If Jesus Had Been There. Funeral Sermon
St. Peter Lutheran Church/ Dames
St. John 11:17-44
January 7, 2013
“If Jesus had been there”
Dear Preston and Karen,
Charlette and Bradley and all Shirley’s great-grandchildren and family,
Members of St. Peter:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
God’s word for our comfort this morning is from the gospel according to St. John:
Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live, and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.
A little over a month ago I was in Pennsylvania at the funeral of my uncle Rob, who was my godfather and my mom’s only brother. The pastor was an ELCA pastor, a different, more liberal Lutheran denomination. Maybe that seems like a dumb thing to care about. But I really loved my uncle. He was a big influence on me and made an impact on me spiritually. So I wanted his funeral to be good, and I was geared up to not like the guy and to get annoyed at what he had to say. Seldom does a pastor know your loved one like you do. And if he acts like he does that can be annoying. But if he doesn’t say much about your loved one that can anger you too.
But in the end, the pastor did a good job at behaving with respect and courtesy and kindness. He had a pastoral bearing that was comforting. The only thing I wished was this—that in his sermon he had not only talked about how great my uncle was, and how great a Christian he was—but that he had preached how great Jesus my uncle’s savior is, and how Jesus is the savior of sinners who seem never to get where my uncle was, but feel like they are failures at being Christians.
I wanted to hear that because if I’m going to be in heaven and see my uncle, I need a savior who helps and saves people who fail at living holy lives at times, or even often.
This morning I hope that you will bear with me if I do not do justice to Shirley’s life. I didn’t know her like you. What I want to do is come to you with a message from Jesus which gives hope both to good Christians and those who fail at being Christians. I hope that He will help me to preach that way and enable you to hear it with faith; a word from Jesus who gives life to the dead, who brings salvation and life and hope to those who have no power before death or their sins.
That lack of power to change death is what is behind the words that Mary and Martha say to Jesus when He comes to Bethany. “If You had been here, my brother would not have died!” It is a complaint against Jesus. And it is true. Mary and Martha couldn’t stop their brother from dying, but Jesus could. He had done it before. They had seen Him do it.
But Jesus doesn’t get angry at them for saying it. If He says anything that sounds angry at all, it’s only when Martha tries to stop him from opening up Lazarus’ grave because she doesn’t want Him to have to smell the stench of decay. Then Jesus rebukes her. That is because Jesus is not afraid of what is painful and what is ugly. He is not afraid of death and sin. That is why He came to earth—not to keep His hands clean, but to get them dirty. Just like He got them dirty when He formed Adam from clay. Jesus has come to create human beings again.
Jesus does not get on Mary and Martha’s case for pointing out that if He had been there Lazarus would not have died. They are simply expressing their pain. Jesus, we know that You can save from death, but You didn’t do it, and we don’t understand why. That’s what they are saying.
In life we have these same feelings. We hear that Jesus is the Savior of sinners. Yet we have the experience that we pray to Him, and it seems like no help comes. Sometimes it is a struggle with personal sin and guilt; other times fear and worry about our children; sometimes it is death. We pray, but we do not see Jesus come.
In the case of Lazarus, we know why Jesus didn’t come until Lazarus was already dead. It was because He wanted to show His disciples that He had power over death and the grave. He was giving an object lesson of the words that He said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
But even that is not all that great an explanation. Why put people through all that pain to make that point?
Shirley lived a long life. We know that everyone dies. We know that the promise of the Christian faith is that Jesus will raise the dead and bring them, body and soul, into life everlasting in the new creation. Yet that doesn’t make it less painful when our loved one dies, even if they have lived a long time. It doesn’t prevent us from wondering why Jesus couldn’t do it some other way, even though we may put those questions away the way that Martha does.
Jesus does not give direct answers to those questions. All we see is that He groans and weeps as He goes to Lazarus’ tomb. He is not indifferent to Lazarus’ death or to the suffering of His friends, even though He stayed away and did not prevent it.
He does not say why. He says, “Open up the tomb.”
Can you imagine someone saying that during a funeral? It is irresponsible and crazy. Martha says, “Lord, by now he stinks.” Why rub everyone’s face in the terrible reality of death, Jesus? Why make us remember the painful curse we all live under?
That is what is so terrible about death. At my uncle’s funeral people went on and on about his faith and his good deeds. I’m pretty sure that I will never equal my uncle in either. But it wasn’t enough to get out from under the curse that Adam brought on us, the curse of death. So what hope do most of us have, if the best people we know still die?
We have this hope: Jesus. Jesus who doesn’t seem to come when we call and when we think we need Him most. Jesus, a man like us, who seems just as powerless as us, crying at Lazarus’ tomb and groaning and wailing with the mourners as He walks there.
He groans and weeps. But when He gets to the tomb He prays to the Father. And after He prays He speaks with a loud voice of authority: Lazarus, come forth!
When Lazarus comes forth it tells us—whatever Jesus asks God for, He gets. Jesus pleases the Father and all His prayers are answered. Jesus knows how to pray according to God’s will. Jesus is so pleasing to the Father that when He prays that a dead man come back from the dead, the man gets up and walks out of the tomb, the grave bandages still tying him up.
It is terrifying, really, to think of a human being standing at the edge of an open grave and telling the dead person to get up. And when the person does it is even more scary. That is power that defies our ability to comprehend.
That is the power that Jesus has. The Jesus who cries and groans like He is just like us in the face of death. The Jesus who doesn’t seem to show up when you really need Him, many times.
He has the power to speak and raise the dead. He is so pleasing to God that His prayers about that are answered. But unlike the prophets in the old testament who prayed for the dead to come back, Jesus commands. He has authority from the Father to reverse death.
So then, how do we know that He will do it for us? Why doesn’t He do that then? Why do we have so many Christian funerals and so few resurrections?
Jesus tells us that He does something better for Christians. I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though he dies. And whoever lives and believes in me will never die.
Martha believed that Lazarus would be raised from the dead on the last day. Jesus said, I am the resurrection and the life everlasting now.
Whoever believes in me now has everlasting life.
That means that we do not die and come into the judgment of everlasting fire. The one who believes in Jesus already has everlasting life. God is pleased with that person who believes in His Son. The person who believes in Jesus is a son of God now.
Even when he dies, he goes on living. A person who believes in Jesus has eternal life whether the body lives or dies. And a person who believes in Jesus never dies. Our bodies are bodies of sin and death. They die. But when they die for Christians this is not death. It is the end of death, forever.
Jesus groaned and wept over death because He was not separate from it. Our death and pain is His death and pain. That is why He became a man. If it seems like Jesus does not come when we call, we only have to look at Jesus to see what this means. It seems like the Father did not come when He called, when He groaned and wept and paid for our sins on the cross. But the Father did hear Him. The Father raised Him from the dead. That is why Jesus is the resurrection and the life and why you who believe in Him have eternal life already. His resurrection is the fountain of life. It flows from Him to all who believe in Him. Even to Martha, with her doubts, and Mary, with hers.
Shirley was baptized into Jesus; Paul says that that means she died and was buried with Him and was raised from the dead with Him. Our lives in this world keep us from seeing this truth. Our bodies are sinful and they seem very much alive. Our faith is very weak and we cannot see Jesus with our eyes.
But rest assured; Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Sinners who are helpless before death have life and resurrection in Him already.
He is our resurrection and life who go on living in the face of death and grief. He is the life of those believers who have died in Him. And He is already the resurrection of the saints in heaven and the saints on earth. He has risen, and we are risen in Him.
Let us weep then, because Jesus did, and because the grave is far more powerful than us. But let us rejoice also in the power of Jesus’ voice and in the righteousness He has before the Father and which He gives to us. For He stood at Lazarus’ tomb and with mighty power commanded him to come forth again into this mortal life. But in the Gospel He stands at the side of us who were born dead in sins, and He raises us up to faith in Him and gives us everlasting life.
May Christ our Lord comfort Your hearts even as He comforts Shirley, who rests from her labors on His bosom. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria.
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