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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.

Challenge of Suffering
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.

Jesus wept
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.

The reason 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!”

Compassionate God
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.

Making Sense
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?

Good Purposes
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.

Making sense 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.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith