Sermon for Fifth Sunday of Lent – Year A

John 11.1-45

Sometimes when we’re reading a familiar passage like the one we’ve just heard about the raising of Lazarus, one of two things can happen.

A familiar verse or phrase which we’ve read many times before might suddenly jump off the page and have a big impact on our thinking or feeling.

Or we might suddenly notice a word, a phrase or a figure of speech that we hadn’t noticed before and that too can have quite an impact on us.

Both of these things have happened to me when reading the story of Lazarus.

The first was some years ago when I was reading the story as part of my regular bible reading. The words “I AM THE RESURRECTION” leapt out at me and it was almost as if an invisible someone in the room had shouted it aloud in my ear, “I AM THE RESURRECTION”. A thrill ran up my spine and my scalp tingled. Since then I can’t hear those words without feeling something of that thrill and tingling. It was very powerful.

Then while I was reading the story in preparation for today a very strange thing happened. I suddenly realised that both sisters, Martha and Mary, had confronted Jesus with reproach, anger and deep grief, using exactly the same words: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”

I’d never noticed that – I’d always believed that only one sister, Martha, said it just before Jesus’s declaration “I AM THE RESURRECTION”. I was so surprised that I actually checked in four different bibles to make sure it wasn’t a printing error in the one I was reading! No – not an error. Both sisters say it: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”

I’m still not sure why that had such an impact on me but I reflected on it for some time
because there clearly was something – something important there for me to see or hear.

I imagined both sisters at home after their brother’s death speculating about why Jesus hadn’t come when they sent for him. Perhaps their messengers had come back and told Mary and Martha that Jesus wouldn’t come straight away – they weren’t sure he’d come at all. They must have felt terribly hurt and bewildered and then, when Lazarus died, very angry that their friend hadn’t come to heal their brother. Perhaps they said to each other
more than a few times “If Jesus had been here our brother would still be alive today. Why was he not here – we thought he loved us?”

And I could identify with that. After our brother died my sister and I had conversations
that went a bit like that. We still have them occasionally. “Why did God allow that to happen? Why did he have to die so young”

And identifying with Martha and Mary in that way made me think afresh about Jesus’s reaction and imagine how I would feel if he had reacted like that towards me.

And I also thought about how he might be towards people who were badly injured or bereaved by that awful attack on Westminster Bridge ten days ago.

First of all, it’s important what he wouldn’t say or do!

He wouldn’t try and give us a theological explanation for what had happened. He wouldn’t offer empty comfort or platitudes to cheer us up: “There, there, time will heal,
he wouldn’t want you to cry”

What he does do is:
He allows us to weep, to grieve, to be angry;
He allows us to question him and demand explanations.
He asks us to take him to the place
where the hurt and the pain is worst.

For Martha and Mary, that’s the grave.
For others it might be Westminster Bridge;
It might be the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in NY
It can be anywhere.

And wherever we feel the pain and the hurt the most Jesus wants us to take him there so he can be alongside us. And not just alongside us but sharing with us in our grief.

because he had lost a good friend.

because his friend’s sisters were angry and hurt and didn’t understand why he hadn’t come to them when they needed him.

Because he understood and shared their grief so deeply that their grief was his grief.
Our sorrow is his sorrow.

And in that weeping, grief and pain something extraordinary happens.

“Don’t you remember?” says Jesus to Martha and Mary, “I told you to trust me and you would see glory”. Martha and Mary see the glory of God in a man, their brother, raised to life after being in a tomb for three days.

Not surprisingly it’s enough to make previous sceptics and doubters believe in Jesus!

And after he has listened to our grief, our pain, our anger; after he has allowed us to weep and has wept with us; after he has gone with us into the deepest places of hurt in our lives; then Jesus says to us too, “Trust me and you will see the glory of God”

Rowan Williams puts it like this:

“Trust and you will see. Something will be uncovered for you in the middle of all this.
In the middle of the pain, the grief, and the confusion.”

He goes on to say:

“This is how we respond in a God-like, a Christ-like way to the challenges of the world’s pain, the world’s suffering, to our own wretchedness and muddle, to disaster that strikes our cities, our communities. Don’t silence the protest; go to where it hurts most. Be a sign of promise, and say, “You will see something if you hold on.”

May we all see something of the glory of God this Passiontide and may we be compassionate friends to those who weep and mourn today.