Sermon The Raising of Lazarus, Worcester College, 9th March 2014.
Deuteronomy 6: 4-9, 16-end; John 11: 1-45
Some of you who were here for the Christmas carol service at the end of last term may remember that I had a special, and rather worldly, request for Christmas. I had told my children that I had asked Father Christmas for a new television to replace the scratched and old one that we had. Remarkably, the negotiations paid off and on Christmas morning we were all astonished to find a large parcel wrapped up in gold paper at the foot of the Christmas tree and inside there was indeed, a brand new television. What were the chances of that?
We are very pleased with the new TV but, as you remember from my talk, finding anything good to watch on it is another matter. However, the past few days have been an exception for I have greatly enjoyed the short series called ‘Thirty Seven Days’, a drama screened on three consecutive nights charting the days leading up to the First World War. I particularly enjoyed it, not just because one of my best friends was playing the part of Winston Churchill, but because it portrayed the response to the initial assassination and the subsequent diplomatic negotiations, manipulations, mishaps and tantrums that took place between Austria, Germany, Britain, Russia, France and Bosnia. These men, for they were all men (Kings, Tzars, Foreign Office Ministers and so on), acting with a variety of motivations moved the sequence of events closer to war by their conversations, letters, phone calls and telegrams. A traditional view of the war, I know, and certainly history ‘from above’, that is from the point of view of the potentates, but a narrative that, with our hindsight we know, led millions to their deaths, did these leaders but know it at the time.
Of course, it makes for gripping drama, as well as education, but as we remember, and commemorate, this year, the the First World War that began one hundred years ago, it leaves one sorrowful, once again, at humanity’s capacity for conflict. Focusing, as it did, upon the big names of diplomacy and politics, such as the Kaiser, Lloyd George, Edward Gray and so on, contrasts with another good series on the war, by Jeremy Paxman a few weeks ago.
Paxman’s series was characterized by ‘history from below’, that is, the story told from the point of view of ordinary people; people whose destiny had been sealed by the decisions of national leaders. Paxman revealed tale after tale of extraordinary courage, compassion, kindness and pride, as well as cowardice and corruption. Of course there are many stories of young men who could not wait to volunteer and serve their country, as Housman wrote, ‘The lads in their hundreds from Ludlow come into town … and there with the rest are the lads that will never be old’. One person who tried to help those who fought in the trenches was Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, a priest who, on the outbreak of World war I, volunteered as a chaplain to the army on the Western front, where he gained the nkcname ‘Woodbine Willie’ for handing out Woodbine cigarettes as he offered spiritual aid to the fighting and the dying. In 1917, he was awarded the Military corss at Messines Ridge after running into no man’s land to help the wounded during an attack on the German frontline. But despite the spiritual and practical help offered by such people, many a parent lost a child, and some parents were to lose four or five sons. That kind of loss and grief is not something any of us would wish to endure. And what consolation can there be?
As we come to the last of the seven signs in John’s Gospel, we find that it is Martha who is need of consolation as she rebukes Jesus,’ If you had been here, sir, my brother would not have died.’ And here is Jesus’ answer: ‘Your brother will rise again’. ‘Yes, I know’, she replies. But surely that is not the answer that brings her consolation now. Likewise, in the first world war priests increasingly offered prayers for the dead, not prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer, but out of an acute pastoral need. It is just such a pastoral need that is presented to Jesus in this story, as Mary also pleads with Christ for a response, and Jesus shows great compassion. He weeps, and he performs the greatest of his miracles, reminding us, perhaps of the Epstein statue in the ante-chapel of New College in Oxford. The large disturbing figure of a deformed and bandaged Lazarus emerging upright, perhaps trying to walk. The sculpture leaves us wondering is his flesh is still decayed underneath the swaths of bandages. A gruesome rising.
What can we make of this last, and most dramatic of the seven signs, and how does it relate to the six others? Firstly, it is a remarkable contrast to the text with which we began this term. The first sign, the turning of water into wine at Cana, where Jesus’ wearily agrees to the request, rebuking his mother for putting him in that situation. But at the raising of Lazarus, we hear that Jesus considered Lazarus’s illness to be ‘for the glory of God, to bring glory to the Son of God.’ And Jesus even waits for two whole days before attending to the situation. Secondly, when Jesus does attend, he makes it clear that he is acting so that the people might believe that God sent him. The text is littered with this emphasis: Christ tells his disciples that Lazarus’s illness is an opportunity for God’ glory to be shown, and for Jesus to be recognized in glory as God’s Son. Martha acknowledges his as the Messiah and Jesus prays to God in order to show them that he is the Son.
We do not hear about Mary and Martha’s reaction to Lazarus’s return to life, but rather the reaction of others: some believe, some seek to condemn Jesus, as the narrative of the Gospel moves into the passover, the final discourses, and the passion narrative. Thus, the seven signs end, with their aim to convince the reader or hearer, that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, he is the resurrection and the life, and whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. Surely a consoling truth for those who believe, at least, in the long term – this is a God who has power over death and this final sign points towards the ultimate victory of the cross and resurrection.
I wonder how consoling this theology was to the grieving families of those who perished in the Great War. I hope it was. But I also wonder what help there might have been for them, and for those who now do not see their loved ones rise again? What is it that makes things better now? Hope in the eternal kingdom is one aspect of the Christian faith. Creating a new and better reality in the present is another. Faith in the risen Christ, which this seventh sign points to, is the means by which we can receive the strength of God’s grace to see a new future in this world, and although we may not have seen a world war since 1945, 2015 might be the first year that Britain has been not been formally engaged militarily in another country for 100 years. If, that is, we are not involved in Ukraine and Crimea.
I think the Old Testament reading tonight offers us a passion and a hope for our future, in the commands and promises of God. Moses tells the Israelites: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. *5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem* on your forehead, 9and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.’
Such a strong instruction is a response to a loving and supreme God, but the love of God towards us, and his command to love can be easily forgotten, unless it is accepted, practised and employed, unless we keep them it our hearts, teach it to our children in all situations, bind it to our hands, our heads, our houses or our gateposts. If we do this, and allow God’s grace to be absorbed into our beings, we have hope of changing ourselves and our world around us. By this, we ourselves become the signs of God’s presence in the world, and God’s work, his love, shines through us to become a sign of hope in the world. Forget it, and we open the possibility of hell on earth. If that happens, then we can only await a better future after death, where every tear shall be wiped away.