Sermon: Do you believe this?

We have reached the end of our time exploring the core teaching of the Christian faith through the words of the Apostles’ Creed. Our hope has been that you have learned more deeply what Christians believe and why we believe it. We end this morning in the gospel of John, chapter 11, beginning in verse 17. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John – John 11, beginning in verse 17.

Most stories have a thrilling climax near the end and then the tension fades as the story is wrapped up in what is called the denouement. The real story is over and soft music plays as we tie up all the loose ends. However, that is not how the Apostles’ Creed ends. That is not how the story of the world ends. Instead, it ends with something bigger and better than what we can even imagine: the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. But before we hear God’s word from John 11, please take a moment to pray with me.

Father, may your word be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

If you are able, I invite you to stand to hear God’s word.

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God.

On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now 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 that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will live even though they die and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

We join the Gospel story in the middle of the action. Jesus has three close friends who live in the town of Bethany: the siblings Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Jesus has heard that Lazarus is ill and, to the shock of his disciples, he stays where they were for another two days before heading toward Bethany.

Verse 1 says: On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. When they arrive in Bethany, Lazarus has been dead four days. In the hot, dry climate of Israel (and without embalming techniques), a person was buried before sundown on the day they died. Because they buried so quickly, sometimes they made mistakes. So, it was common practice for three days afterward to check the tomb to make sure the person was truly dead. After that time, it was determined that they must be truly dead, their soul departed to be with the LORD, and there was no hope of revival. So when Jesus arrives in Bethany, Lazarus is dead-dead. It has been confirmed by sight and smell and there is no doubt in anyone’s mind and really no hope of bringing him back.

Verse 2: Now 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. The Jewish practice of mourning, known as Shiva, is a seven day period of intense mourning. Taken from the story of Job where his friends sit with him in silence for seven days after the loss of his family, Jews to this day will gather together in mourning. Family and friends bring food and sit with you while you mourn. When Jesus arrives, there are already plenty of people coming to mourn with them. There is something beautiful about the way the people came together to grieve for the loss of Lazarus.

But Martha hears that Jesus is coming. Custom would have had her wait for Jesus to arrive so that she could greet him, but Martha does not wait. She goes out to meet him. She wants to see Jesus. From the rest of the story, it doesn’t seem that Martha knew exactly what she wanted him to do, exactly what she expected from him, but she knew she needed to see Jesus.

I don’t know if you have been where Martha was. The loss of a loved one, those moments when life punches you in the gut. I think we can take courage from Martha’s example. When the bottom drops out of your life, run to Jesus. Like Martha, we do not even need to know exactly what we want, or even what we need in those moments, we only need to know where to go. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him.

Martha’s words to Jesus are raw. “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.” The Bible does not tell us the tone she used when she said this, but I imagine it as a combination of faith, confusion, hope, and accusation. There is faith because Martha believes with all her heart that the presence of Jesus would have saved her brother. She believes that Jesus can heal and restore, she trusts in God’s power to work through him. But there is also confusion and accusation. Jesus wasn’t there. Lord, if you had been here, but he wasn’t. I imagine there was a little hurt and confusion in her voice and possibly a sense of “Why? Why didn’t you stop this?” And lastly, there is hope. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask. There is no specific request here, but still a hope that perhaps even now Jesus can redeem this awful situation.

Faith, confusion, hope, and accusation. If you have walked where Martha walked, you might know these feelings. This jumble of emotions where we say we believe that God is in control of everything, can heal every disease and protect us from all harm, and yet sometimes he doesn’t. So our Lord, if you had been here also gets mixed in with our But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.

We should take a moment to drink in the compassion of Jesus here. He doesn’t scold Martha for what she says, chastise her for her tone, or provide a reasonable explanation for his absence. He doesn’t say, “Martha, you needed more faith,” or “Martha, why did you doubt me,” or even “Martha, pull yourself together.” Instead, he simply accepts her words. His love for Martha is big enough to accept her plea in all its unformed and unfinished pain and hope.

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” In the face of the death of Lazarus, in response to the words of Martha, Jesus promises resurrection. Jesus does not minimize the awful character of death. He does not say “Death is a door we must all walk through.” He doesn’t say that death is natural, that it is like falling asleep, or that it is not the horror we know in our gut that it is. In this short statement, Jesus acknowledges that death is not how things are supposed to be. In the Garden, we were made to live and walk with God for eternity. As the Westminster Catechism says, the chief end of man, the primary aim of human life is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. That is what we were made for, that is God’s design for human life, and death cuts it off. Death comes as a judgment upon sin and exists as an enemy to be defeated. So Jesus addresses the horror of death with a powerful promise, Your brother will rise again. Jesus promises resurrection. He promises that death will not have the last word, that one day its sting will be removed, and it will be swallowed up on victory. Jesus promises not the befriending of death, but the defanging of death. He does not encourage a calm acceptance of what is natural, but casts out fear by promising victory over death. Jesus promises resurrection.

Scripture teaches that on the last day, the Day of the LORD, all the dead will be raised to life. Daniel 12:2 says that Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. The Day of the LORD will be a day of resurrection, judgment, and vindication. The New Testament makes this even clearer. When we die, our bodies go into the ground, but we do not cease to exist. In the mystery of God, when the last day comes all those who have died will receive new physical bodies and will stand before the judgment seat of God. The righteous will be clothed with everlasting life, while the ungodly will be thrown into the lake of fire, which is the second death.

In the final resurrection, we will have bodies, physical human bodies. In the new heavens and the new earth, we will have physical human bodies. I need to say something and this is probably the best time to say it: We do not become angels when we die. I do not know where this belief comes from but, when your loved one dies, heaven does not get another angel. Though their body is in the ground, their spirit goes to be with the LORD to await the resurrection of the dead. All that is true, but that does not mean we become angels. Angels are creations of God, part of the heavenly hosts spoken of throughout scripture. When you die, you don’t become an angel in the same way that you don’t become a dog. You are still human when you die, even if you are disembodied for a time.

I care about this not just because I think it is wrong – though I do think that – but because what Scripture actually promises is so much better. We are promised the resurrection of the body. Your brother will rise again, Jesus says. We are promised full human life, full victory over death, and a renewed heaven and earth to enjoy the presence of God.

Martha’s response is basically, “Yeah, I know.” Martha answered, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” She affirms that she believes this final resurrection will happen. The dead will be raised, the righteous to enter eternal life and the ungodly to eternal death. She knows this, but we get the sense that it isn’t completely comforting at the moment. But Jesus response must have blown her away.

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will live even though they die and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” Jesus reveals that the day of the LORD – the Day of resurrection, judgment, and eternal life had dawned in him. Even before his own resurrection, Jesus proclaims that the finale resurrection to eternal life finds its beginning, its center, and its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Martha believed that the presence of Jesus could have saved her brother and now Jesus stands before her and proclaims that not even death can stop his saving power. Death is no barrier to Jesus giving life to Lazarus.

The Day of the LORD has dawned in Jesus Christ. But now, it is revealed, that the judgment between eternal life and eternal death will not be based upon our good works, but on whether we believe in Jesus Christ. Those who believe in me will live even though they die. Those who have faith in Jesus Christ, even though they taste physical death, will not taste spiritual death, but will receive resurrection life. The life Jesus gives is stronger than death, so that physical, bodily death cannot take it away. When we believe in Jesus Christ, death is not the end, but we are promised bodily resurrection to eternal life. And that life will have no end. and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. The life Jesus promises and gives does not end. Not only will death not overcome it, but this spiritual life will never end. By believing in Jesus we will finally able to live as we were meant to. We will finally be able to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

It is only through Jesus Christ that we have this assurance of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. It is only through faith in Christ that we are promised eternal life. This is why Jesus question for Martha is a question for each of us: Do you believe this?

I have a practice I try to maintain every time I preside at a funeral. At some point after visiting with the family and the funeral home and while I am picking out scripture passages and putting the service together, I try to stop and take a breath. Do I believe this?

Just last week, I had the privilege of laying Jeannette Weber to rest. As I looked in her face as she lay in the coffin, I had to ask myself. Do I believe that Jesus Christ raises the dead? Do I believe that he truly gives eternal life to those who have faith in him? Do I believe that he spoke truly when he said that ‘no one comes to the Father except through him’? Do I believe that he rose from the dead and has truly conquered death? Do I believe all this or is it just wishful thinking? Is what he promised, is what Scripture proclaims really true, or not? I let out that deep breath and then I go back to the God’s Word.

Jesus said to her, “your brother will rise again.”

Martha answered, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will live even though they die and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”

Do you believe this? Yes, Lord. Yes, Lord. Yes, Lord.

I stood up Wednesday afternoon and proclaimed the hope of the resurrection, the hope that is found only in Jesus Christ, the hope of all the saints who have died in the faith. I did it not because I am impressive or special, but because I believe with all my heart that what Jesus said to Martha is true, and since it is true, there is no better word I can speak in the face of death than the Jesus Christ is risen from the grave and those who believe in him will also be raised to eternal life.

Do you believe this?

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

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