Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-45
Fifth Sunday of Lent
St Barbara’s; 2.4.17
Rev Tulo Raistrick
If you go to the cinema, you normally have to sit through several minutes of trailers for other films before your own film begins, normally accompanied by a voice over from a man with a super-deep, gravelly voice. TV channels do the same – advertising other programmes, seeking to whet your appetite, draw you into other programmes they want you to watch.
Some of those trailers can be quite misleading. They make you think the film or programme is about one thing, and in fact it is about something totally different. Some trailers show so much that they make you feel there is no point going to watch it as you’ve virtually seen it in the trailer. And other trailers you can just tell have taken the only funny or good bits in the entire film and put them al together in the trailer.
But some trailers really work. They give a taste of what the grand themes of the film are about, they give you an experience of the emotions that the film will stir in you, they give you a glimpse of the battle, the struggles, the tensions, and they may hint at the ending without giving it away.
Well the story of Lazarus acts as a trailer for us, preparing us for the even greater story, the story of Christ’s death and resurrection.
There are so many wonderful aspects to this story, and please do take time this week to read the full reading and to step into the shoes of the people involved, but for today, I’m going to take three themes that project us forward into the bigger story that is to come.
Firstly, this is a story about death. Its a story that I’m sure almost all of us can identify with – the loss of a loved one, the desperate heart-ache, grief, desolation.
Mary and Martha are desolate in their grief, saddened beyond words by the death of their brother Lazarus.
When Jesus finally arrives, a few days later than they had expected, they cannot but think on what might have been. The first words of Mary and Martha to Jesus, both quite independently, are: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Words of faith, but also perhaps words of frustration, anger, hurt. Why didn’t you come sooner? Why couldn’t you have done something for Lazarus as you had for all those nameless beggars and lepers you healed?
“If only…” They are words that are often expressed at times of grief, aren’t they? “If only I could have said what I wanted to say… if only they could have had better care… If only they could have lived to see…”
We cannot hear this story and not find our thoughts projected forward to another death, and another body, wrapped in linen and laid in a tomb.
And in that death, in the death of Christ, we can hear the “if only’s” too. The “if only” of the men and women disciples – “if only he could have been a different type of Messiah, if only he had not upset the authorities, if only we had stood by him…” But maybe the grief of God too: “if only my people had not rejected him…”; and Jesus himself, in turmoil in the garden of gethsemane, “if only there was another way”.
The trailer, the story of Lazarus, reminds us that the Easter story is a story that is about death. We cannot jump from the celebration of Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday without going through Good Friday. Without death, there is no resurrection. Painful though it is, we cannot come to know the depth of God’s love for us, without journeying to the foot of the cross and looking up at the death of his son.
A second great theme of the Lazarus story is the humanity of Christ. Here is a Jesus who cares, who is deeply, deeply moved by the grief and the suffering of the world. We have seen it many times already in the gospel accounts – his healings, his compassionate response to the marginalised – but here we see a response that opens a window into his emotions. John writes: “Jesus wept”. The sense is of Jesus not shedding a quiet tear, but of howling with grief, anger and pain, his body shuddering, shaking with emotion.
Jesus, the Son of God, the Word made flesh, the one through whom the worlds were made, the one who is worshipped by myriads of angels and heavenly hosts, this Jesus, breaks down and weeps at the tomb of his friend. As the prophet Isaiah foretold, he is a man of sorrows, acquainted with our grief and pain. Imagine that. Christ weeping.
Again, the story opens a window onto the greater story that is about to unfold. For at numerous times in the next few days we see Jesus overwhelmed by emotion, in the garden of Gethsemane, and then on the cross itself. This is a God who shares our humanity, who knows what it is to suffer, who on the cross carries our griefs and sorrows. This is a God who howls with anguish at the sinfulness, the lovelessness of humankind, that has inflicted so much pain.
If you are feeling that no-one can fully understand the griefs that you carry, the hurts and pains you bear, come this Easter to the foot of the cross and know that Christ knows. He carries them for you there.
But the third great theme is the most extraordinary one of all. The stone is rolled away (does that sound familiar?) and in a loud voice Jesus calls Lazarus forth from the tomb. The gasps, the wonder, the disbelief turning to joy, must have been something to behold. A man who had been dead four days is brought back to life. No wonder Jesus had to instruct people to help Lazarus untie himself from the linen grave clothes – they were probably just stood motionless, mouths agape, uncomprehending.
Like all good trailers however the Lazarus story gives us a taste of what is to come without revealing the full story. For Lazarus is brought back from the dead, but will face death again. His death has been postponed.
But a resurrection is to come that is altogether different. Jesus in bursting forth from the tomb on the first Easter Sunday has not temporarily denied the inevitability of death. He has defeated it. He has gone through death to the other side, to make eternal life possible for all who believe. As he says to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.” Death is no longer the end of the story – it is the gateway into a life of abundance and life.
Look at this picture by Sebastiano del Piombo painted 500 years ago.
Its a picture of Lazarus, re-imagined through the lens of the resurrection. For in this picture what to me is most striking is the figure of Lazarus himself. Of all the people in the picture, he is the one most bristling with life, his body rippling with health and vitality. Whilst all the rest of the crowd look pale, Lazarus is bursting out of his grave clothes, the very picture of strength and abundant life.
It is the artist’s way of communicating a remarkable truth – that beyond death we will be more fully alive, we will be more fully the people God has always intended us to be, free from the limitations of our physical incapacities, free from the emotional and mental turmoil that have been part of our lives. Christ’s resurrection offers us all the hope of life in all its fulness and abundance.
This Easter may we travel the journey that takes us to the cross and then to the empty tomb, from Christ’s death to his glorious resurrection, and may we know that story for our own.