Today’s gospel reading is the powerful account of Lazarus being restored to life by Jesus. It is such a well-known bible story that the name of Lazarus has come to be associated with anyone who makes a remarkable recovery from illness, or who survives it against the odds. Some time ago, when I visited an elderly person who was very ill in a nursing home, the receptionist greeted me by saying “Are you here to see Lazarus?”
In John’s gospel, this remarkable sign or miracle occurs shortly before the events that culminate in Our Lord’s passion, death and resurrection. When Jesus told his disciples that they would travel to Judea to see Lazarus and his sisters, they immediately warned of the danger facing him there: “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Throughout this episode, our Lord is aware of his own identity, purpose and calling to do his heavenly Father’s will. On learning of his friend’s illness, he said: “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it”.
While the gospel is intended to reveal to us the identity and mission of Christ, it is at the same time an intensely human story of grief, loss, pain and suffering. There was a close bond of love and friendship between Jesus, Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary. The message the sisters sent said: “Lord, he whom you love is ill”. When Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus, the people remarked: “See how he loved him!”
Grief, loss and sufferings raise questions for all of us. Our faith is tested and we ask, how God could let this happen. We might also ask: where is God in all of this? Many people around the world will be asking similar questions as they try to come to terms with the loss they have suffered through the coronavirus pandemic. We are just entering the critical stage of the illness, but already people have suffered loss and many are anxious for their loved ones.
Both Mary and Martha expressed questions like this: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”. This is entirely natural for anyone trying to come to terms with loss. Sometimes we have to accept that we cannot see the bigger picture, but that is where our faith in God comes in. Despite her questioning, Martha also displayed remarkable faith when she said to Jesus: “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him”. She had faith that Lazarus would one day rise in the general Resurrection, but she could not have possibly imagined what was about to happen at her dead brother’s grave. Nevertheless, her faith gave her comfort and strength as she declared: “Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world”.
It is in his encounter with Mary that the depth of Our Lord’s compassion and feeling for his friends is revealed. As we have observed, he was already aware of the bigger picture and knew what he intended to do, but that did not diminish his sense of empathy for the sisters’ loss and his own sorrow at what had occurred. When we encounter the grief of others, we are reminded of our own losses. Sometimes at a funeral we can be sharply reminded of past griefs that we have suffered. It has been suggested that when Jesus wept for his friend Lazarus, he might also have expressed grief at the terrible pain and loss he was about to face at Calvary.
From all of this we can take great comfort knowing that Christ is present with us and our loved ones and in whatever we may face in life or death. He knows and understands our suffering. As the New Testament letter to the Hebrews assures us: “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested’ (Hebrews 2:18). We cannot see the bigger picture but our faith is in the eternal Lord who said: “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”.
Let us take heart from these words as we pray today for the world and its people; for our country and leaders; for all who are in need or sorrow; and for our communities and families. We are assured that we pray to a living God who cares deeply for us all and is present with us always.
Collect for the Fifth Sunday in Lent
Most merciful God,
who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ
delivered and saved the world:
Grant that by faith in him who suffered on the cross,
we may triumph in the power of his victory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
For all who grieve:
God of all consolation,
whose Son Jesus Christ was moved to tears
at the grave of Lazarus his friend:
Look with compassion on your children in their loss;
give to our troubled hearts the light of hope,
and strengthen in us the gift of faith,
in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Dear Lord, You are the Maker of heaven and earth,
As we face the coronavirus pandemic, help us to lift our eyes to you,
May your peace be with those who are feeling anxious,
May your strength be with those working to keep others safe,
May your comfort be with those who are grieving,
May your wisdom light the way for those making decisions,
May your healing be upon those who are unwell,
May your hope fill those who are fearful of the future,
May your compassion prompt us to love our neighbours,
Keep us from harm,
Watch over our coming and going,
Both now and forevermore,