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March 26, 2023

Promised Treasures - Stone

Preacher: Rev. Jack Meehan Series: Lent 2023: Promised Treasures Category: Biblical Scripture: John 11:17-27–38-53

The Fifth Sunday in Lent

March 26, 2023

John 11:17-27, 38-53

 “Promised Treasures – Stone”

My wife, June, and I met in college when we were both students at our alma mater, Concordia University, St. Paul ( In the fall of our freshman year, we were both in a Halloween fundraiser play called “The Monkey’s Paw.” Believe it or not, we played opposite one another as husband and wife, Mr. and Mrs. White. Interesting and ironic! The play is about how this couple come to have a mummified monkey’s paw which, they are told, will grant three wishes, but those wishes come with terrible consequences. As a consequence of their first wish, their own son is tragically killed. At the frantic urging of his wife, Mr. White uses the second wish to have their son back. Later that night, there is loud knocking at their door, and Mr. White fears the worst, dreading what he will see. As Mrs. White fumbles at the door, he uses the third and final wish not to have their son back. When the door is opened, no one is there (The Monkey's Paw - Wikipedia). This is just a play, of course, and not real life. But what we have before us in today’s Gospel lesson is real life, even if it took place nearly 2000 years ago. There is a dead man walking as Jesus raises Lazarus from the grave. Our Lenten preaching series, “Promised Treasures,” continues today as we focus on stone. May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.

Last Sunday, we heard how Jesus opened the eyes of a man blind from birth and made him to see (John 9:1-7, 13-17, 34-39 ESV - Jesus Heals a Man Born Blind - As he - Bible Gateway). As staggering as this sign of Jesus was, what we hear today is far and away more astounding. It’s shocking and stupefying. Today, just two weeks before Easter Sunday, we get a foretaste of resurrection victory, pointing us ahead to the greater truth of Jesus’ rising from death and the grave. So far in this Lenten series, we’ve focused on ashes, salt, water, and light. Today, that promised treasure is stone. If anything seems solid, permanent, and enduring, it’s stone. Isn’t this why we erect memorial markers and stones for loved ones in cemeteries? These mark the places where their remains are laid to rest, and we do so trusting that these memorials will last for many generations. Stone is everywhere in the Holy Land, and at the time of Jesus, people were interred in caves, rather than buried in the earth. And so it was with Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, all of whom were good friends of Jesus. He loved them and they loved him. But Lazarus had died, and he had been in that stone tomb four days already when Jesus arrived. As was the custom, the mouth of the burial cave had sealed with a large stone that completely closed over the opening. Mary and Martha were grieving, and Jesus came to be with them. Both sisters expressed their grief to Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21, 32). What they were really saying was something like this: “Why did you wait so long? Why didn’t you come earlier? Why didn’t you keep Lazarus from dying?” Sometimes that’s how we feel when a loved one dies. We wonder why the Lord didn’t step in and intervene. We may feel frustration and anger because of this. If so, we are not alone. Mary and Martha felt the same. But Martha also confessed her trust in Jesus: “But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you” (John 11:22). In our own lives, in the midst of things that we do not understand, we also put our trust in Jesus.

This passage from Scripture is often chosen to be read at funerals, and for good reason. The words which Jesus spoke to Martha speak to us also in our own grief and loss: “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” (John 11:25-26). These are blessed words of comfort that speak to hearts heavy with sadness; hearts weighed down with grief; hearts that may feel heavy as a stone. “I am the resurrection and the life” is one of Jesus’ “I am” sayings here in John’s Gospel (see John 6:35-48; 8:12 and 9:5; 10:7, 11-14; 11:25; 14:6; and 15:15). And behind all of these “I am” sayings is how the Lord God revealed himself to Moses in the burning bush at Mt.  Sinai: “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). Jesus himself is that very God. But then Jesus asks Martha a very pointed question: “Do you believe this?” (John 11:26b). Jesus asks us that same question, and it is a question that each of us must answer. No one can answer it for us. Martha’s reply becomes our own reply. It is one of confident hope: “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world” (John 11:27). Remember that all of this took place before Jesus went to Lazarus’ tomb. Jesus’ statement that he is the resurrection and the life and Martha’s response of faith – it all happened before Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus.

Jesus and the disciples, Mary and Martha, and the crowd of people around them are all gathered now at Lazarus’ tomb. As we are told: “A stone lay against it” (John 11:38). That stone not only kept things from getting into the tomb, it also kept the horrible stench of death from getting out of the tomb. Nevertheless, Jesus ordered the stone to be removed. That’s why Martha felt compelled to remind Jesus that after four days, there was going to be a terrible smell. Popular belief held that the spirit of a person hovered near the body for three days after death, but after that, the spirit was gone. Do you see why Jesus waited until the fourth day? There could then be absolutely no question that the person – Lazarus – was truly and undeniably dead. That phrase in verse 38, “Then Jesus, deeply moved again…” is significant. This is the second time this phrase is used (see verse 33). The original word (έμβριμάομαι) is more descriptive. It means “to snort as an expression of anger, to be moved w. the deepest emotions… anger… at the illness and handicap which were looked on as a manifestation of Satan’s kingdom of evil” (Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, Rienecker and Rogers. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976, 1980; pp. 244-245). Jesus was filled with righteous indignation and fury at how the power of the enemy had so undermined and defaced God’s good purpose for his creation and his people! The stone must go: “Lazarus, come out” (John 11:43).

Though he did not know it, the words that Caiaphas spoke were incredibly prophetic, that “it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish” (John 11:50). Caiaphas meant that killing Jesus would be the expedient thing to do in order to keep the fragile peace with Rome intact so that violence and bloodshed would be averted. But his words carried a far greater meaning, as the closing words of the Gospel lesson make clear: “… he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad” (John 11:51b-52). In a terrible irony, by raising Lazarus to life, Jesus ensured that his own death would be coming soon. But it is through the death and resurrection of Jesus that we are given the promised treasure of our own resurrection in him. What are those heavy stones in your life that shut out God’s light and love? What are those heavy stones waiting to be lifted so that you, too, might walk out of the darkness and gloom? As Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, raising him to new life, so Jesus is calling to us today. He is the very stone that the builders rejected and has now become the very cornerstone of faith (Acts 4:11; Psalm 118:22). He is calling to us through his life-giving Word and holy Supper, the Means of Grace, so that we may know that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1), and so be raised from the death of sin to the joy of his life and salvation. Amen.