Vocation 5, Ezekiel 3 and Matt 28

Ezekiel left the refugee camp behind and stood on the banks of the River Kebar. Grand name for an unpleasant reality.  The drainage ditch was filthy, polluted with a scum of green algae and unspeakable things. Gloomily he stared at the water and felt utterly miserable. His life was pointless. Messed up, and there was no going back.

What is a priest supposed to do without a temple? A servant of the Lord far away from the Lord’s land? Ezekiel’s 30th birthday was meant to be the high point, the time when he could begin the ministry for which he had spent his life training. But the Babylonians had come. War, capture, and now exile. In the prime of his life, Ezekiel’s future was forced labour. He’d missed his vocation. He was far from home. What a waste.

To cap it all a storm was brewing in the North, and fat raindrops began to fall. Turning for shelter, he looked back at the black cloud – and saw visions of God. As it says in Ezekiel 1 v1 ‘In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.’

It may be obscure, but this is one of my favourite verses in the Bible. Because it says that no matter where I am, no matter what awful things are going on around me, no matter how much I may have messed up – God is there. However veiled it may be, his glory is ready to be revealed. The sovereign Lord is present and he is in ultimate control.

Ezekiel realised God was there. Even by the river Chebar God was there. When all hope had fled, God showed Ezekiel that he is still Lord, that he rules. It was the beginning of something new: a prophetic ministry that brought Israel back to their God; a call to repentance; the rebirth of Judaism.

Up until that point the Jewish people had more or less gone along with the idea that each nation had their own god. And that each nation and god had their own territory, the place where they belonged. Of course, they knew the God of Israel could defeat the gods of Egypt. But Ezekiel discovered something new: that the God of Israel is the God of the whole world. He’s not restricted to one place – he is everywhere.

In the gospel, Jesus similarly tells us all authority in heaven and earth has been given to him. For those who have eyes to see it, God’s glory is potentially everywhere. Not just in the temple, or the Holy Land, but here in life and joy, the beauty of creation all around us, the love of family and friends. We can be aware of God when we stop and pray, we sense his presence in a holy place. But Jesus means more than this.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve had to learn is that is often most known in times of trial. In the hardest moments of my life I have felt God more closely than in the times of blessing. He is alongside us in pain and suffering. In our darkness, when we experience difficulty, we can find God. Isn’t that the message of the cross on Passion Sunday? That God enters human suffering and we can find him in the midst of it? The cross gives us the deepest insight into God’s heart. For God cares about his world, and calls us to work with him in putting it right.

This is the final sermon in our series on vocation. So far we’ve thought about how God calls everyone to himself, adult or child – we are all called; how God uses our gifts, and how we may have to overcome our reluctance to respond. Today we’re looking at how God calls us to serve him in the world. The call of Ezekiel in Chapter 3 tells us that people may or may not listen to God’s message – but fear of that reaction should not hold us back. And, when we witness to Christ we must be rooted in God and genuinely caring for the people we serve.

Look at v.4. ‘Mortal go to the house of Israel and speak my very words to them.’ Right at the beginning of this series, I said that the most important thing in calling was that we are called personally to know God. I said that being called is not about doing a job, but about being in a relationship with God through Jesus. He wants us to know him.

It’s also true that the more we get to know God, the more we will share his love for his creation. It’s like a fire within us, his compassion will lead us to serve. So relationship with God is bound to make us look outwards. Christian faith must lead to practical service, a better world.

Ezekiel was given the job of conveying God’s words. So, in a general sense are we. We may not all be called to be evangelists or Bible teachers, but all Christians are called to bear witness to Jesus. We are meant to be lights in the world, and speak of our faith.

That’s what the church is for. In the gospel reading, Jesus sent the apostles out to make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them to obey everything he had commanded. The church continues that task and we all have a role to play. Lost for Words?

Like Ezekiel, that may meet with rejection. V.5-6 describe how Israel, who knew God, will not listen, even though those with foreign languages would. Do we not see that still today? In China, South Korea and Nepal, huge numbers are becoming Christians. England, with a long history of Christian faith, is resistant to the gospel.

But I don’t think we should over-emphasise that. I’ve found that many individuals are willing to listen and discuss. I had respectful discussions with atheists, good arguments with articulate Muslims. I find that Agnostics Anonymous is much appreciated – someone even travels from Bristol to join us. Younger people can often be very open because they haven’t had religion drilled into them. They really respond if they see a genuine faith that makes a difference in our lives.

So non-believers are not necessarily hostile. They may be searching for meaning, they often find alternative lifestyles interesting. One of the biggest traps is when we assume we won’t get a hearing, and so don’t speak. Often I have been pleasantly surprised.

When I became a curate my vicar said to me: ‘We’ve got these paperback gospels. Drop them into people’s letter boxes would you? It was some kind of evangelistic initiative. I didn’t even have to knock the door. Yet even such a timid effort with minimal contact brought a two people to a real faith. Any of us could do that, couldn’t we? It doesn’t need much courage to drop off the parish Christmas cards, or publicity.

But fear inhibits us. ‘Oh, I couldn’t speak about my faith’; or ‘I can’t do children’s work’. ‘What if I messed up?’ Well, what if? So it went wrong – at least no-one died. Put it down to experience and try again. Fear like that is a devil’s trick – he exaggerates the danger so we don’t share our faith. What really is the worst that can happen? Being seen as a religious nut? That pales in comparison with what Jesus did for us. Never forget that Matthew 28 is a resurrection appearance. Christ sends the disciples out to tell the story of a God who died to save us.

Christ’s love compels us. But we do have to acknowledge the fear we sometimes feel. We should bring those fears to God, praying he will take them away, or give us courage to overcome them. As he says to Ezekiel in v. 9. ‘Like the hardest stone I have made your forehead’. Like him we may feel that the concerns we had just evaporate, or we are given strength to carry on.

God also commands Ezekiel not to fear. Sometimes you just have to step out in faith and get on with it. For courage is not the absence of fear. John Wayne said ‘courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.’ So let’s take a chance, stick our necks out for God. It may well be that we get an encouraging response and something good happens – particularly if we’ve prayed beforehand.

Isn’t it encouraging that Jesus’ disciples doubted even when he appeared to them. How did they doubt? Did they wonder if it was really Jesus? Were they in two minds about whether he was actually alive or a vision? Or did they doubt the appropriateness of worshipping him?

The word for doubt is the same one that’s used when Peter gets out of the boat to walk on water, and then sees the wind and waves and gets scared. So doubt isn’t incompatible with faith. Nor does doubt necessarily stop us from being useful to Jesus. He told these doubting people to start the church! He used them for an enormous job. We may have doubts too. It doesn’t mean that we aren’t true Christians. Nor does it mean that God can’t use us.

So be encouraged to step out for God. Don’t be shy of speaking of your faith for fear that you don’t know all the answers, or have worries or doubts. Often a real story of faith, honestly told with times of joy and of sorrow and doubt can be much more compelling than one which is so confident that it sounds otherworldly.

And of course, what we do and say needs to be a fair reflection of God’s word. As it says in v.10 ‘Receive in your heart’ – God’s word must be true in our lives. We need to take it to heart. It’s said that a preacher always preaches to himself first. Anyone who tries to speak about God is not a mere mouthpiece nor a typewriter keyboard, conveying a message without understanding. Instead, we should be more like a dancer, who interprets and embodies the script. People instinctively know when the story doesn’t ring true. That’s why, in v 12 and 13, Ezekiel has visions of God, so he can reflect what he has seen. So use your own words to describe your faith, not Christian cliché. (LFW)

Unfortunately a spiritual high can be followed by a big comedown. We can’t spend forever up high in spiritual experience, you have to descend to the hurly burly of train tickets and the school run. It’s a shock. Sometimes people can be really bitter because there’s such a contrast between the joy of their conversion, and the hard work of being faithful to Christ day by day. There can even be anger at what we’ve been called to do. But that’s o.k. God’s big enough to cope when we bring it to him. Ezekiel describes it in v. 14 ‘I went in bitterness of Spirit’.

But the hand of the Lord was upon him. It was less obvious, but God’s presence was still there. If any of us are finding life hard, we should remember that. Present, not in felt glory, but present nonetheless.

Finally, in v.15 ‘I sat there among the exiles, stunned for seven days’. Ezekiel remained one of the people, he continued to share their lives. If he were just to speak God’s message with God’s fearlessness, he might have come over as condemning, unloving, hard. But he sat as one of them; as Jesus did, sharing our weakness, loving us, acting with compassion and praying to God for us. Anyone who would share their faith with friends and neighbours should be the same. Christians cannot set ourselves apart and criticise from a distance. We must sit among our people – one beggar telling another where to find bread.

So, God has called us to himself. That means we are also sent, from God’s presence, equipped with a vision of his glory and strengthened by his love and courage. In the words of Christ in the gospel: ‘Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

 

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Christmas Midnight 2016

Wonderful words from John’s Gospel. For me it marks the beginning of Christmas when I hear ‘The word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory’.

But what difference does it make? What do those famous words actually mean in the rough and tumble of our world? I struggled with this the morning after the Berlin murders. When twelve people were killed by a lorry smashing into a Christmas market. It was an horrific despicable act, of hatred and terror, aimed with tragic irony at the European nation which has done the most to rehome refugees. Looking wider we might well wonder, the bombings in Syria, the forgotten conflict in Yemen – do they seem to make a mockery of peace on earth and goodwill to all?

It makes me ask does the faith of John’s gospel actually have anything to say? Or are those beautiful words just helping us retreat into a safe Christmas bauble, a comforting gingerbread house from which we emerge (hungover) a day or so later to face reality?

As I’ve looked at this reading again, I’ve found much more than Christmas cliché. I’ve found a real and genuine hope that takes the brokenness of the world seriously but refuses to be overcome by it.

St. John tells us that there is truth, there is light. There is hope, goodness and love. They are rooted in the character of God from the very beginning. Realities grounded in him. They are fundamental to the creation of all things. So we are not directionless. Goodness and love are not a matter of opinion, of one’s person’s word against another. When darkness strikes we see all the more clearly what is right and true.

We know that in our hearts, don’t we? We all recognise truth and goodness when we see them. Even the existence of evil testifies to the primacy of good, because those who commit evil usually do so as a means to an end. Think of the policeman who shot the ambassador in Turkey – he shouted ‘remember Aleppo’. Those who do wrong like him, often do so because they are seeking a distorted, derivative idea of the good. So evil does not extinguish good – instead it points us to good.

Yes, there is darkness, and its power is sometimes very great. If we are honest with ourselves we know too that the darkness reaches into each one of us and spoils the goodness of creation. In our own strength we cannot be what we ought to be. But St. John calls us to hope. In verse 5: ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it’.

Here John’s gospel points to Jesus. When I want to know what good is like, I look to him. I see Jesus’ compassion for the hungry and poor. His burning desire for justice and willingness to spend himself for the good of others. There is great beauty and challenge in his teaching, high aspirations but also loving forgiveness for those who have fallen short.

Above all though – and I think this is most compelling when we think about the suffering of the world – Jesus shows us that God is willing to be vulnerable. He lived and died on this earth as one of us. He suffered everything this world could throw at him: poverty, exclusion, pain. So whenever we are in that place, he can comfort us. He promises the final victory too because he absorbed all the evil and sin when he died on the cross – he allowed the darkness to do its worst on him and so exhausted its power. As they were crucifying him, he prayed ‘Father forgive’. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

We today can therefore live in a genuine hope. We can recognise the darkness in the world, but not allow it the victory. So if we wonder ‘how can we celebrate at Christmas against the background of Aleppo?’ I would respond: to quench the Christmas spirit would be letting the darkness win. Don’t switch off the fairy lights, or put out the scented candles, but do give to support those in need. Do give to Doorway for the homeless in Chippenham, and do enjoy your turkey!

Because to do so is to live in hope. This is why Christians who are refugees will be trying to celebrate Christmas with whatever they have. As they do so they bear witness that the light will one day conquer. We too can choose to live in the darkness or walk by Christ’s light. Of course the lights we carry in our lives may seem small or dim. We may wonder how our light can possibly make a difference. But a multitude of stars can make a constellation, and a thousand candle flames a great blaze of light. At Christmas God in Christ committed himself to this earth in hope. Will we too walk in his light of hope this year?

Jeremiah 8 verse 18 to 9 verse 1

‘Escape by the skin of your teeth’, ‘A drop in the bucket’, ‘Scapegoat’, ‘Casting your pearls before swine’, ‘to everything there is a season’ – everyone got the connection by now? These are all phrases that entered the English language through the Bible. The first translations of the Bible into English coined some memorable phrases which have had a lasting legacy. In fact, some university degree courses in English literature offer an introductory lecture on the Bible, so that students reading Shakespeare and Milton can get the references.

Although sometimes the earliest translations lacked a certain resonance. For instance in verse 22 of our reading from Jeremiah, Henry VIII’s Bible had ‘Is there no treacle in Gilead?’ – creating an image of the prophet bemoaning the lack of a crucial ingredient for his gingerbread.

Of course, Jeremiah is mourning something far more significant. ‘My joy is gone, grief is upon me, hark the cry of my poor people.’ It’s about 590 BC. A great army is poised on the borders of Judah. The Babylonians are soon to invade. There is a sense of looming disaster: everyone can see what is about to happen yet no-one can do anything to stop it. And they cry aloud: ‘Is the Lord not in Zion?

As can happen in times of hardship, they feel abandoned by God. God doesn’t seem to be doing anything to retrieve the situation and rescue them. It can be a very difficult thing to bear when we are going through a troubled time. Christians may say that when life is tough we are very aware of God’s presence and strength – that is often true. Occasionally though it feels as if God has abandoned us – and that is very hard – perhaps the hardest part. We have to persevere, carry on doing right seek God in the darkness until that sense of separation passes.

That can happen to the most faithful of Christians. So if anyone feels that God is a long way away it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s our fault. Sometimes though, if God feels distant it may be because we’ve moved, because we’re building walls against him and need to repent.

Just as thirst tells you that you need a drink, so the feeling of separation and distance can be God calling us back to himself. So that we can love him more, he may allow us to experience the results of when we turn away from him. How do we know? Our conscience will usually make it abundantly clear if we have been at fault, if we ask God to show us.

That was the truth for Israel. God spoke through Jeremiah words which were strange, challenging yet ultimately much more hopeful. God’s message through Jeremiah is that he has not abandoned them. Far from it, in fact he is acting in judgement.

As it says in verse 19: ‘Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?’ Judah had stopped serving God and instead were praying to statues to save them. God warned and rescued them time and again, eventually allowing them to experience the consequences – he permitted them to find out that statues could not save. We see God respects our free will, and they got what they chose.

For us idols are more often disordered loves. Something which is good become too important and takes over the centre of our lives. It might be money, as we heard in the Gospel parable. It might be relationships, power, work – even the best things can become idols if we try and build our lives upon them. And when we do we become dissatisfied because only God can meet that deepest need. Placed in the space that belongs to God alone such things collapse under the weight of our expectations.

When that happens the sensible thing to do is return to God in repentance. Sadly Jeremiah’s people were not doing that. Although they lamented that God had abandoned them they failed to take serious steps to change. And so Jeremiah records God’s lament over them.

It’s not an easy passage to read or reflect on, yet there are three really important things to notice here. Firstly, God laments. He does not delight in judgement. God loves us and hates it when we suffer.

You know that dreadful caricature of the Old Testament, where God is the heavenly psychopath who delights in plaguing people? It keeps on popping up – Stephen Fry does it very eloquently. But nothing could be further from the truth. As Ezekiel puts it: ‘Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?’

Some of you may remember our Passover meal that we did one Thursday before Easter a few years back. At the point where the Jewish people remember the plagues of Egypt they spill ten drops of wine on their plates, one for each plague. There is silence as they mourn the Egyptian dead and remember that God takes no pleasure in judgement.

It is a useful reminder for the church. I think it was Billy Graham who used to say ‘We should never speak of hell without tears in our eyes’. We should not delight in being proved right, nor rejoice in evil getting its comeuppance. The Church may be called to be prophetic, to point out to society where it is going wrong, but it must not be self-righteous. The church’s voice should not be like Basil Fawlty speaking to a foreigner – just shout louder and more slowly and they’ll be bound to get it. Instead we must speak from within the society which we challenge, as members of it who share in its responsibilities.

Secondly, grief is often necessary. It’s not helpful to sweep it under the carpet and pretend that all is well. Sometimes grief can wake us up to reality. We know that with personal grief, it’s equally true for groups and society. I heard of a vicar who came to a church where not much had changed for a long time. The faithful congregation had grown old together, not acknowledging the steady slow decline, or the end of Sunday School.

Before anything could happen, they had to learn how to grieve. That Vicar had to help them see what had happened, then she created the space for them to mourn what they had lost. Like Israel, only when that grief was articulated and shared could they begin to look to the future.

Until they did that, they were kind of numb. Half-conscious of what was going on, they were too frightened to acknowledge it. What would happen? Perhaps it would be too painful? Would they find there would be no future? It was only when someone was brave enough to point out the elephant in the room – and travel with them on their journey – that new life and hope could bring God’s grace into that situation.

That vicar had to travel a painful path with the congregation. In a small way she points us to a much deeper truth which Jeremiah only hints at. In this reading we hear of a prophet – or is it God? – who wishes his eyes were a fountain of tears so that he might weep day and night for his people.

True prophets, living churches, don’t stand over and against their society, throwing in criticisms like hand grenades. The Biblical prophet and the truly Christian church identify with people’s situations, walk alongside them, challenge, support and transform. They bear the cost of the repentance and change; they suffer alongside the victim, and accompany the oppressors as they learn to serve.

In doing so, they take their inspiration from God himself. God in Christ entered this world so that he could walk in our shoes. He did not come triumphantly to blast the opposition, but in humility. Christ was rejected, mocked, unjustly condemned. God’s Son suffered cruelty, indignity and a painful death. He took onto himself the worst that this world could throw at him – and forgave his persecutors.

By bearing the cost of forgiveness himself, God through Christ opens the door to a new creation. The power of evil cannot triumph over the love of Christ. Death cannot hold him and he is resurrected to a glorious new life. A fresh start, the Kingdom of God beginning among us and inviting us to join in. The path of grief faced and trod, and turned into Easter joy.

 

The moral of the story

Four missing, presumed dead, in power station collapse. Ebola devastates long term health of those who survive it. One in every two of those crossing the Mediterranean this year were Syrians escaping the conflict in their country. Just a handful of recent headlines. How could anyone remain unmoved? Many of us do what we can to help, or give to charity. But we might also wonder ‘why?’ Why do these things happen? Why is there this suffering?

People have always asked this question. Our gospel reading makes that clear – St Luke describes how Jesus responded to two contemporary events. All we know about the two tragedies in the reading is what’s written here. It seems that Pilate, the notoriously cruel Roman governor had ordered the killing of some Galileans despite the fact they were engaged in sacred duties. Siloam, in v. 4 is part of Jerusalem and it appears that a tower suddenly collapsed on a crowd.

Why did these things happen? The people who spoke to Jesus thought they had an answer. But Jesus refutes it: ‘Do you think these Galileans suffered this way because they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No I tell you.’

They thought that bad things happen because you’ve been bad. Plenty of people think that. Faced with suffering it can be tempting to find clarity in easy answers – such as ‘well, they must have done something to deserve it’. Our tabloid press likes that view because it imagines a world where bad things happen to bad or careless people, while those who enjoy good things can carry on doing so, confident in the belief that they must have earned them. The people who came to Jesus thought that the suffering were getting their just deserts. Maybe they wanted Jesus to moralise.

And you can understand why they thought so. After all, it is true to a degree, that if you do bad things you suffer the consequences. If you overeat you feel ill. If you steal from your employer you eventually get caught and dismissed. If you mess up your environment, you find it can no longer support you.

And the people in Jesus’ time saw that pattern in their history too. It had been drilled into them at school. That reading from the second book of Kings describes how Israel went into Exile because they turned away from God. Right at the beginning of the passage: ‘This occurred’ – in other words the King of Assyria invaded and took the people captive – because ‘they had sinned against the Lord their God.’

This passage is important because it’s a kind of conclusion to a lot of the story that has come before. The writer of Kings chooses this important event to teach a crucial moral lesson. The writer draws on the Biblical story thus far to make a point about God’s people. The Lord had brought them up out of the Land of Egypt. He had rescued them and given them a land to live in. God gave them his law to show them the best way to live. They were meant to be a blessing to all the other nations – a kind of example or experiment in living God’s way.

Sadly it went wrong. The books of Kings – and Judges and Samuel – describe a cycle of events. Israel disobeys God’s law, God warns them of the consequences, they ignore God, bad things happen, the people turn back to God, God rescues them. It’s ok for a bit, and then it starts all over again. But a little bit worse, a little bit more territory lost to the enemies, until eventually there’s nothing left and Israel goes into Exile.

If you’ve ever wondered why the Old Testament seems so full of threats and judgement this is why. If you’ve ever read the prophets and felt, this just seems to be warning after warning, that’s why. Every time it goes wrong, God sends a prophet. The cycle goes round several time, so a lot of prophets get sent. It’s God sending his messengers to call his people time and again. He’s giving them another chance to turn back and change. It’s a sign of mercy.

Perhaps you feel it makes for heavy reading? A bit gloomy or threatening? I can understand that. But think about it: the alternative would be that God didn’t care. If he didn’t speak to warn it would be as if a parent saw their toddler wandering onto a train track, yet didn’t rush to pick them up, didn’t even bother to yell ‘get off the line’. Who would do that? The repeated warnings of judgement in the Old Testament are a sign that God does not want to carry them out.

Tragically in this case the child kept going back until the inevitable happened. Israel and then Judah went into Exile. Even then God was merciful – seventy years later the people began to return. So people in Jesus’ time had learnt: actions have consequences. It was deeply ingrained: if you are bad, bad things will happen. Not always – we see that sometimes the worse characters seem to get off scot free.

Some of the Psalms deal with this problem: why do the wicked flourish asks Psalm 73? But then, says the Psalmist, ‘I understood their final destiny’. Evil people will not get away with it forever – they will be accountable to God the judge. Sin will not go unpunished.

But does that mean that if you suffer you must therefore have been bad? NO! It’s a big mistake to make. Just because bad deeds often cause suffering, doesn’t mean that those who suffer must have been bad.

Saying so would be tremendously insensitive and wrong. Look at the children in Syria. They suffer because of human wickedness. But it’s not their fault. The people who spoke to Jesus should have known this – they knew the book of Job, in which Job suffers even though he is a righteous man. Jesus himself taught this – when his disciples pointed out a blind man and asked whether it was the blind man who sinned or his parents so that he was born blind, Jesus said ‘Neither.’ If proof were lacking, surely the ultimate example is Jesus: he suffered greatly but never sinned.

Saying that sin causes suffering is not the same thing as saying suffering is always caused by a particular sin, or bad karma for that matter. It’s a logical error. It’s like saying all elephants are big and grey – therefore all big and grey things are elephants. They’re not – big and grey things can also be tower blocks and battleships!

Yet if we stop there, we would miss what Jesus actually says here. Jesus chooses to make a very different point. Perhaps because his questioners are self-righteous and inviting him to judge, Jesus says something very challenging. Look at verse 3: ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No! But unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.’ And again: ‘Those eighteen, do you think they were worse offenders? No. But unless you repent you will all perish just as they did.’

All people are in the same boat, says Jesus. We all need God forgiveness, we all need to repent, because we have all done wrong. The questioners wanted to divide humanity into the good guys and the bad guys. But Jesus tells them that unless they repent, they too will perish. Certainly some may appear better people than others, but all have failed to do what God requires.

Imagine a machine which consists of a headset and a video screen. And when you put on the headset, it replays every event in your life for all to see. Would anyone volunteer to do such a thing? I wouldn’t. I have things of which I am ashamed. I expect we all do. During Lent we reflect on ourselves and acknowledge our need of God. We repent – which means turn back to him, receive his forgiveness, and try to do the things he wants.

We turn back while we can. That’s the point of the parable of the fig tree in verses 6-9. God is like the gardener. He looks for good fruit. What happens if he finds none? Perhaps he will give us another chance. But Jesus says don’t try his patience. Don’t take his mercy for granted. Jesus says make sure you do respond to God. Repent, be sorry for your sins, trust in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for you, change your ways and do good. Produce fruits in keeping with repentance. And don’t delay! The message of this parable is: If you don’t act now, it may be too late.

For one never knows when the end may come. I’ve been in a car crash. There’s no time to put your spiritual affairs in order. It’s too quick. In the split second before impact my thoughts were: ‘Car! Brake!’ And, bizarrely, ‘If I survive this, it’s goodbye to the no-claims bonus.’ And then the airbags went off. Not very spiritual thoughts if that had been my last moments. If disaster strikes there’s no time to prepare to meet God. We need to be at peace with him all the time.

Perhaps I’m preaching to the converted here. If so remember: Jesus talks about bearing fruit. It’s not just about making a commitment to follow Christ, but letting that response transform your life, affect your actions. For that is what it means to flourish. A fruitful fig tree is a fig tree that is fulfilled. It is doing what it was designed to do. Similarly, only when we are in relationship with God will we find a deep and lasting satisfaction.

There has been a challenge in today’s reading: we all need to repent. No matter who we are, we need to say sorry and return to God. Jesus speaks the truth, isn’t afraid of the hard word: don’t delay, it may be too late, don’t try God’s patience. But there is also a promise: Come back to God, live his way, bear fruit and you will find new life, forgiveness, purpose and meaning with him. Amen.

Lazarus

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.