5th Sunday in Lent – A LSB #’s 649, 358:1-3 & 8, 770
Text – John 11:39-41a
Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “Lord, by this time there’s a bad odor, for he has been there four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone.
TAKING AWAY THE STONE
I’m not much of a fan of the King James Version of the Bible, but if there is a verse in it that I love, it has to be the words of Martha as she replies to Jesus’ command to take away the stone: “Lord, by this time he stinketh!” (John 11:39 KJV) From her reaction it’s very evident that she had no clue what Jesus was about to do.
A resurrection from the dead after four days was apparently the furthest thing from her mind. Looking back in hindsight, as we have the privilege of doing, it seems like a no-brainer. Martha, relax! Jesus is going to raise your brother from the dead. He’s not going to stinketh.
Yet how commonly, when we do not have the privilege of looking at something in hindsight, do we react exactly as Martha did? Lord, those members haven’t been to church in years & we’ve made a lot of effort to get them active. There’s no use in visiting them again. Their faith stinketh.
Maybe it’s Sunday School. Lord, what’s the use, we’ve tried it & the parents don’t bring their children. It’s not worth the trouble. Finally there’s the classic struggle that so many churches battle with – not having enough money, or not knowing where it will come from. Lord, we can’t possibly afford to do that. We’re such a small congregation. We stinketh.
If you look for them, there’re hundreds of examples of how we protest against what the Lord intends to do, because we don’t have the strength of faith or courage to follow Him & find out where it is that He’s leading. Maybe He’s not leading those inactive members to come back to church, but through your visits with them, God may be leading you somewhere you don’t expect to go. God might not be leading the congregation to a thriving Sunday School, but that doesn’t mean that attempts in that direction are total failures. Who knows what blessings those involved will recognize once 20/20 hindsight gives them a clearer view of the big picture.
Lots of things were happening to me during the six years I struggled with whether or not to attend seminary, but it wasn’t until after those years that I realized how many of those fit so neatly into the big picture of my becoming a pastor. I’m thankful now that I stuck around to endure the struggle even though at the time I had no idea why God was testing me like He was.
You need to realize that my struggles weren’t simply about whether or not to become a pastor. The six year process was not just a Yes or No proposition. My struggles were also about God’s preparation of me in order that I’d be able to fulfill the roles which He had already prepared in advance for me to play.
In the Gospel lesson, Jesus is not only raising Lazarus from the dead. He is also preparing Martha for whatever role God had prepared for her to play in the drama that was to follow. Lazarus had been buried in Bethany – about two miles from the scene of Jesus’ own soon to follow death & resurrection.
So Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha protested, & so do we. During the times of struggle in our lives we should examine ourselves in order to find what stones are blocking the work of God’s Spirit through us. Could one of those stones be that you expect too little of God? Martha did not expect Jesus to be raising Lazarus from the dead that very day.
When I attended my 1st church convention, I never expected that God would be calling me to become a pastor. When you joined the congregation of St. Matthew Lutheran, what was it that you were expecting? What has God since called you to do that you never expected? What stones has God been removing from your life? Have they been the stones of low expectations? Stones of unbelief? Stones of lack of commitment? Stones of fear, or of mistrust? Stones of selfishness or of pride? God promises that His Word never returns to Him empty. The Holy Spirit is always at work in our lives taking away the stones.
However, in that, God is not only preparing you for roles to come. He is also testing you, like He tested Martha & all those with her, who witnessed the resurrection of Lazarus from the dead. You may ask, “How is witnessing something like that a test?” We’ll look at the Gospel lesson for answers:
“The man who had died came out, his hands & feet bound with linen strips, & his face wrapped with a cloth. ‘Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, & let him go.”’ Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary & had seen what He did, believed in Him, but some of them went to the Pharisees & told them what Jesus had done.” (John 11:44b-46 ESV)
Do you see the test? Many put their faith in Jesus. They passed the test. Some of them went to the Pharisees. They failed. The result of God’s miracles, as always, is division. Because Jesus is who & what He is, He inevitably divides people. He takes away the stone from everyone, but some believe the truth of being set free & others do not.
As God has removed stones from your life, what’s been your reaction? Have you put your faith in Christ, or have you run to the Pharisees? Running to the Pharisees is always driven by fear, & by a lack of trust in God. We see that illustrated clearly in the text:
“So the chief priests & the Pharisees gathered the council & said, ‘What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, & the Romans will come & take away both our place & our nation.’” (John 11:47-48 ESV) So from that day on they plotted to take His life. They plotted out of fear!
What’s very telling is that 40 years later; the Romans took away their place & their
nation anyway. In spite of the best-laid plans of men, & in spite of their killing one man for the whole nation, the death turned out to be for God’s plan & not for theirs. And God’s plan included killing His own Son, not just for the Jewish nation, but for the whole world.
The real meaning of Jesus’ miracle, as well as His entire life & death, is accessible only to those with faith in Him as their Lord & Savior. The entire crowd would see the miracle, but only believers would perceive the significance. Jesus said to Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” (John 11:40 ESV)
In our way of thinking, we might figure that God’s glory was revealed as He brought a very dead man back to life. Yet in God’s reality, Jesus’ crucifixion was His ultimate moment of glory. That’s because God’s glory does not consist in sparing the faithful of life’s difficulties. The true glory is in suffering & in the cross. That is where love given by God is revealed.
Because of the miracle in which Jesus gave life to a dead man, the Pharisees decided that Jesus must die. Yet in the death of God’s Son – He decided that all who believe this must live. In verse 25 of John 11, Jesus comments that he who believes in Him will live, even though he dies. To illustrate that paradox, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.
The paradox brings out the great truth that physical death is not the important thing. The moment God creates faith in our hearts we begin to experience that life of the age to come, which cannot be touched by death. Just as Jesus had the stone taken away & raised Lazarus from the dead, we too have been raised from the dead. The test is whether or not we believe this.
The Pharisees saw evidence that Jesus is the Messiah, & refused to believe. In their own hardness of heart they continued on their own chosen path. They refused even to consider the evidence before their eyes. Instead, they feared what they could lose of this world. When confronted with fear & disappointment, when we see & hear the evidence of death & decay before our eyes & ears, we too can become so absorbed in our worries & anxiety, that we no longer think to lift up our hearts to the King of Life. We forget to look for the good, the glory, that He would bring out of our struggle & out of our suffering.
Jesus has taken away the stone from your life. What is holding you back from living that life which He’s given you? Jesus has unwrapped the grave cloths of your sin. What else is keeping you from giving your entire self, your entire being, & your entire life to God? PAUSE
Know this, eventually God will destroy that temple of yours, whatever it might be. Consider the Rich Fool – his wealth was keeping him away from God, so God took his wealth away from him. Jesus knows what you truly need. He allowed His entire life to be destroyed that you might live. The greatest stone He has taken away from us is the stone of our sins.
Jesus said to Martha, & He says to you, “I Am the resurrection & the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.” (John 11:25 ESV) Satan & his demons have already been defeated at the cross & at the empty tomb. The OT lesson is a picture not only of the final resurrection that awaits us, but of life in Christ already today.
Those bones represent all the people who’ve given up hope; who are dead & stinketh in their sins. In the vision, Ezekiel saw how God would put them back together again & breathe into them the breath of life:
“Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, & our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ Therefore prophesy, & say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves & raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, & raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, & you shall live, & I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, & I will do it, declares the Lord.” (Ezekiel 37:11b-14 ESV)
Where is it that God is leading you today? What new doors is He waiting to open for you? What good work has the Holy Spirit prepared in advance for you to do tomorrow? Through His death & His resurrection, Jesus Christ, the Almighty Son of God has, in your life, taken away the stone. He has called you out of the tomb of sin & has set you free. Amen.
From heaven above to earth I come to bear good news to every home; glad tidings of great joy I bring, whereof I now will say & sing: To you this night is born a child of Mary, chosen virgin mild; this little child of lowly birth shall be the joy of all the earth. This is the Christ, our God Most High, Who hears your sad & bitter cry; He will Himself your Savior be from all your sins to set you free. Amen. LSB #358:1-3.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet