sign of Christ points to the Glory of His Cross, to His own death and to His Resurrection. Not only do these events in Bethany foreshow the Lord’s imminent dying and rising in nearby Jerusalem, but His raising of Lazarus from the dead is the last straw, the catalyst that prompts the Jewish leaders to plot His death. For that is how the fallen world reacts and responds to its invasion by the Light and Life of God in Christ Jesus. Yet, this wickedness and evil intent must serve the plans and purposes of God, who moves deliberately to the Cross. No one takes His life from Him, but He lays it down willingly, in love, and He shall take it up again. In fact, so sure and certain is that outcome — even from before the foundation of the world — that it is by the power and authority of His Cross and Resurrection that Jesus here raises Lazarus. Not four days “too late,” but ahead of time, in anticipation of Good Friday and Easter.

Of course there is a grandeur to all of this, a glorious triumph, which may give the impression that it was no big deal for Jesus to do these things. He makes it look so easy. Sure, sure, you might say, He’s the Son of God. He came, He saw, He conquered. Bada-bing, bada-boom. Easy enough, right? Easy like the pious platitudes of those who attempt to console your losses, when they are not the ones in such pain.

But, no, it is not easy like that for Jesus. Not at all.

If the childhood and friendships of Jesus bring His true humanity to the fore, so also do His tears and His own deep grief and mourning. He is moved in the depths of His being. He has genuine compassion; that is to say, He actually shares your suffering and pain. He cries because He, too, is sad. There is no greater champion of life than He is, and no one who hates death more. He is not troubled by any doubts, nor by the despair of unbelief, and yet He mourns the death of His friend. His heart and mind, His body and soul are wrenched by His real sorrow.

Here is a mystery as great as that of the Holy Trinity. It is, indeed, the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God, not simply as dogmatic affirmation, but as the truly human experience of God in the flesh. That “Jesus wept” is not merely the shortest verse of the Bible, but one of the most profound. Here your merciful and great High Priest knows your weakness by making it His own. For not only has the Word become Flesh, but in our flesh He has taken on the burden and hurt, the curse and consequence of sin. Thus His cheeks are moistened by hot and salty tears, like yours, and His heart breaks, too, over the mortal wound that sin has inflicted on those whom He loves.

He groans and shudders at the tomb of Lazarus, as He will be deeply moved within Himself in the same way in the Garden of Gethsemane. Perhaps you have also known such groans and shudders when confronted with the death of a loved one, and when faced with your own mortality.

The Lord Jesus is not “afraid” of death, in the way that your sin makes you afraid, but neither does He approach it lightly or easily. He is not cavalier about the Cross He has come to bear, nor about the Passion He will endure for the sins of the world. His bravery derives from His fear, love and trust in God, His Father. His courage is fired by His love for you and for all people. The joy set before Him is not some masochistic pleasure in the pain, but rather His redemption of the world.

As He has made Himself like you, and as He has borne your sins and carried all your sorrows, and as He has suffered and died for you, so do His tears sanctify yours. For He joins your weeping to His own. He gathers up your sadness and your mourning into His. He unites your groans and shudders with His own deep sorrow. And all of this He bears and carries and experiences in His own body, even unto His death upon the Cross.

All of this He does in steadfast faith, in perfect love for His Father, for you and for all men and women everywhere. In flesh and blood like yours, He suffers everything, save only without sin. Though He takes the sins of the world upon Himself, and dies for them as though they were His own, He is not broken or destroyed by them. He does not sin in any of His thoughts, words or deeds as He suffers and dies. He does not despair of His God and Father, but trusts Him to rescue Him out of death and to vindicate His righteousness openly.

Thus, the Law of God is both satisfied and fulfilled in Christ Jesus, in His flesh, in His Cross and Resurrection. Sin is condemned and punished in Him, in His death, and it is atoned for by the shedding of His holy and precious blood. Therefore, all those for whom He died — which is to say, Adam & Eve and all their children — are justified and reconciled to God in His Resurrection from the dead. So, too, that which the Law requires, namely, faith before God and love for the neighbor, is perfectly established once and for all in this same Lord Jesus Christ. This is the righteousness of His which is credited to you, by His grace, through faith in His Gospel. For as He has taken that which is yours to be His own, so does He give you that which is His to be yours. He takes your sin and death, and He gives to you His righteousness.

It is by His righteousness that you are set right with God, and also by His righteousness that you now live in faith and love. Not as though you were already perfect in yourself, nor as though you now live by a righteousness of your own. But in Christ Jesus you are reconciled to God in peace, and as He now lives in you, by and with His Spirit, you live in love for your neighbors. In Him your bones and flesh are raised up and made truly alive, day by day, even in the midst of death.

This righteousness and life of Christ Jesus, His faith and love, His Spirit and His peace, are given to you by His Ministry of the Gospel. It is for this purpose that He has established the Office of the Ministry in His Church on earth, in the footsteps of the Prophets and Apostles, to preach His Word according to His divine command. Thus you have heard, for example, how Caiaphas preached the Atonement of Christ even as he plotted against the Lord to put Him to death, because he spoke according to his office as high priest. And you have heard the familiar story of the Prophet Ezekiel, who preached to the dry bones and to the Breath (that is, the Spirit of Yahweh), as the Lord commanded him to do, and by his preaching the bones were raised from death to life. So greatly does the Lord honor such preaching of His Word, that He binds Himself to it and allows Himself to be ordered by it. Thus, the Holy Spirit is given by and with the Word of Christ, and by His Word and Spirit you live.

Like Adam in the beginning, like Lazarus in this morning’s Gospel, and like the Lord Jesus in His Resurrection from the dead, so does the Word of Christ raise you from the dust of the earth and breath His Life-giving Holy Spirit into your flesh. That will certainly be true on the last day, when He raises your body from its resting place and glorifies it with His own glory in heaven. But already here and now it is true in His preaching of the Gospel to you, in His Word of forgiveness, which undoes the power of sin and death and pours out the Spirit of God upon you.

That daily resurrection does not compromise nor contradict your human nature, but it confirms your true humanity, like that of Christ Jesus, in faith and love. It does not cancel out your personality, nor deny your feelings and emotions, but it leaves all of these intact while cleansing them of sin and renewing who you are as a child of God in Christ. It does not deny or forbid your tears, but hallows them with the tears that Christ has wept for you. It does not prevent you from mourning, but enables you to mourn in the peace of Christ and the hope of His Resurrection.

Your daily resurrection by the Gospel of forgiveness surely does not mean that you must be happy about death, or cavalier about it, whether your own or others; nor that you must embrace it with joy and gladness. Death is not your friend, but Jesus is.

Death remains the last great enemy, which Christ Jesus, the Son of Man, tramples beneath His own mortally wounded feet. He does not befriend death, but He defeats it in Himself — by submitting Himself to death in order to burst it apart from the inside-out. He calls you out of death into life by the Gospel, as He called Lazarus forth out of the tomb, because He has gone into hades Himself and has come out again in victory, into the land of the living.

You share His victory over death and the grave, and you share His life in both body and soul, now and forever, because the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead now dwells in you through the Gospel. He strengthens you in faith and love, helps you in your weakness, intercedes for you when your groans are too deep for words, and grants you courage and peace in the face of death.

As all of this is for your body, also, the Lord Jesus not only pours out His Spirit upon you, but He gives to you His Body to eat and pours out His Blood for you to drink. This is spiritual food for your body as well as your soul. Given with His Word, it forgives you all your sins, and it enlivens you with Christ Jesus for life everlasting. Indeed, as this Body and Blood of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus are given into your mortal body of flesh and blood, death is served notice that it shall not be able to keep your body, no more than it could hold His. When death lays hold of you, it lays hold of Christ Jesus, and it is defeated. Thus do you live and believe in Him, and even though you die, yet shall you live.

He has not come too late to help you, dear friend of Jesus. He has not shut His ears to your fervent pleas and desperate prayers, nor does He delay in order to hurt or harm you. He rather moves in love to save you, not from the Cross, but by the Cross, for the resurrection and the life everlasting. As He bears your sins to atone for them, and as He shares your sadness, so does He share His joy and gladness with you — which is neither denied nor washed away by your tears. Whatever weeping remains for the night, He weeps with you, until the dawning of that eternal Day when He shall wipe away every tear from your eyes, and there shall be no more sickness, sorrow, sin or death; for all of these things shall have passed away, but Christ Jesus shall remain.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Rev. James Leistico said...

wonderful - I'm borrowing a few phrases for today. The people of South Bend are truly blessed to have a shepherd (two actually) who point so powerfully to the great Shepherd of the Sheep raised from the dead.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thank you, Brother James. Christ be praised! God bless you and yours in your faithful service in the Lord's Name.