St John’s, Tolpuddle
Sunday 2nd April 2017
Ezekiel 37.1-14; John 11.1-45
I wonder how you would feel if you called an ambulance and it took two days before it left the ambulance station and another two before it arrived.
It doesn’t take much to work out the sort of reaction you would have. Our newspapers periodically have stories about people who have had to wait far longer than they expected for help to come. And we know in this day and age that that is because demand outstrips resources, and hard-pressed ambulance services are doing the best they can.
We live in a society where we want everything immediately, and that demand seems to grow almost daily. As technology has increased our capacity, so our impatience appears to have multiplied. As we receive more, we human beings have become much more demanding, and much less patient.
Things that people in times past could only dream of as miraculous are part of our daily lives. We have so much to be thankful for, but sadly the more we have the more we seem to take it for granted. It seems that the more we have, the more we want, and we want it now.
Now take a look back at our Gospel story. No ambulances back in the time of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. When their brother becomes seriously ill, his sisters send for Jesus because they don’t have any other options.
When Jesus is told that Lazarus is sick, strangely he doesn’t respond immediately. He seems to know that the end result will be OK. So even though, we are told he loved the three siblings, he remained where he was.
We can imagine how anxious the sisters are back in Bethany. We’ve sent and told him – why isn’t he coming? Later in the story both of them express their belief that if Jesus had come sooner, he could have healed Lazarus and he’d never have died.
Two days after hearing the news of his friend’s illness, Jesus decides to go to see him. His disciples think he’s mad – they’re trying to kill you there they say to him, and you want to go back.
And Jesus replied with those strange words about day and night. Back then the time of daylight was divided into twelve hours, which would be of a slightly different length depending on the time of year, because of how much time there was between sunrise and sunset.
But behind his words is an emphasis not on clock time but on what we might call discipleship time – those who walk with Jesus find themselves clothed in the light, those who deny him end up in darkness.
Throughout John’s Gospel, there is a sense that Jesus does things as and when the time is right, as decided by God and not the demands or needs of human beings. By the time he leaves for Bethany, he already knows that Lazarus has died.
He tells his disciples that he’s going to Bethany to wake up the sleeping Lazarus – they miss the point. If he’s asleep you don’t need to go and wake him, they argue, he’ll be OK.
But No, Jesus says, it’s the sleep of death. And I’m glad I wasn’t there, because you will now see God’s glory. In God’s time, God’s glory will be revealed.
So they trudge off to Jerusalem, where they are met by the sisters who firmly believe that their brother would never have died had Jesus been around when he was taken sick.
Jesus’s timing, though, is always right. People knew that he could heal the sick, and that Lazarus was his friend. What they hadn’t expected is that he would show his glory in a new way by raising him to life again.
Had Jesus arrived earlier, then this miraculous recalling to life would never have taken place.
I wonder how often you have prayed for something that just hasn’t happened. I’m sure we all do it. Sometimes we become impatient and stop praying; sometimes we become despairing because it seems as if God is not listening. Sometimes with Mary and Martha we cry out to God: if only . . . .
Jesus brought Lazarus back to life, but his life here on earth was still limited. He didn’t remain on this earth for ever. But I wonder how different his life was after he was healed by Jesus. Did he recognise the life that he had been given?
In his book Fear No Evil, David Watson quotes from a newspaper article in which a director of radiotherapy had written this: “Cancer makes people start thinking about the quality of their lives. Everything they do has a keener edge on it and they get more out of life. In fact some people never become completely human beings and really start living until they get cancer.
“We all know we are going to die sometime, but cancer makes people face up to it . . . they are going to go on living with a lot of extra enjoyment just because they have faced their fear of death. Cancer patients aren’t dying. They’re living.”
When our days are numbered, we do seem to take more care of them.
Jesus knew that, if he went to Judea to be with Lazarus, it would bring his own earthly end closer. And that is exactly what happened. Many believed in Jesus after the Lazarus affair, but some went and sneaked on him to the chief priests – that was when they decided that Jesus needed to die. It is better for one man to die than for the whole nation to be destroyed is what high priest Caiaphas declares.
So Jesus’s earthly days are numbered because he has shown who he is – the light the life, the resurrection. The people of darkness cannot abide being in the light.
What they see as being a way of stopping Jesus causing trouble is in fact the pathway to resurrection life for Jesus and for all who believe in him.
As David Watson put it: “the Church is the only society on earth that never loses a member through death”, because we believe in life after death, but also life through death. It is through the death of Jesus that he was raised. It is through our deaths that we too are raised unto eternal life.
It is no coincidence that John has placed this miracle as the last of his seven signs. Seven is the whole and perfect number, the symbol of completeness. God’s work can never be more complete than when death is turned to life, when sin is vanquished by forgiveness, when perfection is fulfilled.
If we are able to trust in God and in God’s timings, we will come through the sufferings we face.
We know what it is like going to bed one night really exhausted but waking up the next day after a really good sleep full of life and energy again.
I believe that when we die that is what it will be like for those of us who trust in God, that the quality of the eternal life that awaits us will be beyond the description of human words.
As Watson put it: “in one sense, the Christian is not preparing for death. Essentially he is preparing for life, abundant life in all its fullness. The world, with its fleeting pleasures, is not the final reality . . . the best and purest joys on earth are only a shadow of the reality that God has prepared for us in Christ.”
In raising Lazarus, Jesus gave us a foretaste of the life that is to come, where love is stronger than death, where light destroys the darkness and joy the mourning and pain.
Let us walk into Passiontide knowing that the darkness of Good Friday will be changed into the light and life of the resurrection, unto eternity.