So I've been really struggling to write this sermon that I have to do for a class. I think that's part of the reason that I've been struggling-- it's for a class. Another is while I have a general concept of the people that I would be preaching to, I don't have specific people in mind that I know I'll be preaching it to. Lastly, the sermon is for a funeral.
What I want to do is shift their attention away from a state of grief to a state of hope. I think this is the proper mindset for Christians when faced with death in our lives, whether we're facing our own or a loved one's. We no longer need to fret about loss of life as Christians. We can echo Paul's words, calling life "Christ" and dying "gain" (Phil. 1:21).
The text I'm using for the sermon and to demonstrate my point, that in the midst of grief, as Christians, we have hope, is John 11:17-27.
This text picks up the story of Jesus, as he enters Bethany after Lazarus has died. Mary and Martha had sent for Jesus back when their brother was just sick, but Jesus stayed where he was, reasoning to his disciples that the illness would not end in death, but "is for the glory of God" (John 11:4). By the time Jesus does get there, Lazarus is not only dead, but has been in the tomb for four days. The 1st century Jews believed that the soul hung around the body waiting to reenter it until the fourth day when it left. What John is trying to tell us is that by the time Jesus got to Bethany, Lazarus was dead-- really dead.
Here's where we see Martha for the first time. She's at home grieving with her sister and many of the Jews that had come to console them during their time of mourning, when she hears that Jesus was outside the town. When she meets him, still outside the town, this is what she says; Listen: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you." She's not inditing Jesus that he should have shown up earlier and Lazarus' death would have been prevented, nor is she petitioning Jesus that he raise Lazarus. She's merely pointing out that her confidence, dare I say, her faith, has not rested on Jesus healing Lazarus from his illness. So the question to be asked is where does her confidence lay? But let's not get ahead of ourselves just yet. First we must ask, "What does Jesus say to her?"
"Your brother will rise again." I think it's an interesting observation that Jesus is the one that brings up resurrection and not Martha. This was probably the furthest thing from her mind-- and even when Jesus was about to raise Lazarus, she objected to it. And while John may be using Jesus' words as a foreshadowing of what is to come, most believe that this statement was just an Orthodox affirmation that, yes, in the last days, Lazarus will be raised from the dead, which is why Martha answers Jesus in the way that she does, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day."
But there's more to this story. Part of what John is bringing to mind is that Jesus is bringing the things of the last days, the fancy word is eschatological, to the present. And that brings Jesus to say this: "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die." Now, in Jesus, the resurrection that Martha hopes for, both for her brother and for herself, is no longer a future, somewhat abstract idea, with which she hopes for. The resurrection has become flesh and blood and it is found in the person of Jesus Christ.
D. A. Carson writes,
"This is now more than an abstract belief held for the last day, but is personalized in him who alone can provide it. He not only gives "bread from heaven," but is himself the bread of life. So he not only raises the dead on the last day, but is himself the resurrection and the life. They don't exist outside of him."Resurrection is now a gateway beyond the physical death, which now has no hold over those who believe in Jesus. Life then becomes an eternal life, which cannot be taken away by physical death for those who believe in Jesus.
Jesus' question, "Do you believe this?" directed at Martha is no longer talking about her brother's resurrection in the eschaton, but if she has a personal trust in Jesus that he is the one that can grant eternal life and promise the transformation of resurrection.
Instead of seeing Martha reply in a standard repetition of what Jesus has just said, which she affirms what he has said and goes further saying, "I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world." As a Jew, she knows that the Messiah, the promised One of God, is the only one that can bring this and Jesus is Him. In the midst of her brother's death, Martha takes hope, not in a future resurrection to come, but in Jesus, the One who grants eternal life and has the power to resurrect the dead.
So I return to my thesis: As those who believe in Jesus, while we may be overcome with grief in the face of death, we have hope. Our hope is bound in the person of Jesus Christ. We believe that he is the One whom God sent into the world to offer eternal life to the living and resurrection to the dead.
May we, like Martha, take hold not of the promises of resurrection and eternal life, but of the One who brings those promises, Jesus. Amen.