Readings: John 11.1-45
The decisive battle of El Alamein in 1942 was not an immediate victory. The British 8th Army made early gains, but the battle then became a ghastly killing match for both sides. At one point, deep into the battle, staff officers rushed to wake their commander, General Montgomery, who was snatching some rest, with a report that a particular division was suffering terrible casualties. ‘Yes, I expected that,’ said Monty, and went back to sleep. Callous? Or just clear thinking? I ask the same question when I hear Jesus’ words to the disciples:
‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there.’ And this is just one of several extraordinary things in this long and extraordinary story. Here are some others.
Jesus hears that his friend Lazarus is ill, and stays for two extra days. Imagine you get a text (though you won’t, because your phone is switched off) that that a friend has just been admitted to A&E: will you even stay to the end of the service? Then come conversations (the kind John’s gospel so fond of) in which words mean different things to different people. Jesus says that Lazarus has ‘fallen asleep’ and that he is going ‘to wake him’: the disciples think he means just that, while Jesus has far bigger things in mind. When Jesus arrives, he tells Martha that her brother ‘will rise again’: she thinks he means the general resurrection of the dead in God’s great future, something most Jews believe in but which is no great comfort to her just now; what Jesus means is that God’s great future is here, now, in him: ‘I am the resurrection’. Jesus meets Mary, the other sister, sees her tears and those of their friends: and he who had sounded so untroubled at the thought of Lazarus’ death, now begins to shed his own.
Finally, there is the moment when the stone is rolled away and Lazarus, four days in the tomb, stumbles out again into the living daylight – and I wonder what you make of that? If you say that such things just do not occur, you have no problem – it’s a symbolic story, but it didn’t actuallyhappen. If you say that everything in the gospel must always be taken in its most literal sense, then you have no problem either. Many, I suspect, are somewhere in between, and the question ‘What really happened?’ nags away. But the more immediate question is, surely, ‘And so?’ What arewe hoping for when we hear this story and respond (as we just have) ‘Praise to you, O Christ’? Praise for what? The story of Lazarus contains one of the readings suggested for a Church of England funeral. So, imagine yourself among the mourners. What do you hope for when you hear this story? That the loved one will emerge from the coffin as Lazarus does from his tomb?
Lazarus dies; but then he is brought back – exactly that, brought back – to life. What Jesus does for him is like reversing a train up the line, changing the points and switching it on to a different branch. But if you stop a District Line train from Richmond at Earls Court, reverse it back to Wimbledon and set it off again, then from Earl’s Court it has come and to Earl’s Court it shall return. So it is, we presume, with Lazarus: he is brought back from death, but it still waits for him at the end of the line. Death is not abolished for him, just postponed. Why does the writer tell us about Lazarus? To show the glory of Jesus, who can give life to whomever he will, but also to set the scene for what is to follow, when we shall see another dead body, another stone sealing off the living from the dead, another tomb with a woman called Mary weeping beside it. How similar are the scenes of Lazarus’s burial and the burial of Jesus; and how different: I’m sure our writer wants us to see that too, how different they are.
Lazarus is a sign of Jesus’ authority, but he does not show the deepest way that God works with you and me. To see that, we need to look at the death and Jesus himself, and what happens next. Jesus will die, but he will not be ‘brought back’ to life. He will be raised to new life. And Jesus will not reverse the train of anyone else’s life. He will not take back Pontius Pilate’s sentence or dismantle his cross. If Peter (the disciple who denies him) ever says, ‘If only I could have my time again’, Jesus will not reply (like some fairy godmother), ‘And so you shall’. Instead, he will welcome his failed disciple and call him again, give him a new task for the future, despite the mess he has made of the past.
In the face of loss, it’s natural to want Lazarus rather than Jesus; and sometimes you can. In 1902, the bell tower in St Mark’s Square, Venice, fell down. The city council decided they wanted it back ‘dov’era e com’era’, where it was andas> it was. Perhaps they were right; anyhow that’s what happened. Ninety-eight years later, the church in my last parish burned down, and that was our first impulse, to have it back just how it was. But we were wrong, and it didn’t happen. When someone dies and you just want them back, when things have gone wrong and you wish it could all be as it was before – these are natural instincts, and futile ones. Even if we could reverse the train of events, who is to say that what was undone would not be done again, in one way or another?
At this point we have to talk about another similar-yet-different event. This is the first Sunday of the vacancy here at St Matthias and in the wider team. Taking leave of your parish priest is a long way from the death of Lazarus: it is a healthy and generous thing that we, the People of God in this place, have rejoiced in what Cate offered and have now given her away to brothers and sisters in Christ elsewhere. Yet it is a parting and an ending, and no doubt there have been some tears. And today – the annual meeting, new officers and new tasks – it’s natural to be wistful, to wonder, ‘Are we up to this?’ to want Lazarus more than Jesus. But be of good cheer. We are not Nostalgics Anonymous at prayer, we are children of the resurrection. We follow someone who will never be overcome by loss, be it the kind that is intrinsic to life, or the kind we bring upon ourselves, in the destructiveness of what you can do, or say, or think, or suffer. We follow someone who is not shackled by the past but always offers you a future, in life and in death. What would it feel like to be sure that this someone knows you, loves you and sometimes even weeps over you?
Today begins Passiontide. The atmosphere is more solemn, as our thoughts are gathered upon Jesus’ betrayal and trial and death. What I have tried to describe is what Jesus will offer us afresh in the months ahead, as we try to discern the purposes of God for us and for this place, but most immediately in this Holy Week and Easter, as we follow him to the cross and to the tomb, and as we then say, ‘Praise to you, O Christ’, because he was handed over to death for our sins and raised for our justification. That is why we call him the resurrection and the life.
Vacancy The Revd Cate Irvine, Team Vicar from 2005, left us at the start of April top take up the post of chaplain at Royal Holloway University of London.
Switching the points The question whether we choose alternative futures is interestingly explored in the current film Source Code.
Handed over to death… Romans 4.25