LAZARUS RAISED John 11:1-45
Yesterday the tomb of St Francis of Assisi was reopened after renovaton
works. Apparently there is a story that St Francis got up to preach, looked
at the hushed, expectant faces waiting to hear him and said: ‘God
has not given me anything to say to you.’ So he didn’t preach
a sermon. It would be tempting to say the same thing today! Faced with
the long reading from John’s gospel which is told so well, commenting
on it may seem superfluous! But I do think this set reading is timely
for us and we need to reflect on what it has to say in our situation.
There are two reasons why it is relevant: today is Passion Sunday, the
traditional day a week before Palm Sunday, when we begin to think about
Jesus’ suffering and death. The second reason is that I know members
of our congregation have been affected by the untimely death of Ashley
Magaya, age only 21.
One of the questions that most deeply worries many of our contemporaries
is the problem of suffering. It disturbs the good faith of sincere believers
and it confirms the scepticism of agnostics or atheists who cannot believe
in the kind of God they have in mind. A short part of this gospel story
is sometimes read a funeral services because it speaks of the resurrection.
Taking a wider view of the story can help as we struggle with the challenge
that a young death poses to our faith. I think there are two things which
come through that can help us in our struggle: first there is the compassion
of Christ and secondly, an assurance of the good purposes of God.
The shortest and perhaps most famous verse in the Bible is: “Jesus
wept” or as it is more accurately translated here: “Jesus
began to weep.” Now weeping may happen for different reasons: from
depression, frustration, pain or exhaustion. But John makes it clear that
Jesus’ tears were for sheer grief. Those immediately around judged
Jesus tears to be either of two reasons: some said, “See how he
loved his friend!” whilst the cynical ones thought they were crocodile
tears. John starts off the whole story be reminding us that Lazarus was
a good friend of Jesus, along with his sisters Mary and Martha. So although
Jesus’ shed tears possibly in response to and out of sympathy with
those who were mourning Lazarus’ loss, they were also from his own
genuine grief. John also emphasises how Jesus was “greatly disturbed”.
Perhaps the way we’d put it these days is that he was really upset.
why Jesus’ grief helps us with the challenge of suffering is that
it shows us what kind of God we are to believe in. When we are faced with
such a challenge to our faith as the sudden death of a young person, one
of our reactions can be similar to those feelings voiced by the grieving
sisters and the others who had gathered. “Lord, if you had been
here sooner, you could have prevented Lazarus’ dying!” It’s
the image of a God whom we want to be in control. Especially we want him
to be in control when things have gone out of control. Death is an affront
to our sense of power, our ability to control and shape so much in our
lives to our advantage. There’s nothing wrong with that in itself
because that is partly what it means to be human. But when we are faced
with things beyond our control we somehow feel that God should step in
and take over. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pray in hope,
but we can be in danger of setting up the kind of God that we then reject
when God doesn’t behave how we want God to. That was the kind of
God that the cynical amongst Mary and Martha’s supporters were beginning
to take. Perhaps Mary and Martha’s first words to Jesus were just
reflecting what some of the others had said around them: “If you
had been here sooner, you could have prevented this!”
Rather than a controlling God, however, Jesus shows us a compassionate
God. I find Jesus’ response to the grieving sisters reveals his
compassion. He doesn’t judge Martha when she rushes out of the village
to meet him when she finally hears that he is arriving. He doesn’t
tell her to stop being so hysterical; he doesn’t patronise her and
say, “There, there, everything will be alright!” He simply
holds her, as and where she is, in her shock and grief, accepting her
and Mary’s feelings and being just as affected because he has lost
his friend Lazarus. This shows us a God who suffers with us. If believe
Jesus to be God incarnate, God in human form, then we see a God who experiences
what we experience. A God who experiences the human condition is a God
who understands helplessness in the face of suffering and death. This
is a God who comes alongside us, who weeps when we weep, who is not a
great big controller in the sky who swoops in and mends our broken lives
at the first hint of trouble. Such a God would have to control absolutely
everything and would be remote from us. God could always have been that
way, but in fact he chose to come alongside us in the form of Christ,
a Christ who weeps for sheer grief.
The second truth that I think this story demonstrates is the good purposes
of God. When we are struck by tragedy, when we face suffering, we struggle
to make sense of it. We have to try and make sense because we are human
and our suffering includes emotional and spiritual pain, not just physical.
There are favoured ways of making sense of suffering. People say things
like: “suffering tests us in order to make us better people,”
or “it must somehow be in the will of God,” or “we are
being punished for doing something bad.” While these answers may
make sense to some people, I find that ultimately these answers don’t
make sense of God for they says things about God that I’m not prepared
to accept: they turn God into a vengeful or arbitrary being. One of the
things that some devout people often say is that God has planned it all
and we just have to trust these plans. I’m afraid I cannot accept
that a good God plans suffering for us.
The way John
sets up his story of Lazarus may seem like talk of God’s plans but
I think it is more subtle than that. He emphasises that Jesus delays setting
off on hearing the news of Lazarus’ illness. He knows what he is
doing not rushing to try and get there to save the day. When he eventually
does set off and arrive, his friend is well and truly dead and buried.
This may seem callous or cruel, but the point John wants us to understand
is that there could be no mistaking that Lazarus really was dead. The
miracle of his raising by Jesus was no mere resuscitation, but genuine
bringing back to life. So what is going on? What is John telling us through
this extraordinary story?
There are two elements to John’s reasons for telling this story
in the way he does and they are closely related. On the one hand he has
something to say about God’s will and on the other hand he is pointing
towards Christ’s own suffering, death and resurrection. They are
bound up with one another in that God’s will is carried out in and
through the crucifixion and the empty tomb. We may be puzzled at Jesus’
deliberate delay and then after his arrival the way he speaks to the grieving
sisters about resurrection. Whilst I have a great deal of difficulty accepting
that God has planned our lives out, as it were, from the beginning, I
can believe that God has good purposes for us and for his creation. The
two are not the same thing. If God has good purposes, then when tragedy
strikes, we see how God’s good intentions cannot ultimately be thwarted.
He does not plan or will suffering to happen to us as part of some master
plan. But his will allows suffering and death to be overcome. So we see
how Jesus trusts that God’s good purposes will be fulfilled in the
death and raising again of Lazarus.
of the catastrophe of Jesus’ death and the mystery of his resurrection,
John and the first believers began to see how God’s purposes for
salvation are being fulfilled. They find meaning in the shock of the crucifixion;
they find joy in the mystery of the resurrection and this is the gospel
to which they began to bear witness. John shapes his whole life of Christ
around the events of Good Friday and Easter Day. The great irony in the
raising of Lazarus story is that Jesus would go in the opposite direction.
Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb and then commands: “Unbind him,
and let him go!” Jesus will be bound and taken away to his own death.
But Lazarus’ raising to life also points to the resurrection of
Jesus. That is why John relates Jesus’ words to the sisters: “I
am the resurrection and the life.”
Today, as we face suffering in the world, both near and far, personal
or national, we seek to make sense of it in the light of the cross and
resurrection. In these things we see the compassion of Christ in the world’s
suffering, and we are urged to renew our faith in God and his good purposes
in and through Christ’s resurrection.
© Rev Paul Smith