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“Jesus said to Martha, ‘Didn’t I tell you that you would see God’s glory if you believed?’”
A service such as this one is a beautiful opportunity to give thanks to God for the lives of those we have loved and have made such a profound impact on our lives; to sit with our memories and reflect in the quietness of our hearts.
And, of course, this service throws up a whole range of emotions for each one of us. Whilst we will all be sharing the common experience of grief, each one of us will be unique in how we feel tonight. Each one of us has our own story, our own memories. And I wouldn’t want to be so insensitive as to try to sum up or reflect on how each one of us feels here this afternoon. United as we all are in the memories of loved ones, that means something different for each one of us.
So I just want to spend a few minutes now reflecting on this very well known story from Scripture: the story of when Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead recorded in the Gospel of John.
It’s a story that is very dear to me because I have had the privilege of visiting Lazarus’ grave in Bethany, which is about 5 miles or so from Jerusalem. I went there in 1998 with my wife, Clare, who was in the final stages of her life, at the age of 33 dying from a brain tumour.
We had always wanted to go on a personal pilgrimage to Israel - not as part of a package tour, or even with a local church. We wanted to walk in Jesus’ footsteps in a more personal way. But it seemed like an ambition that could never be fulfilled: by that stage, Clare was having such bad bouts of epilepsy that we couldn’t get any insurance to travel abroad and we would need to be cared for by a special person we could trust, just in case anything went wrong while we were out there. However, a strange series of events led us to meet with a Palestinian Bishop from Israel who offered to host us at his monastery in Jerusalem and he offered to take personal financial responsibility if Clare became ill while we were out there.
It was an amazing opportunity. So in January 1998, we parked our 5-year old daughter Rebekah at her grandparents and boarded the plane for Tel Aviv airport, well aware that this would be Clare’s last trip abroad before she would die - and so grateful to God that it would be this special experience walking in the footsteps of our Lord and Saviour who we both loved so much.
We had an amazing time of pilgrimage there: Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Galilee, Capernaum, Jericho and Nazareth. We went to all the most important Christian sites. But nowhere impacted me as much as the little site, which was Lazarus’ grave in Bethany…
In some ways, the story of the raising of Lazarus is a difficult story to understand. We’ve just heard part of it read to us.
Jesus had left Jerusalem and was preparing to return for his final Passover. While he was preparing, word came from his friends Mary and Martha, saying that their brother Lazarus was ill. Mary and Martha and Lazarus were close friends of Jesus; they had been through a lot together. I suppose they were desperately hoping that Jesus would do something for him. They would have heard about the healings and the miracles, and perhaps they were hoping that Jesus would perform a miracle for them by healing their sick brother. And why shouldn’t they expect that? After all, Jesus had healed so many sick people over the years, of course he would want to do the same for his good friend Lazarus.
But Jesus’ response is not what they expect at all. He doesn’t do anything. He doesn’t even hurry to their home to visit his sick friend. This seems a bizarre response from Jesus, doesn’t it? His friends were calling out to him when they needed him the most and he doesn’t do anything…
I am sure that all of us here tonight have called out to Jesus from the depths of our hearts to help us and help those we love in our deepest moments of pain and anguish. Even if we do not count ourselves as very religious people, most of us have still turned to prayer when we experience grief and suffering. And perhaps, like Mary and Martha, we have felt confused – even angry – when it seems that Jesus doesn’t do anything to meet us in our agony.
But, of course, this is not a criticism of God so much as an expression of our sense of helplessness in the face of situations that are almost beyond our understanding and our ability to cope. Our frustration at being so utterly helpless turns into anger at a God who, seemingly, does nothing to help us; who, for some inexplicable reason allows the suffering to go on…
But running parallel with these negative feelings towards God is a sense of hope and trust in God that never quite lets us go…
Eventually, when Jesus does go to Mary and Martha, a few days later, Lazarus has already died. And Martha expresses the mix of negative and positive feelings we all feel at the most traumatic times of lives, when those we love are facing death. Martha says to Jesus: “If you had been here, Lord, my brother would not have died! But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask him for”. A mixture of blaming God – yet hoping that he will do something miraculous.
But that sense of hope isn’t experienced by everyone. Martha’s sister, Mary, seemed to have lost hope in God’s power. She turns to Jesus and says: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” And many of the mourners who had turned out to pay their respects to the dead Lazarus and his family agree with Mary. They said, “Jesus gave sight to the blind man, didn’t he? Could he not have kept Lazarus from dying?”
In your experience of grief – as is true with me – perhaps you oscillated between being angry with God yet trusting that he might perform a miracle and yet, at other times, even doubting whether he existed at all. Mary, Martha, the mourners: all the emotions they felt are the same ones we have felt too.
So in the midst of this highly charged emotional atmosphere - sorrow and grief mixing with blame and anger and hope - Jesus asks that the stone be rolled away from Lazarus’ grave. But Martha was indignant at this. She says: “There will be a bad smell, Lord. He has been buried four days!” In her angry heart, Martha probably thought that Jesus had done enough damage by not coming sooner to heal her brother. Now he wanted to embarrass the family more by messing with the corpse. But Jesus stands firm and has the stone rolled away.
And then he prays.
And then he calls out in a loud voice – “Lazarus, come out!”
When I was in Bethany, Clare and I had the privilege of going into Lazarus’ tomb; a small, cave hewn out of rock in a desert-village. The entrance to the tomb is very small - I needed to crouch down slightly to go through the door. And, when you get inside, there are about 20 steps down to another level and you walk gingerly down these rough, stone steps into the semi-darkness and enter a small ante-chamber where Lazarus’ body would have been prepared for final burial. Then, you get onto your hands and knees and crawl under a ledge to the burial chamber itself - a small room with a bed of rock on which Lazarus’ body would have been laid.
When I was in Lazarus’ tomb, in the bowels of the cave, I sat on that bed of rock and I prayed. I imagined myself into the story that John records in his Gospel. I imagined the scene outside: Jesus standing near the entrance, excited but nervous disciples surrounding him, a disbelieving crowd of mourners, a family torn apart by a confusing emotional mix of uncontained grief and irrepressible hope. I imagined Jesus shouting, with real authority: “Lazarus, come out!”
And then it struck me:
At the words of Jesus – not before – Lazarus’s corpse would have been awakened. He would have slowly become conscious of his surroundings. What emotions would have filled his clouded brain? Fear, confusion, amazement, exhilaration and so much more. Slowly, he would have risen to his feet, body stiff from four days of lying inactive, pins and needles coursing through his limbs as his blood started to circulate again. Lazarus would have struggled onto all fours to crawl under the ledge and stumble through the ante-chamber. Carefully, he would have made his way up the rough, unsteady steps. And then he would have appeared at the mouth of the tomb
But, in all that time, what would have been going on outside the burial cave?
Jesus stood in the midst of this highly charged atmosphere and cried, “Lazarus, come out!”
They waited. Unaware of the activity within the burial chamber.
The embarrassing silence would have been deafening. The disciples would have shuffled their feet, nervously thinking that maybe this time Jesus had bitten off more than he could chew.
Mary and Martha would have looked at Jesus, wondering why he was putting them through all this agony.
The crowd of mourners would have been seething that Jesus should have the audacity to mess with Mary and Martha’s emotions in such a public and humiliating way.
The silence grew louder.
And then Lazarus came out.
The scene changed completely.
But the spiritual lesson for me in Bethany - was in comprehending the waiting. I had always imagined Jesus to call Lazarus out and – hey Presto! – there he was! In reality, Jesus called and then they would have had to wait maybe five minutes or more to see the miracle. Only five minutes. But five minutes that would have seemed a lifetime.
Most importantly, how they reacted in that five minutes of waiting would determine the depth and degree of faith they had in Jesus.
Many of us here will have had the experience of being a carer for someone we love as they are dying. For those of you who have had that experience, you will understand all about Waiting. Others of you may have sat by the bedside of someone you love in their final days of life. You, too, will understand all about Waiting.
I was a Carer for 8 years and it seemed that my ‘five minutes’ of waiting, standing beside Jesus waiting for him to perform a miracle, lasted for the whole of that 8 year period.
But, for all of us, the five minutes of waiting on Jesus is a metaphor for the experience of bereavement that follows the death of the person we love.
The bitterness of grief is a time of waiting on God. There is so much silence in grief. There is so much waiting. There seems to be so much inactivity by God.
As the disciples stood outside the tomb in an embarrassing silence and shuffling their feet nervously, so the experience of grief is often just a time to stand with Jesus - waiting for something positive to happen. Anything will do, Lord. Just do something in my life to show me that you are in control!
We cannot see what resurrection activity is occurring inside the tomb of our hearts: often we have no sense of the new life stirring within us. We merely stand and wait.
Grief is ‘waiting’. We watch Jesus and we shuffle our feet. But the ultimate test of grief is how we respond to Jesus during the five minutes of waiting.
There are times when each of the players in this story is reflected in our behaviour and thoughts. We experience the paradoxical mixture of pain and ultimate trust of Mary and Martha. We feel the seething anger of the crowd of mourners as they stare incredulously at Jesus’ bizarre behaviour. We admit, with the disciples, to doubting the power of Jesus, as the minutes tick by and the silence increases and the waiting grows longer.
In grief and bereavement, the seconds seem like minutes, the minutes seem like hours, the hours seem like days, the days seem like months and the months seem like years. Time drags by and we long for the emptiness in our hearts to be filled with a miracle from God: the tangible presence of Jesus. We know he is with us but we struggle to feel him with us. Grief is an experience of a void of feeling. Standing at the tomb, waiting for new life to burst forth, but just feeling barren and empty inside.
But, for each one of us here tonight, each with our own stories and our own, very private, highly individual experiences of grief and loss, the important lesson is this: we need to learn that waiting on God is not the same thing as experiencing the inactivity of God. Even in the silent times, the Spirit of God is extremely active, rebuilding our world and bringing healing.
Whilst the crowds and the relatives and the disciples stood impassively outside the cave, Lazarus was extremely busy inside! The silence of their perspective did not contain the whole truth of what was happening in Bethany at that moment. They were unable to see inside the tomb and so could not see the on-going resurrection activity. So it is with us, that comprehending the healing and renewing work of God is most often retrospective. We look back and we see how far God has brought us rather than being able to discern movement at any given moment in time.
For this reason, it is absolutely vital to go through the grieving process at a pace appropriate to you rather than at the suggested or enforced pace of others. It is absolutely essential to retain control over your own grief. Ultimately, of course, we move through the grieving process in God’s timing. There is a beautiful verse in Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus says of God: [12:20] “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.” God knows that those of you who are rubbed raw in grief are on the verge of breaking. So the healing process cannot be rushed: it is slow, it is deliberate, it is gradual - at times the movement is almost indiscernible. But always the Spirit of God is working for renewal and resurrection.
Perhaps the most misunderstood hallmark of grief is the waiting in silence. Those standing outside the tomb have no way of comprehending what is going on inside. For Mary and Martha, the waiting lasted only five minutes. For many others, those five minutes will continue for many years. How we respond to Jesus in those five minutes of waiting is the true test of faith.
We must learn not to judge the activity of God by what we can see. Instead, we must learn to perceive the activity of God through the eyes of faith and trust his timing in the process of resurrection. No matter how much you hurt, no matter how raw we may feel, no matter the extent to which we may feel our life ended with the death of that person we love - God is at work in us; renewing us, rebuilding our lives, resurrecting us in the silence, just as he was resurrecting Lazarus.
The God of love stands with you tonight and will heal your agony at a pace you can handle. And this is not just wishful thinking – or denial. It is the heart of the Christian gospel: the heart of all we believe about God.
The challenge of Jesus to Martha is made to everyone who grieves: “Didn’t I tell you that you would see God’s glory if you believed?”
The waiting time is the hardest time of all. But waiting in patience and faith will bear witness to personal resurrection and the glory of God. And I pray God’s blessing on everyone here tonight who grieves and waits for that sense of resurrection. May the dark night of the soul end and the beautiful sunrise of personal happiness fill our hearts in God’s good time. Amen.