Sunday Week 5 of Lent Year A

I remember when my father died 20-odd years ago that the hardest part of going on living was the problem other people had knowing what to say to us—my mother and brother and me. Friends and family want to comfort you but don’t quite know how to do it. And I don’t think I was very willing to be comforted back then—I didn’t make it easy for them—but I suspect there is no easy way of being with someone in their grief.
I did learn back then one really bad way of offering support. So many people said, in one way or another, “don’t be sad, it’s God’s will.” That made me so angry then and makes me even angrier now when I hear similar advice. Twenty years ago I guess I got riled up because I didn’t want easy answers—now I hate it because I know it’s not fair to God. It makes God sound like he doesn’t care or even prefers people to be dead than alive, loves death more than life, but if today’s gospel shows anything it shows how much God loves life and is heart-broken by death.
In the middle of all the magic and the miracle there’s a very human story—a buried body, grieving sisters, confused disciples—and above all a Jesus who is full of feeling. He might be saying grand and mysterious things and he might be doing the impossible but in the centre of it all he is showing us just how God faces death—like a friend torn apart by it all. As the story starts and Jesus is at a distance he manages to have his own theories about why God lets people die before their time but as he draws near, draws near to grief, draws near to loss, he is drawn near to the heart of the matter. When broken-hearted Martha meets him on the road and tells him off for letting Lazarus down into death Jesus tries to comfort her with words. But then as the weeping Mary pours out her disappointment words fail him and Jesus starts to get really upset. But its only when he see the tomb and realises that here is his friend dead and gone that he loses it. Tears pour down his cheeks. No more room for soothing words. He cries. He cries and he prays. And he calls Lazarus out of the tomb and into new life.
Out of death and into life. In a way that’s the whole of the Christian story. Our Elect are with us today and that’s why we use this gospel. It holds the promise for them. At the Easter Vigil when they are baptized they will step out of death and into life. That’s an awesome thing to promise them. New life. How can we give them that? Well, Thank God we don’t have to make good on the promise ourselves—Jesus is the one who has called them and will call to them that night and say “Come out! Come out of the tomb.” But the work isn’t all God’s—we have a responsibility as well. Poor Lazarus staggers out of the tomb all tied up in grave clothes and Jesus tells the onlookers to unbind him and let him go. We have that job for our Elect. As a community we can either let them live or conspire to keep them bound up in death. So how do we do that—unbind our friends and let them live? Two ways … at least.
First of all we have to be able to. If we ourselves are all tangled up in our own grave clothes how can we help anyone else to be free? As we walk alongside our friends into Holy Week and towards baptism we need to let ourselves be brought to life too. To take a good look at what has still got us tangled up in death and ask the God who loves life to set us free once again. Maybe our Reconciliation service on Wednesday is a good way to do that.
But apart from being able to help our Elect receive new life we have to want to. Think how much better the world would be—heck think how much better our families would be—if we did even some of the good things we each have the power and ability to do but fail to do because we can’t be bothered or don’t care enough. How does Jesus find the power to raise Lazarus from the dead? I believe he finds it in his gut when it is twisted up in compassion and in his tears when he can’t hold them back. Jesus cared about Lazarus. Loved him. Wanted him to be alive. Hated his death. And took the risk to weep and took the risk to pray and took the risk to call him to life. Do we care that much about life? Do we care that much about our friends here today? Maybe we need to pray to care that much. I hope we can pray for that gift. But it’s a risky gift.
Jesus gives Lazarus his life back but at a terrible price. John’s gospel makes it really clear that raising Lazarus was the last straw for the authorities. After this act of love Jesus has a price on his head, he’s a hunted man, an outlaw. He gave Lazarus his life and will end up giving up his own. That’s how much Jesus cared about Lazarus. He was willing to die for Lazarus’s life. In a way Jesus has made that same bargain for each of us—given his life so that we might have ours—and done it for the same reason. He loves us so much that he can’t stand to see us dead. Our challenge—all of us—is to live our new life in the light of that enormous and terrible gift.