Reading John 11: 17-45
Preacher Revd Neil Summers
The fifth Sunday of Lent marks the start of Passiontide, and the build-up to the series of commemorations which lie at the very heart of Christianity, and which will find their climax in the events we will recall on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and at Easter. Today we enter the most difficult and painful period of the church calendar as the journey inexorably leads Jesus through some of the most familiar and profound territory of the human experience: times in life which are heavy going, and which may feel unbearable; or times that make us fearful of the future; that terrible feeling of being abandoned by God, alone, exposed and vulnerable; times of psychological and emotional anguish, physical pain and, inevitably, having to face up to death itself, something each of us must one day do. The church building, usually ornate and colourful, is today made stark and bare, with the triptych closed and images veiled, to symbolise the harshness and desolation of it all. Easter, though only two weeks away, somehow seems distant from today’s perspective: there is a long road to travel first, and it is called the way of the cross.
Today’s readings, however, already point towards the fact that these things – including death – will not have the last word. Ezekiel’s surreal vision of the valley of dry bones is an image of Israel, broken and hopeless after the fall of Jerusalem, to all intents and purposes ‘dead’ in captivity in Babylon. God’s promise is that they will be restored: a host of skeletons will become again a mighty nation, when they repossess their God-given homeland.
The Gospel account of the raising of Lazarus is, in many ways, a foreshadowing of the story of Jesus’ own death and resurrection. It is one of a number of miracles, or ‘signs’ as John’s Gospel refers to them, which are intended to manifest the true significance of Jesus. But, for me, the main focus here is not so much on the raising of Lazarus, but on the portrayal of Jesus himself. Anyone who has experienced the death of someone close to them will recognise the scene depicted in this story. We see Jesus – human, shaken and mourning – weeping at the death of his friend, Lazarus, and sharing the sorrow of bereavement with his sisters, Martha and Mary. Even Jesus, who in John’s Gospel says, ‘I am the resurrection and the life’, finds himself in tears. It is one of those extraordinary moments when we see straight into the heart of the paradoxical things Christianity says about God. Here is Jesus, about to demonstrate God’s absolute power of life over death – as first Lazarus is raised, and, later, he himself would rise – reacting as we all might to a life cut short, the desolation of losing someone we love, and sharing the pain of others who mourn him, too.
As if any of us need reminding, suffering is an inescapable part of the human condition. For all the advances that science has brought, life is still often framed by pain: birth involves physical distress, before later joy, for the mother. And those of us who have watched with, and cared for, the dying are only too aware that death, for too many, comes after physical pain, and can leave a numbing pain in the hearts of the bereaved. Humans, throughout recorded time, have had the goal of alleviating pain, but since pain – physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual – cannot be totally eliminated, it must be faced, contemplated and, indeed, used to come to a fuller understanding of what it is to be human. Passiontide offers precisely that opportunity, which is why so many of us find it hard going. It would be so much easier to disappear for a fortnight, and come back on Easter Day, when it is all over. But you can’t rush death. Besides, we know human life isn’t like that, and the world is not like that. We may have to face any number of Maundy Thursdays and Good Fridays in our lives and in our world before we can experience the sunrise on Easter morning.
The good news, and what is unique about the Christian understanding of God, is that the Jesus story demonstrates God’s willingness to share the vicissitudes of life in the world. In contemplating the experience of Jesus, we can begin to grapple with the significance of suffering in the world and in our own lives. Jesus’ outstretched arms on the cross are certainly a symbol of the cruel and lingering pain of his death. But they also convey another, I think more powerful, message. They are the open arms of a compassionate figure extending an embrace to all who suffer. And the presence of Mary and John at the foot of the cross surely inspires each of us to be alongside those who suffer, and to help them – if we can – to bear it. It might seem as though God has abandoned us to our fate, but the reverse proves to be the case, as Mary and John, and the others who watched and waited with Jesus, are nothing less than God’s very human presence, just like those of you who have cared for a loved one and stayed with them through the trials of life. What could be more human? What could be more divine? John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus wept over Lazarus, and is deeply moved as he shares the grief of Martha and Mary. Here, surely, is the divine compassion at its most intensely human.
There is no doubt that suffering can entomb us. Not one of us is immune from pain or death. Jesus himself wasn’t. That is the reality, and we have to make of it what we can. Other things can entomb us, too: perhaps the past, with its regrets and failures; our own self-perception; our attitudes towards other people, and those things we keep hidden in the most secret places of our hearts. But the tomb wasn’t the end of the story of Lazarus. However entombed we may feel in our own Passiontides: our physical weakness; the trials of old age; vulnerability; fear of the future; fear of death; our sense of inadequacy; feelings of abandonment; the loss of those we love, our inability to change and let go; our despair at the state of the world, in spite of all these, let us not be closed to the possibility that stones can be rolled away and that we may somehow hear the words Jesus spoke to the crowd as Lazarus left his tomb: ‘Unbind him; take off the grave clothes, and let him go!’
Lazarus walked forth, though, of course, one day he would have to die again! On Good Friday, Jesus died. But on Easter Day, the Lazarus story happened all over again, except that Jesus left the place of death for ever. Because he did that, whatever entombs us, or our world – including death itself – need not have the last word. Of course, it doesn’t mean an end to suffering and pain, and we will still weep when things prove too much to bear, not least in bereavement. That is only human. But, two thousand years on, the Christian story still encourages us to take heart from the new possibilities that resurrection speaks of. And let’s face it, the only reason the church exists, and that we are in church this morning, is down to the Christian conviction that resurrection is real.