This sermon was preached by Rev Caroline on Sunday 2 April
Our readings today take us from the dry bones of Ezekiel through to the gift of life after death for Lazarus in our fourth personal encounter with Jesus in John’s gospel. It is a story of lament, of resurrection and of joy in new life. But it is also a story of love. There are few people that Jesus is said to have specifically loved –but this family from Bethany (of Martha, Mary and Lazarus) as well as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” are the only ones that John specifically identified as being loved by Jesus. As well as this astounding miracle of Lazarus’ resurrection, this account tells us so much about what it means to have a personal relationship with Jesus, to love him and be loved by him.
Having a close relationship with Jesus does not mean that they are protected from the difficult things in life happening. Lazarus still dies and Jesus does nothing to prevent that. What is different is that Jesus is tangibly present to them, weeping alongside them as Mary and Martha lament the loss of their brother. He is emotionally present to them – then reveals God’s glory in the middle of what appeared to be an unredeemable situation. In the midst of the tragedy of bereavement, God’s glory is revealed though the family’s story.
Many years ago we were serving in a parish in the South. Our priest in charge was suddenly diagnosed with cancer just a few months after Aidan, my husband, and the rest of the team had taken up their posts. Everyone was devastated for him as the prognosis was not good. Yet, in the midst of this family’s tragedy and hundreds of peoples’ fervent prayers for his healing, the glory of God’s love for them and the joy of their relationship with Jesus is the abiding memory that I have of that time. Whenever the family were seen out and about, their deep joy in each other and life was tangible. In their conversations, their sense of Jesus walking with them through the times of lament as well as the times of hope that are the rollercoaster of cancer treatment was profound. Our vicar remained in post up to his death and revealed so much of the glory of God through how he faced his impending death as well as his clear and certain hope in Christ as the resurrection and the life. He was a powerful witness to all who knew him. Our journey through life always has the power to reveal the glory of to others.
In our passage today, Martha laments Jesus’ late arrival because, in faith, she knew that he could save her brother’s life. When Lazarus became ill, “the sisters” sent Jesus a message calling upon the intimate love of Jesus for the beloved: “‘Lord, he whom you love is ill’”. It is in response to this heartfelt appeal that Jesus answers saying that this illness does not lead to death “rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it”. What sense can they make of that reply from a distance knowing that their brother’s time is near and that, in their human experience, Jesus’ tardy response might mean that he is too late?
When challenged by Martha, Jesus’ words “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” are the words of profound comfort that Martha and all those who grieve need to hear. Martha is in the presence of the Messiah – the one who is the embodiment of eternal life. Her utterance of faith that he is, indeed, the Messiah shows the depths of her trust in her Lord and Saviour.
So much of this account and how Mary and Martha respond to Jesus despite the crisis of losing their brother show such depths of love and trust. The account of Lazarus being raised from the dead three days after he was placed in the tomb is one of several echoes leading the way into the account of Jesus’ Passion where he, himself will rise on the third day. Mary falls at Jesus’s feet echoing Jesus being at the feet of those that he loves. Love and trust, drawing strength from Jesus in their time of grief. There are times to rail against what is happening in life, as Martha did when reasoning with Jesus. There are times to live in the moment and allow ourselves to feel. Jesus, in these encounters with this family that he loves is “greatly disturbed in his spirit and deeply moved” and as the embodiment of God’s love and compassion for them weeps too.
The account of Lazarus’ grave stone being rolled away and the dead man, resurrected, walking out was a powerful miracle that caused many to believe.
Being in relationship with Jesus means facing our lives with their joys and challenges knowing that Jesus celebrates our joys and weeps with us in our sorrows. In relationship it is with him that the things that leave us feeling trapped can have the stone rolled away and Jesus’s radiant light flowing in to encourage us to take his hand and lead us into the light of his healing touch. In John’s gospel, he is clear that he wants us to know that hope and the joy of abundant life in the here and now as well being our future hope.
This is beautifully captured in a poem by Steve Holmes called “At Lazarus’ Tomb”:
He wept, the man who I had learned to trust,
And spoke: ‘he who believes will never die.’
My brother, who for four dead days did lie,
Rose, stripped, and lived again. This we discussed
Endlessly – how could we not? The years went by
He married, prospered, then, as all men must
Grew old. He stooped and sickened. Returned to dust.
And now once more we watch his tomb and cry.
‘The resurrection and the life’ he said,
But I await the last of days again.
‘Though die, will live’ – strange words he spoke, and hard;
What has he changed, who on the cross once bled?
He rose. And rose. Made gates of death, through pain,
A door held open by the hands still scarred.
As we journey towards Holy Week, we endure with Him who came to save us the sorrow of his passion and the silence of the grave knowing that Sunday will surely come and that, when we are walking in the garden of our grief, we will meet him again.
Thanks be to God.