Lazarus *(I have visited the catacombs since writing this sermon)
One of the places I’d really like to visit, apart from certain sites in Holy Land, is the Catacombs under the streets of Rome. The Catacombs contain early Roman tombs, but also the graves of early Christians many of whom were martyred for their faith in Jesus.
The earlier graves there, which date back to the time of Julius Caesar are marked with the signs of pagan gloom and hopelessness, The inscriptions are either cynical at the expense of the gods, or embittered in their complaints.
But there are graves in a nearby chamber of those who suffered the extremities of persecution at the hand of the Romans, Christians who were burned, or crucified, or who were sawn in two or thrown to the beasts. The inscriptions on these graves show no gloom whatsoever, they express a deep joy. I have read about a whole chambers which seem decked for marriage rather than death, and that there is an atmosphere of gladness there of death that excludes all sorrow. These martyrs knew the presence of the living Christ, and they looked forward to the joy of the eternal life, which lay before them beyond death.
If we look at the gospel reading about the raising of Lazarus, we find that there is so much to comfort us and reassure us in, for here we read of someone being raised back to life, having been dead for four days.
We also find here Jesus’ well known words of hope:
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die!
Which key figures in history have ever been able to claim that?
A man once asked a Hindu priest:
“Could you ever say ‘I am the resurrection and the life?’ ”
“Yes ,”said the priest, I could say that. “But could you make anyone believe it?”
Jesus did say that and people did believe it. Jesus proved who he was by his own resurrection, which he predicted. His actions and his character also backed up his words.
The people whose tombs lie in the Catacombs, for example, believed in a Risen Lord and not just a dead martyr.
Through the resurrection of Jesus and his promises to us, we as Christians, have been given a foretaste of the glorious future that awaits us in the completion of God’s plan.
Secondly, hidden in our gospel today, we can also find if we look carefully, a resurrection for the present time; for today.
Let me explain.
If we look at the part where Jesus approaches the tomb and Martha greets him, we find that our faith is perhaps rather like hers. She speaks these words to him:-
“Lord , if you had been here , my brother would not have died.” (Obviously she has faith in the past, and in what Jesus could have done)
She goes on to say:- “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” (Here she seems to expect and hope for Jesus to act even now)
Yet when Jesus says:- “Your brother will rise again!”(Her mind immediately jumps in to future possibilities)
“Yes , I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day!”
She completely loses sight of what she has just said, she dismisses Jesus’ ability to work wonders for the ‘here and now’.
* We can be, like Martha, convinced that Jesus has miracle-working power, We say we believe that he can do anything. We know and are convinced that he died and rose again, and He will restore the dead to endless life, and yet how much of our faith in Jesus’ power to act, relegates His work to the distant past or limits it to that which is yet distant future?
How often do we expect Him to work in and for us today?
When Jesus said, ”I am the resurrection and the life’ he used a verb which spoke of timelessness! I am!
There has never been a time when Jesus has been unable to act, nor will there be a time when he will be unable to act in the future.
This does not mean that every sickness will be healed , nor every tragedy averted, nor every prayer answered to our liking.
But what we can be sure of, is that when we wait for prayer to be fulfilled, Jesus loves. And when He does act, his timing will be perfect, and we will discover love’s blessings even in those painful moments of delay!
See how he waits the correct timing to go to Lazarus’ tomb.
See the love expressed by him, as He waits.
And as he waits he weeps and suffers too.
There are many times in our lives where we experience being placed in situations, where we feel discouraged, deeply grieved, and despondent, and we are filled with fear and dread of what is to come, and we doubt whether God is listening to us and really caring for us.
Our readings today, show that kind of setting. First in Ezekiel’s experience of being set down in a valley, not a luxurious, fertile valley, but one full of dry bones.
And then in the gospel, we read of Jesus’ experience of being informed of the death of someone he dearly loved. Yet in both of these stories God acts and redeems the situation.
At school , I have a caption which is stuck on my desk, which I cut out of a magazine recently, and it says this :-
FOCUS ON WHAT MATTERS MOST!
We need to ask ourselves that question.
What really matters most to us?
In the gospel today, Jesus focussed on showing his deep love for others, his main concern was to glorify God, and so he risked his life by returning to Bethany, then entering Jerusalem, knowing what lay ahead for him, and he offered up his life.
If we are sitting here this morning feeling a deadness in our lives, or is we feel like giving up the struggle to do God’s work and spread God’s love in this world, because we’re tired and weary, then be encouraged by these words at the end of the reading from Ezekiel, which speaks of new life, resurrection from graves, of breaking free, rather like the inscriptions in the Catacombs in Rome:-
“Thus says the Lord God, I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”
It is time for those of us who feel a deadness to come up out of our graves and do beautiful things for our God.