Tuesday, March 31, 2020

A better place. . .

Sermon for Lent 5A, preaching on Sunday, March 29, 2020.

How often don’t we comfort ourselves in death by saying that our loved one is in a better place.  Funny how in a pandemic, medical professionals are working their tails off to prevent death and we are willing to put up with every kind of constraint on our daily lives to keep death at bay.  Perhaps this better place is only better if you no longer want to live here and live now.  And our culture is making that choice available more and more through legalized assisted suicide.

I don’t know whether people tried to comfort Mary and Martha by reminding them that Lazarus was in a better place.  But Jesus did not.  Jesus did not offer half a comfort or a bitter consolation in the face of death.  Jesus entered into the place of death and called forth Lazarus to life.  Jesus did not suggest that where Lazarus lie was a better place than life.  In fact Jesus challenged the reign of death over Lazarus and over us.

How often don’t we face a tragedy or disaster with the great question “Where was God in all of this?”  That is what Mary and Martha wanted to know.  They wanted to know where God was when death came like an enemy into their home and stole away their brother from their midst.  They refused consolation and demanded an answer from Jesus.

Perhaps we are no different.  Christians are so often silent in the face of disaster and tragedy because we fear we have no answer.  Where was God?  We fear the only answer is “I don’t know.”  But that is spoken not out of faith but out of ignorance.  Jesus has come so that we know where God is when disaster, tragedy, and pandemic comes our way.  Jesus is there facing death on our behalf with the power of His life.  He is standing among us with the Word of life, the water of life, and the food of life that death cannot overcome!

There is one more curiosity in this text.  It is death that draws Jesus to Bethany and it is death that Jesus confronts on behalf of Mary, Martha, and a world held captive to death and the grave.  But the trade off in this is that Jesus, who comes to give life, is Himself marked for death.  The last line of the Gospel stands out:  From that day forward, they made plans to put Jesus to death.  The Lord of life comes to give life to the dead but to do so He must die.  That is not irony, that is the cruelest test of all.  But Jesus does not shrink from this test or from that which will give to a world a life stronger than death.  No, Jesus does the opposite.  He sets His face like flint to head to Jerusalem and to the death that is surely waiting for Him there.

My friends, none of us can be comforted by false hopes or empty words. There is no refuge for us in the fake consolation that the dead are better off dead than alive.  Do not let those empty words lips slip from your mouths or those empty thoughts pass through your mind.  This is not the Gospel.  The Gospel is the God who has come to take on death on the cross, to pay for sin with His own blood, and to rise to bestow His triumphant and everlasting life upon the unworthy like you and me.  We come to Jesus because He insists death is not good nor a better end than suffering but the final enemy to be destroyed.  And He HAS destroyed it.

My friends, in the face of fear, panic, and death, do not pester God with questions He has already answered.  Where was God in all of this?  Instead point to where God was.  God was in Christ entering into the cold darkness of death to rescue those who were captive to its prison.  God was in Christ bearing the full weight of sin and its punishment so that the guilty might be set free by the judgment of righteousness.  God was in Christ standing with the very people who had chosen death in order to focus their eyes on hope and the life that death cannot overcome.

We who come here today come as a people who have died with Christ in baptism and now live in Him.  Death has been swallowed up in the victory of Him who died and now lives.  As He did for Lazarus, long ago, Jesus will one day do for you and me.  He will enter into the place where our bodies lay and call us forth to eternal life.  Death’s choke hold over us has been released by the only one strong enough to die and rise again.  Unlike Lazarus, this will be no restored human life with all its earthly struggles but a glorious body, a glorious life, and a heavenly one without struggle but with only joy, peace, and contentment.

There IS resurrection.  It did not sound like Martha was very comforted by the prospect of her brother Lazarus rising again on the last day.  But this is not some consolation prize for the terrible things life has caused us to suffer nor is it some pale imitation of our present lives.  No, my friends, Christ offers us a true and everlasting life that has no comparison with today.  This is not some consolation prize for our suffering nor is it a reward for our good behavior.  This is the fruit of Christ’s redeeming work.  Walking into Lazarus’ grave to call Him forth, making His way to the cross of sorrow, enduring the agony of its suffering, dying the death that was ours to die, laying in the cold darkness of the grave, and rising to give life and hope to you and me and the whole world.

So come.  Come and believe.  Come and rejoice.  Come and be comforted.  Come and hope.  The enemies of God and of our lives have met the Lord in battle and the power of His life has overcome them.  As He lives, we live.  We carry this hope in us now as an earthen vessel carries a precious treasure but soon the weaker vessel will be replaced with a glorious one what will match the treasure.  That is our hope, my friends!  Amen.

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