Most merciful God, Who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ delivered and saved the world: Grant that by faith in him who suffered on the cross We may triumph in the power of his victory; Through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
Last week my sermon was called ‘It is OK to be Afraid’.
This week ‘It is OK to Weep’.
Our gospel begins with “a certain man who was ill”; there is a cry for help; a delay in the necessary help arriving; and a death followed by lots of weeping.
Jesus himself weeps. He is disturbed and he is moved by what he sees.
As I write we are in the middle of a global pandemic – the number of recorded cases worldwide is over 600,000 – the real number far, far higher. The official number of dead almost 30,000.
Our Prime Minister is ill, the heir to the throne is ill, the Health Secretary is ill.
A certain man was ill, and those who loved him wept, is not just our gospel right now but a story that is being heard and lived in every corner of our world.
And so it is OK if you, like Jesus, feel disturbed and moved by what you are seeing. It is natural for us all to grieve when so much is being lost – and not just people.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross identified five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
And during this time of pandemic – you may find yourself in any one of those places and perhaps in all of them depending on the time of day.
It is OK to have a cry. Jesus wept.
It is also OK to feel angry. Mary and Martha are our example here.
Mary and Martha have just lost their brother in our Gospel and when Jesus arrives they both start speaking to him with just one word. “If”.
Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.
If has the tone of accusation about it. If is a protest, it is rage, it is despair, it is deep disappointment and grief that will not ease – it is another way of asking why? It is the language of lament – the language of the Psalms – which simultaneously accuses and yet desperately wants to praise – despairs and yet dares to hope. It is deeply human language.
If you had been here my brother would not have died.
And you can imagine they have used this phrase many times before as they sat and cried and waited for Jesus – if only Jesus had been here, if only they had sent for him sooner, if only the messenger had travelled faster, if only Jesus had come straight away…if…if…if…
When what we dread most happens it is natural to wish it different. We often do this by torturing ourselves with if. If invites us to think of other outcomes – ones we prefer – as if we had the power to re-write history with a better ending.
But we can not rewrite the story. We can only accept where we are; remembering God is here and he weeps with us. And then look with courage to where the story ends.
And for that we need to replace our ‘ifs’ with ‘buts’.
In verse 22 Martha says – “But even now I know God will give you whatever you ask of him“.
But is faith that dares to hope beyond the odds and is, I believe, the faith we are being called to today during this pandemic. It is faith that the ending can be redeemed no matter how bad it looks. And Martha is right to have this faith because she knows that Jesus is no ordinary man. He says…
“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.”
A profoundly comforting and surprisingly controversial verse in our text.
I AM in Hebrew has a very special meaning – it is the name God uses to describe himself to Moses at the burning bush in Exodus 3. So by starting the sentence in this way Jesus is saying far more than I am – he is saying I am God – and the same God that lead you from captivity in Egypt to the Promised Land.
And that is the frame for resurrection given here – which in Biblical terms means the renewing of all creation, the sovereignty of God over all. So when Jesus says I AM the resurrection – he is saying he will make all things new – he is saying God is here – and it is God who sees and weeps – and God who will lead us out.
He is inviting us to trust his sovereignty over our lives – even, and perhaps especially, in the times when we don’t quite understand what is happening – in the if moments of our lives.
And to trust that the resurrection he offers to his friend Lazarus, in a limited way in this story, he is also promising to everyone who believes in him – in a far fuller and more profound way after the cross. When all the ‘ifs’ of Good Friday will become the ultimate ‘but’ of Easter Dawn.
As we start to approach that story of Good Friday in a couple of weeks I encourage you to look for the ‘buts’ in your own lives right now – and to focus, with faith, on blessings we are being given, and the good that is being done. These are mine from the week.
If only I didn’t have to stay home but I get to read and write, clean out a cupboard and spend time with family; if only I could go for a meal with friends but I am grateful for social media and telephones; if only I could have taken that flight but whilst travel is impossible nature is renewing herself as carbon emissions drop.
What is your ‘but’ this week? Write and let me know – or post it on our FB page.
And I encourage you to spend extra time in prayer. We are praying together Sunday-Thursday at 7pm on our Facebook page – these short services are Live-streamed from the vicarage.
The theologian Tom Wright suggests that the reason for the delay in coming to raise Lazarus could be that Jesus wanted and needed to pray – this story is right at the climax of the gospel – and for Jesus to start out on the journey to raise Lazarus was also to start out on the journey to his own death and resurrection.
And only prayer could prepare adequately for that.
Jesus knew that without prayer nothing could be done – but that with it all things were possible. So the delay – if it was for prayer – was essential – even if it was also painful.
Verse 41 seems to support this idea – just before Lazarus is raised Jesus starts speaking with these words, Father, I thank you that you have heard me – but these are opening lines and he hasn’t said anything – it doesn’t make sense unless he is referring back to prayers already said.
Resurrection is born from prayer.
In this way it is very much a gospel for our time.
And finally what an encouragement Lazarus is to those of us who doubt our worth or ability to be of any use right now – Lazarus doesn’t utter a single word in the whole of the New Testament – and yet Jesus loves him – and he is used most powerfully by God when he has been locked up and dead for four days! Even when he comes out from the grave he can’t walk properly – wrapped in burial clothes it was probably more like a comedy waddle than a glorious stride.
So let’s not dismiss our wobbly efforts in this time of crisis and do not underestimate what we can do without a building – just because we are shut in our homes – that does not, and will not, stop God using us most powerfully at the right time if he chooses – let’s pray that it is so.
The name Lazarus means “God helps”. May God help us and use us in these days and may it all be for his glory.