Lincoln Second Baptist Church
 March 18, 2018  

Prelude to An Empty Tomb

John 11:17-26  
On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. "Lord," Martha said to Jesus, "if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask." Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." Martha answered, "I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day." Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" 

The message of this story is pretty clear: Jesus has power over the grave. He’s the resurrection and the life. He’s the conqueror of death.  But what exactly does this mean for our lives today? What does it mean for the young couple whose 5 year old son has just died of Leukemia? 
What does it mean for an older woman whose husband has been gone for 15 years, but she still hurts as if it happened last week? What does it mean for the 13 year old kid in the youth group who for some reason is absolutely terrified at the thought of dying? If Jesus really has power over the grave, how can knowing this make any difference in our world?

We see that a man named Lazarus was sick. And that he is from Bethany, about 2 miles east of Jerusalem. We also find out that Mary and Martha are his sisters. You may remember them from Luke 10. Martha was the one running all over the house trying to get things done. And Mary was the one sitting at the Lord’s feet, learning as much as she could. And Martha got mad because she wasn’t helping with the housework. This is the same family. And in verse three, we’re told that ’the sisters sent a word to Jesus saying, "Lord, the one you love is sick." Jesus said, "This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it." This doesn’t mean that Lazarus isn’t going to die. Because we find out in verse 14 that he DID die! What Jesus is saying is that death is not going to be the end of this story. This story won’t end until Jesus Christ gets the glory and God the Father is glorified.  

The same thing is true with our lives. If you’re a Christian, death does not have the last word. Jesus Christ will have the last word when he says, "Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master’s presence." At Billy Graham’s funeral a couple weeks ago, he was quoted by one of his children.  “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”Jesus knew very well that for him, and those who followed him, life and death would always be hanging in the balance.  

In verses 5 and 6, we’re told that Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. The question is "If Jesus really loves this family, then why did he stay where he was for two more days? God wanted to teach us something about the power of Christ over the grave. So in verse seven, two days after hearing about Lazarus being sick, Jesus said, "Let us go back to Judea."Jesus makes the comment, “Lazaras has fallen asleep and I’m going to go over and wake him up.”The disciples said, "Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better." But Jesus said, "I’m not talking about natural sleep! I’m talking about waking Lazarus up from the sleep of death. And for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him."And in verse 16, Thomas said to the rest of the disciples, "Let us go, that we may die with him." He’s willing to cross back over the river with Jesus to a dangerous neck of the woods. And so they went on their way. And by the time they get to Bethany, Lazarus had already been in the tomb for 4 days. So even if Jesus had left right away, Lazarus would have been dead by the time they got there anyway.  If you do the math, Lazarus probably died just after the messenger left to find Jesus.
And so in verse 20, Martha hears that Jesus is coming. And she went out to meet him. While Mary stayed at home and watched the house. And she said, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." I don’t think she’s angry with the Lord. But she’s upset about her brother’s death. She’s confused. She loved her brother. It’s not too hard to imagine how she might be feeling at this moment.  

So many times when death comes, it leaves people angry with God.  “God, if you had been here, my wife would not have died.”   While it may sound like quite an indictment against God, those are words of faith.  The person recognizes that God is all-knowing, all-powerful and all-present.  It is saying God is capable. But Martha never lost her faith in Christ. Watch what she says in verse 22: "But I know that even now, God will give you whatever you ask."   She is saying, “I don’t understand why my brother had to die. But I believe with all my heart that you are in control.” Sometimes, Christians today look down on Martha. We remember her as the stressed out woman who yelled at her sister. The woman who would rather clean the house than sit at the feet of Christ. But Martha plays an important role in this story. Jesus told Martha, "Your brother will rise again."   And Martha said, "I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day."  But Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die." In other words, ’You don’t have to be afraid of dying. You don’t have to wait until the end of eternity to experience resurrection power. You can have that power right now! Because I’m the resurrection! 

So often, this verse is quoted and used at funerals.  "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die."  But it stops short of popping the question.  Pastors like myself often leave off a very important part of verse 26.  The question, one that can be posed to all people whether those present with Jesus 2000 years ago, or those seeking the truth today.  The words:  “Do you believer this?” Whoever puts their faith in Jesus will live on after death forever and ever! "Do you believe this?" And Martha said, "Yes, Lord. I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world."

I wonder how people without faith in a loving God make it through a funeral. How could they? They have no hope of a life beyond this life. They have no hope of ever seeing their loved ones again. They have no hope of ever discovering their ultimate purpose for being alive.But if you have faith in Christ, you have the greatest gift in the world. Faith in Christ gives a lonely widow the confidence that her husband is in a much better place. Faith in Christ gives a grieving young couple the assurance that their child is safe and sound and with the Lord. Faith in Christ gives a 13 year old girl the freedom to live her life without the fear of death being a factor for her. And it gave Martha the strength to hold herself together in the face of her brother’s death.

When Jesus reached the sister Mary, she also cried out to him: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."  And when Jesus saw her tears, his heart went out to her. And he said, "Where is the tomb?" And the company of mourners led Jesus to the tomb. Jewish law (Shibah) says that you need to spend 7 days mourning for the dead. And you need to hire 3 professional people to help you mourn. Two people to play the flute. And one person to do the wailing.  And so they led Jesus to the tomb. And then in verse 35, we’re told that Jesus wept. Not because the situation was hopeless, but because he was feeling what they were feeling.

One of the wonderful things about the Christian faith is that Jesus DOES care about our feelings. And then the Jews who were there said, "see how he loved him!" But others were saying, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"  
But Jesus ignored these passing comments. And in verse 38, he approached the entrance to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. And Jesus said, "Take away the stone." And Martha said, "But Lord, it’s been 4 days! By now, the odor coming from the tomb will be terrible!" This is significant because the Mishnah teaches that the soul stays near the body for three days. And on the fourth day, the soul would finally face reality and depart. The fact that Lazarus has been in the tomb four days means that in the eyes of the Jews, it was hopeless. The soul has departed. There’s no way Jesus could do a miracle now. But Jesus said to Martha, "Didn’t I tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God? Didn’t I tell you that I was the resurrection and the life?" And so they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up to heaven and said, "Father, I thank you that you heard my prayer. I thank you for this opportunity to show the world that I am your servant. Amen." And then he said, "Lazarus, come forth!" And in verse 44, it says that "the dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face." And Jesus said to them, "Take off the grave clothes and let him go."  

So what does this miracle mean for us today? It means that death is nothing to be afraid of. That there’s life beyond the tomb for everyone who believes in Jesus. That we serve a Savior who has power over the grave. That someday, we will all be together again. Jesus's words “I am the resurrection and the life” are words of hope that have been preached at funeral services, etched in tombstones, and been the topic of many books.  Why?  Because it is the source of the hope that lives in us. In just 2 weeks we celebrate Easter.  The sanctuary will be decorated with flowers and we will have our best attendance of the year. But more than that, we will be celebrating the event in history that sealed our own salvation.  

The phrase that Jesus uttered at the tomb of Lazarus was fulfilled by his own empty tomb Because Christ overcame death, you and I will live.  Death can not be contained.  Death has been subdued by the Son of the living God. Amen.