A sermon prepared for Passion Sunday, the beginning of Passiontide, and the last two weeks of Lent leading up to Easter. It is based on the Gospel of Saint John Chapter 11, verses 1-45:
1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, “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.” 5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
We all get disappointed in this life when we think that friends have let us down, and if you are like me, then you too may show your annoyance. Did you feel annoyed like Martha that Jesus did not come immediately he got the message about his friend’s illness? But how did Jesus receive the message, and how did they know where he would be? We will never know for sure, but according to the previous chapter of John’s Gospel he had been to the place on the Jordan where John the Baptist had been baptising and first met Jesus. One thing we can be sure of is that they didn’t have mobile phones to make immediate contact! So we don’t know how long the message took to reach him. So why did Jesus not go at once? Perhaps he knew that his friend was already dead! I don’t believe for a second that Jesus was delaying so he could then do an even greater miracle of healing.
When I have difficulty trying to unravel a passage from the bible, as well as praying, I also read a commentary by Bishop Tom Wright on the subject, which usually gives a different point of focus. The bishop believes that the story gives us an insight into prayer. We pray for justice and peace, – for prosperity and harmony between nations and races, and still it hasn’t happened. Why? God doesn’t play games with us. His ways are not our ways. His timing is not our timing. One of the most striking reminders of this is in verse 6 of the passage. When Jesus got the message from the two sisters, the cry for help, the emergency-come-quickly appeal, he stayed where he was for two days. He didn’t even mention it to the disciples. He didn’t make preparations to go. He didn’t send messages back to say ‘we’re on our way: He just stayed there. And Mary and Martha, in Bethany, watched their beloved brother die. What could be harder than that?
So what was Jesus doing? If we think about the rest of the story we can find the answer. He was praying. He was seeking to find the will of his father. He wanted to do what was right. The disciples were right: the Judaeans had been wanting to stone him, so surely he wouldn’t think of going back just yet?
Bethany was, and is, a small town near Jerusalem, on the eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives. Once you’re there, you’re within easy reach of the holy city, and who knows what would happen this time if he had returned.
It’s important to realize that this wonderful story about Lazarus, one of the most powerful and moving in the whole Bible, is not just about Lazarus. It’s also about Jesus, and when Jesus thanks the father that he has heard his prayer, I think he’s referring to the prayers he prayed during those two strange, silent days in the wilderness across the Jordan. He was praying for Lazarus, but he was also praying for wisdom and guidance as to his own plans and movements. Somehow the two were bound up together. What Jesus was going to do for Lazarus would be, on the one hand, a principal reason why the authorities would want him out of the way. But it would be, – on the other hand, – the most powerful sign yet, in the sequence of ‘signs’ that marks our progression through this gospel, of what Jesus’ life and work was all about, and of how in particular it would reach its climactic resolution. The time of waiting, therefore, was vital. As so often, Jesus needed to be in prayer exploring the father’s will in that intimacy and union of which he often spoke. Only then would he act – not in the way Mary and Martha had wanted him to do, but in a manner beyond their wildest dreams.
This story is all about the ways in which Jesus surprises people and overturns their expectations. He didn’t go when he received the sisters’ message. But he did eventually go, although the disciples warned him not to. He spoke about ‘sleep’; meaning death, and the disciples thought he meant ordinary sleep. And, in the middle of the passage, he told them in a strange little saying that people who walk in the daytime don’t trip up, but people who walk around in the darkness do. What did he mean? He seems to have meant that the only way to know where you were going was to follow him. If you try to steer your course by your own understanding, you’ll trip up, because you’ll be in the dark. But if you stick close to him, and see the situation from his point of view, then, even if it means days and perhaps years of puzzlement, wondering why nothing seems to be happening, you will come out at the right place in the end. There is a great deal that we don’t understand, and our hopes and plans often get thwarted. But if we go with Jesus, even if it’s into the jaws of death, we will be walking in the light.
The prayer of Jesus at the grave begins with thanksgiving as all prayer should; we take too much for granted. But if, like the Psalmists or Job, you have a complaint about arbitrary injustice or the unfairness of it all, it is right to tell him so. Martha certainly spoke her mind, and, feeling neglected, bluntly reproached Jesus. A prayer of protest is quite proper. Prayer is a dialogue of learning; in the stillness you learn more about yourself, and God, and the way things really are. You may come to understand, ‘Why should it happen to me?’, is answered with ‘Why should it not?’, and ‘Why me?’ becomes ‘Why not me?’ ‘Jesus wept’ is not an oath; it expresses his grief at the death of his friend and the distress of his sisters; for John it stresses the reality of the Incarnation. This man is truly flesh and blood, who understands a cry of pain and anguish, and shares the pain and hurt of bereavement. If ever you are almost overwhelmed by grief, he understands and shares; and comes to you as he came to Martha and Mary. The long story about Lazarus (whose name so aptly means ‘blessed by God’) is the crowning sign of victory over death. Here Lazarus is dead and buried and decaying and this resuscitated corpse is a further sign:
Jesus not only speaks of the word of life but he himself is the Resurrection (Anastasis)
Often we hear a voice that reminds us that in the midst of life we are in death; but Jesus’ commanding voice insists: In the midst of death we are in life. Don’t worry about what happens when you die for he is Resurrection. And there is more to come. Offering you a chalice, a minister may say: ‘The blood of Christ keep you in eternal life,’ – in other words – keep you where you already are. That’s John’s new theology and an understanding after his sixty years of prayer and meditation. Eternal life is here and now; we have passed from death to life already. Yet sometimes you may feel half-dead through bereavement or despair, divorce, or disappointment, or redundancy or being told about a life threatening illness for yourself or someone close to you and yet you find a new lease of life that seems like resurrection, a life that is fuller and richer, more satisfying and fulfilling, eternal in quality as well as quantity, here and now. I certainly found that when working in a hospice.
As Easter makes plain, God is in the business of raising the dead. Life is a succession of deaths and resurrections; and when you come to the end of your days and he leads you through death into Life, it will be but one more in a whole series of resurrections.
Lord Jesus, give us the courage and strength to follow you,
especially when times are hard,
so that we may experience your love
and help through all our days.