5th Sunday of Lent
Ezekiel 37.1-14; Romans 8.6-11; John 11.1-45
Most merciful God, who by the death and resurrection of your
Son Jesus Christ delivered and saved the world: grant that by faith
in him who suffered on the cross we may triumph in the power of his
victory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
JUST before Christmas, my brother and I spent four weeks
watching and waiting, as our mother died peacefully and gracefully,
with wonderful care from the NHS. Death is real.
When working as a hospital chaplain, I will never forget the
screams of a young girl, taken by her family to see her father who
had just died from a horrible cancer. For people who had seen his
suffering, death was a relief, but, for her, a scream of anguish
was the only appropriate response. Death is real.
Jesus knew the reality of death, and went to extraordinary
lengths to make this clear, not responding on hearing that his
friend Lazarus was ill. Only after delaying long enough to ensure
Lazarus's death did he suddenly tell his disciples he was heading
into the danger zone of Judaea, eliciting in the process Thomas's
Jesus spelled it out: "Lazarus is dead." Everyone must be
absolutely sure of that. When they arrived, he had been buried for
four days, and Martha was in no doubt that his body stank. Whatever
Jesus was going to do, it was not the resuscitation of a person
with any life in him.
Jesus responded differently to Mary's and Martha's identical
declarations that, had he been there, their brother would not have
died. This suggests that they used very different tones of voice.
In the midst of Martha's grief, Jesus had a theological
conversation with her about rising from the dead.
This led to her affirmation of faith that Lazarus would rise in
the resurrection at the last day. Jesus's response - "I am the
resurrection and the life; those who believe in me, even though
they die, will live" - is one of that Gospel's seven statements
which embody the Hebrew name for God, "I am." It still left her
brother dead, however.
Next, Jesus met Mary, who said exactly the same thing, and yet
elicited a totally different response. Jesus wept with her, sharing
the pain of death and loss. God has made us for friendship and love
("It is not good for the man to be alone") and, when friendship is
severed by death, grief is a natural response. It is not indicative
of lack of trust in God, but of bereavement, and bereavement can be
a situation where we meet God most profoundly.
Jesus knew the intensity of human loss. Later, through the
cross, the Father was bereaved. Nothing we experience is alien to
God; even in our loneliest and most forlorn places, we are not
beyond God's reach of compassion.
Jesus knew the reality of death. It is not "nothing at all". In
God's hands, however, death is the raw material of resurrection.
This distinguishes Christianity from all other religions and
So Jesus made this dramatic scene at the tomb. Lazarus's
emergence must have been unforgettable: bound from head to toe in
strips of cloth, hopping out of the tomb, unable to see where he
was going. It seems that everyone was paralysed into inaction, and
it took Jesus to break the stunned silence with practical
The Christian gospel does not diminish death. Doing so denies
the power of the resurrection. Only Christianity proclaims that God
opens graves. Ezekiel had a visionary foretaste of this. While
anticipatory, the story of Lazarus is not definitive of Christian
belief, because Lazarus was raised from death only to die
Jesus himself was to die a cruel death and be buried. But, when
God raised him from the dead, and he ascended to God's right hand
in glory, he took his humanity into heaven, opening the way for all
humanity. This is definitive.
What can we take with us from this story on Passion Sunday, when
we brace ourselves to hear again of Jesus's last terrible days? We
must not rush the next two weeks, dashing from Palm Sunday's "All
glory, laud and honour" to Easter Day's resurrection joy. Without
death, there is no resurrection. Death is real but, in Christ,
death is conquered, not sidelined. Our Christian hope lies in the
fact that God raised Jesus from the dead. We can face our
mortality, but not fear it.
Jesus believed in death. Jesus is the resurrection and the life.
We believe in the resurrection of the dead. Thanks be to God.