Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-45
Sometimes, when a preacher turns up the readings in the lectionary for a particular Sunday, it is with a slight sense of trepidation. That was my experience last week, when I checked the readings for today, the first Sunday of Lent, this first Sunday after the spring vacation, the first during lockdown, the first by zoom. My eye saw the reference – John 11, the raising of Lazarus. Oh no, I thought, it’s so right and also so wrong. So right, as we’ll see, because it’s about illness and loss and grief – and that’s our context today across the world. And so wrong, perhaps, because in the account of the raising of a dead man, does it not seem a cruel parallel to the rising death count and achingly small funerals of the present day?
Yet difficult times do not call for easy comfort but honest engagement. And so, the question which every sermon attempts, imperfectly, to answer. What could God be saying to us in these texts today?
First, this story of Lazarus, his sisters Mary and Martha, of their friend Jesus and his disciples is the most natural of scenes. Lazarus was ill, with a mortal illness. His family were deeply worried, fearful he would die, hopeful that, somehow, he might be healed by the hand of Jesus. The community rallied round, comforting the family. And when Lazarus did die, the feelings of grief, of loss, of distress are palpable.
The 2000 years since these events seem to melt away in our present circumstances. The news is all about illness from the coronavirus, which may have touched our own families, friendships, and University circles. Worry is etched into the faces of the few people we encounter personally, and the many who speak online, exhaustedly, after a gruelling shift. We hope against hope for the peak to pass, for measures to work, for patients to recover. And we cannot help but imagine the grief experienced in thousands of families worldwide every day, exacerbated by the restrictions on one of humankind’s most basic of instincts – rituals for the dead.
The Bible knows what science has revealed with ever-greater detail – human beings are natural, we are animals, sharing mortality with our fellow-creatures. A Fife writer, Kathleen Jamie, put this beautifully when describing a visit she made to a lab at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee:
That’s the deal: if we are to be available for joy and discovery, then it’s as an animal body, available for cancer and infection and pain. Not a deal anyone remembers having struck – we just got here – but it’s not as though we don’t negotiate.
And it’s that negotiation which is the second insight from this human story. Lazarus’ illness and death give rise to a deep questioning among those who loved him.
Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It’s the only question which matters: when her sister Mary approached Jesus, she said it too, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Martha and Mary were Jews with a deep trust in God as their Creator, giver of life and companion in their journey. They saw in Jesus something of divine life-giving power, in signs, miracles, healings. His presence would have changed everything, but he was absent. Why had he delayed? When Martha and Mary spoke to Jesus, it was with a hint of reproach, but in the context of their trust in him. Others spoke with barely concealed disdain, “Could not he who opened the eyes of a blind man have kept this man from dying?” Well, couldn’t he?
Suffering has come to millions across the world from the pandemic, subsequent restrictions, and sudden economic changes in people’s lives. It would be strange not to reflect on our deepest convictions at this time – about human activity, or the relationship between the government and the governed, or, not least, the hope of our faith. Faith was questioned before when convulsions came – the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, the First World War, the Holocaust. Where was God? Why did he seem to delay? Faith is not like an effortlessly superior sort of knowledge which brushes away the events of our lives as insignificant compared to the glory of God, or the perfection of his wisdom. Faith is trust, but it is not blind or deaf. Faith is a way of life for people with ears, with eyes, and who are caught up in a new world of physical distancing, self-isolation and working from home, with all its adjustments As people sometimes say, I married my partner for life, but not for lunch. And so it is OK to wonder about our faith at such a time. It may also be OK to find faith stirring within us in a new way.
And that leads us to a final insight from John’s narrative. It’s a natural scene, which gives rise to deep questions. But it also gives a glimpse, an astonishing glimpse, of a bigger picture.
For one thing, we see how Jesus felt. He was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” And, famously, he wept. It’s the shortest verse in the King James Version of the Bible. Jesus wept. But in those nine letters is an immensity: that Jesus loved his friend who was dead, and his friends who were mourning him; that Jesus felt the sorrows of his nation, his fellow human beings and his world; and that God is faithful in love to his suffering creatures.
We also sense the promise found in Jesus. He offers himself as the resurrection and the life, and Martha affirms it. He fulfils the promise found in the Old Testament that God, the creator, the giver of life, the one who breathes his spirit into us will breathe anew into his broken people. Ezekiel’s vision was of the spirit of life coursing through the dry bones. Jesus promises that that resurrection is found in him.
And, of course, the most luminous glimpse of all is the raising of Lazarus. In obedience to Jesus’ words, he emerges from the cave into the light. The image on the order of service is one of the earliest Christian pictures. It’s from a catacomb near Rome, a place underground where people laid their dead. It shows the still bandaged Lazarus coming forth at the hand of Jesus. It was their hope in those early Christian centuries, and it remains at the heart of Christian hope today. The God whose love was found in Jesus, and who raised Jesus himself from the dead, is greater than all the powers of this world, including those which bring us illness and lead us to our death. Terry Eagleton puts it with a profound simplicity: It is the assurance of being loved that enables one to take the risk of faith, a faith that in turning its face to the future melts into hope.
In por experience of Covid-19, we remain in all three aspects of this rich story. We are in the midst of a natural event with incalculable ramifications for people, health services, economies, universities and the environment. We will go on reflecting, questioning, doubting, trusting and praying. And we will be given glimpses of a bigger picture. We’ll sense the love of God found in what he has faithfully done in our lives. We will also encounter that love in the world of kindness, compassion and self-sacrifice we see around us and on our screens – from doctors and nurses in intensive care to volunteers taking swabs for testing; from employees in food factories to the shelf stackers in Morrisons, Tescos and Sainsburys; from cleaners in DRA to residence staff at Agnes Blackadder; from friends reaching out to someone they know to be isolated to those who are praying, quietly and faithfully, for us all.
Romans chapter 8 was not in the lectionary for today and yet its closing verses have been running through my head as a counterpoint to John chapter 11.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We should be in St Salvator’s Chapel today. But here we are, separated physically, but a zoomunity joined in worship, prayer and hope in God. And we trust that nothing – nothing at all – can separate us from his love.