Rev Sue gave this sermon on Wednesday 6 April. Here it is for you again:
If you were in church on Sunday, you heard the story of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with costly perfume. This story is about the same family but happened shortly before, and it’s a story full of drama that also develops our understanding of the characters who feature in it. Jesus loved all three of them, Martha, Mary and their brother Lazarus, not just with the divine compassion that he had for everyone, but with genuine human affection. This story portrays him as the Son of God who can work the greatest act of all – bringing someone back to life. But he also comes across as having real human emotions. Nevertheless, when the sisters sent him news of Lazarus’ death, he didn’t go straight to them, but stayed where he was for two more days. He must have longed to go and comfort them to share their grief, and to work the miracle that would wipe it away. But he knew that his Father wanted him to stay. He then broke the news to the disciples that he was heading for Bethany. The disciples realised that this would mean trouble – Bethany was only two miles from Jerusalem, and Jesus was not going to avoid notice in the city, the centre of power of the Jewish authorities that wanted him dead. The disciples tried to dissuade him, but Thomas, who always came out with what he was thinking, said that they should go with Jesus, and if he was going to die, they would die with him. A brave statement of love and loyalty – even if we know that fear would get the better of them eventually.
Martha comes out of the village when she hears that Jesus is near and says simply that if Jesus had been there, he could have saved Lazarus from dying, but still she trusts in his power. Jesus tells her that Lazarus will rise again, and that everyone who believes in him will live, that death is not the final word. Martha agrees that Lazarus will be part of the resurrection on the last day. She is able, even in her grief, to see beyond the present to the life to come. The practical Martha is also someone whose faith goes deeper than emotion, and it is unshakeable even when she wonders why Jesus had let this happen.
Now Jesus sends for Mary, so that he can talk to her before he gets to Bethany which is crowded with mourners. She echoes the words of Martha “if you had been here my brother would not have died” but unlike Martha she does not go on to tell Jesus that she trusts him. She is overcome with tears. Mary, as always is the emotional one, living in the moment. The mourners join her in wailing, as was customary. Jesus, we are told, was disturbed and deeply moved, and asked where Lazarus had been buried. He burst into tears. He is overcome with empathy at the sorrow around him, and sad that his actions had meant that the comfort he brought was delayed. And perhaps he railed against the suffering of all humanity, knowing that our pain is real. He knew that Lazarus would come back to life but would then die a second time. The tears would be repeated. Life is always a mixture of joy and pain. And Jesus, whose love for others was pure and unselfish, felt their distress with a depth that no one else could.
Some of the mourners nod in approval at this expression of sadness – others echo the words of the sisters – he could have prevented the death. Jesus, once more greatly disturbed, comes to the tomb, a cave in the hillside. He tells them to roll the stone away, but Martha points out that after 4 days the body would be decomposing. In Jewish belief the soul finally left the body after 3 days, so Lazarus was uncontrovertibly dead. By delaying his journey, Jesus had prevented any suggestion that that Lazarus had not really died. He prays out loud, so the crowd will hear him, and with a loud voice summons Lazarus from the grave. The dead man comes out, trailing the strips of cloth he had been wrapped in. Jesus tells the mourners to “unbind him and let him go”. And many of the people there who had witnessed the scene started to believe in Jesus.
Who do you identify with in the story? The brave and faithful Thomas? Martha, the one whose mind is engaged even in the depths of grief, and whose faith carries her through. Mary, who is overcome by emotion, great sadness, and as we saw on Sunday, great love. A mourner who cries to God, asking where he is in all this, or one who takes comfort in the tears Jesus sheds in sympathy with our pain. Or perhaps you see yourself as Lazarus, the man who has passed through great suffering, but has been released form his bonds to begin a new life.