432) Sickness Unto Death; First Century and Today

The Raising of Lazarus, Rembrandt, approx. 1630

From my sermon at the funeral of my mother-in-law, November 5, 2010.  The sermon text is John 11:1-44.

     John chapter 11 begins with these words, “Now a man named Lazarus was sick.”  JoAnn’s family in this past year has seen plenty of what that can be like.  JoAnn was so sick, and suffered so much.

     Verse three then tells us that the sisters of Lazarus, Mary and Martha, sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”  ‘Sent word,’ made an appeal, to Jesus on behalf of their dear brother, who was also Jesus’ own good friend.  We too, made an appeal to Jesus, we prayed, and JoAnn prayed; first that the cancer would not be serious, and then, even when the diagnosis was as bad as it could get, prayers were said for a miracle.  God can do miracles, you know, when and where he so chooses.  The Bible doesn’t say anything about having to check first with the doctor’s report to see what we can pray for.  We can pray for whatever we want, like little children making an appeal to their parents.  But then, also like children, we trust and we wait and we accept, whatever it is that our Heavenly Father chooses to do for us.  And then we pray like Jesus himself taught us to pray, and we say, ‘thy will be done.’

     What was the response of Jesus to this urgent appeal on behalf of his good friend?  His response is confusing.  First, Jesus said the illness would not result in death.  Yet, he did not go to the home of Lazarus.  Verse six says that Jesus stayed where he was for two more days.  Jesus, who was friend of Lazarus; Jesus, the one on whom all were depending, did not answer right away.  He delayed his departure.  Finally, after a couple days, he was ready to go; but then he said to his disciples, “Lazarus is dead.”  His disciples must have wondered about that.  Jesus had healed so many people.  He was able to do it.  Why not even try to get there to help his good friend?  Why?  This is a common question, often asked at times like this.  I have heard it asked by several of you: ‘Why must JoAnn’s suffering go on and on?  Why doesn’t God answer our prayers?’  Once again, the events of this old, old story are not so far from life as we experience it.  We face the same problems and the same questions. 

     Finally, Jesus arrived at Bethany where Lazarus had lived.  Lazarus had by now been dead and buried four days already.  Family and friends were still coming to visit Mary and Martha, trying to bring to them a bit of comfort in their grief.  But their dear brother Lazarus was dead, and no one could do anything about that.  They felt the same helplessness and hopelessness we feel when the doctors say there is no more they can do, when you sit by the side of a loved one in their last days, or when you get the word that death has come.  Even with all that modern medicine can do, the time of helplessness still comes.  Old age, illness, and finally death still get their way with us– every time.

     Then Jesus speaks again, saying “I am the resurrection and the life, he who believes in me though he die, yet shall he live again.”  Jesus speaks the word of the promise, but Lazarus is still dead.  There is yet, further delay.

     Then, finally, along with Jesus’ words there is action.  Jesus goes to the tomb and says, “Roll away the stone,” and then to the dead man says, “Lazarus, come on out.”  I am sure that in the next few moments there was more confusion, more uncertainly, and more than a little doubt.  Then, in verse 44 comes the climax of the story when it says, “The dead man came out.”  Back in John 5:28 Jesus had said, “Do not be surprised at this.  The time is coming when all the dead will hear his voice and come out of their graves.”  And Jesus said in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.”

     This first century story is just like the story we have been living with JoAnn this past year in almost every way.  We have seen sickness, we have prayed to Jesus, we have been puzzled by his response, we have faced the death of our loved one, and we are now experiencing the grief that follows.  We, like Mary and Martha in the story, have received a promise, a word from Jesus.  “I am the resurrection and the life,” he said, “He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.”  That promise has been given to all who will hear and believe it.  Now, we lack just one thing.  Jesus raised someone from the dead on that long ago day, and Lazarus was given a few more years of this life.  And we aren’t looking for that here today.

     But we do know that the raising of Lazarus was just a small hint of things to come.  That was just one little resurrection from one little old tomb, but that great ‘gettin up morning’ of everybody on that wonderful day when Jesus returns is yet to come.  Be assured of this, it will happen– maybe tomorrow, maybe in a thousand years.  We have to wait and see.  Even in this Gospel story, Jesus delayed before he acted.  And today, we will have to deal with a longer delay.  But the hope and the promise and the future reality are all the same for us as it was for Lazarus:  the dead who die in Christ will live again.  It is for us now to believe the story, take hold of the promise, make it our own, and then one day know and experience the final and complete healing of the resurrection unto life everlasting.

     Psalm 121:8 says, “The Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”  The Lord is always watching over each of us, and is, even now, still watching over JoAnn.  It is just that early last Monday morning, JoAnn quietly passed from the now part of that promise to the forevermore part, and for that we give God our thanks and praise.  It is that ‘forevermore’ part of the promise that gives faith the ability to make adjustments in our plans and in our hopes and in our prayers.  Faith adjusts itself, not to lowered expectations and smaller hopes, but to an ever increasing trust and an ever deepening hope.  We pray for healing and then things get worse.  Then, faith then adjusts its prayers to praying for the strength to endure, to giving thanks for the life lived, and finally to a focus on that eternal home with God, where God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and there will be no more pain, or grief, or death.  With faith in God we always have a fall back position– until that day when we fall back into the arms of Jesus.


John 11:21-27  —  “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?”
     “Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”

Psalm 122:8  —  The Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.

Revelation 21:3-4  —  I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.  They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”


A Prayer on Facing Death by Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918)  (edited): 

O Thou Eternal One, we who are doomed to die lift up our souls to thee for strength.  We know that at some turn of our pathway Death stands waiting to take us by the hand and lead us.  We praise thee that to us he is no longer an enemy but thy great angel and our friend, who alone can open for us the prison-house of pain and misery and set our feet in the roomy spaces of a larger life.  Yet we are but children, afraid of the dark and the unknown, and we dread the parting from the life that is so sweet and from the loved ones who are so dear.

Grant us of thy mercy a valiant heart, that we may tread the road with head uplifted and a smiling face.  May we do our work to the last with a wholesome joy, and love our loved ones with an added tenderness because the days of love are short.  On thee we cast the heaviest burden that numbs our soul; the gnawing fear for those we love, whom we would leave unsheltered in a selfish world.  But we will trust in thee, for through all our years thou hast been our stay.  O thou Father of the fatherless, put your arm about our little ones!

We thank you that we have tasted the rich life of humanity.  We bless thee for every hour of life, for all our share in the joys and strivings of our brothers and sisters, for the wisdom gained which will be part of us forever.  If soon we must go, still we know that through thee we have lived, and pray that by thy grace we have helped to shape the future and bring in the better day.  If our spirit droops in loneliness, uphold us by thy companionship.  When all the voices of love grow faint and drift away, thy everlasting arms will still be there.  Thou art the Father of our spirits; from thee we have come; to thee we go.  We rejoice that for those who abide in thee, death is but the gateway to life eternal.  Into thy hands we commend our spirit.  Amen.