Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Our society has become one in which almost no topic is off limits. As so-called “enlightened” people, we pride ourselves on our ability to openly discuss just about any subject. Still, except among those viewed has having rather dreary outlooks on life, there is one particular subject that is almost universally avoided. That subject is death.
Certainly there is public debate on many subjects which are considered by many to only be “peripheral” to death—things like euthanasia, or embryonic stem cell research, and of course, abortion. The death is in no way peripheral, of course, to those individuals who become the victims of these ways to die.
Yet, usually in a protective attempt to avoid reality or inflaming passions, the debate gets focused on the social, economic, or psychological effects, rather than on the termination of a human life.
And that’s usually about as far as most are willing to take the discussion, at least in settings apart from those closest to us, and not always even then. Why do you think that is? I think in many ways, it’s because of fear, or due to finding death distasteful. Most people hold the view that death is nothing more than the ugly and bitter end of life. Think about this for a moment: Why else, other than our discomfort with death, would we spend such a great deal of effort and resources preparing bodies for viewing after they die?
The reason, of course, is because we don’t want them to appear dead. You even hear people say things at wakes and funerals like, “He looks really good,” or, “It looks just like her.” Life is good, the world says, but death is bad.
For many of us, death is also seen as a complete negative. Whether we like to admit it or not, at times our faith in God wavers, and our sinful nature gives in to the widely accepted notion that death is an end, after which there lies only uncertainty.
We also view death in a pessimistic way because of the pain and suffering that often is experienced by the one dying. Furthermore, there is also a degree of suffering by those who are left behind to mourn after another dies. Have you ever noticed how no one even likes to describe someone who has died as being "dead?" Instead, we avoid saying the uncomfortable "D" word. We substitute for it, referring to the dead person as having, "passed away," or, "passed on," or even by simply saying that the person, "is no longer with us." I even find myself doing it sometimes, usually to avoid offense being taken. To say the person was dead would seem insensitive, sound ugly, and to some, even crude.
The only time we tend to proudly proclaim a person’s death is if it can somehow be seen as noble or heroic. Otherwise, when it comes to the more common ways of dying, we avoid talking about it because these "regular" means of death carry no glory for the one who died. Instead, we often think of a person’s final days as ones of purposeless suffering, leading to a bitter end. There seems to be no glory, no triumph, and certainly no joy in the kinds of death most people witness and that most of us will experience ourselves. We often mistakenly believe that bodily death can only be associated with suffering, pain, and loss.
But this is not the way we as Christians are to see death, whether of our own bodies or those of anyone else who has died in Christ! Our Lord, despite the world’s view, has chosen to use bodily death as a means to demonstrate His glory and power to the world!
By taking a closer look at our text from John, we can see how Jesus did this through the death and resurrection of Lazarus.
We don’t know what illness Lazarus suffered from prior to his death. It is fair to say, however, that it was severe enough that Mary and Martha felt it necessary to send a messenger to tell Jesus of this serious situation. But Jesus didn’t respond, instead allowing Lazarus to remain ill for at least two more days.
“Where’s the glory in that?” we ask. Why didn’t Jesus simply go there right away and remedy the situation before Lazarus became sick enough to die? Wouldn’t God’s glory still have been evident, if Jesus had come and healed Lazarus, rather than putting him and his family through his suffering and death? Perhaps.
But if Jesus had come sooner and prevented the death of His friend, He would not have been able to demonstrate that it is in suffering and in death, rather than in life, that God’s glory could be seen. Besides, St. John clearly indicates why Jesus did not immediately go to Lazarus’ side. Jesus did not go because He "loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus."
It says just that, in one of the verses that precede our Gospel text today. That seems kind of strange doesn’t it? Jesus loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus so much that He let Lazarus suffer and die. Throughout chapter 11, in spite of Jesus’ promises, it becomes rather apparent that the two sisters are confused by Jesus’ seeming lack of concern. Each one of them takes a turn telling Him, "If you had been here, my brother would not have died."
Isn’t this how we also sometimes approach our Lord when a fellow Christian we care about is about to die or has died? We mistakenly believe that if God really cared, if He had really been there at the side of our friend or loved one, surely they would not have died. We claim to be Christians who do not fear death as the rest of the world does, but we often show no more understanding than Mary or Martha did. In all sorts of situations, we often wonder why God simply stands at a distance and allows suffering and death that we know He can prevent with merely a word. We especially don’t like to suffer ourselves—whether it be pain, discomfort, embarrassment, poverty, or ridicule. What we need to realize, and more firmly remember, is that the reason our Lord allows Christians to suffer in life and eventually to die is the same as it was for Lazarus; He does so that God’s glory might be seen. The cause of death is sin, but the purpose of death is quite another.
This is certainly not to say that God’s glory is seen only through suffering, death, and resurrection of the body, for we also are witnesses to His glory through the dying and raising that takes place through God’s gifts of His Holy Sacraments. Through Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and in the Absolution we receive after confessing our sins, the Old Adam in each of us suffers and dies, too. The new person then rises, forgiven of all of his or her sins on account of Christ.
When we arrive at the moment where Jesus calls Lazarus from his tomb, God’s glory in Christ is clearly shown, however. Jesus demonstrates His power and authority over suffering and death. And what is the result, the important “what’s the point,” of this dramatic demonstration of divine glory? It’s in the concluding verse of our Gospel test. St. John writes, "Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what He did, believed in Him."
This, then, is why our Savior allowed His close friend Lazarus to suffer and die; so that in raising Lazarus from the dead and thereby demonstrating His divine majesty, those who were once some of Jesus’ skeptics would now become His devoted followers. For those doubtful of the Christian faith in our day, the same thing often happens! Perhaps you have heard of skeptical people witnessing a Christian receiving God’s forgiveness through Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, or Absolution, and as a result, being drawn toward saving faith in Christ!
Those who were Jesus’ followers before and after this event, however, would soon see God’s glory in death in a way that they never imagined. What had occurred with Lazarus was only a foreshadowing of the greater showing of God’s glory to come.
This greater occasion would be Christ’s suffering at the hands of His enemies and His subsequent death by crucifixion. At first glance, neither of those things appears all that glorious. Did God really have to allow Jesus to suffer the merciless beatings and humiliation He endured? Did Jesus really have to endure such agony on the cross in order that His glory might be shown? Absolutely. Through Jesus’ death on the cross, God’s glory was manifested in two ways: First, in that on the cross, all the sins that ever had been and ever would be committed—by me, you, and everyone else—were paid for! Through a process of suffering and death that appeared both inglorious and highly undignified, God’s glory was shown in His Son, through the punishment he bore on our behalf.
Second, once He was crucified, Christ entered into His state of exaltation, descending into Hell itself to vanquish death and declare His victory, once and for all. Even though our Heavenly Father allowed Jesus to suffer and die in a most brutal fashion, there was a divine purpose: that His glory would shine through it all, as His only Son defeated sin, death, and the devil.
But what glory, you may still wonder, is to be seen in our death or the deaths of others whom we deeply care about? When Lazarus died and Jesus raised Him, we can now perhaps understand how God’s glory was seen through Lazarus’ suffering, death, and resurrection. When Jesus died and rose, we certainly can comprehend how God’s glory was evident in His suffering, death, and resurrection. But when it comes to the deaths you and I witness—and especially the death that you and I will one day face—we often question how God’s glory could possibly be seen. In deaths such as ours, it seems there is nothing left for God to accomplish in death.
To begin with, however, one must realize that when Lazarus died and rose from the dead, he no longer was suffering from that deadly physical illness that had previously plagued him. When Jesus died and rose from the dead, He no longer suffered from bearing the weight of the sins of the world. So then, when we who are Christians die, we also no longer suffer. In this, God’s glory is shown because at that moment, on account of our Savior’s glorious death, our sins are covered in His blood and the burdens of life are lifted from us forever. Clothed in Jesus’ righteousness, freed from all the difficulties and trials of earthly life, our Lord awaits us and welcomes us into His kingdom. As Luther once said:
So the righteous seem, in the sight of the unwise, to die; but they are in peace. We do resemble those who die, and the outward appearance of our death is not different from that of others. But the thing itself is different nevertheless, because for us death is dead. (St. Louis Edition, V10, 1862f)
Even better, for those who die in Christ, there is more to look forward to than a simple release from our earthly sufferings. Just like Lazarus and our Lord Jesus, we will one day experience a bodily resurrection. As Jesus called Lazarus from the tomb, so will He also call us out of our earthly graves at the proper time.
Now, then, we come to realize that death has a purpose because it demonstrates God’s glory. We also come to understand that for Christians, death or talking about death is not something we need to fear or avoid. For when we witness the death of a Christian, we point to the death and resurrection of Lazarus, and to the death and triumphal resurrection of Christ, saying along with the Reformer:
Thus we honorably carry the dead to the grave, follow the corpse, sing and pray as a testimony and indication of our faith that these very dead, and we together with them, will rise on Judgment Day… (St. Louis Edition, V8, 1198)
Because of what our Lord has done, because His glory was shown in the death and resurrection of Lazarus, and because His glory was made complete in His own death and resurrection, we no longer view death in the way the world does. Since we do not see death as the "bitter end," that most of those around us do, we as Christians can say that we do not fear the death of the body, but rather, we can view it as that through which the very glory of God Himself can be seen. We die to sin, and we live in the Lord.
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.