Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Faithful Witness

Text: John 11:1-45

SOONER OR LATER, WE’RE ALL DOOMED to be involved in a lawsuit. That’s the way things seem to go these days.

Even if it hasn’t happened to us yet, we know how they work.

There’s the plaintiff, who brings the accusation. He claims to have been hurt or wronged in the case. He says his rights were violated and he wants what’s owed him.

Then there’s the defendant, who has to defend himself against the plaintiff’ accusations.

Both plaintiffs and defendants call witnesses to support their case, and it’s important that those witnesses be faithful and true.

What makes a faithful witness? A faithful witness has to know what really happened, and she has to know it firsthand. A faithful witness has to give honest and true testimony in a clear, forthright manner. He doesn’t get off on tangents or fudge the truth to protect himself or to unjustly favor one side or the other. A faithful witness stays firm and convinced of what she knows. She doesn’t let the attorney for the other side shake her from the truth, with ridicule, threats, or any coercion. She is steadfast and reliable.

Well, you may not realize it, but you and I and all humanity have been involved in a cosmic lawsuit practically since the world was made. Remember how the Lord told Adam and Eve that if they ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they would surely die? God set that choice before our first parents so they could choose to love and obey Him, instead of being robots programmed to be obedient. God felt it was worth the risk that Adam and Eve would disobey; in fact, He decide that even though He knew they would disobey.

But Lucifer, the devil, had a grudge against God from before Time. He’d been the chief archangel, and competed with God for the lordship of heaven. He and his forces were defeated, of course, and thrown down to the earth. Lucifer saw the choice Adam and Eve were given as his chance to get back at God. He insinuated himself into their consciousness with his blandishments and his half-truths, and he corrupted mankind. We were the crown and pinnacle of God’s creation. But he got our first parents to disobey and eat the forbidden fruit, and ever since, we have been slaves to sin, the devil, and death.

But we don’t belong to the devil. Not really. Whatever moral state we’re in, we belong to the Lord our God, who created us. So even from the first sin in the Garden, no, even from before the foundation of the world, our God planned a way for us to escape from the devil’s prison. God called Abraham to serve Him, and out of his loins God brought His chosen people Israel, to be the holy ancestors of the Saviour who was to come. God gave His law and His prophets to call his people again and again away from the devil and into the ways of the Lord. And when the time was right, the Lord sent His eternal Son into the world, everlasting God born as a Man of the virgin Mary. Jesus lived free of the power of inborn sin, but to save us He allowed Himself to suffer the onslaughts of the sins of others. All this was to recover the property that the devil had cheated God out of at the beginning of time.

But the devil cries, "No fair!" He says, "God, you said if Adam and Eve ate that fruit, they’d die. They ate it. They died, and all their descendants die, too. I, Satan, am the Lord of Death. God, all Your creatures belong to me!! I won them fair and square. You’ve got no right to become a man and resist my temptations and break my power over humanity. I accuse you of injustice, God! I’m taking You to court!"

And ever since God’s first promise of a Messiah back in the Garden of Eden, the devil has been pressing his lawsuit of Satan vs. Almighty God and the People of God. Throughout history, Satan has continually been accusing and prosecuting us for our sins. In fact, the word "Satan" means "accuser." He is determined to grasp us as his own and exercise the power of death over us forever.

Our reading from the gospel of John records an episode from that cosmic lawsuit. Satan has pushed the contest hard here. He has brought early death, not to just anyone, but to Lazarus of Bethany, to a dear friend of the Son of God, Jesus the Christ. "Take that, Jesus!" the devil is saying. "Your friend is dying! What are you going to do about it?"

And shockingly, Jesus seems to play into the devil’s hands! Jesus had raised people from the dead before: The daughter of Jairus, the synagogue ruler. The son of the widow from the town of Nain. But those people had just passed away. This time, Jesus deliberately waits two days from the time He gets the news of Lazarus’ illness. So by the time Jesus reaches Bethany, Lazarus has been dead four whole days! His body is beginning to corrupt and stink. Lazarus is good and dead. In the devil’s eyes, Jesus didn’t stop this because He couldn’t, which only goes to prove the devil’s case that we are his property and not God’s.

But the devil is arguing ahead of the evidence. Almighty God has witnesses to call, faithful witnesses, who will testify to the power of God in Christ and to His mastery over sin, sickness, death, and the devil.

The first witness is Martha of Bethany, elder sister to Lazarus. She runs out to meet Jesus as He approaches the gates of the village. She says, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!"

She gives true and faithful testimony to the power of Jesus Christ. It’s not hearsay: She had seen firsthand the miracles He performed. She knew that He had divine power over mortal disease. She knew that Jesus loved her brother Lazarus, that He would do what He could to save him.

And Martha testifies further, "But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask."
Martha faithfully witnesses to what she knows of Jesus, that He has a special relationship with God the Father that no man has enjoyed since the days of Abraham and Moses. She knows that nothing will hinder Jesus’ plea to His Father, that Jesus won’t ask God anything that’s out of the Father’s will and God won’t refuse Jesus anything, because Jesus cannot ask in ignorance or sin.

Jesus tells Martha that her brother will rise again. In response, Martha testifies to the faithfulness of God’s promises through His prophets. She says, "I know that he [that is, Lazarus] will rise again in the resurrection at the last day." It’s true she has not yet seen that resurrection, but she has seen the faithfulness of God in her life and in the life of her people the Jews. She acts as a witness to God’s character, over against the accusations of Satan our adversary and God’s.

But, says Jesus, the resurrection is closer than she realizes. The resurrection promised by God is standing there in front of her, in the person of her Friend and Teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. "I am the resurrection and the life," says Jesus. "He who believes in me shall live, even though he dies. And whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"

Yes, Martha does believe it. She believes it and testifies to it before God and all His angels and before Satan and all his demons: "Yes, Lord, I believe you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world." How can she testify to this? Only by the Holy Spirit working in her heart through the word of Christ spoken to her. She testifies to it even though her grief for her brother would argue that it’s empty talk. She holds to her conviction that Christ is the Messiah, even though the devil might be whispering that the real Messiah wouldn’t have let her brother suffer and die. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Martha of Bethany is a faithful witness.

And in her own way, her younger sister Mary is a faithful witness, too. Like Martha, Mary also testifies to Jesus’ power over disease: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." And by her tears she puts herself and her bereavement securely into the hands of her Friend and Lord.

But we’re all human and fallible. Even a faithful witness like Martha can be shaken in her testimony when the horror of Death assaults her. In verse 39, Jesus has come to Lazarus’ tomb. He has commanded, "Take away the stone!" This is where Martha’s faith and Martha’s gut feelings part company. She cries out, "But, Lord, by this time there is a bad odor! He’s been in there four days!"

The Lord knows our frailty. Even the best of us can falter in the cosmic trial of Satan vs. God Almighty and the People of God. So it’s a good thing God has a star witness to testify in His behalf, a witness who never falters, never fails, never lies, and never shades the truth; a Witness whom Satan cannot accuse of a single sin; a Witness who can turn the tables on the devil every time and crush him in all his claims against us.

That star witness is Jesus Christ Himself. He testifies to His disciples in verse 15 that it is no accident that He waited to come till Lazarus was good and dead; that the death and burial was part of the divine plan to display God’s power over death so they might believe.

In verse 23, again, Jesus testifies to His own identity and purpose in the world: He is the faithful Son of God and Son of Man who brings divine life and rebirth into this dead and decaying world. His is the power that breaks the claim of sin, death, and the devil, that will restore to Almighty God what is rightfully His.

In verse 40, when Martha has cringed at the thought of the smell of her dead brother’s corpse, Jesus testifies that He will back up His previous testimony that He Himself is the resurrection and the life. "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" Martha does believe then, despite Satan’s arguments, and she gives permission for the tomb to be opened.

In verses 41 and 42, Jesus testifies to His relationship with God Almighty, the Father in heaven. He speaks the simple truth about His identity and mission, and He speaks it in love, so the human witnesses around Him may believe in Him, glorify His Father in heaven, and themselves receive the gift of everlasting life. At the same time, Jesus puts all hell on notice that He is coming against their weapon Death with all the power of the almighty Lord and Giver of infinite Life.

But isn’t this just talk? Hey, any nutcase could stand there and claim to reverse death. Jesus needs to do something truly awesome for Him to prove He’s telling the truth about Himself and what He can do.

Jesus does prove it, with these three words: "Lazarus, come out!" And Lazarus proves Jesus’ testimony is true by walking out of the tomb, alive, whole, and totally well!

Jesus’ testimony about Himself is faithful and true. He really is the resurrection and the life. He really does take all Satan’s arguments against us and turn them around to work against our ancient foe. Jesus testified to that finally and for all time at the cross on Calvary, where He bore our sins and the sins of all the world and broke the claim of the devil upon us forever. His very cry of "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" shows that our sins were laid upon Him in that dreadful hour, such that God the Father had to turn His face away from His Son. But the love and life of God in Christ triumphed over death, the devil, and sin, so that our Lord was able to say, "Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit."

By those words He testified to His resurrection triumph to come. And we testify that He will bring us to share in His resurrection victory, too. He is the resurrection and the life, not just for Himself, not just for Lazarus long ago, but for all of us who believe.

Martha and Mary were Christ’s faithful witnesses. We are His faithful witnesses, too, whenever we testify that Jesus Christ has overcome sin and death on the cross and given us new life by His rising from the grave. We are His faithful witnesses when we proclaim that only Jesus Christ brings eternal life and hope and access to the Father in heaven. We are His faithful witnesses when we live according to the new life and trust He has put within us, shining as lights to the world. We are His faithful witnesses when we refuse to be swayed from the testimony of Christ and Him crucified for us, by any power of this world or of hell, no matter what Satan may threaten against us. By Christ’s faithful Word read, heard, and preached, by the comfort of His holy Sacraments, in the power and strength of His Holy Spirit, I charge you: Be the faithful witnesses of your Lord and God.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.

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