Better late than never, for those who are interested, here is last Sunday’s sermon. The text is John 11:1-45 (Year A, 5th Sunday in Lent).
Have you ever been frustrated with God? Have you have prayed and prayed about something and it appears that God is ignoring you? We pray for justice, for peace, for healing and often we are left wondering if God even heard our prayer. To give you a very trivial example, a few years ago, Sonja and I were camping on the edge of a forest in North Wales, it was a beautiful place, but during the night there was a ferocious storm. As I lay in the tent with the noise of the wind so loud there was little chance of any sleep I could not help but worry about what would happen if even just one branch were to fall from a height onto our tent. Of course Sonja had and has far greater faith than me and so she slept soundly through the whole night! I prayed that God would stop the wind and branches from falling but it kept on blowing, even harder if anything! I began to get sulky with God and eventually fell into a restless and grumpy sleep. The next morning we awoke to a beautiful calm and sunny morning and I realised that my prayer had in fact been answered, the wind had stopped, just as I had asked and even more than that, no branches had fallen on us! I was taught a lesson which I am still learning, that God’s timing is often very different from ours.
Of course, we can all think of examples in our own lives and many far more serious than the one I have shared with you. Why didn’t God act when we wanted Him to and in the way we wanted him to? In our reading from John’s gospel, we get the beginnings of an answer. Jesus and the disciples are a couple of days journey away when Jesus gets a message that his friend Lazarus is ill. Now we would expect that upon hearing this news Jesus would get up and immediately set out on a journey to be with his friend, but what does He do, he stays where he is for another two days and He doesn’t even tell the disciples!
Once the two days are up, he tells his disciples that they are going to go back to Judea, which immediately sets the alarm bells ringing for them, they know that there are many down there who want to kill Jesus, and perhaps that is one of the reasons for Jesus’ delay; He has spent the two days in prayer, in preparation for what will happen once He does make His way into such a dangerous situation, where there are those who want to stone Him. This is what He says to the troubled disciples:
‘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.’ (v.10)
Following Jesus is sometimes very difficult, but it is always the right thing to do, His is always the right path to take, even when that path leads to danger and perhaps death, as Thomas feared. When we were talking about this at the Bible study on Wednesday, someone reminded us of those wonderful verses from Romans 8:
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels or demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:38,39)
So not even death will separate us from Christ. Perhaps the disciples are just beginning to realise this as they make their way.
When they arrive after their journey, they learn that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. There can be no doubt whatsoever that he is dead. Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha are also good friends of Jesus and when they hear that He is coming Martha goes out to meet Him, but Mary stays behind. What must Martha be thinking? Perhaps she is upset, maybe even cross that Jesus did not come sooner, she says:
‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ (v.23)
Martha knows Jesus well enough to show remarkable faith and composure. Even so, she does not fully grasp the Lord’s response when He says to her:
‘Your brother will rise again.’ (v.23)
Martha thinks that Jesus is talking about the resurrection on the last day, a belief that most Jews (and subsequently all Christians hold). What Martha is yet to grasp is that Jesus is resurrection personified, and so He says to her in one of the seven famous ‘I am’ sayings of John’s gospel:
‘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.’ (v.25, 26)
After telling Jesus of her belief in Him, Martha goes back to get her sister and a number of others come with them as they return to Jesus. Mary then falls at Jesus’ feet and says to him:
‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ (v.32)
It is hard to exaggerate the importance of what happens next, because in a moment it can shatter the false view that many people have of God; people often accuse God of not caring, of not understanding, of not knowing what it is like to grieve or to suffer or to be in pain, ‘how could an all-powerful God know my frailty and suffering and hurt?’ Do you know what? He does. Jesus sees Mary weeping, and in that moment God cries. It is the shortest verse in the whole Bible; “Jesus began to weep.”
When you are in the place of tears you are never ever alone, your Creator, Saviour, Master and Friend, your Lord and your God knows what it is to weep also. Your pain is never only your pain; in some incredible and mysterious way He shares it with you.
Jesus then asks, ‘Where have you laid him?’ (v.34) and they bring Him to the tomb.
The tomb is a cave, which has a stone rolled across the entrance. Jesus calls for the stone to be removed but Martha says there will be a bad smell because Lazarus had been dead for four days. But there is no stench, because the One who will Himself conquer death on the cross has done something that only God could do. He looks upwards and says:
‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ (v.42)
And so Jesus demonstrates in a very powerful way that He is indeed ‘the resurrection and the life’, as he says in a loud voice:
‘Lazarus, come out!’ (v.43)
The dead man is no longer dead, he is bound in cloths wrapped around him and Jesus says to unbind him and let him go.
Imagine that you were there and what it would have been like. It would have been perhaps terrifying and wonderful and holy and beautiful and surreal all at the same time. Finding the strength to even stand, let alone speak would have been difficult. Imagine the hugs as Lazarus’ sisters and friends greet him for whom they had been in mourning (and how that may be like the reunions there will be for us in the next life). Imagine the wide-eyed and open-mouthed disciples – they had seen a lot with Jesus but never anything like this. Imagine the sceptics and those on the fringes – the Messiah had come, of that there was no doubt, He was here at last, the waiting was over.
And what about us, what benefit is this event that John so faithfully records in his gospel? Firstly “Jesus weeps”, I think we have already dealt with that one, but remember this, your tears, your pain, your loss, your grief are His also, if you will share them with Him.
Secondly, even death is no barrier with God. Yes we will die, all of us, that is an undisputed fact. But Jesus is the resurrection and the life. When we die, we will rise again and in Jesus we have light to show us the way and in Him we have life, eternal life, so that we need not be afraid. If we follow Him now we will be with Him always. Follow Him now, while it is still day and before the night comes and it is too late… Amen.