The Question that has an answer

Sermon 29th March 2020  Fifth Sunday of Lent: John 11.1-45

It is hard to believe, but in two weeks’ time it is Easter Sunday. That means that today, liturgically, Passiontide begins. As someone put it, we move from the desert to the Cross. The reading we hear this morning, the raising of Lazarus, has also been called the Easter story in miniature. The more closely one looks, the more parallels can there be drawn between the overarching Gospel narrative and these verses in John’s Gospel.

This morning, I would like to have a look at some of those parallels, particularly those that resonate with the situation in which we find ourselves today. Those of you who know me a little bit, may find it surprising that I am quoting the British Prime Minister, but he was right when he bluntly said ‘It will get worse, before it gets better’.

raising of lazarus

That it will get worse, before it gets better is precisely what we see in the Easter story too. During Lent, during this Passiontide, the closer we come to Easter, the closer we also come to Good Friday: there is no escape.

In the narrative of the raising of Lazarus, John makes the point that it getting worse before it getting better is not just a fact of life, but an inevitable necessity in the story. We hear how Jesus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, stays another two days where he was, before travelling to Bethany.

This raises a question, I suspect, that we often rather avoid. When people ask me why there is evil in the world, I usually fall back to the answer that this is simply how the world is, and that my trust is that God will work through it. However, here, we are pushed a little further and confronted with the question: why did Jesus not help when he could? Why does God not help when he can? It is a question that we may ask ourselves at this point too.

We see in the story that this question of ours has been asked since the very beginning. Martha says to Jesus when she comes out to meet him ‘if you had been here, my brother would not have died’. A few verses later, Mary, kneeling at Jesus’ feet repeats her sister and also says ‘if you had been here, my brother would not have died’. The question resonates through the story, and through the centuries.

When Jesus sees and feels the pain of the sisters, and others who were there, he is greatly disturbed and starts to weep. It is then that we start to realise that the pain and the question ‘why’ cannot be separated.

And that brings us right back to today. The question ‘why is this happening, to me, to those whom I love, to those most vulnerable’; that question is not an academic question, but it is a cry of our hearts. It is the cry that we will hear later on the Cross as Jesus exclaims ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’. It is also the question we hear on Easter morning, when Mary asks the gardener ‘Where have you laid him?’

It means that the answer to the question cannot be found in an academic treatise, but it is found in the story. The answer is when we know ourselves to be known; the answer comes when we hear our name. This morning we hear how Jesus cries with a loud voice ‘Lazarus, come out!’, and in two weeks’ time we will hear again Jesus saying a name: ‘Mary’.

For us then too, the answer is to be found when through our tears we can hear that voice. These last few weeks have been a time of huge adjustments and finding new ways of living. Whether that is balancing a busy family life with a demanding job, or the sudden absence of friends and for all of us a restriction of our freedom. Amidst all this, there is the concern for loved ones, for those most vulnerable and indeed the realisation that almost certainly it will be a time of deep personal loss for at least some, if not all of us. And so our hearts ache, and cry out the question ‘why’?

Yet, we know that on Easter morning that question gets answered. As I said, not in the way we may have expected. Instead of giving us knowledge, the answer makes us known. Instead of the mystery being solved, we become part of it, and that is how we know, and how we are known.

Gracious Father, you gave up your Son out of love for the world:
lead us to ponder the mysteries of his passion, that we may know eternal peace
through the shedding of our Saviour’s blood, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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