Sermon preached by The Reverend Barbara Routley
Fifth Sunday in Lent 2005
I am a student at a Methodist theological college, and 10 days ago we marked an anniversary. That was the anniversary of the death of one of our students. He had come to chapel for Morning Prayer, something we do each day, and he collapsed and died just before the service began. Now to me it was an important date, as it was me who had done the first aid, and given mouth to mouth, while I awaited the arrival of the ambulance. And it was in that moment that I would have given anything to have Tim live. There is something quite precious about life. I didn’t know Tim; I had only spoken to him a couple of times. But, something inside of us is programmed to want a person to live.
How much more then, when we lose someone so close to us. A partner, a relative, a friend. Lazarus, in our gospel reading was all of those. How strange it is then, that having declared that he loved Lazarus, the gospel writer tells us that Jesus stayed on for another two days after receiving the message that Lazarus was ill. I remember with great clarity the 25 minutes it took for the ambulance to arrive. Mary and Martha had sent for Jesus, knowing what he could do. Mary had given everything she had to Jesus; she had offered herself heart and soul when she anointed his feet. If anyone could offer hope, then it was Jesus who could. And Jesus delays. The agony of that wait must have been indescribable; Jesus their quite literal salvation had not come. And when he does finally arrive, the women are being comforted and consoled. Their brother is dead and they are now financially and emotionally desolate.
Jesus asks Martha if she believes she will see Lazarus again. The writer places the words into Martha’s mouth regarding her understanding of Jewish resurrection as being only on the day of judgement, something akin to the Ezekiel reading of the valley of bones. However, she hasn’t bargained for Jesus’ reply.
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
These words are the pinnacle of the whole passage. How those words fill us with hope, then for Martha and now for us in funeral services. How she must have hoped, and yet, Lazarus had been buried for 4 days. What hope can there be? Reality is reality. She affirms her belief in Jesus, but then goes home to speak to Mary. And it is only after Mary arrives that Jesus shows his true feelings for Lazarus. He weeps.
Finally we have seen the Jesus we would want to recognise, the Jesus who loves and is compassionate, who offers healing to all those around him. So why initially delay? Why make his friends wait? Isn’t it cruel to use his friends to make a point? Four days after burial the grieving process is well underway. By this point it would have been clear to the women that they had no financial support anymore. Neither are mentioned as being married. And yet, if Jesus had healed Lazarus from a distance, we would just remember this as yet another of the miracle stories, of which we have a multitude. It is the shock factor of this, of being made to wait, of making the point that life comes only through belief in him that makes this so different to anything else we have.
For us it is in the wait, and sometimes the shear agony of the wait that offers us the chance to meet with God. This waiting period seems so counter every thing that we believe that Christianity offers, that comfortable cosy feeling, knowing that we are loved by God. This is something very, very different. This is the wait that Jesus endured in the desert, being tempted by the devil. This is the wait that we acknowledge in the period of Lent. This is the wait for change, for encounter, for healing and for full belief. Without this wait, change can be superficial. Without this wait the end result is forgotten quickly. Without the wait we are unaware of the very shock of waiting. And it is only in waiting that we can cry out to God.
It is in this space that we discover who we really are. It gives us a chance in amongst our busy lives for (that old fashioned phrase) self-examination. In the very fact that it is old fashioned, says something about the culture we are living in. As much as we live in a society that embraces self-help, self-understanding, and cures to our personalities, we want them instantly. Lasting change very rarely happens instantly. The difference for us is the wait has an end in sight and there is hope. It is not down to us to generate the change. Our change, our faith is generated through Christ.
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” May God help us to wait, until we know this in our hearts.