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Lent V Year A – Preached at St Matthew’s Carver Street
I am the Resurrection and the Life says the Lord
It is said that if it is the case that God cannot be known, then one should take the safest bet and believe anyway. For if there is a God and we seek to follow in His Way, the reward of faith is the bliss of eternal life; but if there is no God then there is nothing at all to lose. Look, the Church and indeed many other faiths teach us to be humble and loving, restrained and faithful, and these have their own rewards. But if there is a God and you do not follow Him, the consequences are without end. A fathomless pit of despair opens before you. Won’t you save yourself? There is infinity at stake if God is true. But there is nothing to be lost if God is not true. So take the safest bet and believe anyway.
Is that why you’re here today?
Martha confessed that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah, God’s chosen King. Is she hedging her bets too?
Martha has lost her brother. Lazarus is dead. Four days in the tomb. Long gone.
Jesus arrives in the wake of this devastation. The home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary his friends is swamped with mourners and helpers and those who seek to bring comfort. Pushing through the crowd Martha goes out to meet Jesus, her friend.
“If you had been here my brother would not have died”
I can hear in her words an accusation. Grief and anger. Why did you wait? Where were you? We needed you!
“But” she adds, “I know that God will do what you ask of him”
She clings on to a hope. She holds her pain but she also holds on to what she knows of Jesus her friend. I call this courage, that despite the baffling disappointment that he wasn’t there when Lazarus needed him, Jesus is still who he has shown himself to be. It is a brave thing she does, to believe he is who he says he is even while confronting him with the fact that if he has been here, her brother would not have died.
“Your brother will rise again” he offers. Yes, yes I know says Martha. I know that on the last day God will raise him from the dead and bring him into his everlasting paradise.
We heard this idea of the resurrection of the dead prophesied in our first reading from Ezekiel “I mean to open your graves and raise you from the dead” who prophesied over 500 years before Jesus was born. Building on these promises the people of God began to understand that there would come a future judgement and a future reward. This is because just as the people of God had seen God fulfil his promises of blessing to the living, by blessing them in their land, blessing them when they walked with integrity and wisdom, and preserving them in trial; and conversely disciplining those who did not walk in his ways; they believed that God would not allow those who were righteous in this life to lose their reward and that God’s promise to bring justice would find out those who had lived wickedly in some sort of life to come. The people of God, to speak to the power of a relationship spanning generations, do not think God is a liar.
Martha knows this. She knows that her brother will be raised and that God will vindicate him.
“I am the resurrection and the life” says Jesus. “If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”
Do you believe this?
Do you believe this?
Do you believe that these desires you have, like how the hunger of the stomach can be met with food and the parched throat with water; like how aching bones long for healing and the heart of a lover yearns for its beloved, do you believe that this fragile hope that death is not the end is bound up in me?
“Yes, Lord, I believe”
‘I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who was to come into this world.’
I know that you are the one sent by God to bring about all his promises. You are the King and I will follow you
This is the foundation of our faith. This is what we will profess in a few minutes when we recite the Creed together. Martha here shows us how to respond to Jesus – to pledge ourselves to him and follow him.
But when Lazarus died he left behind two sisters. Mary comes to find Jesus her friend and says, like her sister ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died’. She knows that her friend is a good man, a miracle worker, the one who can turn back sickness and oppression. But after confronting him with the fact of that his absence has meant her brother’s death, she has no more words.
A crowd surrounds Jesus, Mary and the people who have gathered to comfort her. A pressing mass of despair and hopelessness, of disappointment and pain. All the theology and doctrine, the liturgy and custom, crumble under the crushing weight of this ultimate reality.
Mary cries out for us, as we all groan inwardly against this horror. Deep down we know death is not natural. It is not how the world ought to be. However far we stay from God this revulsion against death pricks our consciences to seek a remedy.
Mary and the crowd confront Jesus with their tears. Yes Jesus her friend, but also Jesus who is God’s promised king, Jesus who is the Son of God. Jesus who is the perfect image of the Father, who commands sickness and devils, storms and waves.
Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died, she cries.
They take him to see the tomb where Lazarus has been laid and Jesus, the perfect Son of God, the one through whom the Father spoke the world into existence, who walked in the Garden with Adam and Eve, weeps..
This Jesus stands before the tomb and weeps. He acknowledges our tears. He is moved by our plight. The King of all creation cries because his friend is dead.
Before Jesus left to come to the house of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary he said “This sickness will end not in death but in God’s glory, and through it the Son of God will be glorified”. He says again “Have I not told you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?”
And so Jesus shows the glory of God in raising Lazarus. He brings back his friend. He weeps for our suffering. He alone has the power to save from death. The glory of God is revealed not only that he does wonders, but that God understands what life down here is really like.
Like Martha we challenge God with our minds, we ask him who he is and whether he can be trusted. But we also confront him with our wounded souls and we demand a response, not in the way that an offence demands a response, but in the way that tears provoke an embrace.
Glory to God! The One who God has sent to hold us in our pain is the very same who holds power over the grave. Glory to God! Jesus will not let his friends languish in the tomb. Glory to God! We too can be friends with God through Christ the Lord, the promised King who was sent to save us.
True faith in God is not a safe bet. It isn’t a mere good idea. And I would hazard to guess that no one is really here because they think that on the balance of probabilities they have more to gain by believing and little to lose if God is not true.
What draws us to Jesus is what calls Him onward to his crown of thorns and his throne of a cross. It is the tears we shed when confronting that which ought not be, and the heart of a friend who comes to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
In Pascals Wager which we considered at the beginning of this sermon we think it a safer bet to believe than not, but this is to misunderstand what God has done for us and to cheapen it. Pascal reflects on this wager and admits that “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things”
This final miracle before Jesus goes to the cross is at once a sign and an offense. It is a sign, that because of what Jesus does for us death is no longer the end but sleep, awaiting the new day when Jesus will call out to all of us who are his friends to awaken and leave the tomb to join him in the new creation. Jesus tells us this when he says that Lazarus is not dead but only asleep. It is also an offense because if this man truly has the power to raise the dead, then the world would be turned upside down as those who know him turn over their lives and follow, rightly forgetting all other allegiances and pledging themselves to his service and friendship.
Far from a safe bet. Jesus offers himself for us and to us. May we know him as he has revealed himself, and come to love him as he condescends to rescue us in our despair.
How wonderful and good is our God who does not merely call us to know him in the mind, but to meet him in the depths. To meet him heart to heart, and thereby find resurrection life forever.