Friday morning started like any other. Wake up to bouncy children, Jonathan heads to Bristol for an appointment. Check the emails while getting breakfast. Drop off a protesting child for the last day of school term, and cross the road to Stanton Church for Morning Prayer.
But then the mobile began to ring. It was my wife Chantal. Jonathan had suddenly collapsed in hospital. His temperature had shot up and he was struggling to breathe. The doctors were trying to stabilise him but needed medicine and equipment from home urgently. Back at home it was a whirlwind of activity as carers and I rushed to sort things out. Barely half an hour later, help was on its way. He’s now doing fine, but it was a scary moment, completely out of the blue.
The experiences of the past couple of days have really brought this gospel reading to life for me. This sermon is very personal – I’m not sure how much of a good idea that is – I certainly don’t want to minimise anyone else’s experiences through reflecting on my own. But sometimes, when you’re in a very difficult place, it’s impossible to look at a Bible text or preach without seeing it through your own situation, hearing it speak into where I am. In particular, it seems so odd that in verse 5 ‘although Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.’ This is Jesus, the Son of God, who can heal the sick. The sisters have asked him to help. And yet he does nothing.
Sometimes our lives feel like that. Lord, we know you can do anything. We believe you can heal the sick. We’ve asked you to many times. We’ve heard amazing stories of people who’ve been healed. We even know individuals who’ve miraculously recovered. So why not us?
I’m not sure that St John gives us a fully worked out response in the gospel reading. Life is too complex anyway for a one-size fits all knockdown answer. But St John does give us three truths. He tells us that Jesus loved Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Verses 1 to 6 give the background, they leave us in no doubt that Jesus is a well known friend, that he loves the man who is sick, and he loves Lazarus’ relatives too. St John wants us to realise that God loves the people we know who are ill, and he holds us in love as we watch, wait and pray.
I have an experience of actually feeling that: when I was about 19 my grandfather developed liver cancer. I remember praying really hard for him, being very upset about it. Suddenly I had this overwhelming sense of God’s love for Granddad. It was deeper than anything I can describe. I understood that God loved him more than I ever could, and that God would continue to love him whatever happened. I’ve carried that with me ever since, because I think love is there for everyone.
Yet somehow we have to hold together this experience of a God of love, with what we also experience, which is that a God who can heal does not always do so. Why? St John wrestles with it. If you look at verses 36 and 37 you can hear what the crowd said. They’re rather like a Greek chorus or like the ‘Dear God’ prayers that Tom Hollander says in Rev – what the crowd says reveals what everyone is thinking.
In v36: ‘So the Jews said ‘See how he loved him’. But in v37: ‘But some of them said ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying.’ Yes he could. So was this God’s plan?
For the second thing St John tells us is that Jesus did not immediately come because, in verse 4 ‘This illness does not lead to death, rather it is for God’s glory.’ And again in v 15 ‘For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.’ Jesus allows Lazarus to die so that he can raise him to life again. He allows the illness to end in death so that he can show God’s power to raise the dead. It’s clear this is what Jesus intended to happen here, so that it could be sign of the resurrection.
But it begs the question, is that just the case for Lazarus? Or is it also true for us? Does the idea that God allows this illness because it will lead to God’s glory just apply to Lazarus? Or does John intend us to believe that this is true for us as well? That the bad things we experience are sent by God because they will somehow result in good?
I know some Christians think so. You may have heard people say ‘These things are sent to try us’ or ‘This illness is the cross God has given you to bear’. No doubt those sayings are well intentioned, but I think they’re simplistic. Just because God can transform suffering to bring good out of evil, does not mean that God wants us to suffer. Just because he can redeem a terrible situation does not mean he has caused it. The book of Job gives a Biblical witness to a much deeper struggle with suffering.
And the idea of a God who sends things to try us just doesn’t fit with what we see in Jesus. Time and again we’re told that Jesus loves Lazarus. When he gets to the graveside in v 35 he weeps. Jesus weeps for the tragedy of loss and death. As we sit at the bedside of a sick child or stand by a grave, God is with us in our grief, sensed or unrecognised.
Which points us towards the third truth John gives – which is that we must look with an eternal perspective. Jesus is the resurrection and the life, so for those who trust in him this life is not the end. If you look from a non-Christian, purely earthly perspective, death is final. But for the Christian, death can be a form of healing, it is the gateway to a new and better life. One of the wonderful things when our family talk about heaven is the happiness and excitement Jonathan shows when we speak about getting a new body which works properly. A new life.
That’s the great truth this reading points to. Lazarus is a sign of the resurrection. Of course, after many years Lazarus died again. When Jesus raised him to life it was a continuation of this earthly existence, not the resurrection proper. According to church tradition Lazarus became a bishop, eventually died, and was buried. But his rising from the dead is a sign of the resurrection that comes through Jesus.
That word sign is important. John’s gospel talks about signs, not miracles. Whereas Matthew, Mark and Luke recount lots of miracles, in John there are just a handful, and he calls them signs.
And John spends much more time describing each one. He uses them as illustrations. So for instance the water into wine is a miraculous event, but more importantly it’s a sign of the rich kingdom and celebration that Jesus came to bring.
In the signs, the things people say and the events surrounding them give layers of meaning. In the raising of Lazarus the actual miracle takes up two verses. But the build-up and the explanation of meaning takes 43!
So for instance in verses 7 to 16 Jesus says that death is like sleep and Lazarus will wake again.
The verses which say this are sandwiched in the middle of a conversation about the Jewish leaders trying to kill Jesus. The leaders don’t see the light, the disciples warn Jesus that if he goes to Jerusalem he will die, but he goes anyway, knowing what will happen. The bit about rising again is topped and tailed by talk about Jesus dying. In other words, they are linked. It’s saying we can live for ever because of Jesus’ death. Jesus is like a pioneer, hacking a way through the jungle so we can follow. Because he has tasted death and risen to life, we can tread that path in the company of a guide who knows the safe way.
But we need to make a personal response. That’s the point of verses 17 to 27. When Jesus eventually turns up Martha is understandably annoyed ‘Lord, if you had been here my brother wouldn’t have died.’ Yet she also holds out a tentative faith ‘Even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.’ Jesus replies ‘Your brother will rise again.’
Martha, as a good Jew says that she knows that. She believes he will rise again at the end of time when God judges the world. So the idea of resurrection wasn’t a new thing which came with Jesus. The Jews believed in resurrection already.
What’s new and astounding is that Jesus says ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die will live’. He says that resurrection comes through faith in Him. He is the gateway to eternal life. Those who believe in him will die an earthly death, but they will live with God. And that living, believing, eternal life never ends. It comes through Jesus.
Do you believe this? Jesus asks us the same question that he asked Martha. He does so because, although community is important, faith is a personal response. Many of us, when we were little, absorbed faith from our parents and our background. We may have been brought up in a Christian environment and been taught the faith. But at some point the faith we’ve picked up needs to become personal, our own. For some people that can be a public event like confirmation – or it can just be praying your own prayer of commitment to God.
Just like Martha, who uses her own words to answer Jesus. She doesn’t repeat parrot fashion what he’s said: ‘Yes, I believe you are the resurrection and the life.’ What she says is: ‘Yes Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who has come into the world.’ Her faith is personal, and she can say what Christ means to her.
Finally, the actual raising of Lazarus is simply told. Summing up, it shows Jesus has the power to raise the dead, but more importantly it is a sign of the resurrection. Eventually Lazarus would have died again, but he lives now in eternity. We and our loved ones will all die too. Yes, the wonders of medical science can do much and there are even miracles of resuscitation. But one day we must die and return to God.
This passage gives us Christian hope. Death is not the end. Jesus has promised eternal life to those who trust in him. He asks us to believe in him. And if we do, the promises we find here can be a great source of hope and comfort. Amen.