2023-03-26 Lent 5
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In my class in Seminary there was only 4 guys. It was me, a Chinese guy and 2 Koreans. One of the Korean guys, Sang-hun Kim, told me wild story about his uncle. He was a soldier in the Korean war. All soldiers who see combat first hand live dangerous lives. There is no question. They all put their lives on the line, risking imminent death almost every minute of every day. Sang-hun told the story about his aunt who was at home gardening when she saw some people from the Army walking up to her house. They came bearing bad news. Her husband had been killed in the war. As you can well imagine, his poor aunt was shocked and saddened, jarred and confused all at the same time. She thanked the officials and began to mourn the death of her husband. About a month later, she was out in the garden again and saw another figure walking up towards her house. As she looked, it was another person in army fatigues. As the person got closer and closer, it looked like Sang-hun’s uncle. But that’s impossible she thought. But sure enough, it was uncle Kim, in the flesh! Was he back from the dead?! The aunt was immediately filled with great joy and astonishment seeing that her husband was alive! It appeared that the army had made a mistake and it was actually someone else who died, but not Sang-hun’s uncle. Talk about a real-life resurrection! The entire range of human emotions, wrapped up into one big bureaucratic government fiasco!
We have a similar story before us today on this Fifth Sunday in Lent, also known as Lazarus Sunday. Lazarus, whose name literally means “God Helps,” has died. And furthermore, the text points out a little detail - he’s been dead for four days. Not three, not five, but four. Why does that matter? Well, I’m glad you asked! There was a Rabbinic tradition at the time that taught that a person’s spirit remained in, with and under the body for three days. So it is significant that we are told Lazarus has been dead for four days. He was the brother to Mary and Martha and a dear friend of Jesus. Upon hearing this from the girls, Jesus had intense concern, He “groaned in His Spirit,” He was exceedingly troubled. This has always fascinated me, for when Jesus sees Mary and Martha and all the other mourners who came with them, scripture records the shortest verse in the entire bible: “Jesus wept. That’s the whole of verse of John 11:35! “Jesus wept.” We see the fullness of our Lord’s human nature because weeping is the natural human response to death. Our Lord is the compassionate Christ. Jesus identifies with us in every way. As true God, we see Jesus’ compassion on His creation at the un-natural tearing of soul from body. Hence, nobody dies a “natural death,” for death is an un-natural interloper that was never originally part of God’s good creation.
I’m reminded of another story. Sarah Winchester’s husband made a fortune making and selling rifles and she became the heiress to the loot. The Winchester model 1873 was the gun that won the West! The family suffered terrible tragedy when her infant daughter died from a childhood illness and only a few years later her husband William died from tuberculosis in 1918. She then moved to San Jose, California. The story goes that being crippled with grief she went to a medium, a fortune teller, to find some relief. “As long as you keep building your house, you will never face death!” the medium told her. And the funny thing is, she believed it! She bought an unfinished 17-room mansion and began to renovate it. The building and renovations continued until she died at the age of 82. It cost 5 million dollars at a time when workmen earned $.50 a day, around $71 Million in today’s money. The mansion was 24,000 square feet, had 160 rooms, 13 bathrooms, 2,000 doors, 47 fireplaces, & 10,000 windows! And Mrs. Winchester left enough materials so that they could have continued building for another 80 years! It still stands to this day as a bizarre tourist attraction! It is a silent witness to rich widow’s grief and dread fear of death!
You know what would have been cheaper?! Instead of going to a medium, she should have gone to church! The local Lutheran Pastor could have shared with her Jesus’ words: “I am the resurrection and the life! He who believes in me, though he may die, he shall live.” O to have the faith that Martha had! When Jesus asked her, she responded “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” Had Winchester responded in faith like Martha, she could have saved a cool $71 million!
But Martha surely had it right. She believed the awesome power of God displayed in the Messiah! “He cried out with a loud voice,”Lazarus, come out!“ And behold, the four-day-dead man was resurrected! He came out of the tomb, still covered in his grave clothes! I’m sure he must have looked like a proverbial zombie with the crowd having more shock and aw that Sang-hun’s auntie! Yet even this, this simple little detail that St. John records - that Lazarus was wrapped in his grave clothes as he came out - shows that he will need them once more. For Lazarus died again. But as we remember our Lord Jesus’ resurrection on Easter morning, we recall that He left the grave clothes neatly folded in the tomb. For our Lord is the Living God, and He would never die again! This is the power of the cross and the miracle of the resurrection! God doesn’t want us to fear death and mourn it forever, without hope, for “He is not God of the dead, but of the living” (LK 20:38).
If you want to do a fun experiment sometime, get a tape measure and roll it out to 100 inches. Imagine that every inch is one year. Now keep in mind that that in Canada, as of 2020, the average male lives to be 79.7 years old. The ladies: 83.9. So you find your age on the tape measure and give it a good long look. Many of us here today have already gone further than we have left to go! And the rest of you probably shouldn’t even be buying green bananas! But the truth is, none of us knows the number of our days. The greatest enemy of death will come for us all.
But this is exactly why the Resurrection is so important. It is the reason we embark on our Lenten journey to the cross. Though our earthly journey here is plagued with problems and sin and struggles, the Lord’s promise to us is life, even though we die. His promise is grace and mercy and forgiveness for our sins. Yet so many people live in fear of death. We do everything possible to deny it and even pretend it doesn’t exist. Everything from anti-aging wrinkle cream, to fad diets & exercise, to spending a fortune on building a mansion! But the cold hard reality remains. Alexander the Great, seeing Diogenes the philosopher looking attentively at a parcel of human bones, asked him what he was looking for. Diogenes replied “That which I cannot find – the difference between your father’s bones and those of his slaves.” O death! The great leveler! It visits all people.
And this is why we need the promise of life. Eternal life. This miracle of Lazarus being raised to life prefigures our Lord’s own resurrection – and ours by faith alone. As followers of Christ, those who believe and are baptized, we cling to this Easter promise that in Christ that even though we die, we will live forever. But first, we must watch death die. And so we continue our journey to the cross. In the Name of He is the resurrection and life, Amen!