Our vocabulary word of the day is ossuary. O-S-S-U-A-R-Y. An ossuary is a box, usually made of wood, soft limestone or even chalk. An ossuary was not very large – most commonly it was no more than two feet long. It was made for one purpose – to hold the bones of a deceased loved one.
With Easter coming up, we all remember that after His death, the body of Jesus, which had been carefully wrapped in burial cloths, was laid in a stone tomb. This was the typical way that the Jews buried someone. But it was, at least in the first century, only the first step of the burial process.
Without modern-day embalming processes, that body in that stone tomb would decay very quickly. Within a year or so the flesh and organs would, for all practical purposes, be gone, leaving only the bones that were tightly held together in those burial cloths.
That’s where and when the ossuary becomes important and was commonly used by Jews for a short period of time between 20 A.D. and 70 A.D. A year or possibly two after the original burial, the tomb would be re-opened and the bones would be placed inside that box for safekeeping. Usually there was an inscription on the side of the box identifying whose bones were placed in it. A lid was put on the box and it was returned to a place within that stone tomb, where it was intended to remain forever.
A number of these ossuaries have been discovered in Israel by archeologists. In 1990 a very elaborate ossuary was discovered – with the bones still inside – and the inscription indicates that they are the bones of Caiaphas, the Jewish High Priest who presided at the trial of Jesus.
In 2002 a far less ornate ossuary – one that was now empty – was discovered, and a picture of it is on the cover of your bulletin this morning. Below that picture is an enhanced close-up of the words that were inscribed on the side of the ossuary: “Ya'akov bar Yosef akhui di Yeshua. Translated into English: James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”
Some immediately proclaimed that they had found the ossuary of Jesus’ brother James. Others said that the ossuary was a hoax. After all, the names James and Joseph and even Jesus were very common 2,000 years ago in Israel. No bones were found in the box – but that is not unusual since most ancient tombs in the Mideast were later broken into by grave robbers. The man who found the ossuary was put on trial for forgery but was found not guilty. Scientists who examined it had mixed opinions, and today no one really knows if the box is real or not. Lutheran historian Dr. Paul Maier, in a 2003 article published in The Lutheran Witness, said, “Personally, I give it a 7 on my handy 1-to-10 scale.”
I have given you this quick lesson in 1st century Jewish burial practices because this morning’s Gospel lesson focuses on the death and burial of a 1st century Jewish man. His name was Lazarus. He was a friend of Jesus and the brother of Jesus’ friends Mary and Martha. The sisters had sent messages to Jesus asking Him to come when Lazarus first fell ill, but Jesus purposefully delayed making his journey. When He finally did arrive, Lazarus was dead and had been in his tomb for four days. The sisters firmly believed that if Jesus had gotten there in time, He would have healed their brother. But now it was too late. Nothing could be done.
When Jesus finally arrived, Mary and Martha were mourning the death of their brother – they were wracked with grief. Remember that the body of Lazarus had been placed in the tomb and the decay process would have produced a terrible stench. Even if his bones were placed in an ossuary in a year or so, the sisters assumed that his remains would remain there. And Jesus shared their grief. As verse 35 so simply states: “Jesus wept.”
The late synodical president Dr. A.L. Barry once wrote: “It is popular to think of death as something that is ‘natural.’ Some people even are heard to say, ‘Death is a friend.’ Nothing could be further from the truth! Death is a horrible reality. It is the enemy we each face at the end of our lives. God did not create humans to die, but to live – to live forever and to enjoy Him forever. Death was not part of our created nature, but only something that came about as a result of the sinful disobedience of our first parents – a sinful disobedience that has been passed down to every human being since that time.”
When God created the heavens and the earth, everything was perfect – perfect and holy and sinless. But when Adam and Eve sinned, they turned God’s perfect creation into nothing but a graveyard of dead and rotting bodies. Rich or poor, powerful or meek, old or young, male or female, parent, spouse, child – every last one of us is headed for the grave. The words spoken by God to Adam are spoken to us as well: “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” There’s no avoiding it, no getting around it, no putting it off. Death is our destination. And not just physical death – but even worse, the never-ending death and suffering of eternal separation from God in the terrors of hell. In the book of Revelation, St. John writes of the “second death” following the physical death of unbelievers, when their souls are immediately in the presence of Satan and immediately begin to suffer the torment of eternal punishment from which there is no possibility of escape. On the Day of Judgment, their bodies will join their souls in hell. And the torment will never end.
It’s one thing to talk in general terms about other people going to hell, but we must always realize that we were all headed there, too. We, too, are sinners. There’s no way in heaven or on earth that we could ever make things right with God and earn His forgiveness.
But God sent His Son to change all of that. That’s what today’s Gospel lesson is all about. That’s what the Bible – all 66 books – is all about.
In today’s Old Testament lesson we heard the admittedly strange-sounding account of a dream in which God carries the prophet Ezekiel to a valley filled with dry bones. God asks Ezekiel: “Son of man, can these bones live?” The answer under any normal circumstance would be “no.” But Ezekiel responded: “O Lord God, you know.” And then God displayed His power over death by bringing those dry bones back to life.
When He called Lazarus out of the tomb, Jesus Christ, true God and true man, displayed His power over death by restoring life to a man who had been dead for four days – whose body had already begun the process of decay that would lead to nothing more than another box of dry bones.
Not long afterwards, another day would come when another man would die and be placed in a tomb. By our understanding of death, His brutalized, beaten, crucified body should have immediately begun to decay. But on the third day His glorified body burst from the tomb, giving proof to His statement to Martha, when He said: “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.”
During Lent we often hear the words of Isaiah 53, where the prophet reminds us that Jesus was “wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.” We must understand that this healing includes much, much more than forgiveness alone. It also includes resurrected life to celebrate now in our mortal lives and hereafter for eternity in our resurrected bodies. Jesus truly is the resurrection and the life.
This undeniably dramatic event of Jesus conquering death for Lazarus by giving him life foreshadows not only the death and resurrection of Jesus, but also foreshadows the work that He has done and is doing still in each and every one of us. In Holy Baptism, Jesus calls us from the tomb of our sins to raise us to a new life of faith. In Absolution, Jesus frees us from the death grip of sin and Satan that so desperately threatens to drag us to the eternal grave of hell and suffering. In the Lord’s Supper, he graciously and lovingly gives us His own body and blood for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus gives – to us. He truly is – as He told Martha – the resurrection and the life.
Scripture never picks up the story of Lazarus again after these verses of John’s Gospel, so we can only speculate what happened after his resurrection. We don’t know how long he lived or what he did, but it is certain that at some future time Lazarus died a second time. The body of Lazarus was placed in a tomb for a second time. It is likely that a year or so later his bones were put into a stone ossuary. And there his bones remain – or the dust of those bones remains – until this day.
But they won’t remain there forever. At the second coming of Christ on judgment day, Lazarus will burst from his tomb again and will be resurrected for a second time, just as all who have died in Christ will burst from their tombs and be resurrected. But this resurrection will be different. Lazarus and all believers will wear glorified, perfect, immortal bodies that can never again grow old or grow sick or die. The graveyard that has been our home will be replaced with a new, heavenly home where sickness and suffering and death can never attack us again. Heaven truly is more wonderful than we can ever possibly imagine. Because there we will again be with our loved ones who have died in Christ. And we will be with our Savior who died – and lives – for us.