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Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Each of you here today has a special connection to Jerry and/or his family. That’s why you’re here. You’ve loved him, liked him, lived with him. You’ve worked with him in his role as City Finance Officer; he has been your neighbor or friend or family. For over forty years, I had the privilege of calling Jerry my friend, one of my best friends.
The first time I met Jerry was at South Dakota Agriculture Youth Institute in Brookings. We were assigned as roommates. The first thing Jerry said to me was “I need to tell you that I’m a diabetic so that if you walk in here and see me with a syringe you don’t think I’m a junkie.” A couple of years later, we were roommates as we attended the ag program at Mitchell Vo-tech. When I was foolish enough to binge drink tequila the night of my twentieth birthday, Jerry was one of the only ones to stay at the hospital until my parents got there.
We served as attendants in each other’s wedding. And he was a godparent for my youngest daughter. As the years went by, Jerry and I didn’t see each other much, (too often it seems that when we did it involved doctors or funeral homes,) but whenever we got together, it didn’t take long to pick up right where we left off.
Jerry and I saw each other at our best; we saw each other at our worst. And I suppose from a worldly perspective this must be about the worst. I was surprised, but not totally shocked, to receive the call from Chelsea that Jerry had died. After all, Jerry had battled with health issues for most of his life. But I didn’t realize just how ill Jerry was, and I feel bad about that because it would have been good for us to have another visit—to catch up on life, and to catch up on things eternal. Now, I feel a little like the disciples and Mary and Martha thought of Jesus when His friend, Lazarus, died; that it seems like I’ve shown up a few days too late.
But I’m thankful that Jerry requested me to lead this service. Through the years, Jerry and his family have been in my daily prayers, and I pray that God would use this time so that the Son of God may be glorified through it. While I no longer have the opportunity to speak with Jerry, I do have the opportunity to speak with you, to share the only words that can bring true comfort in a time like this.
What words? Words like Jesus’ words in our text from John 11:25, where He meets His grieving friends at the cemetery and says: “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.”
“Do you believe this?” He asks Martha, looking for an extemporaneous confession of faith. But a cemetery is a hard place to confess. It may be an easy place to open your eyes and weep, to open your mind and reminisce, to open your arms and embrace. But it’s not an easy place to open your mouth and say, “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” A cemetery is a hard place to confess.
Why is that? Is it simply because our emotions get the best of us? Is it because we’re afraid of saying the wrong thing, so we don’t say anything at all? Perhaps. But I suspect there’s more to it than that. I suspect a cemetery is a hard place to confess because that place, more than any other, seems to be the enemy’s public trophy case. Every tombstone appears to be another plaque on death’s wall. There it seems that no matter how valiantly we fight for life, death always comes out on top. He always throws the knockout punch. He always wins the gold. A cemetery itself seems to confess, “You, O mortal, have lost.”
At least, that is the way it seems to be, the way it looks to the naked human eye. Looks, however, can be quite deceiving, can’t they? The naked human eye sees the cemetery, the coffin, the corpse, and man is easily deceived into thinking death has won once again.
Ah, but therein lies the problem: the naked human eye. What that naked eye needs is clothing, that kind of clothing that will enable it to see through the deceptions of death, to see beyond the cemetery, the coffin, and the corpse, to the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. What that naked, human, easily deceived eye needs is to be clothed with these words from the mouth of Jesus, “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.” A cemetery may be a hard place to confess, but with that simple confession, a cemetery is no longer seen as a place of defeat, but a place of victory in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Just ask Mary and Martha. These two sisters, also friends of our Lord, sent for Him when their brother Lazarus fell ill. They waited and they waited, and finally He came. But it was too late (at least it seemed that way). Lazarus was already dead. The sickness had moved too quickly, and Jesus had delayed coming until Lazarus was not only dead, but buried and in the tomb four days.
When Jesus finally arrived in Bethany, it seemed that everyone was pointing an accusing finger at Him. Three times Jesus was told, “If only You had been here, Lazarus would still be alive.” Martha, at least, held out a tiny hope that Jesus might still do something, anything, to help. She said, “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.” When Jesus told Martha that her brother shall rise again, she responded, “I know that He will rise again in the resurrection on the Last Day.”
In saying this, Martha confessed the truth, but she did not confess the whole truth. For the whole truth of the Christian faith is not just in something that will be, but in someone who is; not just in a distant hope, but in a present reality; not just in a future salvation, but in a salvation here-and-now. The truth of the Christian faith is an embodied truth, a flesh-and-blood truth in the one who says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live.”
“Do you believe this?” Jesus asks. Martha responds, “Yes, Lord; I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” Martha doesn’t know what that all means, but she trusts that Jesus is the Savior.
Jesus goes to the tomb, deeply moved and weeping. Behold your Savior, the God who cries at funerals. Even though He knows He will raise Lazarus from the dead in just moments, He hurts with Mary and Martha because they hurt. Please be assured: As we gather here today, Jesus hurts with you as well in your grief.
Who Christ is will become clear in that cemetery near Bethany. Martha didn’t want the stone rolled back; Lazarus had been dead four days. But at Jesus’ insistence, she relented and the tomb was opened.
Truth be told, amid that crowd gathered at the cemetery, the only one who completely believed in Christ’s power over death was the dead man. He alone truly heeded the voice of Christ. Mary had heard, and the crowd had heard, yet their hearts were still crowded with doubt and grief. But the dead man, he believed; Lazarus heeded the Word of Christ. “Lazarus, come forth,” Jesus called out. And so he did. He, who is the resurrection and life, who is resurrected, raised Lazarus. The man who had died came out of the tomb. That dead man who now lived was a living trophy of Christ’s victory over the enemy called death.
A cemetery is a hard place to confess, unless standing beside you is the One who stands triumphant upon the neck of death. That place of graves is a hard place to confess, unless He who rose from His own grave lives within you and within the one whose body is laid to rest. This is true, not just in a cemetery, but in any place in this fallen world in which we see with the naked human eye only loss, heartache, and defeat. In those places, that naked, human, easily-deceived eye needs to be clothed with these words from the mouth of Jesus: “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).
You are mourning right now. And some of you will be mourning for years to come. When a man like Jerry Jones goes out of your life it leaves a hole. But I pray that this text gives you comfort. Christ has died and Christ is risen from the dead. He is not the resurrection and the life only in the past, as if He retired from that after raising Lazarus from the dead. He is not the resurrection and the life only in the future, on the Last Day. He is the resurrection and life, now and forevermore.
Where Jesus is, life is. And whenever He is present forgiving sins, He is also present giving life. By His forgiveness, He already declares that eternal life is yours, for He has done all to accomplish it by His death and resurrection. In baptism, Jesus declares, “Come out! Come out of the bondage of sin, for I make you My beloved child this day! Come out of death, for I am the resurrection and the life—and I make you alive forever by water and the Word.”
The resurrection at the font is a greater miracle than the one of Lazarus at the tomb: Jesus gave physical life back to Lazarus’ body, but that life would be lost again—Lazarus’ body would die again. Jesus gives eternal life to you in the water and Word. Unless the Lord returns, your body will eventually die. Baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, your soul will not: you are alive forever, and the Lord will raise your body up, too, on the Last Day.
This true for you. It is also true for those you mourn who died in the faith. Those who died in the faith are not dead, because the Lord is not the Lord of the dead but of the living. Their bodies rest in the grave for now, but they live even now with Christ in heaven. You have His promise: “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.”
Do you believe this?
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.