Fifth Sunday of Lent, 6 April 2014, St Mary, morning

Readings  Ezekiel 37. 1-14  John 11. 1-45

Preacher  Ruth Martin

Occasionally something happens which sets off a chain of events which rapidly gains its own unstoppable momentum and usually ends in disaster.

Just over a week ago a careless briefing to a journalist about a probe from the financial services regulator the FCA into insurance practices from the 1970s set off a panic in the insurance marketplace, the value of insurance companies plummeted and suddenly there is the makings of crisis in yet another part of the finance sector. Governments generally  like calm and stability so  recrimination and potential angry action from the higher authority, in this case the Chancellor, swiftly followed, leaving the head of the FCA publicly bruised and wounded, on the precipice of being destroyed as a leader and figurehead.

And twenty years ago today, 1994, a small jet was shot down as it approached Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. The passengers all of whom died included the presidents of Burundi and Rwanda. This set off a chain of events that gathered such unstoppable momentum, that within 100 days 800,000 men, women, children and babies, mainly Tutsis, were murdered.

And more than two thousand years ago a miracle recounted for us this morning in the Gospel of John set off, in the Gospel of John, a chain of events ending in what was initially seen as a disaster, the death of the King of the Jews.

The resurrection of Lazarus, given in the heart of St Johns Gospel, was the trigger which led the Jewish authorities to seek Jesus’ destruction, a decision which gained an unstoppable momentum, seemingly ending in the disaster as the crowds successfully bayed for Jesus to be killed and the criminal Barabbas freed. Today is Passion Sunday, and we now must turn towards the Cross to realise that our existence as Christians is due entirely to the torture and death of Jesus. That death was real, just as for Lazarus and us; death in this life is real.

The story of Lazarus challenges our faith in this pivotal part of our Lent journey.

We will know there are certain similarities with the story of Jesus’ own resurrection, but they point I think, to the major differences between them. Jesus too would be buried in a tomb, but whereas with Lazarus the tombstone has to be rolled away by the strength of other human beings, Jesus emerged in His own power; Lazarus emerges still clothed in the burial strips of cloth, Jesus has left them behind.

Most importantly, Lazarus’ resurrection is resuscitation to a temporary life on earth; Jesus’ resurrection is an eternal life giving transformation.

The Story of Lazarus foretells the Resurrection and in performing this central miracle, Jesus incurs the hatred and wrath of the Jewish authorities who swiftly prepare to denounce him and destroy him. The unstoppable momentum has begun, he will be bruised, wounded, and destroyed as a human leader and figurehead- but whilst it leads to the terrible events commemorated on Good Friday, it is also a triumph because of what follows afterwards.

The prospect of God raising those of faith to a new life , and a life following death, is tantalizingly held out as possible because of Lazarus, but is more dramatically prophesied in that  spine tingling reading from Ezekiel.    What he envisages is not a separation of the spiritual from the physical, but resurrection. Dry Bones being brought to life…

It is as a result of Martha’s conversation with Jesus that we have the wonderful response that each one us depends on for ourselves and those we love and nurture

‘…I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me even though they die, will live’

We do not know how Lazarus and his sisters chose to live out their lives after this incident, but there will be some of us here who have had near misses, either in health or in just avoiding a potentially life threatening accident which has propelled us to re-evaluate our lives and seek to walk more clearly in the light of what we value most dearly. For Christians that will mean seeking to walk more closely where God would like us to travel.  Whilst our life after bodily death remains a future yet to be experienced,  for Christians like ourselves we can during our lives now, and during Lent, die to those parts of our old selves we need to cast off like the  discarded grave clothes of Lazarus; we can venture out of the gloomy darkness hidden away with our fears and worries  in the caves and tombs of our shortcomings, and allow ourselves to start afresh, a new life in fact, in Christ.

The tragedy of  the story of Lazarus lies with the Jewish leaders; too much to lose, too much to protect, too much to put at risk to dare to believe that  God might be changing and challenging everything; Ezekiel’s vision of hope, and Lazarus’ raising from the dead  are opportunities for each of us to ensure that in our own lives we genuinely seek to discard the rottenness and decay, and push for what we know is right in our own lives and for those we may influence.

In modern Rwanda, one of the films shows a man who killed and raped more than 30 women in his neighbourhood speaking into the camera from a dark and gloomy place, quite reminiscent of a cave or a tomb.  He recalls how one of the women he raped and was never seen again, stirred him so much that he prays for her and her family every year on April 6th and made the film to show that there was humanity in every criminal. He ends by turning away from the camera to say ‘I ask for Gods mercy’. I believe that even in the worst places, the darkest caves of human wrongdoing, we are never beyond God’s compassion. God works through brokenness.

It is often through pain, loss and great sorrow that the new ‘me’ can emerge to a new life… It is that which makes us people of faith, showing some hope and love to others in the messy business of life.

But just as we can have new life in Christ today, so we must also remind ourselves that being Christians does distinguish us from other faiths because we believe in the resurrection of the dead. When Lazarus was raised back to life, he was given a new lease of life, just as we are when we become children of the light; but Lazarus would die again.

Whereas when Jesus died  and rose again, it is that which opens the doors of resurrection are to all humanity. It is that which makes death the gateway to life. Thanks is to God.

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