Vicar's Sermon - 2nd April 2017
John 11: The raising of Lazarus.
It’s not easy. Not in the slightest. This passage, this long gospel reading given to us on Passion Sunday: the story of the raising of Lazarus.
You read the commentators on this part of the New Testament and they struggle to commit – did this event happen at all – is a question at the back of our minds? It’s only here in John’s Gospel. We don’t have its equivalent in Matthew, Mark or Luke. Yes, there are other raisings from the dead: Jairus’ daughter, the widow of Nain’s son but these took place not long after the moment of death – the sceptical might find some grounds for believing Jesus ‘resuscitated’ them – but that is not an option in this story. In this story the details and the horrors of death are laid before us in no uncertain terms: he has been dead 4 days…there will be a stench. John does not soften the story in any way to account for our squeamishness. What sort of Jesus are we shown if he allows his friends to go through agonies of illness and bereavement in the way this story recounts: he hears of Lazarus’ illness but refuses to respond to it (do you not think that’s unusual)…Is it OK for God to use Lazarus in this way as a ‘visual aid?
Maybe we can make use of the fact that, for John, this is a sign. John’s Gospel sets before us a series of signs that in essence explore ‘who Jesus is’. But, if it is a sign does that make the story more of a parable than a historical occurrence? You see, the questions are many – I can’t answer them for you but I lay out some of them for you to let you know that it’s OK to ask them.
So let’s start at the top and work our way through it: you might want to have the passage open in front of you.
In our first paragraph, we are introduced to Mary, Martha and Lazarus but note that in verse two we are told that Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and ‘wiped his feet with her hair’. She was indeed the one who did this…but, in John’s gospel, this event has not yet happened: it occurs in the next chapter. Her action was interpreted by Jesus as the anointing in readiness for his burial. So, its’ mention here seems to be John rather cleverly linking the death of Lazarus with the death of Jesus. In not so many days Jesus will follow Lazarus into the realm of Death itself.
By verse 7 (and the second paragraph) Jesus decides to go to Bethany, ‘to Judea’ again’. The disciples are right: it is not long since the Jewish authorities were seeking to stone him for blasphemy – in chapter 10 Jesus has told them the ‘I and the Father are one’. They interpret this to mean that He is claiming to be God Himself and threaten to kill him ‘but he escapes from their hands’. He has escaped but now he chooses to place himself in danger’s way. Perhaps that is the lesson of the delay for two days: Jesus, in this Gospel exercises the freedom of God Himself – he will not be told (even by his mother in chapter 2), he will do what he must do, as and when it is the time to do it. If he is truly the reflection of God then He must be free. He hands himself over to the authorities in this gospel – they do not take Him. He carries his own cross in this gospel – it is not carried for Him. The lesson seems to be that we must ‘let God be God’. Mary and Martha have let Him know their needs: that is enough – he will respond in His own way. So too with us.
Jesus here is giving us a picture of God at work. His life is so in tune with that of His Father that He can say that the Father dwells in Him and He in the Father: I and the Father are One. So, in this story, in Jesus God confronts Death head on – and His disciples are invited to follow His path ‘Let s also go’ says Thomas’ that we may also die with Him’.
By the third paragraph we enter a debate about the Jewish hope of resurrection. For most of the Old Testament there is no hope of resurrection: pious souls descended not to Hell but to a shadowy place called Sheol, no longer in ‘the land of the living’. But by the time of Jesus there were many Jews (though by no means all) who believed that there would be a Last Day on which the Righteous Dead would rise and the ‘less righteous’ punished. Martha shows herself to have great faith ‘God will give you whatever you ask of Him’ she says to Jesus. ‘I know that Lazarus will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ She is pushing the boundaries of faith here but Jesus takes her deeper, further. ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ he says ‘Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’
Everyone here knows of someone who has died so Jesus’ words are clearly speaking of something other than physical death. But what do the words mean? How about this…? Martha looked to resurrection on the Last Day: Jesus says that that day has come. He has brought the power of the resurrection into the present. He brings to us the power of the New Age and through Him that power is set free in our time. No, our loved ones do not rise in the way that Lazarus is about to do – but they are raised with Christ at their baptism, they reveal God’s glory in their lives lived in the power of His Spirit. As I said at Sybil’s funeral service on Thursday, Christian people may fear the manner of their dying but they need have no fear of death itself for we have already been incorporated into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Our relationship with the One who is ‘The resurrection and the Life’ is key: He is the One ‘coming into the world’. He is the One who brings the power of God to us as the Word made flesh – bridging the barrier between the heavenly realm and this earthly realm.
So we find ourselves by the tomb – and again, John cleverly links what is about to happen with the Easter story. We have a ‘Mary’, who gets up (the word is the same as that for resurrection) who heads to the tomb across which has been laid a heavy stone. She ends up kneeling at Jesus’ feet – this could be John chapter 20 were the character’s different. And in our 4 and 5th paragraphs we are shown Jesus convulsed with emotion: ‘disturbed in spirit, deeply moved, greatly disturbed: Jesus wept’. Any suggestion that Jesus didn’t care for his friend is seen to be wrong but more than this we are shown the depth of God’s love and His deep sorrow at how death distorts and destroys His people and His creation. The Bible story is that Death is an intruder into God’s good creation. It is, in New Testament terms, ‘the Last Enemy to be defeated’. We should not pretend that it does not exist but nor should we make peace with it: rather, our peace comes from our confidence that in Jesus it has been overcome.
The fact that Lazarus has been dead for 4 days (as I said earlier) is held before us for a purpose. Jewish burial tradition believed that the soul hovered around someone’s body for 3 days waiting to see whether it might re-enter the deceased. Four days tells us that all hope has gone. Jesus causes the stone to be rolled away and it is his command the results in Lazarus emerging from the tomb.
How does Wesley put it? ‘He speaks and listening to His voice new life the dead receive’…or to make a connection to the beginning of John’s Gospel, this is the Word of God speaking. The Word in whom and through whom everything came into being. The ‘Word made flesh’ commands and Life is the result. Here we see that there is no place that cannot be reached by the Word of God, no place where He will not go to find us and call us back to Himself. No grief so deep that he will not share it. No darkness that He will not enter to bring us light. Here he calls Lazarus out of Death into Life (and notice by the way that he invites others to help him ‘unbind him’ – there is real sense in which we can help others share in resurrection life) but, on Good Friday, He will enter Death’s realm Himself and shatter its doors and scatter its darkness, its Power will be stripped from it…but that’s another story and we have the journey from Bethany to Jerusalem to take before we can get to Easter Day.