Let Christ Prevail

Sermon by the Rev. Andrew Kryzak for Sunday, March 29, 2020.

Psalm 130
John 11:1-45

In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

My friends, we are living in extraordinary times. Virtually no one alive in the United States today has experienced a public threat of the sort that now faces us: deadly, invisible, and on the move. We are used to enemies we can see, which we can oppose with military and economic muscle, and it is very odd indeed to be asked to stay home, to have businesses ordered closed, while the sun shines outside and doctors and nurses occupy the front lines.

But we are not the first Americans to see such times, and certainly we are not the first Christians to do so either.

In 1527, plague came to central Europe, and our old friend Martin Luther was in the midst of it. A reforming clergyman and associate of Luther’s wrote him, asking what it was appropriate to do in such times. In replying, Luther is sanguine about the value of following medical advice and common sense, writing that “If one makes no use of intelligence or medicine when he could do so without detriment to his neighbor, such a person injures his body and must beware.”[1] Luther continues:

The enemy has sent us poison and deadly offal. Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence.[2]

If our contemporary situation feels downright primitive, that’s because it is. With the novel coronavirus, we are made to confront not only sickness on a grand scale. We are also freighted with the existential dread that comes when we cannot ignore the fragility of our own bodies. This was much more the daily reality of our early modern and ancient progenitors, and their faith was shaped in a cauldron of circumstances that bears eerie and unexpected similarities to what we face today. It should not be hard for us to join with them in echoing the cry of help that begins today’s psalm: “Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O LORD; Lord, hear my voice.”[3]

This is among the most ancient prayers for those who find themselves really up against it, and in our second lesson this morning, we hear a whole family – a whole village – crying out of the depths of sorrow and despair.

Jesus had arrived in Bethany, where Lazarus was dead, and as far as his family was concerned, Jesus had turned up a day late, and a dollar short. Martha, the sister of the dead man, went out and met Jesus on the road, where she gave him the same pained scolding he would hear a few moments later from her sister, Mary: “Lord, if you have been here, my brother would not have died.”[4]

When Jesus replies simply that her brother will rise again, Martha nearly scoffs at him. No kidding, she says. “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” At which point, Jesus corrects her, in words we all know so well.

I am the resurrection and the life;” he says; “he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” And then he puts the question to Martha, a question which – at some point – confronts each one of us: “Do you believe this?”[5]

We have just heard what happens next. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. And it is important to understand that Lazarus was dead, really and truly and lamentably dead. The gospel writer tells us that “when Jesus came, Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days,” and that when the stone was rolled away, Martha, the sister of the dead man, warned Jesus: “there will be an odor.”[6] In the King James Version, it is even more plainly put: “He stinketh,” Martha warns.

Lazarus was dead, and at Jesus’ command, death fell away, and “the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with bandages, and his face wrapped in a cloth.”[7]

Even still, there is a rub to this story, because we know that Lazarus would die again. He wasn’t given immortality; this was a temporary restoration of his old, mortal body. But like Jesus’ other miracles – like the feeding of the five thousand, like the healing of the sick – the raising of Lazarus provided Jesus’ disciples a preview and a foretaste of what is to come. The raising of Lazarus demonstrates that in the midst of chaos, and disease, and anxiety, and sorrow, and fear, that there is hope. It is a sign that the power of life lies with God, and that God will at the end of all things be victorious over death, through the resurrection of Jesus himself.

As a people, we are unaccustomed to the scale of the peril and anxiety we now face. I know that, for me, the things that three weeks ago made me sick with worry now seem like small potatoes in the face of the headlines that I read every day. What am I supposed to do, as a person of faith, as a person who trusts in the promises of the Lord in these times?

The Psalmist writes, “I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him; in his word is my hope.”[8] Scripture is as filled with the promises of the Lord as it is with the pleas of those who put their trust in him. “My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning.” As Christians, we put our trust in the Lord and in his Word, who is Jesus Christ. When we do this, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to repel fear, to take courage, and to face the challenges before us with hope. Jesus says, “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”[9]

Our old friend Martin Luther knew this deep in his bones, throughout a life in which he faced the challenges of his own time with courage and indeed with humor. In closing his letter to his colleague, he tells us all how to respond in the face of the devil’s temptation to hopelessness and to fear:

Get away, you devil, with your terrors! … If you can terrorize, Christ can strengthen me. If you can kill, Christ can give life. If you have poison in your fangs, Christ has far greater medicine. Should not my dear Christ, with his precepts, his kindness, and all his encouragement, be more important in my spirit than you, roguish devil, with your false terrors in my weakness? God forbid! Get away, devil. Here is Christ and here am I, his servant in this work. Let Christ prevail![10]

Take courage, my friends. Let Christ prevail in your lives, this day, and every day.

AMEN.


[1] Martin Luther to Johann Heß, in Luther’s Works, Vol. 43: Devotional Writings II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 43 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 119-38.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Psalm 130:1
[4] John 11:21
[5] John 11:25-26
[6] John 11:17; 39
[7] John 11:44
[8] Psalm 130:4
[9] John 16:33
[10] Luther to Heß, in Luther’s Works, Vol. 43, 119-38