Sermon given at Evensong on the Fourth Sunday before Advent 2022

‘The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end.’

The Venerable Tricia Hillas Canon in Residence

Sunday, 30th October 2022 at 3.00 PM

‘The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end.’

Those words of reassurance and hope would have been well known to a devout Jewish family, such as we might suppose Martha, Mary and their brother Lazarus were.

Their home in Bethany, a village about one and a half miles from the capital was very familiar to Jesus. It seemed to be his base when he was in Jerusalem. Now this place of hospitality was steeped in mourning. For Lazarus was dead.

‘The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.’

On this particular day, it may not quite have seemed that way for Mary. For Lazarus was dead.

As Jesus approached, Mary knelt at his feet: ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died’.

None of us, not even those who have deep faith, are spared the pain of parting from those we love. It’s terribly human and we deny it at our peril.

A number of years ago a lovely young family I knew were torn apart from one another in a tragic road accident,

The father who survived was a faithful Christian, and deeply shocked he so wanted to be strong. Unable to acknowledge the shock and pain he struggled to erect a buoyant façade but it could not last. And when it crumbled it did so devastatingly. There is a time for raw and honest grief and it’s is no denial of faith for this to be so.

‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’

Mary held together her reverence for Jesus, whom she addresses as ‘Lord’ and her outpouring of grief, ‘if only you had been here’.

The English translation we heard describes Mary as ‘weeping’. It can perhaps give the impression of quiet tears of sadness but the Greek word is of a very different magnitude: pointing to loud and unrestrained wailing, a crescendo of lamentation.

We are told that when Jesus saw Mary’s grief he was ‘greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved’. Again, the English translation tells us much but there is more to be gleaned.

The classical Greek for the phrase translated as ‘deeply moved’ might be used to describe the snort of a war horse in battle or a horse in a tense race. For humans it describes outrage, fury.

Picture the scene, Jesus outraged, troubled, weeping. Jesus protesting angrily—but why? He is certainly not angry with Martha or Mary, or those with them.

I suggest that the reaction of Jesus comes from the sense of outrage may of us feel in the face of fading health, and of death; the kind of fury expressed so exquisitely by Dylan Thomas:

‘Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life, shakes with anger at death itself, the pain and destruction it wreaks.

So, Jesus goes to the tomb. Commentators suggest that this was probably a rock-cut tomb with a circular stone covering its entrance, the type discovered throughout the hills of Judah. There, once more ‘deeply moved’, Jesus orders the tomb to be opened, he prays and with a loud voice calls Lazarus to come out. And he did.

It’s a dramatic and provocative moment. which had those who witnessed it, and those who heard about it wondering, ‘Just who is this man?’ An important question then, and now.

I believe that the sheer familiarity and the enormity of this miracle speaks of both Jesus’ humanity and his divinity.

Its familiarity—grief is a universal human experience. Psychiatrist Colin Murray Parkes, wrote in his book ‘The full Bereavement: Studies of Grief in Adult Life’ that ‘The pain of grief is just as much a part of life as the joy of love; it is, perhaps, the price we pay for love, the cost of commitment’. 

Her late Majesty the Queen quoted Murray in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11th. God in Christ grieves, as we do. God full of compassion is deeply moved, just as we are. Moved at the continuing deaths on all sides in Ukraine. Moved at the lives taken so needlessly in Seoul.

Yet the enormity of this miraculous raising of Lazarus speaks too of Jesus’ divinity, his ultimate authority: ‘Unbind him and let him go’. When Lazarus emerged Jesus orders that he be unbound and set free—from the strips of cloth which were binding him but also from death itself.

Who on earth can do that—except God who gives life? Not an indifferent God, but God deeply moved. God willing to pay the cost of getting involved. And there will be a cost.

What I haven’t yet mentioned is that in the background to this momentous event in Bethany is a growing storm. Those who find Jesus troublesome, difficult and the crowds he is attracting to be dangerous, are on the move.

There was every reason for Jesus to avoid going anywhere near Jerusalem, to avoid drawing attention, to avoid provoking a reaction. Raising a man from the dead doesn’t really count as keeping a low profile. People will talk, news will spread. The trouble which had been brewing intensifies as a result of this miracle in Bethany. (You can read more about this in the next Chapter of John’s). Now there is a price of Jesus’ head—and on Lazarus’ too.

Not long afterwards, around 6 days before his death Jesus would sit at a meal with Martha, Mary and Lazarus in their home at Bethany. John says they gave a dinner for Jesus—of course they did—and there was Lazarus sitting at table with him, restored to those who loved him.

And Mary came forward and knelt at the feet of Jesus once again. Then her words spoke of her sorrow at her brother’s death. Now her actions—in taking perfume and anointing Jesus’ feet—speak of his own imminent death. Before the week was over his body would be wrapped in burial cloths and laid in a sealed rock-cut tomb.

But God in Jesus seems to do his best work in the apparent darkness of tombs. Death would by no means have the final word. So. let us take hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

'The Lord is my portion,' says my soul, 'therefore I will hope in him.’