07 April 2014

Sermon – “Lazarus” (John 11:17-27)

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice!

Of all the emotions that wring the heart, surely there is none that touches us more deeply than grief. In the Bible we find numerous pictures of it: in the aged Abraham mourning and weeping at the side of the lifeless body of his wife Sarah. In Jacob holding in his hands the blood-soaked cloak of his son Joseph and crying aloud in inconsolable anguish, “It is my son’s robe!” In King David, learning of the death of the rebellious Absalom in battle and wailing, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”[1]

Half a century ago, in what is the most personal of all his books, C.S. Lewis recorded his feelings of deep sorrow following the death of his wife, Joy Davidman:

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.

At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.

There are moments, most unexpectedly, when something inside me tries to assure me that I don’t really mind so much, not so very much, after all. Love is not the whole of a man’s life. I was happy before I ever met [her]. I’ve plenty of what are called ‘resources’. People get over these things. Come, I shan’t do so badly… Then comes a sudden jab of red-hot memory and all this ‘commonsense’ vanishes like an ant in the mouth of a furnace.[2]

Today in our Gospel reading we also come face to face with grief. This morning’s passage opens mid-way through the story of Lazarus. Jesus has just arrived in Bethany. When Lazarus’ sister Martha learns the news that Jesus has come, she rushes out to greet him. But she cannot hold her feelings of questioning and perhaps not a little resentment within her. And so her first words to him are, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Jesus waited

Now if we have read the earlier part of the chapter we know that Martha and her sister Mary had gone to the trouble of sending Jesus a message about Lazarus’ illness some days before, well in time for Jesus to have come to Bethany while their brother was still alive. Nevertheless, Jesus had delayed his departure for two days, and now Lazarus was dead and buried.

We have to credit Mary for her forthrightness in her words to Jesus. So often it is a temptation (for me at least) to hide my real feelings from God. Far more often than I care to admit, my prayers tends to skim along the surface of my life. I am not inclined to share with God my deepest hurts and disappointments—and certainly not to blame them on him!

Yet no doubt there are times for all of us when we are tempted to ask, “God, why couldn’t you have done something?” “Why could you not have acted?” And I think those are perfectly legitimate questions to bring to him. One of the repeated prayers of the Bible is, “O Lord, how long?”

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? (Psalm 13:1,2)

How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? (Psalm 89:46)

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? (Habakkuk 1:2)

How long, O Lord, will you look on? (Psalm 35:17)

My soul is in great turmoil, but you, Lord, how long? (Psalm 6:3)

It was not for lack of faith that Martha came to Jesus with these words. Quite the opposite: for a moment later she is making one of the most profound statements of faith in all of Scripture, “Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” It was her very faith in Jesus that gave her the freedom to come to him in that way.

Throughout this Lenten season we have been opening our services with the words of Jesus from Matthew 11:28, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” And the apostle Peter echoes, “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). And so with Martha we have the freedom to respond to Jesus’ own gracious invitation to come to him with our sorrows and disappointments, our hurts and even our anger. “Lord, if only you had been here.”

Jesus wept

Moments later we hear the same words again, not from Martha but on the lips of her sister Mary. And this time John tells us in verse 33 that Jesus “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved”. As happens not infrequently in the Bible, it is hard to convey the depth of emotion that John is portraying in this verse. The word rendered “greatly disturbed” was originally used of horses. It means “to snort”. Elsewhere in the New Testament it is translated “to scold”, “to censure” and “to warn sternly”. It is used of the guests at Simon’s table when the woman poured her precious ointment over Jesus’ hair. Mark tells us that his guests scolded her—literally “snorted at her” (Mark 14:5).

If this word were not enough, John further describes Jesus as “deeply moved”. Here the word means literally “stirred up”. We find the same word being used of the pool of Bethesda earlier in the gospel. Do you remember how the paralyzed man was waiting for an angel to come and stir up the water (John 5:4)? Matthew’s gospel uses the same word to describe King Herod when the wise men told him of the birth of a new king of the Jews (Matthew 2:3). He was shaken to the core.

Now put these two verbs together and we begin to get the picture of what was happening within Jesus’ heart. One translator (Rieu) has rendered it, “He gave way to such distress of spirit as made his body tremble.” And another (Phillips), “He was deeply moved and visibly distressed.” Then, two verses later, John tells us simply and poignantly, “Jesus wept.” We do not see Jesus like this again until he faces the imminence of his own death in the Garden of Gethsemane.

What caused this enormous show of emotion on Jesus’ part? Was it sorrow over the grief of these two sisters, Mary and Martha? Was it the loss of his good friend Lazarus? That indeed was what some of those present were thinking. Yet I do not believe that it was either of these things, deeply distressing though they were. In reference to this passage English theologian Tony Thiselton has written of an “indignation in principle at what ought not to happen”[3] and I believe that this accurately describes what was taking place deep inside Jesus at that moment.

As he stood outside the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus was standing face to face before the scandal of death. In our fallen world we have come to terms with death. Yes, we grieve over it when it takes our loved ones from us; yet we have come to accept its inevitability. For Jesus, in whom was life, and for the Scriptures, death remains an enemy, a barbarity, an atrocity, an outrage against creation itself. He came that we might have life—life in all its fullness.

And so with Jesus we believe in the sacredness of human life—that life, not death, is God’s intention, God’s gift. In the midst of what Pope John Paul II described as “a culture of death”, we are called, in the words of Protestant theologian Ron Sider, to be “completely pro-life”. That may mean re-examining some of our most basic presuppositions, not only on matters like abortion and euthanasia, but also on controversial issues such as war, gun control, capital punishment, access to health care, world poverty and many others—and it will most certainly mean that we will find ourselves, like Jesus, being deeply troubled by the death that surrounds us.

Jesus’ word

I have entitled this series of sermons “Conversations with Jesus”. At this point we come to what is possibly the most remarkable “conversation” in Scripture. Jesus, still trembling with the emotions that stirred so deeply within him, walks determinedly to the great stone that has been rolled across Lazarus’ sepulcher and says, “Take away the stone.” Martha protests, “Lord, already there is a stench.” (At this point I love the earthier language of the King James Version: “Lord, by this time he stinketh.”) But Jesus would not be dissuaded. And so the stone was rolled away; and Jesus cried out, “Lazarus, come forth!” Then John tells us simply, “The dead man came out.”

“He speaks, and, listening to his voice,
 new life the dead receive…” Sad to say, the time would come when Lazarus would have to die again. What he experienced that day was not resurrection but resuscitation. It is the last and greatest of the seven “signs” in John’s gospel; and like all signs it points to something greater than itself—that even death falls a defeated foe at the feet of Jesus. “The last enemy to be destroyed us death…,” wrote St Paul. “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:26,57).

In the book of Revelation John looked forward to the great day when the fullness of that victory would no longer be a hope but a present, all-encompassing reality. Like Lazarus in his tomb, John too heard a loud voice, this time saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

Until that day comes (and it surely will), death and grief both remain ever-present realities for us. There will be times when our faith is shaken, when we want to scream out from the depths of our spirit, “Lord, if only…” At those times may we remember that the one who came to bring us life has won that victory at the cost of his own death. The one who promised Mary, “I am the resurrection and the life,” was the one who cried out from the cross for you and for me, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Surely he has borne our griefs
 and carried our sorrows—a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.

[1]     See Genesis 23:1-4; 37:31-35; 2 Samuel 18:33.
[2]     A Grief Observed, 7,8
[3]     Life After Death: A New Approach to the Last Things, 7

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