When my father died a few years ago, I found a box at his house with a label. It said, “Things I want my son to keep.”
Inside there were no bearer bonds or gold coins. No age old stocks. Nothing you would list on Ebay.com and try to auction off on the Internet.
It was a strange collection. A hodge podge.
I found a broken pencil. Strange pencil. It was shaped like a rifle. Pull the tiny trigger and lead comes out. Not bullets of lead, but you know, a long thin line of lead you write with. Open the shoulder rest and there is an eraser. It is absolutely worthless. It is terrible condition, but there was a small note attached to it that was written in Dad’s handwriting. It read, “My mother’s pencil.”
I also found a pearl. Not a very pretty one, and in fact, was quite small. But Mom had found it while eating oysters at a dinner. How could you throw something like that away.
There was an envelope filled with teeth. Human teeth. Not adult size teeth – children’s teeth. I don’t even know whose teeth they had been. My teeth? My sisters’? Some bully Dad had beaten up in the 2nd grade. Who knows?
There was another envelope. It was labeled “Missy’s hair.”
Missy was my sister, and so I opened the envelope expecting find a small lock of her hair.
But instead, inside was all of her hair. Enough for a small wig.
You see, 41 years earlier, Missy had become sick and had to have brain surgery. She was only six years old. And of course, they had to shave her head. Looking at this envelope of hair, I imagined Mom or Dad gathering up the hair as the orderly or nurse shaved her head, and then keeping it as if someday it might be all that was left of the child.
Now, I was quite young as well, so there are a lot of things I do not remember about Missy’s illness, but one thing I do remember very clearly is that our other sister, Shannon, had such deep faith.
We lived in a small town at the time and everyone became aware of this 6 year old child who was sick, and everyone was praying for her. Now, even as a child, I was aware that even though people were praying for my sister, I could sense that people didn’t really believe God would do anything to heal her.
Have you ever sensed that in someone? Or maybe you have sensed it in yourself. Praying for something, but not really believing.
But Shannon – our other sister – she not only prayed.
She was convinced.
She was persuaded.
Without any doubt at all, Shannon knew God was going to heal our sister Missy.
It is an amazing thing to see someone with that much faith.
Jesus promised in Matthew 17 (verse 20), “I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you."
That was the kind of faith Shannon had. Everyone else seemed to have their doubts. But Shannon never did. She knew God would heal Missy.
A few months after the surgery, Missy died.
And the day Missy died was the same day that my other sister, Shannon, stopped believing in God.
We serve a God who is sometimes very hard to understand.
We serve a God who sometimes disappoints us – because we can’t manipulate him even with our prayers.
We serve a God who is sometimes hard to believe in.
Maybe you have been there.
You watch your husband or wife suffer a long illness. Day by day the body weakens, the mind fades, one organ after another shuts down. It’s hard to believe in a God who lets someone die so slowly and painfully.
You are at home alone when the doorbell rings. You answer it and find the police at the door. There has been an accident. Your child was in a car. It’s hard to believe in a God who lets a child suffer a sudden death.
Or perhaps you’ve heard the news from your own doctor. The tests have all come back and they have confirmed the worst. “There’s nothing we can do,” the doctor tells you. It’s hard to believe in a God who allows death to intrude upon your life.
And don’t think this is something new.
It’s the same story in this morning’s Gospel reading.
Jesus has a friend named Lazarus. He gets sick, and then he dies.
There seems to be no escaping death and tragedy.
The death of Lazarus comes in chapter 11 of John’s Gospel and it is in sharp contrast with what has been happening in chapter 10.
Chapter 10 is a beautiful chapter. It’s filled with promises. It’s full of life.
Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd.”
Jesus promises that he has come to give us life, so that we may have it abundantly.
In chapter 10, Jesus promises life.
Then in chapter 11, Lazarus is dead.
Lazarus was a friend of Jesus. A very close friend (verse 3).
Lazarus had two sisters, Mary and Martha. They were the ones who sent word to Jesus that Lazarus was sick. Jesus doesn’t waste any time. He starts back to Judea to heal Lazarus. Now this is a risky thing to do. By this time, the popularity of Jesus has begun to decline. In fact, his disciples reminded him that they left that region because earlier people tried to stone and kill Jesus. But Jesus is determined. So when he goes, the rest of his disciples agree to go and die with Jesus.
But it is not Jesus who dies in this chapter – it’s Lazarus.
Martha goes and meets Jesus as he arrives, and she is bitter. She tries not to be. But she is. (John 11:21) "Lord," Martha said to Jesus, "if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Martha served a God who is sometimes very hard to understand.
Martha served a God who sometimes disappointed her.
Martha served a God who is sometimes hard to believe in.
Martha looked at Jesus and said, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Jesus tells her, "Your brother will rise again."
And Martha tries to maintain her faith, "I know -- he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day."
But then Jesus says a strange thing.
Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”
Martha professes faith that what Jesus is saying is true. She looks at Jesus and says, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”
It’s hard to keep your faith sometimes. It’s sometimes hard to continue to believe in God. But Martha believes.
Now Mary had stayed at home, but now Martha goes and gets her and says that Jesus wants to see her, so Mary goes to where Jesus is.
Mary and Martha are so different. You see their differences in other passages of Scripture, but sometimes they are very much alike.
When Mary sees Jesus, she ends up saying the very same thing that sister Martha had said to him earlier. "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."
It is at that point that everyone breaks down in tears. Grief overwhelms Mary. Then the other mourners.
It is interesting to see the effect this grief has on Jesus. When he sees the tears of Mary, and of the other mourners as well, he was, in the words of the Gospel, “deeply moved in spirit, and troubled.” To be more accurate, scholars say these words do not reflect compassion, but anger. You don’t pick up on this in most of your English Bibles, but it shows up in most other languages.
Why would Jesus be angry at a funeral?
Anger and grief are closely related cousins.
In the classic pattern of grief, there are five stages – from denial to acceptance and hope. In the middle we find anger as one of the five stages of grief.
Think back to your own experiences with someone’s death. Wasn’t there some moment of anger?
Anger at the drunk driver who killed your best friend?
Anger at the doctor who wasn’t able to pull off a miracle?
When my sister died, my other sister became so angry that she stopped believing in God.
When death happens, anger is one of the visitors at the funeral service.
It was as natural as what Jesus does next.
Verse 35 is the shortest verse in the Bible. “Jesus wept.”
Which has always struck me as a strange thing for Jesus to do in light of what he does next.
Jesus goes to the tomb and asks that the grave be opened. He addresses Lazarus and orders him to come out of the grave.
And he does.
Lazarus, who has been food for the worms for four days, comes back to life.
Jesus commands him back to life. It is one of the great miracles – or signs that Jesus performs.
The raising of Lazarus from the dead is a foreshadowing of Christ’s own resurrection, and of our own resurrection into eternal life.
Death intrudes into our lives all the time. Like it or not, ready or not, willing or not – death comes to our friends and loved ones, to the young and the old. And eventually, it comes for us.
But, through Christ, we have the hope for eternal life, and after Christ raised Lazarus from the dead, there should have been no doubt in anyone’s mind that this was true.
In fact, the Scriptures say that as a result of this, many put their faith in Christ (verse 45).
Christ makes it possible for us to have eternal life.
Yet of all the miracles Jesus performs, I think this one may be the one that is the hardest for us to believe.
Oh I know, I know. We SAY we believe it, but do we?
Jesus said to Martha, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"
Martha says she does believe it.
But do we believe it?
You stand at the grave of your best friend, and you hope there is everlasting life. But do you really believe?
You watch the casket of your husband lowered into the ground. Do you really believe what Jesus said when he told Martha, "I am the resurrection and the life.” Or do you just hope?
You hear the doctor give you the results of last week’s medical tests. You listen as he tells you that there will be no cure. Do you really believe that there will be anything at all for you after your death?
Believing that we have eternal life and that there is a resurrection is more than just a nice pie-in-the-sky hope that we have that gives us an empty comfort in times of crisis.
This belief is central to the Christian faith.
St. Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians that if you don’t believe in this, you might as well not believe in anything (1 Cor 15:12-14). He says, “If it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”
The most familiar passage of the Bible is John 3:16. "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
It’s a wild doctrine to believe! It’s beyond the natural – it’s supernatural! An afterlife? A bodily resurrection? It’s like believing someone could walk on water. It’s as wild as believing someone could turn water into wine.
But that’s St. Paul’s point. If you believe in the resurrection of Christ, then you must also believe that there will be a resurrection for you and other Christians as well someday.
Paul’s words in First Corinthians 15 are very clear! “If it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”
We have eternal life.
We have a hope for the resurrection from the dead.
Believe it when you grieve over the death of your parents.
Believe it when you feel the anger over the injustice of the untimely death of a child.
Believe it when you weep as Christ wept at the death of a friend.
Believe it, and be comforted – not in the pie in the sky hope, but in the reality of faith.
When my father died a few years ago, I found a box that was labeled, “Things I want my son to keep.”
Inside was a tiny rifle shaped pencil, a small pearl, baby teeth, and an envelope containing my sister Missy’s hair.
And -- there was a letter.
It had been written by my sister, Shannon.
She’d had such faith. She prayed and truly believed that God would answer her prayers and heal our sister Missy.
And when Missy died, Shannon’s faith died.
But her faith did not remain dead for long. She often said over the years that when she held her first child in her arms for the first time, she found her way back to God.
She wrote the letter on her 50th birthday. By that time, she was facing her own serious, life-threatening illness. She was waiting for a transplant and had high hopes that it would save her life. It wouldn’t. Five years after writing this letter, she would die.
In the letter, she wrote about her illness. She shared her hopes. She shared her fears.
And she also shared her faith.
“Dear Daddy, I pray every day that God will heal me. But I don’t know if God will heal me and let me live. It’s important to me that God heal me. I want to live. But what’s more important than whether or not I live in this world is that I know our family has been given eternal life.”
And then she quoted a verse of Scripture – a verse from our Gospel lesson for today. ‘I am the resurrection and the life,’ says the Lord. ‘He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.’”
Copyright Maynard Pittendreigh, 2014
All Rights Reserved
 This is a confession of faith. Martha starts it in the same way that we begin the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe…” It is a confession that is as equal to Peter’s in Matt 16:16: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."
 Enebrimesato is translated as “deeply moved” in the NIV, and “greatly disturbed” in the NRSV. The verb connotes anger and indignation, not compassion. In its use in the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagent) and other New Testament usages, this Greek word has this meaning consistently. (Daniel 11:30, Matthew 9:30, Mark 1:43, 14:5). The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 9, page 690. Barclay adds an interesting insight in his Daily Study Bible Series, the Gospel of John, Volume II p. 97. “In ordinary classical Greek the usual usage of the word is of a horse snorting.”
 The German translation by Martin Luther translated it simply as anger.
 This description was first presented by Dr. Kubler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying. The five stages she identified are: Denial, Rage and Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.
This is the last of the seven signs in John’s Gospel. In recent weeks, Jason and I have been preaching on the Gospel of John, and you may remember that we have pointed out that there are seven signs that Jesus performs. Other Gospels record scores of miracles performed by Jesus, but John selects only 7 miracles to write about. Each one of these miracles is a sign that reveals God’s glory. These signs are: Turning water into wine, the healing of a nobleman’s son, healing the paralytic, feeding the multitude, walking on water, giving sight to the man born blind, and raising Lazarus from the dead.
 There was a debate about whether or not there would be a bodily resurrection of the dead during the time of Christ and the ministry of Paul. Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection, while the Pharisees did. Not all who were Christians in the First Century proclaimed a future resurrection. Some preached a spiritual awakening, or resurrection, that was already past. Such a view, adopted by Hymenaeus and Philetus and adopted by later Gnostic heretics, was sternly condemned by Paul (II Timothy 2:17-19)
(from Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary)