March 26, 2023

In Desert Places: Death & Bereavement

A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler

John 11:1-45

A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler

Fifth Sunday of Lent, 26th March 2023

In Desert Places: Death & Bereavement

John 11:1-45

Grief is universal. We experience it in many ways: the death of a beloved life companion, the loss of parents – or even sometimes, poignantly – children. Loss of status, career, mobility, capacity can all leave us feeling bereaved and grief-stricken. There were, in many people’s shared experience, a corporate grief experienced when we all entered lockdown three years ago.

But each of us do grief in different ways. There are customs and ways of grieving that vary, depending on culture, faith and personality. And that is especially true when dealing with death. Rending your garments and wailing extravagantly is very much part of Semitic cultures, whereas here the British ‘stiff upper lip’ was, until the 1980s, the cultural norm for grieving. Today, from my experience of well over a thousand funerals over 30 years as a priest, there are many different responses. Many people still, when I visit them and they shed a tear, apologise to me for doing so, as though letting the tears flow were not a normal and natural part of loss. Still, some people have grown up being taught not to speak of death or loss or to ignore it, and others are comfortable and are even able to joke about it.

Things were different in 1st century Palestine to 2020s Britain, as I’ve hinted. When a loved one died, the burial would often take place on the day of death, followed by a funeral procession and a month long period of mourning with the presence of much wailing and dramatic displays of grief.

In today’s Gospel reading we get to see Jesus walk into the midst of grief and the story of the raising of Lazarus shows us how Jesus responds and what he offers to us in our common experience of loss.

Let me set the scene.

In the previous chapter of John’s Gospel Jesus has made some pretty enormous claims about who he is. He goes into the Temple and gathers a crowd around him speaks to them. The crowd cry out, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus says, a few verses later, “I and the Father are one”, the nearest he ever comes to a direct verbal claim to divinity in the whole of the four Gospels. This prompts the crowd to pick up stones in fury at what they see as his blasphemy. They attempt to arrest him but Jesus escapes to Jordan. And it is while ‘on the run’, as it were, he hears the news of the illness of his friend Lazarus.

Unlike many of us, Jesus seems to be in no hurry. He has a confidence about him, which could be mistakenly read as apathy. But that is not the case. Jesus says, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” This may seem a little harsh, but I don’t think we’re meant to think of this illness being sent so that God can do something wonderful, but that it will be the occasion of the glory of God being revealed. Here is a moment, in other words, where we are going to see Jesus reveal more clearly just who he is in the midst of suffering.

Perhaps most clearly in fact, because the raising of Lazarus is the seventh of the seven signs that John structures the first eleven chapters of his Gospel around. Seven is the perfect number in Judaism, so John wants us to see that this sign is the culmination of Jesus’ work. It’s the most compelling evidence of who Jesus is. It begins to point us towards Easter.

And, so as to highlight this even more, Jesus sets off to visit Lazarus in Bethany, back in other words to Jerusalem, for Bethany is just a mile and a half from the Temple. Jesus is walking towards his own death by setting off to visit Lazarus, back to danger, and to the place where he will soon be crucified.

And when he arrives, he finds grief and loss. Lazarus has died. Martha goes out to meet Jesus and to break the news while Mary stays at home in mourning. Both of them say these words, “Lord, if you had not been here, my brother would not have died.” They both say, and these are words often heard at times of grief, “If only.” “If only I had done this…” “If only he’d gone to the doctor earlier…” “If only we had known what she was feeling…” then things might have been different. If only this had happened, if only Jesus had been here, we could have avoided tragedy. It sort of echoes words thrown at Jesus on the cross, “If you are the Son of God, save yourself…do something.”

But then Jesus faces another question, a version of which is often uttered in prayer or anger in the midst of grief, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind also have kept this man from dying?” We don’t often talk out loud about blaming God for allowing those we love to die, but we often feel it, and for some loss can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back of faith. But, in both Christian and Jewish traditions, such complaints and questions are not expressions of doubt, but of faith. The Psalms are full of such cries and complaints, full of lament, grief, bargaining and anger, the most common expressions that come to us when we are bereaved. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?” says Psalm 13, “How long will you hide your face from me?” Psalm 88 is even stronger, “O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me?” Being a believer gives us room to cry out to God, “Where are you, God?” “Why did you let this happen?” And that question, to which the Bible offers no pat, easy answers, is responded to only by God’s presence in the midst of grief. Jesus enters into the grief of Lazarus’s family. Throughout this story, above any other story in the whole of the Gospels, we hear of Jesus’ love for Lazarus and his family. He is deeply affected by the loss, “deeply disturbed in spirit”, says verse 33. Jesus wept.

The biblical scholar Tom Wright puts it movingly when he says this, “The Word, through whom worlds were made, weeps like a baby at the grave of his friend. Only when we stop and ponder this will we understand the full mystery of John’s Gospel. Only when we put away our high-and-dry pictures of who God is and replace them with pictures in which the Word who is God can cry with the world’s crying will we discover what the word ‘God’ really means.”

The Word who is God can cry with the world’s crying. It’s perhaps this in the mind of the biblical authors when they take words in the Book of Isaiah and apply them to Jesus, “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” It’s not just his own suffering he endures. It’s ours.

But there still more. Many commentators have noted that some of the words that John uses to describe Jesus at this point, “deeply moved” and “greatly troubled” include a sense of indignation and outrage in him. They note that this sense of anger goes beyond the fact that the mourners don’t understand the nature of death, but is directed at the fact of death itself. It’s not just that Jesus grieves for Lazarus (who he about to raise anyway), it is the presence of death itself. It’s as though Jesus identifies not just with one death, but with the reality of the experience of death, the greatest enemy, in creation at all. And so he moves in his grief to action. “Lazarus, come forth!”

The Reformer John Calvin talks about Jesus “coming to the tomb not as an idle spectator, but as a wrestler preparing for the contest”. He goes to the tomb, asks for the stone to be moved away and, in the face of Martha’s objection, raises Lazarus from the dead. Even in the midst of grief, Jesus refuses to accept the finality of death. He says of Lazarus that “this illness does not lead to death.” Death has no power over those who believe in him.

Writing to the Thessalonians, St Paul writes about the experience of grief for Christians, “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Grief for the Christian is both like and unlike the grief of others. For at the very centre of our faith is both cross and resurrection, painful death and risen life. In this Passiontide we see the reality of Jesus’ suffering and his solidarity with a suffering, grieving world, as he himself dies. And at Easter we will see that death is not the full stop; it is redefined, experienced still course, but transformed, defeated.

Bereavement turns our world upside down, as we experience death first hand. I wonder too if our exposure to so much death beyond our immediate circle through mass communication brings us face to face with far more death than any previous generation. I wonder what Jesus would say and do when faced with the scale of what is happening in Ukraine, or at the gates of Auschwitz rather than at the tomb of a beloved friend. Perhaps our challenge in the face of death is unlike that any others have faced before us. Perhaps the invitation to trust Jesus promise of resurrection is thus a greater challenge to us.

Still, even if the challenge is great and the temptation to see only meaningless suffering and grief greater than it ever has been, the promise of the gospel remains the same. There is nothing greater than the cross in all creation and history, which says that God has entered a world of pain. There is nothing greater than the resurrection in all creation and history, which says that death does not have the final say. If we only have a cross-shaped understanding, we will see only God in the midst of suffering, and we miss the hope and joy of the Gospel. If we only have a resurrection-shaped understanding, we will minimise the enormity of suffering and loss, and be unable to show compassion to a suffering world. We need both, cross and resurrection, grief and hope. Jesus walks with us in our grief. And he offers us the opportunity to grieve as those who have hope that death is not the end.

St Paul puts it like this at the beginning of his Second Letter to the Corinthians, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4) In the midst of grief, there is divine comfort. And we are invited to make it our own, and share that comfort with others.



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