Sermon for Western Heights Uniting Church
29th of March, 2020
Today, the fifth Sunday of Lent, we are again offered one of the beautifully symbolic stories from the Gospel according to John. It is a story about death and darkness and mourning; about life and light and rejoicing; and so it is an almost uncannily suitable story for us to hear during this pandemic, as the world faces the prospect of thousands upon thousands of deaths from COVID19. We need comfort in our isolation; hope while we are unable to physically gather together for worship. This story, the story of the raising of Lazarus, offers us that comfort and hope.
The first time I preached on this passage was fifteen years’ ago, in 2005, a painful, death-darkened, year for my community. I was a residential tutor and the Pastoral Care Coordinator at Janet Clarke Hall, one of the University of Melbourne’s residential colleges. That Easter three members of the JCH community, two young women who had left the college the year before and the younger brother of one of them who had entered it at the beginning of the year, were killed in a car accident. JCH is a tiny college, where people get to know each other well, and we were all devastated. At the memorial service held for them in the chapel at Trinity College four days after their death I preached on this reading. We didn’t read the whole story at the memorial service, instead ending it at verse 35, ‘Jesus began to weep’. We couldn’t go any further. All we wanted to do was say with Mary: ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,’ and complain with some of those mourning: ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’ The only possible comfort we could accept that night was that Jesus was crying with us. The rest of the story of the raising of Lazarus would have seemed a mockery.
There are times when the story of the raising of Lazarus can seem to mock our grief. We all die, every single one of us, and often those deaths don’t come peacefully at the end of long lives. A few months after the deaths of those students an elder at my home congregation of the Church of All Nations, the husband of one of the other candidates for ministry, a young man in his mid-twenties, was killed in a car accident in the Northern Territory. On the day of his funeral, my family got the news that the shadow on my stepfather’s x-ray, the lump in his chest, was cancer. Eighteen months later, at the age of sixty, my stepfather died of mesothelioma. Throughout that year the only comfort the Scriptures offered me was that God was mourning with me and that as I cried Jesus joined me in weeping.
That God shares our sadness isn’t the only consolation that we have, even if there are times when it’s the only comfort we feel able to receive. The story of Lazarus does not end with Jesus weeping outside the tomb. This story is a story of the triumph of faith and love over darkness and death. We see this even before Jesus arrives at the tomb, when despite her pain and her anger at Jesus’ absence Martha makes one of the greatest statements of faith in the gospel: ‘Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’ Jesus, the Son of God, then raises Lazarus, freeing him from death’s bondage, telling the people: ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’ It seems that this is the story’s happy ending; the grieving, faithful, sisters are reunited with their brother; Jesus has performed another miracle; and presumably the mourning of the family and their friends turns to rejoicing.
But if this was all the story was about, the raising of Lazarus, then it wouldn’t necessarily be a story of hope for the rest of us. No loved one is going to be returned to us in the way that Lazarus is returned to Martha and Mary. When we lose someone to death, death does not let them go. But like all of John’s miracle stories this raising of Lazarus from the dead has another level of meaning. When Jesus miraculously frees Lazarus and brings him back to life his identity is revealed. Jesus is the resurrection and the life.
Jesus brings Lazarus back to life, and as a result Jesus himself will be put to death. In the passage following today’s reading we are told that it is from this day on that the chief priests and the Pharisees conspire to put Jesus to death. The death and raising of Lazarus points to the death and resurrection of Jesus himself. In this story we see Jesus bringing life to one family; but the story also points us to Jesus bringing life to the whole world. Jesus is the resurrection and the life, and he is that for all of us, not just for Lazarus.
In Australia we can be quite bad at facing death. That may partly be because so few people die at home; even people dying quietly of old age usually do so in hospitals and aged care homes. It is possible for us to live quite long lives without ever seeing a dead body. But it may also be because we are so scared of death. When we talk about people ‘passing on’ rather than ‘dying’ or are told that the person we love has not died, but simply gone into ‘another room’, we are trying to protect ourselves from the awful finality of death. Christianity does profoundly believe that those who love us are in some way still with us, Paul talks about the great cloud of witnesses who surround us, but Christianity is equally clear that death is real. We, and those we love, die. And so Jesus weeps with Martha and Mary, and comforts them in their suffering.
Christianity can be clear and blunt about death because we don’t believe that death is the end of the story. At every Christian funeral we remember the resurrection of Jesus and commend those who have died to God, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection. The pain of death is real. Jesus began to weep. But the hope of resurrection is also part of our faith. In this story of Martha and Mary and Lazarus we see both: pain and hope; grief and glory. In the most dreadful times, when death is sudden and unexpected and tragic, we might not be able to feel anything beyond pain and grief. But Easter Sunday reminds us that there is also hope and glory. That is at the heart of our Easter faith. When we cannot feel any hope or see any glory, the church holds that hope and glory for us. We and everyone we love will die and we will be raised to see the glory of God.
We are facing an emergency almost unprecedented in Australia’s history. Doctors, politicians, and the media are comparing it to the 1918-9 flu pandemic which killed around 15,000 people. As I said last week, I want to tell you that everything will be okay, but I can’t. I am not sure that everything will be okay. But I am sure, again as I said last week, that whatever happens God will still be with us, and that nothing, neither life nor death, can separate us from the love of God.
My deepest love and best wishes to you all,