This is the sermon from our morning worship podcast. You can find an audio version of it in the middle of the service, here.
My soul waits for the Lord, says the Psalmist
more than the night-watch for the morning,
more than the night-watch for the morning.
If you’ve ever worked nights, or waited by the bedside of a sick relative you’ll understand those words. There’s a point in the wee small hours where you just long for your bed, but know you can’t go to it. The Psalmist was perhaps thinking of a sentinel watching at the city gates, when he wrote these words, or a shepherd watching over his flocks by night. Night watching is often boring, but it’s important. You can’t nod off, because that might be the moment when the enemy attacks or the wolf falls on your sheep. Of course, waiting in the day time can be tough too, but waiting at night, especially in a world where there was very little artificial light, must have been far worse, and somehow it still is – we can’t see what is around us. We can’t find our way. Familiar landmarks are shrouded in darkness.
We are all doing a lot of waiting at the moment, waiting for this virus to pass over our communities. It’s as if we are all on the night-watch, all waiting for the morning, just like the sentinels in the Psalm.
And there’s not much most of us can do about it except to stay at home and try to keep an eye out for those around us who may be more vulnerable than we are. Even the medical professionals, rushed off their feet trying to care for people, can’t make this thing go away; they can only support those who are sick until they fight the virus off themselves, if they are able to. Many people have told me over this last week or two how powerless they feel. We aren’t just sitting and watching the time tick by as we wait. We are worrying, feeling frustrated and hemmed in. We long to do something – anything - but we know that, in reality, there is little or nothing we can do
There was a lot of waiting like that in today’s Gospel reading too. Jesus’ disciples hear that Lazarus is ill. He’s the brother of Martha and Mary, who often welcomed Jesus to their home in Bethany, just outside Jerusalem. Jesus loves Lazarus and his sisters, so what’s he doing? Why doesn’t he go to him? Why doesn’t he do something instead of just sitting there? The disciples don’t understand it.
Jesus is many miles away from Bethany at this point, on the other side of the river Jordan. He’s escaped there with his disciples from Jerusalem, because the Temple authorities have tried to arrest and stone him. It would be understandable if he might not want to go back into this lion’s den, but that doesn’t seem to be what’s stopping him. He just doesn’t seem to think Lazarus is sick enough for him to go back. That’s how they interpret his words - “this illness does not lead to death”. But then, two days later, he suddenly announces that they are going after all, despite the fact that by this stage Lazarus has died. They can’t make any sense of it.
Martha and Mary have been waiting anxiously too. “If you had been here, our brother would not have died” each of them says to Jesus in turn. We can imagine them sitting beside Lazarus’ sickbed, waiting for news, getting up again and again to look out of the door or the window, imagining they hear Jesus coming up the road, but nothing, hour after hour, day after day. And when he does show up, it’s too late. Lazarus has been in the tomb four days. Jewish people thought that the soul hung around for three days after death, but that time has now well and truly past. “There will be a stench!” says Martha, baldly – there’s no way of sugar coating this. The time has passed when Jesus could have helped. There’s no hope. It’s all over.
But Jesus sees it differently. He calls out in a loud voice “Lazarus, come out”, and to the astonishment of the watching crowd, Lazarus comes out, is unbound from his grave clothes and restored to his family. It wasn’t too late after all.
Jesus had said that this illness wouldn’t lead to death. And he was right. Death was part of the story – this illness led through death - but it wasn’t the end of the story, its final destination. Death didn’t have the last word. Life had the last word.
The raising of Lazarus takes place just before Jesus goes into Jerusalem to his own death. That’s why we hear it now. Palm Sunday is next week, and Easter Sunday the week after. This story foreshadows that. Of course, the raising of Lazarus is a bit different to the resurrection of Jesus. Lazarus is brought back to his old life, and he’ll die again eventually. Jesus is raised to a new sort of life, with a body which bears the scars of his crucifixion but which is also somehow different, and eternal. But nonetheless, the parallels are there, and we’re meant to notice them. The crucial message of this story comes in the conversation Jesus has with Martha. “I am the resurrection and the life” he says to her.
Jesus is all about life. His ministry brings life. Wherever he goes, whatever he does, life abounds in his wake. Earlier in the Gospel (John 10.10) he says “I came that people may have life, and have it abundantly” . Some translations describe it as “life in all its fullness” In the famous opening words of John’s Gospel we hear that “what has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people”. On this occasion he brings physical life to Lazarus, but on other occasions he brings life “in all its fullness” in other ways; healing, teaching, loving, accepting, welcoming people in ways that make them feel truly alive again, or for the first time, giving them hope for the future, new beginnings.
Death is part of the human story. Sorrow is part of the human story. Jesus weeps at the grave of Lazarus, at the mess of the world, at the inevitability of suffering, which we can’t avoid and he can’t avoid if we truly human at all. It’s ok if we feel miserable, desperate, frightened, angry, if we want to weep; Jesus did too.
But death and sorrow are not the end of the story. That’s the promise of this story, and the promise of Easter, which it points us towards, and it is something which we really need to hold onto at this time.
This story reminds us too that the resurrection life of Jesus is always present, in everything he does. It doesn’t wait until Easter Day to show itself. He says to Martha “I AM the resurrection and the life” not “I will be the resurrection and the life”. Just as we see the seeds of Jesus’ own resurrection in the raising of Lazarus, we can see the seeds of the new life we long for now, while we are still waiting for our long night to pass. We can see those seeds in the love and care that people are showing one another, volunteering to help others in their droves. We can see them in the way we are learning to value those who are working so hard on our behalf – the doctors, nurses and paramedics, of course, but also the delivery drivers, supermarket shelf stackers, food producers and all the rest who are so often overlooked. We can see those seeds of life, paradoxically, in what we can’t have and can’t do for the moment; perhaps after all this we’ll be less inclined to take for granted a simple hug from a friend, or a visit to the places around us that are now out of bounds, and the chance to worship with each other in church. Sometimes it’s only when we are deprived of something that we learn just how life-giving and important it is to us.
“ I wait for the Lord”, said the Psalmist, but he went on “in his word is my hope”. Sometimes we will wait in frustration, in anger, in sorrow for this all to be over – that’s human - but let’s pray that we’ll also learn to wait in hope, to wait for God, to wait - and to watch - for the seeds of a new world, a new beginning right here, right now in the midst of the mess. With God, death and loss don’t have the last word. Life does.