Sermon for the 5th Sunday of Lent

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent (29 March 2020) on John 11:1–45 (The Raising of Lazarus), by Revd Stephen

Sunday 29 March 2020 (Passiontide begins)
Gospel: John 11:1–45 (The Raising of Lazarus)

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.  Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill.  So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’  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.’  Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 

Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’  The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’  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.  But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’  After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’  The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’  Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep.  Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’  Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ 

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days.  Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother.  When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home.  Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’  Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’  Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’  Jesus said to her, ‘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. Do you believe this?’  She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’ 

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.’  And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him.  Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him.  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. 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.’  When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.  He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’  Jesus began to weep.  So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’  But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’ 

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.  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 for four days.’  Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’  So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me.  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.’  When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 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.’ 

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. 

John 11:1–45 (NRSV)

Today’s reading is very well known. It tells of Jesus raising his friend, Lazarus, from the grave. A moment when we see the divinity of Jesus breaking through the constraints of human existence.

There are many words and moments in this passage from John’s gospel that could be used as a focus for a reflection on this stage in our journey through Lent. But, where I want us to focus our attention might not be that predictable.

Today’s account of the death and raising of Lazarus is a very real story. It is a story of real people who grieve, and cry, and become angry – even angry with Jesus. It is also a story that tells of hope, of intimacy with God, and of deep faith.

As the story opens we encounter three friends of Jesus who are in great need. Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, is seriously ill. Not just ill but on the point of death. Yet, despite their desperation, Jesus seems in no rush to help. We are told that after hearing the news he waits another two days before making the journey to Bethany. When Jesus does finally arrive it is, of course, all too late. Lazarus is not only dead, he has been dead for several days. Is there any wonder that grief and tears and anger meet the friend who had healed so many, but who had failed to help one of those closest to him?

Picture the scene. Jesus was called to help. Jesus came, but in his own good time. The delay had resulted in the death of a friend – a friend who was so dear that his passing caused even Jesus to weep. But first, he waited again. He waited outside Bethany. He waited for both Mary and Martha to come and declare their faith, the faith that could so easily have been set aside because of the tragedy that had now enveloped their lives.

So, what of that faith? First, we hear Martha’s response to the imminent arrival of Jesus: ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ It must have taken great faith for those to be the first words uttered by the grieving sister. She did not cry out in pain and despair. Rather, she declared her confidence that things could have been better. She expressed the Christian hope and belief in that God’s power can break into our lives, no matter how bleak they may be at any given moment. Then, we hear the words of Mary: she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ Again, in an act of humility and intercession a second grieving sister kneels before Jesus and declares her faith in him.

It is in the faithful response of Mary and Martha that we come across the same words: if you had been here.

At the moment we are all living in a strange limbo. Our movements and our actions are being controlled in order that a great calamity might be averted. For the majority the controls that have been placed on our lives seem sensible and measured. You only have to look around to see how differently people are living out their daily lives. But, if you attend closely to the way our media is reporting the situation, you might be forgiven for assuming the world is about to come to an end. Numbers of infections and fatalities are high, but the facts surrounding those numbers are not being reported. We are being encouraged to think ourselves into an if only you had been here situation, but without the profound faith of Mary and Martha to back it up.

Each of us has ‘if only’ moments. We replay incidents in our lives over and over again. Then, with the expertise that we can only find with hindsight, we know exactly what we should or could have done … if only … Students remember moments when great success was there for the taking, if only … Some recall the romances or the job opportunities that could have flourished, if only … We are nostalgic people. We like to recall and to relive the past in our imaginations. But, staying rooted in that past can so easily lead us into a world of despair and self-loathing.

So, let us look again at how the two grieving sisters in today’s reading handled their if only … moment. They were both overcome with grief. Their lives had been turned upside down, and not just for a few weeks. For them, their whole status in society had been taken away because they lived in a world where they needed their brother to lead their household. As women, they would now be treated as the recipients of charity. They would no longer have voices that could be heard or valued. For them, the loss of Lazarus really did represent the loss of everything that was dear to them.

But … as Jesus came near to them they did not scream and shout. They did not feel the need to kick back against the reality of their situation. They did not heap blame and abuse on others. Instead, they came to Jesus and expressed their certainty that he was the only one who could have made a difference – in fact, he is the only one who could still make a difference.

There is a very powerful message in the words and actions of Mary and Martha. We know that they were two very different people despite being sisters. Martha was a woman of action who liked to keep herself busy, while Mary was a quieter more reflective person who we know had sat at her Lord’s feet in silent adoration. The extremes of those two characters contain the features that make up our characters too. There are things about Mary and Martha that are to be found in each of us, and so they can be seen to be role models for us as we travel through these strange days.

So, if we can see ourselves in Mary and Martha, why should we not also see how we should react to the unexpected, the dangerous, the inconvenient? Rather than spending our time revelling in the if only … let us focus on what God is doing for us. God is giving us time to reflect and to pray; God is inspiring us to ‘reboot’ our lives; God is holding us in his loving and healing embrace as we come to terms with our fragility and our mortality; God is inviting us to lay our cares, our concerns, our frustrations and our disappointments before him in order that he might reveal his resurrection power in our lives.

Today we begin the final stages of our journey towards Holy Week. Even though we are not gathering in our churches, we are being invited to remember the ultimate sacrifice that Jesus made for every one of us. Over the next couple of weeks I will be posting messages, meditations and prayers on this website to help you make that journey in his presence. As we live in this different reality we are invited, like Mary and Martha, to mourn the passing of the familiar but also to trust that God can replace the old and the familiar with that which is so much better. I pray that we may all come to know the intense and indescribable joy of the resurrection in the days to come.

Revd Stephen Buckman