Readings: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Ps 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!
Many of us will have experienced the pain of loss: the death of a loved one, and so can understand the grief and anger that Martha and Mary express so clearly, so eloquently. Why? If only? Why him/her? Even an expected death leaves a hole. Like a jigsaw piece missing from the jigsaw, that person is now missing from our lives. And sometimes, like, Martha and Mary, there is a sense of injustice, of a life taken too early. And so, Martha and Mary blame Jesus – ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died’. Many of us will also have expressed that anger, resentment, at God not saving their loved one, not healing, despite prayers. No one wants to be parted from the one they love so permanently. No one wants to be parted from life so permanently. Even Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, prays that death may pass him by: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me” (Lk 22:42). It is human to fear death, the separation death brings. But here, in this story of Lazarus, Jesus does the one thing we would desire: he raises Lazarus. So why not my mum? My uncles? Why Lazarus. The whole story can seem unfair: if this is possible for Jesus, for God, why doesn’t he stop all loved ones from dying? Especially as it appears that Jesus does this because he is a good friend of the family! Jesus demonstrating favouritism?
And yet, we have to look a little deeper into this story to understand what is truly happening. This is a story packed with emotion and meaning. And the raising of Lazarus has a deep meaning within the life, death, ministry and mission of Jesus.
First, the story is about Incarnation – God taking on human form and coming among us – and the reason for the Incarnation. Here in the story of the raising of Lazarus we see the Incarnation. God in man made manifest, revealed in Jesus Christ, is filled with compassion: he weeps, he listens, he cares. He demonstrates full human emotion – the emotions we feel at the death of a loved one. He demonstrates how deeply he understands the desolation of the two sisters – even more poignant as in the death of Lazarus, they lose not just their brother, but their male protector and possibly their means of income – their lives are potentially completely turned upside down by this death. But, that day, they weep for the death of a beloved brother, and Jesus weeps with them, for them, and for his friend. And here we see before us how God weeps for those who mourn.
And then, through this human emotion we get the power of God displayed. Yes, Lazarus was taken by death, but God, through the presence of Jesus, can overcome death, will overcome death. This miracle demonstrates what is to come in the resurrection of Jesus. That there is hope, there is life after death, that God can overcome the darkness. There is hope in the love of God, in the compassion of God for God’s children. In the words of Desmond Tutu (1): Goodness is stronger than evil; Love is stronger than hate; Light is stronger than darkness; Life is stronger than death; Victory is ours through him who loved us.
So why only Lazarus? Why not get rid of death entirely? Well, Lazarus did die eventually, at the end of his life. The raising was a demonstration of God’s power, showing death is not final. We know this because of another action of God in man made manifest. Jesus could not pass by the cup of death, even though he prayed for this. Jesus faced a painful but real death on a cross. But it is through his death as God incarnate that the power of God is revealed in all its fullness. Because Jesus’ death was not the end: on the third day he rose again, fulfilling his promise and the Scriptures. Jesus’ resurrection shows that death has no more power over us. That after death, there is eternal life: God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that we should not perish but have eternal life in him.
Yes, death is painful for us. And Jesus weeps with us as we mourn our loss, just as Jesus wept with Martha and Mary for Lazarus: as his words in the Beatitudes express, blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted (Matthew 5:4). But Jesus promised us eternal life, that this life is only the beginning. And through his death, resurrection and ascension into heaven he proves this to us: the power of God overcoming the darkness of death and bringing the light of eternal life.
And this is the hope we find in the readings today. That God is all-powerful, omnipotent. That in Jesus, God came to us to bring us eternal life, to show that death is not the end. To give us true hope, the hope that is, in the words of Bishop Sarah Mullally (2), a “conviction concerning the future which leaps into our present in such a way that we feel secure in the here and now and ready for God’s future.”
This won’t stop us weeping for the ones we miss, but it should comfort us in our sorrows, that one day we will be with them in our Father’s house of many mansions, where Jesus goes before to show us the way. Jesus whose comforting words tell us: ‘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 (John 11:25,26).
I finish with the prayer of Desmond Tutu (1), which I used earlier:
Goodness is stronger than evil;
Love is stronger than hate;
Light is stronger than darkness;
Life is stronger than death;
Victory is ours through him who loved us.
- Tutu, D (1995) An African Prayer Book, Hodder and Stoughton, London, p.80
- Mullally, S, A Good Advent, p.12, in Oakley, M (2016) A Good Year, SPCK, London