Fifth Sunday in Lent

“This Sickness Is Not Unto Death”

John 11:1-53

            In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

It is quiet now.  Or maybe it is just drowned out by the silence.  But if you listen closely, you can hear it sliding under doors and windows.  Do you hear it?  The groaning?  It is the groaning of creation itself, bearing the weight of millions infected with the sickness unto death: the living dead.  It is a sickness that constantly manifests itself in new ways.  And faced with the questions of skeptics and atheists, what possible meaning can we attach to the act of blowing up a garbage truck full of explosives with the express purpose of maiming and killing?  What answer is satisfying in response to the news that a woman killed another woman in order to take a baby from her womb?  Who here is up to the task of explaining why genocide happens, whether in Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Cambodia, or the Sudan?  Every attempt at explanation rings hollow and callous, no matter how it invokes God’s purposes or His mysterious ways.  It is certainly not unthinkable that, faced with the enormity of suffering around the world every day, a splinter of doubt might find its way into the skin of your faith.

There is nowhere where this splinter can so easily sprout roots and bear its unholy fruit than when tragedy touches us in our own families.  Death makes its inroads also into our lives, and it is probably here where we see most clearly our need for the Savior.  Mary and Martha did.  The death of their brother Lazarus caused them to cry out in grief to Jesus.  We are not told how Lazarus died, whether from “natural” causes or not, but “tragic” is not a word that should be reserved for the death of the young.  Death is tragic no matter how old or how ready is its victim.  And what do you make of Jesus’ inaction prior to leaving for Bethany?  “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.  So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was” (John 11:5-6, ESV).  If He loved them so much, why did He not hurry to the bedside of the man who was His friend?  To compound matters, Jesus says that Lazarus’ sickness is not unto death.  Well, it might not have been, if you had been here Lord, Mary and Martha seem to say.  As it is, Lazarus’ corpse has already been in the grave four days, and it is stinking by now.  If this is not a sickness unto death, what is?

Is this not the attitude of our world and culture?  Today, much more than at the time of Jesus, so many things are directed toward prolonging and lengthening life.  What are plastic surgery, Botox, obsessive exercising, liposuction, and all manner of “enhancement,” but so many attempts to put death off a little longer?  I am not talking about what is necessary to live a healthy life, but about how “aging” has become a dirty word.  Euphemisms for aging and death abound, and underneath it all is the unconscious admission that death is not normal, that it should not be this way.  Life is good, and death is bad, no matter how we try to spin it.  This doesn’t mean that we do not try to deny that death is evil.  Take evolution, which assumes that death is good, or at least neutral.  Death is the natural mechanism by which the unhelpful genes and species are eliminated, and the helpful ones preserved.  The strong survive because the weak die out.  Accordingly, death must have been built into the system as a law of nature.  The Christians who accept evolution as the means by which some species become other species are forced to admit that death is not the result of sin, but that death, prior to sin, was something God intended.  That is not how Jesus sees it, for we see Him weeping.  He does not weep because He sees Mary and the other Jews weeping; that disturbs and unsettles Him (v. 33).  He does not weep because tears are the natural response to the death of a loved one; He knows that He is going to raise Lazarus.  Jesus weeps because sin has wreaked havoc on His good creation.  Jesus weeps because the consequence of sin is a death that rips asunder the body and soul that God joined together at creation.  Death is about as unnatural as it gets, if the definition of “natural” is: “what God intended when He created us.”

But this death, as unnatural and terrible as it is in God’s creation, is only a symptom of the sickness unto death.  Jesus is clear: physical death is not the worst thing that can happen to you. “[D]o not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).  The death of the body-and currently, the mortality rate is holding steady at 100%-should be a warning to us.  It is a warning that cannot be avoided.  Death, your death, is coming.  People used to know this well.  It used to be that before a criminal was executed, the man in charge would say, “May God have mercy on your soul.”  The crime may have cost the criminal his physical life, but physical death was not the end of him!  Needless to say, those words are not spoken anymore.  Since we have, by and large, forgotten that existence extends beyond death, it is not surprising that we would fight tooth and nail to hold onto our physical life. How much time do you spend planning healthy menus, exercising, visiting doctors and dentists, watching Oprah tell you about her new diet?  In contrast, how hard do you fight to hang onto your spiritual life?  How is your spiritual health?  Have you spoken to the Great Physician recently?  Exercised your spiritual muscles?  “[B]odily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:8, ESV).  Are you a spiritual “weekend warrior,” working out only on Sunday?  It’s true what the doctors say: that’s a good way to seriously injure yourself.  Do you regulate your intake of spiritual junk-food, false doctrine?  It’s usually easy to spot: like the physical kind, it’s right next to the check-out counter. You had better fill up on the healthy, sound doctrine before you go shopping.  Where can you find that good and rich food?  “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God'” (Matthew 4:4, ESV).  “Blessed Lord, who hast caused all Holy Scripture to be written for our learning, grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them…” (TLH, p. 107, no. 49).    Meditate on His Word day and night; eat the Word of God made flesh and live!

You know the symptoms of spiritual unhealth: it gets harder and harder to spend fifteen minutes in prayer.  It gets harder and harder to read a chapter or two in the Bible.  You find it difficult to listen to the Gospel lesson when it goes on for fifty-three verses.  The feeling in your spiritual extremities goes slowly numb.  And the sickness spreads.  You begin to notice other effects of the illness: you do not desire to hear the Word of God as you once did.  Church is just somewhere you go on Sundays, a chore and a burden, rather than the place where God gives you His good gifts.  Lent is a downer, and it becomes an exercise in Lutheran morbidity, rather than emphasizing repentance as one half of the Christian’s daily regimen.  What is the cure for spiritual sloth?  As with your physical health, living the Christian life is a constant struggle, in fact, a daily one.  While we may be able to motivate ourselves to exercise physically and eat more healthily, we cannot regain spiritual health on our own.  If you have killed your physical life, you must be resurrected from the outside.  And what is true of physical life is even truer of spiritual life.  You can train yourself to pray every morning for forty-five minutes, read the Bible for an hour, and always ask what Jesus would do in every situation.  But do not confuse the training with the life!  Those things are only good if the Triune God has healed you from the sickness unto death.  If the Holy Spirit has not called you by the Gospel and enlightened you with His gifts, you are just as dead as if you had never read the Bible and never prayed a word.

Do you desire to be restored to health?  Is your spiritual lethargy hateful to you?  If not, keep in mind that apathy is made of the nails that crucified the Son of God, and blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is the unforgivable sin.  But if you know that your entire self, body and soul, is (as Luther put it) a detestable, stinking bag of maggots in the eyes of the holy God, hear the words of Jesus to you: Lazarus, come out!  Rigor mortis is reversed; the stench of sin is gone from your body.  Someone remove those grave-clothes and let him go!  Take that face-cloth from her so that she can see!  Can these bones live?  “O dry bones, hear the word of [Yahweh]!  Thus says the Lord [Yahweh] to these bones: Behold, I will cause [Spirit] to enter you, and you shall live.  And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put [Spirit] in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am [Yahweh]” (Ezekiel 37:4-6, ESV).

You have witnessed that miracle many times when the spiritually dead were raised to life out of the holy water of Baptism.  When the Holy Spirit hovers over those waters, the miracle is even greater than raising Lazarus out of his tomb.  That was a mere restoration of physical life; Lazarus died again.  But baptism is the promise of Jesus Himself to you: “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, ESV)?  When you were baptized, the Holy Spirit brought the death and resurrection of Jesus to you.  He brought, and still brings, the cry of faith from your lips: “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world” (John 11:27, ESV)!  Even when Jesus seems far away, and you, like Mary and Martha, do not understand why He delays coming to your aid, look to that same baptism: in the water, and by His Word, He daily kills off your sin and doubt, and He daily brings forth His image in you, “to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”  No, beloved, the sickness in your life is not unto death.  Even though you die, yet shall you live.  And your hope for the day when your soul and body will be reunited as a new and Christ-like body is not in vain; for “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).  Even on your death-bed, look to your baptism!  It is there that God made a covenant in which He promised to drive out all the sin in you (Prenter).  “He who calls you is faithful, and He will surely do it” (1 Thessalonians 5:24).

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).  Amen.

–Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 3/04/08
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