Avril at Romsey

… and Lancefield and Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent

Today the lectionary gave us the story of the death and raising of Lazarus. Rev. Dr Richard Treloar preached on this passage on the day that I was inducted into a Field Education Placement in Trinity College Chapel in 2005. Four weeks later, I used the passage at the memorial service for three of the Janet Clarke Hall students who had been killed in a car accident over the Easter holidays. It is a pericope that means a lot to me; it is also one that I find it hard to preach on. Here’s today’s effort.

John 11:1-45

The last time I preached on this Bible reading was three years ago. Not surprising, really, given the three-year lectionary cycle, but it wasn’t the fifth Sunday of Lent. It was the second Monday after Easter, and I was preaching at a memorial service for three Janet Clarke Hall students who’d been killed four days before in an Easter holiday road accident.

That evening we didn’t read the entire passage. We ended the reading at the line “Jesus began to weep”. That night, none of us were ready for the story of the raising of Lazarus. For the moment, like both Martha and Mary at certain points in the story, we couldn’t see beyond our own grief. The deaths were too recent, too shocking, too tragic. Our feelings were too raw. The only word of hope we could accept at that moment was the assurance that as we cried, Jesus cried with us. The only possible good news for us was that God understood our pain and our outrage and our anger.

That year, 2005, was absolutely dreadful. First, there was the car accident. Together with the rest of the college staff I spent the next term trying to care for the students who’d returned. I think we all felt an enormous sense of relief at the end of term when the students went back to their homes to be cared for by their families. I remember feeling that a weight had been lifted off my shoulders when the semester ended and a community of dreadfully hurt and grieving young people was no longer my responsibility. A few days later I was woken by a phone call, and told that a friend had been killed in a car accident in the Northern Territory. Kirk Robson, a young man in his mid-twenties, was an elder at the Church of All Nations, and the husband of one of the other candidates for ministry. He was also an amazing actor and musician. The Australia Council has established the Kirk Robson Awards for artists in his memory; the Centre for Theology and Ministry has the Kirk Robson Theology and the Arts Memorial Trust. His death was devastating. Then, 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 he died of mesothelioma.

I’d never had a year as horrible as that year, and nothing has been quite so bad since. I suspect that all of us have stories of times like that, when grief is piled on grief to the point that it feels unbelievable. It’s one of the realities of life. We all die, every single one of us, and often those deaths don’t come peacefully at the end of long and rich lives. Often death is sudden and untimely and tragic. I think one of the few comforts that we have when we grieve those deaths is that God is mourning with us; that when we cry, Jesus also begins to weep.

That’s not, of course, 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 there, 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. None of our loved ones are going to be returned to us in the way that Lazarus is returned to Martha and Mary. We’re in the position that Martha is at the beginning of her conversation with Jesus, when he tells her that her brother will rise again and Martha answers, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Like all of John’s miracle stories, the raising of Lazarus from the dead has at least two levels of meaning. Jesus fed the 5000 and revealed that he was the bread of life; Jesus healed the man born blind and revealed that he is the light of the world; now Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead and reveals that he is the resurrection and the life. This is a miracle, and Lazarus is freed and brought back to life. But it’s also a sign, a revelation of the identity of Jesus and the nature of God.

Jesus brings Lazarus back to life, and as a result Jesus himself will be put to death. We’re told that the chief priests and the Pharisees call a meeting of the council, and ask, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” From that day on they plan to put Jesus to death. At the beginning of the story, when his disciples tried to dissuade Jesus from returning to Judea he told them: “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” The daylight is about to end; the night of Jesus’ absence is coming; we’re moving towards the cross. The death and raising of Lazarus points to the death and resurrection of Jesus himself: in this story we have Jesus troubled and weeping; the tomb not far from Jerusalem; the cave with the large stone covering the opening; the grave clothes; the stone being rolled away; Jesus crying with a loud voice. We have elements that we will see again in the Easter story. 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’s that for all of us, not just for Lazarus. 

Death and grief are real, and Jesus weeps with Martha and Mary, and comforts them in their suffering. In less than a fortnight we will commemorate and mourn Jesus’ own death; his torture and execution, and as we grieve for Jesus we may remember all those other deaths we have mourned, all the people we have lost. And then, on the morning of Easter Sunday, we will celebrate the resurrection, and the life and hope and comfort and love that it offers us. 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. Thanks be to God.

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March 9, 2008 - Posted by | Life, etc., Ministry

2 Comments »

  1. As usual, so helpful and so real! Thanks, Avril—I always look forward to your sermons.

    Comment by PaulW | March 9, 2008 | Reply

  2. must be nice…

    Comment by Alex | March 9, 2008 | Reply


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