Our Greatest Needs – Life for the Dead

Sunday, March 26, 2023

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First Lesson: 2 Kings 4:17-37 (NIV)
Second Lesson: Romans 8:11-19 (NIV)

Gospel: John 11:17-27,38-45 (NIV)


  • Gathering Rite “Remember Your Love”
  • Hymn CW 846 “I Know of a Sleep in Jesus’ Name”
  • Hymn CW 723 “When In the Hour of Utmost Need”
  • Hymn CW 502 “Children of the Heavenly Father”

Look at Lazarus!

Imagine being in Bethany at the tomb at that day. Lazarus was dead after losing a battle with an unknown illness. It is a scene of tears and sorrow. Professional mourners are wailing away. The tomb sealed. Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters and Jesus’ friends, speak to him through their own tears. It’s a funeral scene that’s all too familiar to us. But we find hope rather than despair as we look at this scene through each of the people named in this account. We look at Lazarus through the eyes of Martha, the eyes of Mary, and finally the eyes of Jesus.

Through the eyes of Martha

The women in this account are the same sisters that you know from the “Martha, Martha” account. Jesus had been at their house visiting and teaching. Martha was preparing the meal and Mary was listening to Jesus. Lazarus, their brother, isn’t mentioned in that account but it’s clear that all three were close friends of Jesus. Four days before our text, Mary and Martha had sent a messenger to tell Jesus about Lazarus’ illness. When that messenger brought the news, he told Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” Unknown to the messengers, but not to Jesus, Lazarus had died shortly after they were sent. So Jesus waited two days before traveling to Bethany.

It doesn’t surprise us that Martha is the first to greet him. Think of that other account. Martha is the doer. She is the one who manages the household and prepares things for guests. Martha is the hostess, even to a fault in that other account. When she hears that Jesus is finally there, she comes and speaks without tears. (Not that I think she wasn’t emotional, but Martha had other things to do. She had meals to cook and people to take care of. Martha was the kind of person who deals with grief by staying busy.)

What she says in verses 21-22 is interesting. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Martha was a believer. From her words we see that she trusted that Jesus could have made a difference if he had been there in time. We don’t have to take these words in a negative way. What she says is true. Jesus had healed the blind, the lame, and the sick before. Surely, he could have healed Lazarus. Even the other mourners realized that.

What makes Martha’s perspective interesting though is her second sentence. “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” What did Martha mean by that? She knows that Jesus can help her somehow, even if she doesn’t know what to ask for. Does that sound familiar? A father loses his job. A family feels like they are sinking in debt. A difficult illness or accident comes to us or a loved one. When life gets really tough, God gives us the faith to say with Martha, “Jesus, I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” It’s the trust that believes God when he says he will work all things out for our good. The spiritual child who simply puts her faith in a perfect father’s love. It’s the peace of letting God be God.

When Jesus responds to Martha that Lazarus will rise again, she makes a wonderful confession, and perhaps we should remember her for this rather than her kitchen frustration. She says, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” I looked back in my records and found that I’ve conducted almost 60 funerals in my ministry. Some were ready. Some had no idea death was coming. I’ve buried the elderly, the stillborn, a 12-year old. Death does not care. And no matter what, it’s always hard. What do you say to a person when they realize their time on earth is near its end? We could offer general platitudes and say they’re always with us in our memories or we were blessed to have them with us in this life.

But Jesus’ famous words to Martha give us more. “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” There are a thousand sermons and a million blessings in these words, but it’s enough for us today to recognize the amazing grace in what Jesus says here. For people living on an expiring time clock, the promise that we will NEVER die is beyond comforting. It’s everything. Jesus overcame death. It’s his reason for being. He doesn’t say, “I BRING the resurrection and the life…” He IS the resurrection and the life. Jesus is life personified, the only one deserves life and kept life. Since he had no sin, death never had a claim on him. When he did die on the cross, it was only because he took up the death that should have been ours. Jesus’ life is greater than sin’s death. He proved it at the tomb of Lazarus. He proved it at his own resurrection. His life is our life. His payment for sins –our payment for sins. Martha’s question and Jesus’ response show us our great solution. As we look at Lazarus through the eyes of Martha, Jesus reminds us that death is not the end. Jesus brings us life.

Through the eyes of Mary

Martha came running to Jesus as soon as she heard about his arrival. Jesus had to ask for Mary. Sometimes we’re eager to hear what God has to say. Other times it hurts too much. Martha was stoic in the face of death. Mary was emotional. But Jesus came to them both, didn’t he? We learned about Jesus’ promise through Martha’s words. We learn about Jesus’ power through Mary’s actions. When she comes to Jesus she falls at his feet in tears. She too tells Jesus that if only he had been there, things would be different. Just like her sister, she trusted him.

It seems that faithful Mary is letting her emotions get the best of her. The Greek word for the weeping that Mary and the Jews do here is an open and unabashed kind of weeping. There’s nothing wrong with that. Grief is a normal response to the loss of someone we love. But as Christians, let’s hope that our grief never overshadows our peace in knowing Jesus. We can be saddened because loved ones are separated from us, and at the same time hopeful because we know that they cannot be separated from the love of God. Hopeful that God’s promises to bring his people together in eternity are true and certain.

Interestingly, it’s Mary that anoints Jesus with burial perfume just a few weeks later the Friday before Palm Sunday. Even through tears of despair here, it seems that Mary was watching and listening. More than anyone else, even the disciples, she seemed to understand Jesus’ purpose. Perhaps God connects these accounts to remind us that even in our darkest moments, we need only listen to hear his loving voice. Wherever we see death, life in Jesus is right there too.

Through the eyes of Jesus

Of all the perspectives on death, it is through the eyes of Jesus that we see best. When Jesus saw Mary and the Jews openly weeping, it says here that he was “deeply moved in spirit.” Their need stirred his compassion. He knew what he was going to do. He knew his power to change it all. And yet he still is moved. “Jesus wept,” it says in verse 35. This time it’s a different Greek word for weeping. Not the same as Mary and the Jews. This word focuses not on the sound of the weeping, the openness, but on the tears. Jesus shed tears brought on by deep emotion, but his weeping was different. Jesus didn’t weep only at the loss of someone he loved. Jesus wept because here in front of him was the result of sin. In God’s perfect creation, this was never supposed to happen. We were supposed to live, and live to the fullest in joy and peace. Yet here…death.

So Jesus looks at the tomb and recognizes the opportunity to bring glory to God. This helps us understand why Jesus waited to come to Bethany. Why he says his prayer out loud. It’s the same as he told his disciples in last week’s lesson about the blind man. This tragedy had happened so that God might be glorified. Only this time, they would see his power not just over disease and illness, but over death itself!

So Jesus speaks and Lazarus walks. His greatest miracle. You see some try to explain away the other miracles. Walking on water? They say Jesus found a shallow spot. Feeding the 5000? Jesus just shamed the people into pulling out their own food, so they say. But there’s no disputing this miracle. Lazarus was dead for 4 days. His body had been prepared and there was now an odor from the decay. But Jesus simply says, “Lazarus, come out!” And he did.

And the result? We read in the last verse, “Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.” And so do we. Lent is almost over. We’ve prepared ourselves once again to see Jesus take on death. Our death. But as we prepare for the cross let’s not lose sight of the way Jesus saw death. Death was his opportunity to glorify God. And in his own death, Jesus gave God the greatest glory of all – saving sinners. The empty tomb of Lazarus reminds us of the empty tomb of Jesus. And the empty tomb of Jesus is our promise of an empty tomb to come. That’s where we’re headed. Death may come to us all, but in grace and faith so does everlasting life. All because Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Believe in him and live. Amen.


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