Standing Upon The Neck Of Death

The following is posted with family permission.  May the Lord give to the family of Jeffrey Ambuehl and to all who mourn, comfort in their grief and a sure confidence in the Lord's loving care. 

Text: John 11:1-6, 32-44, 25-26

To Him who loves us and has washed us from our sins by His blood and made us a kingdom, priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

Death: it is our great enemy.  Generally speaking it is fairly predictable; it bears its head many times and warns us of its attack in advance.  For example, when the 90 year old grandma suffering in the retirement home dies with her children and grandchildren surrounding her, we see that coming and we say to ourselves, “She lived a good and long life.”  In the same way, we can anticipate death’s attack when people are sick with cancer, for medical doctors will gives us estimations of how long a person will live.  Thus, when they pass, we painfully say, “That damn cancer won the battle, but now at least my loved one is no longer suffering.”  Indeed, even though it is never easy, it seems that we tend to process death better when we can see it coming, when we have been given time to prepare for it, and when the context warrants it.  However, things get messy when death does not act the way that we think it should or when it pounces upon us without a warning. 

What I am trying to say is this, when death comes to us in the middle of a freak accident or when it comes to us out of the blue or when it comes and bites down on us when we least expect it, we realize the blunt reality that no matter how valiantly we fight for life, death always seems to come out on top.  These instances cause us to realize that death always throws the knockout punch.  Death always gets the TKO on us.  With death there is no post-victory celebration, just a cold bed six feet under death’s feet. 

All this said, it brings us to today where we are faced with the reality that death is before us.  It struck without warning.  Jeff—your husband, father, son, brother, and friend—has been afflicted by death’s vicious attack and we are left here to make sense of everything.  As we are filled with a variety of emotions, death though, shows no mercy as it laughs at us with a sly grin.

For some of you, you may be mad and frustrated with death.  That is understandable and healthy.  At the jarring news of Jeff’s passing you may have tightened your fist, cursed at death, and screamed out in anger.  You may have punched at death with your words, saying, “Curse you death!  Damn you death!  To hell with you death!”

For others of you, you may be sorrowful and sad with death.  That is understandable and healthy as well.  At the jolting news of Jeff’s passing you may have felt tension in your chest, a tightening in your throat, and the emotions of it all made you want to collapse inward on yourself, as if the tears were being squeezed right out of you. 

And so it seems that we are left with anger and sadness when death strikes without warning.  We can experience both of these emotions, separately and at the same time.   

You are not alone in these emotions though.  In our Gospel reading from today, we hear about another death, the death of Lazarus.  Lazarus was a friend of Jesus.  No, he was more than just a casual friend; he was like a brother to Jesus.  Lazarus had died and as Jesus approached the tomb of Lazarus we hear that Jesus wept and was deeply moved, that is to say, angry and sorrowful with death.

But why the tears from Jesus?  Jesus had sorrow and He shed tears in a silent manner because He had witnessed the effects of the wretched and deadly grip of sin on mankind. He wept over death which stings mankind.  He wept over the death of Lazarus that was a result of this world that is in bondage to sin and death.

Today, take comfort for you are not alone, the Savior wept over death and suffering.  Jesus wept over death because it is not the way things are supposed to be.

You see, God created us originally in harmony, in peace, and with immortality—to live forever; however, sin entered the picture and marred our relationship with God, it turned the world upside down and made things simply wrong.  Pain, suffering, conflict, fear, worry, and death are a result of sin, yours and mine and your neighbor.  Christ though wept because of the pain of sin in our lives and He weeps with us when we experience the sorrow of death from this broken chaotic world that we live in.  What a Lord that we have that will weep with His children.  He weeps with us because He loves us.  His tears are because He loves you. 

Not only did our Gospel reading say that Jesus wept over death, it also said that He was ‘deeply moved.’  Otherwise stated, as Jesus approached the tomb of Lazarus, He not only wept but He ‘snorted at death.’  In a literal sense he was ‘ticked off’ with death.  He grunted at death, He was disgusted at death, He sighed at death, He mumbled in anger towards death, and He expressed hatred and anger towards the tomb of Lazarus.

Today, take comfort for you are not alone, Jesus angered over death and suffering.  Jesus angered over death because it is not the way things are supposed to be. 

When we anger and shake our fist at death and cry out in pain, we have a Savior who angered at death too.  When we punch at death or weep over death, we have a Savior that understands us.  When we grind our teeth or we want to collapse inward on ourselves, Christ knows, for He angered and wept as well.   

It does bring us some comfort to know that the Lord Jesus Christ understands.  Furthermore, to express our anger and vocalize our sorrow is healthy, good, and natural. 

All that stated though, we must confess that these emotions—even though they are very valid—are just that, they are emotions.  After we have grit our teeth, cursed at death, shaken our fists, wept, cried, screamed, and groaned, death is still their grinning at us as the victor.  We cry; death smirks.  We snarl; death laughs.  We are powerless to tame this wild enemy or overpower this mighty foe.

“Beyond the emotions of anger and sorrow, there must be something more than sin, death, and the devil dancing to a victorious song!” we say to ourselves. 

Dawn, Betty, Wanda, Jackie, Brian, Lindsey, Kyle, Cody, Ashley, Jordan, Cody, Ambrosia, and friends there is more though.  What we see with our eyes can lead us to believe that it is all over, that the chips have been cashed in, that the fat lady has sung, and that we are at the end of our rope; however, looks can be deceiving.  Sure, this last week we have all encountered death’s trophies of victory, which may lead us to imagine that death has won.  We have encountered death’s trophies such as: death certificates, life insurance policies, coffins, cemetery plans, and the death of a beloved son, husband, father, and friend.   With all of this in our minds and before us in this sanctuary, it may be a hard place for us to be, “unless standing beside [all of us] is the One who stands triumphant upon the neck of death.”[1]  My friends, there is more than meets the eye. 

You see, when death bares its fangs all that we can do is respond; however, that is not true with our Lord Jesus Christ.  It is true that He wept and angered at the death of Lazarus, but that is not all that He did.  Jesus is not limited to mere emotions like you and me.  But rather, He wept and angered at death to the point that He did something about it.

There in the midst of the grieving crowd at the cemetery where Lazarus had been buried for four days, Christ stepped forward and spoke towards the dark tomb; He spoke into the quiet cavern of death, “Lazarus, come forth!”  And so Lazarus did.  “The dead man was ripped from the arms of death by the One whom death could not hold in the tomb.  [Jesus Christ] who is the resurrection, who is resurrected, raised Lazarus.  That dead man [Lazarus] who now lived was as a living trophy of Christ’s victory over the enemy called death.”[2]

This is possible for Jesus Christ, because He is not like you and me.  While our emotions are limited, His weeping and anger moved Him right to the center of the jaws of death and the sting of sin.  Otherwise stated, His tears led Him to the lair of death and a collision with sin.  There at the cross of Mt. Calvary, the Son of God was not some sort of sissy-mansy-pansy Savior; He was not a victim that we should feel sorry for.  No, His tears and anger led Him to do that which we could not do… to confront sin and death on our behalf.

And so, Christ Jesus dies the death that we could not die.  He tastes our sins and bears our sin upon Himself, as the dark valley of the shadow of death covered Him.

Even though our sin upon Christ damned Him and death bit into Him, we mustn’t despair.  The reason why? Christ Jesus is the resurrection and the life.  He said it Himself and proved it with an empty tomb. 

Listen now!  With Christ: sin, the devil, and death, do not have the final TKO.  With Christ: sin, the devil, and death do not come out on top.  With Christ: death does not smirk for its jaws were ripped apart when Christ came forth from the grave fully resurrected.  With Christ: a stake was driven through death rendering it powerless and void.  With Christ: life, not death, has the final word.  With Christ: even though sin and death put us in the grave, our baptisms place us in Jesus’ grave where we will be raised up glorious with the mighty Savior at the final judgment.  Jesus is alive.  He is resurrected and seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty as our shade.

Indeed, it is true.  Jesus is the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in Him will live, even though He dies; and whoever lives and believes in Christ will never, never, die. 

Therefore, just as Christ called Lazarus by name and the grave was completely powerless in holding Lazarus back from the call of His Lord and Savior, in Christ the grave is not the final word for you and for me.  In Christ you are ripped from the arms of sin and death unto the arms of everlasting life.

So dear friends, here and now and in the weeks to come, when sin, the devil, and death come before you with their threats, accusations, and baring their teeth declaring that you deserve death, hell, and damnation, tell them this, ‘I admit that I deserve death, hell, and damnation; but what of it?  For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf.  His name is Jesus Christ the Son of God: my forgiveness, my resurrection, my hope, and my life.  He defeated you.  He lives.  Where He is there I shall also be.

Now may the Lord of peace Himself, Jesus Christ, firmly establish you in the forgiveness of sins and the hope of the resurrection and give you peace, hope, and courage always in every way until He graciously takes you from this vale of tears to Himself into heaven. Amen.

[1] Chad L. Bird, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons (Chad Bird Copyright 2014), 172.

[2] Ibid.

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