Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
26th of March, 2023
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; a story that offers us comfort and hope.
Later this year Luise and I are going to offer a seminar on funerals that we currently jokingly title, ‘We are all going to die!’ That will not be its name by the time we start advertising it properly, but from Luise’s years in the funeral industry and aged care, and my years as a minister, we know it is true. Every life ends in death, and sadly that death does not always come peacefully after a long life. The funeral service used to contain the reminder that ‘in the midst of life we are in death,’ which apparently comes from a battle song by tenth-century monk Notker the Stammerer and, while that might strike our twenty-first-century ears as morbid, it is simply a fact. If we accept that, today’s reading can offer us comfort.
The first time I preached on this particular passage, the death and raising of Lazarus, was in 2005, which was for me a painful, death-darkened, year and the year in which I first truly understood that in the midst of life we are always in death. I was then a residential tutor 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 college 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 were not ready to hear the hope that the rest of the story offers. All we wanted to do was say with Mary: ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,’ and lament 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.
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 2005 and 2006 it sometimes felt that the only comfort the Scriptures offered me was that God was mourning with me, and that as I cried Jesus joined me in weeping.
And yet God sharing our sadness is not the only consolation that we have, even if there are times when it is the only comfort we feel able to receive. I was in Switzerland when my stepfather died, and I remember walking by the shores of Lake Geneva saying over and over to myself, ‘We do not mourn as those who have no hope,’ a phrase that comes from Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians. (1 Thess 4:13) Today’s 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.
If this was all the story was about, the raising of Lazarus, then it would not 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 religious leaders conspire to put Jesus to death. The death and raising of Lazarus point to the death and resurrection of Jesus himself. In this story we see Jesus bringing life to one family, but the story also reveals that Jesus is bringing life to the entire world. Jesus is the resurrection and the life, and he is that for all of us, not just for Lazarus. When we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday, we will also be celebrating the prospect of our own.
One of the reasons that Luise and I are planning to offer our seminar on funerals is because in Australia we can be quite bad at facing death. That may 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 do not believe that death is the end of the story. At every Christian funeral we 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.
Death is often seen as a king, because everyone, rich and poor, wise and foolish, perpetrator and victim, good and bad, must one day die. As Shakespeare wrote: ‘Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust’. (Cymbeline, Act IV, Scene 2) Yet at around the same time that Shakespeare was writing, the priest George Herbert, three of whose poems are in our hymnbook (TIS 105, 201, 552) wrote a dialogue between the Christian and Death that vanquished Death’s pretensions. I am going to end this Reflection by reading that to you, and then by reading a twentieth-century poem, that makes similar points.
A Dialogue-Antheme, by George Herbert (1593-1633)
Alas, poore Death! Where is thy glorie?
Where is thy famous force, thy ancient sting?
Alas, poore mortall, void of storie,
Go spell and reade how I have kill’d thy King.
Poore death! and who was hurt thereby?
Thy curse being laid on Him, makes thee accurst.
Let losers talk; yet thou shalt die;
These arms shall crush thee. Spare not, do thy worst.
I shall be one day better than before;
Thou so much worse, that thou shalt be no more.
Haranguing Death, by Kevin Hart (1954 – )
Don’t hide. I’ve had my eye on you for years
and let me tell you straight, you’re tedious.
You’ve made your point, effectively at times,
but go quite overboard: those endless wars
and gaudy diseases! And when there’s nothing else
you’re staring at me from my new electric clock,
forever playing patience with marked cards
or ticking over like a taxi’s fare.
I bet it’s you who puts those varicose veins
in ancient cheeses – nothing’s too trivial!
I hope people all over the world agree
to have both legs chopped off before the end
just so their graves are small. In fact, I hope
they open bottle-shops in cemeteries
and hold outrageous parties so you can’t sleep,
and people come to funerals, half-pissed,
in Life! Be In It t-shirts! You – a king?
Don’t be absurd! A decent crown would fall
over your skull and rattle round your neck.
Besides, you smell – and haven’t done a thing
about it for, well, centuries at least.
Your manners are appalling – shoving past
the queuing years – and all those epitaphs!
(you really haven’t any taste at all),
your column in the paper lacks all style
(I can’t see how you ever got the job)
and, worse, your jokes are bad, close to the bone.
We, and everyone we love, will die. But we need not take death too seriously because Jesus is, as he told Martha of Bethany, the resurrection and the life. On Good Friday we will mourn Jesus’ death, and on Easter Sunday, when we celebrate his resurrection, we will also be celebrating our own. ‘Made like him, like him we rise: ours the cross, the grave, the skies’. Thanks be to God. Amen.
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