Monday, April 7, 2014

Lent 5 Sermon: "Ain't No Grave"

+ Lent 5 – April 10th, 2011 +
Redeemer Lutheran, HB
Series A: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:1-11; John 11:1-53
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Here’s a strange question for you: what do Johnny Cash and Jesus have in common?

Still scratching your head? Well, listen to a verse from one of my favorite songs…

When I hear that trumpet sound
I'm gonna rise right out of the ground
Ain't no grave
Can hold my body down

How can this be? How can he sing about the resurrection of the dead, especially when our every day experience seems to suggest the opposite? Ordinarily, dead men don’t rise.

We hear the prayer requests and it seems like illness, misery and death win.  We watch the news, and every headline, every story seems to point us to death’s trophy case.

Every funeral, cemetery, and headstone appears to be a victory dance where Death shouts at us, “You, o son of Adam, have lost.”  Sin and death and the Law stare us in the face and echo the words of Ash Wednesday: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

No doubt, we’ve probably all asked the Lord the same question he asked of Ezekiel: Son of Man, can these bones live?

Now don’t expect any helpful answers from Satan. He’s still peddling the same lie he did in the garden: Surely you will not die.

And don’t expect any helpful answers from the world we live in either. Our culture thrives – even cashes in - on avoiding, sugar-coating, and hiding from death. You can put a pretty pink bow on a skull, but it’s still a skull. Death is still the death no matter how many funny names we use to avoid talking about it.

Lazarus was not expired, he had not passed on, or kicked the bucket; he was not taking a dirt nap, buying the farm, or pushing up daisies.  He was dead.  Jesus calls it like it is.  Death is not the opposite of life but the absence of it – like darkness is the absence of light.  Death is the last enemy. Really, there’s no such thing as death by natural causes – death is unnatural. Death was not God’s design.  God made us for life.  And the whole of the Scriptures is about Jesus having the last word over illness, suffering, guilt, sin, and death.

 “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 will never die forever.

That’s what Johnny Cash and Jesus have in common: faith in the resurrection. Specifically Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus’ words really are a matter of death and life, for us just as they were for Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. You see, we don’t need euphemisms; we need rescue from and victory over the last enemy of death.

All of this makes Jesus’ behavior seem rather strange. Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. So, when Jesus heard that Lazarus was ill, what does he do? Jesus waited two more days to go see Mary and Martha.
Lazarus, can your dry, dead bones live? Oh yes they can! Jesus let him die, but that wasn’t the worst thing that could happen. Nor is it for us. We were born dead in trespasses and Sin. Dead as dry bones. We may think we are alive, we may live in denial of Death, we may try to convince ourselves that we can have a life apart from the Word and the Spirit, but in the end there is only death and dry, dusty bones. Adam’s death is our death. We are born dead, and dead people can’t raise themselves up. But God in his mercy has made us alive in Christ Jesus.

“Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. Let us go to him.”

Let us go and die with him. And by “him,” Thomas means Lazarus. But Thomas unwittingly says the right thing.  “We must go and die with him.” Only, in Lent, the “him” isn’t Lazarus, it’s Jesus.  That’s what Lent is all about: dropping dead in Jesus. Repenting of and Dying to sin. And in Jesus’ death we see the death of our sin, even the death of the last enemy.

But this isn’t just our life in Lent, it’s the whole Christian life – daily dying and rising.  Daily drowning the old Adam – that dusty pile of bones parched by sin, and daily rising - living by the breath of life from the Lord who breathed life into Adam.  In his Dying we live.

John 11 is also a picture of the Last Day, falling asleep in Jesus only to have Him wake you up as soon as you’ve begun to rest. Martin Luther once commented that it’ll be easier for Jesus to raise us from the dead on the Last Day than it is to wake someone from an afternoon nap. No alarm in the world can wake us up from death. But Jesus’ Word and the Spirit can. Jesus goes to the grave not to mourn but to conquer, not only to weep in grief but to cry out against death and pierce through the darkness with His Word and breath. Jesus teaches us and Martha that our hope is not just for a day to come but for today. It isn’t only about a resurrection to come but a resurrection that is already here, and it’s yours.

That’s what Mary and Martha just couldn’t quite get their heads around yet – not until Easter Sunday.  “Lord, if You had only been here my brother would not have died.”

I think we’ve all said that same thing to Jesus at some point. If you were only there…my husband or wife, my grandma or grandpa, my best friend, my loved one…they would not have died.

Your brother will rise again.

And Martha confesses the truth…I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the Last day…but not the whole truth.  For the whole truth of the Christian faith is not just a future hope or a distant promise,  but a here-and-now promise. Resurrection and Life are present tense with Jesus. Martha, Martha – you are anxious about many things…this one thing is necessary: I AM the Resurrection and the Life.  Right now. Today. For you. Forever. 

But Jesus doesn’t stop there: “Whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” Literally, “will never die forever.” Yes, we’ll die. But we live in Jesus in spite of death. And living and trusting in Jesus you will never die forever. Death can’t hold you. Ain’t no grave can hold your body down. Because Jesus broke the bonds of death and the grave forever with His own dying and rising.

That’s why Jesus had to go to the tomb.  Yes, Jesus loved Lazarus, but He also loves the rest of us – Mary, Martha, the disciples, and you – we who don’t always get it. “O dry bones, hear the Word of the Lord.  Thus says the Lord: “I will cause the breath of life to enter you and you shall live.  Lazarus, Come out!  Unbind  him.  Release him.  Free him from death. 

Lazarus was really the only one in that cemetery who completely believed in Christ.  He alone truly listened to the word of Christ.  Mary, Martha and the crowds were still full of grief and doubt.  But the dead man believed.  No grave could hold his body down.  Our Lord awoke Lazarus with His Word and breath of Life. Death does not win. 

Jesus gives us a glimpse of his own death and resurrection when he would answer once and for all the question asked of Ezekiel. Can these bones live? Yes. By Jesus’ Word and breath you live, for He is the Resurrection and the Life.

Jesus is the dead whisperer.  The grave conqueror.  The Life giver.  “I am not the God of the dead but of the living.  My death is your glory.  My resurrection is your life.  I will rip you from the arms of your grave as swiftly as I pulled Lazarus out of his tomb.  I AM your Resurrection and your Life.  No grave can hold my body down.  And neither will it hold you.”

Today we join Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in rejoicing in Christ, in his victory over death. And we join them in praying for those who mourn.  And yet, like Martha and Mary, we do not grieve without hope.  Even today those who have died in Christ are not gone. We are closest to them where heaven comes to earth in the Lord’s Supper. He gathers us around altar, uniting us with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, with Lazarus and all the saints.  Heaven and earth are gathered around the Lamb and His life giving flesh and blood, his forgiveness given and shed for you.  And together with them we await Christ’s final word: “Arise! Come out! I will raise you from your graves, O My people.”
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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