Theme: The raising of Lazarus
The response of the emergency services to the Westminster terror attack has been much praised. There are some things that we just have to drop everything for. The unexpected phone call comes and suddenly our world is turned upside down. Whatever we were in the middle of loses importance and we have to respond to the new priority – now. Critical injury or illness calls for immediate action - frantic phone calls, wailing sirens and flashing red lights down to the hospital.
Such is the occasion in our gospel reading today where Jesus is the emergency call out. He receives the news that his beloved friend Lazarus is seriously ill and what does he do? Initially - nothing. To our amazement, we hear: “after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” For two whole days Jesus carries on as normal. It is incredible that Jesus, knowing that his friend was so ill, or in this case dead, stays put. Then finally, he tells his disciples that they need to head up to Judea and by the way Lazarus is dead, so actually they should call in at Bethany. By the time they arrive, Lazarus had been dead and buried for four days.
The home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus was a welcome haven for Jesus during his three years of ministry. He loved them all dearly. Knowing that they needed him there, it just does not make sense that Jesus deliberately waited another two days before responding. I have always found this troubling until I read something concerning Jewish beliefs about death at the time. It transpires that the four day time period was significant. Jews believed that the soul stayed near the body for three days, waiting in hope that it might re-enter the body. Not until the fourth day was it believed that true death arrived with a drop of gall from the sword of the angel of death, forcing the soul to leave the body.
This adds extra weight to Jesus’ explanation that his actions would reveal God’s glory and strengthen the faith of not only Mary and Martha but also the disciples. Furthermore, John’s account adds: “Many of the Jews who had come with Mary, and who saw what he did, believed in him.” This passage shows that a delay in answer is not a sign of God's indifference or his failure to hear, even though we do not always understand God’s agenda. Sometimes after we think that everything is lost and that there is no hope, God does something remarkable that totally reverses our view.
Mary and Martha greet Jesus with the same words: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." However, neither sister, nor any of those who are at the grave, are looking for the immediate resurrection of Lazarus. None of them expect what happens next. Given Jesus’ delayed travel, his reaction at the tomb is reassuring. It counters our earlier thoughts about Jesus’ apparent lack of concern. We see Jesus’ compassion - clearly, he is deeply moved; he weeps and we are told that he is “greatly disturbed”.
Then for the finale, he orders that the tomb be unsealed. In earshot of everyone, Jesus begins with a simple prayer.
"Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me."
Just imagine the palpable tension and anticipation building.
Then Jesus commands Lazarus to come out. And he does.
The resuscitation of Lazarus into the same sort of body partially anticipates the greater event of Easter, when the Jesus will go through death and out into the unmapped new land beyond. But, of course, the road to Easter lies along the way of the cross.
Resurrection began as a metaphor for the return from exile. Ezekiel’s surreal vision was an image of Israel, “dead” in Babylon, being restored to her own land. It goes with the promises of covenant renewal. The God who breathed into human nostrils at creation will do so again. God will give them a new heart and a new spirit.
In Romans 8, Paul spells out the significance of Christ’s resurrection for all creation. Those whose bodies are heading for death, but who are indwelt by God’s Spirit, are assured that what God did for Jesus as an individual, he will do for all who are in Christ. Jesus provided a visual, concrete illustration of his words to Martha, the words recited at the start of the Christian funeral service:
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.
The fundamental fact of our faith is that Jesus is Lord of the Living and The Dead, by him, the dead receive new life, and through faith in him, the living have the gift of eternal life.
This is the crux of the Christian faith,
that we need to be reminded of to retain a sense of perspective,
reminded of if we are not to fall into despair,
if we are not to dwell in anger and grief more than we ought.
We are raised to a new life with Christ by virtue of our faith in him. We have a new chance to live life here on this planet as God wants us to live it.
Christ stands at the threshold of our lives and calls us forth.
Do we hear him?
Do we allow him to roll away the stone that comes between us?
Then, what about the grave clothes that still bind us
– can we permit them to be removed?
What binds you from to accepting Jesus and his promises fully?
… The doubts, fears, insecurities, resentments, addictions, false pride…
Let him free you today.
Let us pray…
Lord, you know the things that hold us captive; the things that prevent us from accepting you wholeheartedly. Illuminate the areas of our lives that we need to surrender to you. Gently unbind us from all that hinders us from accepting your love and purpose for our lives. Amen
Rev Lisa Cornwell