Sermon for Fifth Sunday of Lent – Year A

John 11.1-45(& 46)

John’s story of Lazarus being raised from the dead is the fourth in a series of stories about uncomfortable and life-changing encounters with Jesus.

There was the story about Nicodemus meeting Jesus in secret and that story introduced themes which re-appear in all the other stories.

There’s the realisation that when we meet Jesus we can expect the unexpected and that can get very uncomfortable.

There’s the revelation by Jesus of who he is and it’s an uncompromising revelation which demands a response – it can’t be ignored.

There’s the news that alongside this life there’s the eternal life of the Spirit. And in God’s eternal life things are seen differently.

In order to be able to see this second spiritual dimension we need to enter into a new life of the spirit – to be born again.

But being offered a new life isn’t necessarily that comfortable. There can be strong reasons for staying safely in our old life with its security of familiarity.  To say “yes” to a new but unknown life takes courage and a willingness to change and grow.

Two weeks ago, in our second story, we met the Samaritan woman who talked with Jesus at the well.

She had to face up to what seems to have been a chequered past and that was not comfortable. But her openness to Jesus led to a great revelation:

“I know that the Christ is coming” she says “and he will explain everything to us.”
“I am he” says Jesus.

The woman’s honesty about herself (painful though it may have been) allowed God to reveal himself to her.

God reveals himself to a Samaritan woman! He reveals himself to the most unlikely people – maybe he will even to us!

The man in our third story was born blind and is given a new life with both eye-sight and an insight into who Jesus is. To be given sight after all this time must have felt a bit like being born again. But he has a difficult time being questioned by the Jews about what happened. And in the longer term he will have to learn how to take responsibility for his own life. He was dependent on others when he had to beg. Now he’ll have to learn to be self-supporting. He has sight and a new life and must decide what to do with it. He also has insight into who Jesus is – God has touched him – and he must decide what to do with that knowledge.

God reveals himself to a blind beggar! He reveals himself to the most unlikely people – maybe he will even to us!

And so we come to this morning’s story about Mary, Martha and Lazarus. The story is so vividly told that we can perhaps see it being played out in our minds like a film.

Let’s look at a still picture taken from that film which captures the staggering moment when a dead man has been seen to come back to life.

I can see that moment. I can see a rocky hill, barren of living trees or plants. At the bottom of the hill is an entrance to a cave with a huge stone at one side.

Facing the hill are Mary and Martha standing with their arms round each other for comfort and support.

Behind them are various people watching the scene. Their faces frozen in expressions of shock, amazement, fear, or bewilderment.

All eyes are focused on two figures. Jesus of Nazareth, who seems to be beckoning the other, Lazarus, towards him.

Jesus looks weary. He’s obviously been walking some distance – his hair, clothes, feet and sandals are coated with the dust that is constantly blown in the air. His face is strained with grief and exhaustion. Yet he has an air of quiet conviction and authority. This man knows what he’s doing although the cost to him is great.

The other figure is an impossibility. Yet there he is, Lazarus, brother of Mary and Marty, swathed head to foot in his grave clothes. The cloth has fallen away from his face and h is huge dark eyes look out in confusion and disbelief at a world he thought he’d left. He sees his friend beckoning him and even in the still picture you can almost see his struggle to fight free of the garment of death.

Let’s think about these people and their stories which have now interwoven to become part of a much bigger story – a story that continues even today, drawing us into it.

Mary and Martha are close friends of Jesus and have great faith in him, his teaching and his ability to heal the sick. When Lazarus fell ill they had no doubt that once Jesus knew about it he would hurry to put things right. But Jesus didn’t come in time. Lazarus died and was buried. The messengers they had sent to Jesus came back and told the sisters that far from setting out immediately to come to them Jesus had deliberately delayed his return.

How that hurt the women. They’d believed and trusted in Jesus and he’d encouraged them to do so. Now he’d apparently let them down when they really needed him and this on top of their loss of their brother was almost unbearable.

Maybe we too know something of this experience. It’s an uncomfortable truth that God does not, cannot, stop terrible things happening in this life.

The tempter, or whatever we call the force for evil in this world, is very clever, he knows our weaknesses and exploits them, willing us to fail. When our faith is attacked at wilderness times he takes advantage and whispers in our ear “if he really was the Son of God he would have helped you”, “if God really loved your he wouldn’t have allowed this to happen.” There is nothing the tempter would like better than for us to give up on God.

But even in their hurt, grief and maybe anger, Martha and Mary still cling on to their trust in Jesus who, in response reveals an astonishing truth.

“I am the Resurrection and the life. Whoever has faith in me shall live, even though he dies; and no-one who lives and has faith in me shall ever die.”

In this dark moment for Mary and Martha when they desperately cling to faith, they are given a life-changing insight and revelation. It makes their pain bearable, restores hope and lets some light into that darkness.

The same can provide true for us.

And now Jesus is bringing Lazarus back to life, restoring him to friends and family. Martha’s and Mary’s prayers have been answered but not in the way they expected and that is often our experience.

We ask and we do receive – but not necessarily what we asked for.

We seek and we do find – but not always what we were looking for.

We knock and the door is opened – but not always the door we wanted to go through.

And answers to prayer come in God’s time – not ours.

We follow Jesus on his terms in the faith that God loves us and wants the best for us even if it doesn’t seem that way at the time.

Jesus wept when Lazarus died and he saw the grief of his friends. Even though God knows that all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well, he still weeps with us when we’re suffering.

As Lazarus regains consciousness and realises what is happening he begins to feel the impact of his extraordinary experience. In the split second of this picture he knows that although he is coming back to life after being dead, he can’t return to an unchanged life. Nothing will ever be the same and he’s not at all sure it’s going to be easy.

How can he explain his experience?

Isn’t it going to be very lonely to be the one man who has been dead but now lives again?

Lazarus’ life has been touched by God in the most extreme way – it’s as if he really has been born again.

And so we’ve come in a circle back to the story of Nicodemus and Jesus saying that no one can see the kingdom of God unless he has been born again.

Lazarus is being born again – brought back to life – but it’s still the mortal life of this world and he will die again.

Unlike the people who are watching this event 2e hear this story knowing that Jesus, too, will soon die, be buried and will rise again. But Jesus will rise to a different sort of life, the eternal life of the spirit.

What John is telling us through this story, what Jesus is showing us, is that even in this mortal life we can be born again into that different sort of life in the eternal kingdom of God and it’s of that life he speaks when he says:

“I am the Resurrection and the life. Whoever has faith in me shall live, even though he dies; and no-one who lives and has faith in me shall ever die.”

Over these four Sundays of Lent we’ve heard stories of encounters with Jesus that are farm from comfortable; we have heard Jesus reveal himself as the Christ to very ordinary people whose lives are changed; and we’ve seen signs of his power to heal and bring to life.

We now enter into Passiontide and turn towards the events leading up to the death of Jesus and his resurrection.

Perhaps by the time we come to Easter Day and stand by another empty tomb we too will have had our own encounters with Jesus and gained new insights or revelations which have the power to change our lives.

And, as Jesus asked Martha, so he asks us, “Do you believe this?”

Saying “yes” will take us to the beginning of an adventure, a new chapter in the story of our own faith – it may even be like being born again.