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Going back to Bethany
Revd  Denise McDougall, Sunday, April 6th, 2014

As we move towards the climax of Lent and closer to the cross today’s rather long readings all point us in the direction of resurrection. Ezekiel has a vision of dead bones brought back to life, Paul declares that the Holy Spirit gives new life and John’s Gospel points to the resurrection of Jesus when he brings Lazarus back to life.

It is this Gospel reading which I plan to focus on this morning. Having said that I had trouble knowing where begin because there are so many themes that could be lifted from today’s long passage, friendship, life, death, mercy, love, faith, resurrection, grief and so on.  I have to confess that when I was struggling slightly about how to approach today’s sermon I read in one book that any preacher who needed help with John 11 was in bad shape … I sincerely hope that isn’t true! For me this unfolding drama clearly demonstrates the effective power of prayer and God’s love and mercy which conquers death and offers the hope and joy of resurrection to all Christian believers.

We have probably all been in the position of the two sisters, panic stricken and desperate to do something about a loved one’s illness. You must get help, you must let others know, you want your loved one better, there is an urgency about the situation. In the story of Lazarus we come face to face with death in all its horror and emotion and can empathise with Mary and Martha.

They send a message to Jesus saying ‘Lord the one you love is ill.’ Interestingly they don’t mention Lazarus by name nor did they ask Jesus to go to them, quite possibly because they had so much faith in Jesus they knew he would come. Yet knowing how much he loved the three of them we may question why he didn’t respond immediately and rush back to Bethany. The sisters may have felt disappointment or possibly  let down by Jesus who even waits a further couple of days before going by which time Lazarus has died and been buried.

But there is reason for Jesus’ delay and it is certainly not through lack of compassion, he is praying to his Father as he so frequently did, praying for Lazarus and also himself; Jesus will be aware that by returning to Bethany he is walking towards his own death and will need wisdom and guidance for his plans and movements. And through prayer Jesus is also preparing himself for the miracle he is going to perform which will reveal the glory of God. Jesus will reveal the will of his Father. God not only desires to dwell among us but to lift us up – he really means, in Ezekiel’s words, ‘to raise us from our graves’.

So Jesus returns to Bethany, a small town on the eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives and not far from Jerusalem, to reunite the family he loves but at the same time knowing that this journey will cost him his life.

However when they arrived Lazarus had already been in the tomb for 4 days. Martha and then Mary along with the Judaeans who were consoling them go to meet Jesus. Jesus who as the prophet Isaiah says, ‘has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.’

The scene shows Jesus as profoundly vulnerable, human and loving. We feel his emotional pain, and His great sense of compassion. He sheds tears, he hurts to see others hurt. His emotions were pushed to the limit by witnessing the sorrow of Mary. I have to say I never fail to be moved when at funerals I recite the words ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die will live and whoever lives and believes in me will never die’. He is talking about having real life in Christ, the life which he was sent into the world to share with those who believe and trust in him.

So in answer to Jesus’ prayers Lazarus was able to come out from the grave and re-enter ordinary human life for a while longer. Only the one true God could have performed such an awesome and breath-taking miracle, and through this miracle the Father and the Son were glorified. What a heart stopping moment, there in full view of the crowds Jesus brings the disciples and many others to believe in his divinity but those opposing Jesus go off to report to the Pharisees what has happened and by doing so bring the crucifixion a step  closer.

Yet resurrection is not necessarily a future event, it can take place within the messiness and brokenness of our lives here and now. The resurrection and the life are there for all who are in union with Christ; we are invited along with Mary and Martha to truly believe Jesus is the Messiah, the one who was sent to into our world of pain, sorrow and death to bring us new life and the key to new life is the same now as it was then;  faith. Can we really agree with Martha who says, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God.’?

When I was Chaplain at the Academy of St. Francis of Assisi we had an incredibly powerful talk by an ex-gangster, John Pridmore who came to believe. His story highlighted both the joy and hope of earthly resurrection. John was a significant character in London’s East End in the early 1990’s. He was a bouncer in the clubs and his jackets were specially tailored (presumably by other gangsters!) to hold his machete and knuckle dusters. He stole large amounts of money and later he cashed in thousands of pounds from drug dealing; the money bought him flash cars, a penthouse, he lavishly wined and dined as many women as he wanted. His life was violent, cruel and isolating and it snowballed out of control. Then one night he almost killed a man. John ended up in prison, he suffered illness, contemplated suicide and his life seemed meaningless. Then very slowly things began to change, by talking to people of faith he started to see the world through different eyes, he opened his ears to what people were saying to him, and miraculously the huge boulders blocking his path were slowly moved aside. In a life where he knew only despair he started to gain trust and hope, he learnt to pray and God’s real presence entered into his life to stay.  He told many inspiring stories about resurrection in people’s lives today.

We may all have our own bit of John Pridmore and in fact Lazarus in us, friends loved by Christ but needing to be raised.

There will be parts in each of us that are dead or perhaps should be dead and we need to let them go in order to experience new life. Today’s Gospel spells it out clearly that God not only came to live among us but to lift us up and because of the sacrifice Jesus knowingly made by going back to Bethany our new life is there for the taking.

We are given that great gift at our baptism when God calls us from the darkness into his marvellous light, it continues throughout our lives providing we have prayer, trust, and faith in our hearts. To follow Christ means dying to sin and with his help rising to new life.

In a few moments we will affirm our faith by saying the words of the Nicene Creed together. Can we like Martha say with confidence that Christ is the Messiah and yes we really do believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come? Amen.

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