Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.  Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead is the pivotal moment at the dead center of John’s Gospel (pun intended).  It is the last miracle Jesus performs before his own death and resurrection.  And, of course, Lazarus stepping out of the tomb foreshadows the empty tomb on the third day after Jesus died.  According to the Gospels, Jesus only raised three people from the dead: Jairus’s daughter (Mark 5; Luke 8), the widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:11ff), and Lazarus.  So the raising of Lazarus is a pretty big deal!

Unfortunately, we don’t know much about Lazarus or his sisters before this event.  They only show up in John 11, John 12, and Luke 10, which is surprising.  After all, this trio were dear friends of Jesus.  As John writes, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11:5).[1] We don’t know their ages, occupations, or marital status, although we suppose they were people of means considering the costly jar of nard that Mary poured on Jesus’ feet and wiped with her hair (John 12:3).  We don’t know if Martha and Mary were virgins, young widows, or old maids.  The Gospels do not say.  For unmarried siblings to remain living together for emotional and financial support was not uncommon in the ancient world.

Yet despite Jesus’ great love for Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, after he was told of Lazarus’s illness, he delayed two days.  He wasn’t in a rush or hurry to get to Bethany, where the siblings lived.  Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who knew the future and could see all ends, outright decided not to heal Lazarus.  Instead, he let him die.  His reason was strange: “It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4).  Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus healed hundreds, if not thousands, of people of various diseases.  But now Jesus intended to do something far more remarkable than a “mere” miracle of healing.  He would raise Lazarus from the dead.  “Lazarus has died,” Jesus told his disciples plainly, “and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.  But let us go to him” (John 11:14-15).  By delaying his arrival until four days after Lazarus died, Jesus guaranteed the man was dead and not merely comatose.  The raising of Lazarus was to be a resurrection, not just a reawakening.

When Jesus finally arrived at Bethany, both Martha and Mary accosted him, more out of grief than frustration.  Both sisters had the same complaint: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21, 32).  These are stinging words, but maybe they are similar to how you have felt when a loved one died or something terrible happened.  I felt that way when my mother died six years ago.  (Aside: In fact, I wrote this sermon to preach the weekend that she got hit by a car while riding her bicycle, but I didn’t preach it because I had to fly to Florida, where she was in a coma in the hospital).

“Lord, if you had been here, my mother would not have died.”

“Lord, if you had been there, my child would still be with us.”

“Lord, if you had been there, then that hurricane or earthquake wouldn’t have happened.”

And yet, as we discover in this Gospel lesson (and the Book of Job), God is always with us.  He never leaves us or forsakes us.  As Jesus promises at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20b).  Jesus was with my mother when she died.  He was with your child or husband or wife or friend.  He was with the people who were injured or died in a natural disaster, war, or other terrible event.  God is always here.  We just do not always have the eyes of faith to see him.

When the sisters showed Jesus to Lazarus’s tomb, he wept (John 11:35).  It’s the shortest verse in the English Bible, but full of meaning.[2]  Jesus wept because he was a real human being.  Jesus wept because he cared about his friends.  “See how he loved him!” (v. 36).  Yet, as I mentioned earlier, it is precisely because Jesus loved Lazarus that he let him die.  Because Jesus loved him, he went to raise him from the dead so that his sisters, neighbors, and mourners would come to believe in the power of Jesus’ Word and name.

So Jesus told them to remove the stone.  Martha demurred.  “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days” (John 11:39).

The King James Version says it even better: “he stinketh”!  He stinketh?  Yes, Lazarus’s corpse had begun to rot.  That is the point.  The Jewish rabbis had a superstition that a person’s ghost hovered around the body for about 3 days after they died—until decomposition set in.  But once the body started to rot, the spirit departed and went to heaven.  If Lazarus already smelled, that meant he’d already given up the ghost.  He was really, truly, entirely, and undeniably dead.

But Jesus never lets a thing like death get in the way of his plans.  After they roll back the stone, Jesus prays and then declares, “Lazarus, come out!”  And because Jesus says it, out he comes!  Still wrapped in his bandages and facecloth, Lazarus fumbles forward blindly, blinking at the brightness of the sun and startled back to life by the voice of his Lord.  Then, ever so matter-of-factly, Jesus instructs the amazed crowd, “Unbind him, and let him go” (John 11:44).

More than one preacher and Bible commentator has noted that it’s a good thing Jesus specifically said, “Lazarus, come out!” for if he had just said, “Come out!” then every single corpse on the face of the planet would have crept  out of their crypts.  The Day of final Resurrection will come when Christ returns—but not yet.

Something else about this story strikes me as important by its absence of mention.  While reports of near-death experiences and “walking toward the light” are common in the media today, Lazarus remains silent on that point.  He doesn’t say a single thing about what he saw, heard, or felt after death before Jesus called him back from the brink.  I guess “dead men tell no tales.”  In fact, Lazarus doesn’t say anything at all in the New Testament!  He must have been a quiet chap.  How could he not be?  After all, who could get a word in edgewise, the way his sisters were always going on?!  (Aside: Like Lazarus, I also grew up with two sisters).

I mention this not just for the sake of amusement, but for a sobering fact: the Bible isn’t really altogether very interested in what happens after we die.  Despite popular books like Heaven Is for Real and 90 Minutes in Heaven, Jesus and the New Testament writers say rather little about the afterlife.  They are more interested in life after life after death, specifically, the resurrection and the new creation.  Yes, the Scriptures teach that as soon as believers die, their souls are at rest with the Lord.  As Jesus told the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).  And St. Paul writes, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21).

The Christian hope is not just to believe in Jesus so that, when we die, our souls will go to heaven.  The Christian hope is for Jesus to return on the Last Day, when he will raise our bodies from the dead and reunite them with our souls.  When our earthly life comes to an end, that doesn’t mean that God is finished with us yet.  There is more to come!

Lazarus died.  Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.  At some point, Lazarus died again, likely by assassination (12:3).  Unless Christ comes back first, we will all die because “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23a).  We die because we sin.  Death is the just reward of all who break God’s Commandments.  “But the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).  That is why someday Lazarus will live again—forever.

Jesus promises eternal life and salvation to you, if you believe in his name.  He told Martha—and tells you, even now—“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 shall never die.  Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26).  Most English versions actually leave off an important phrase from verse 26, the phrase “for eternity” (Greek: eis ton aiōna), although it is present in the Vulgate (in aeternum) and Spanish Bibles (eternamente).[3]  If people who live and believe in Jesus will never die, then how do we account for all the church cemeteries around the world?  Obviously, Christians do die.  That doesn’t add up with the way Jesus’ words are translated in English Bibles.  But what Jesus actually says is this: “Everyone who lives and believes in me will absolutely never by any means whatsoever die for eternity!” (CSM).

Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life.  “Do you believe this?” he asks Martha, asks you and me even now.

“Yes, Lord,” Martha said.  “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world” (11:27).  Even before she saw her brother stumble out of the grave, Martha boldly confessed her faith in Jesus.  She called him Christ (Messiah) and the Son of God.  Halfway through John’s Gospel, at the turning point of the narrative, Martha professed her faith—the whole purpose of the entire Gospel of John, according to what he writes in chapter 20: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31).

What about you?  Do you believe that Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life?  Do you believe that he has the power of life and death?  Do you believe that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of God”?  He has proved himself over and over to be exactly who he says he is.  Two Sundays from now we will celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead.  We will shout the glorious Easter acclamation, and our hearts will soar with the uplifting hymns and songs.  All of this points us toward the final resurrection on the Last Day, when Christ, who is our life, will appear.  Today could be that Day.  Or it might be next week or next year.  But it will come.  Jesus promises, and his Word is true.  In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

[1] All Scripture references, unless otherwise indicated, are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

[2] At least in English!  The shortest verse in the Greek Testament is Luke 20:30: kai ho deuteros, “and the second.”

[3] The Luther Bible comes close with nimmermehr, “never again.”