You can watch our service on YouTube and read the sermon here.
The Fifth Sunday of Lent
St Mary Magdalene’s Sunday 29th March.
For technical reasons this service is in two parts.
SERMON FOR 5TH SUNDAY IN LENT 2020
Another really long Gospel reading today, but it’s long because we need to get the whole story. Because this is the beginning of the end. Today, we are beginning the road that leads to Good Friday. That’s why, in the old days, this was called Passion Sunday, because now our commemoration of Jesus’s Passion is just round the corner, we’re not just in the wilderness, but we’re clearly heading somewhere, which is to Jerusalem, and to the cross.
And the raising of Lazarus, which we read about today, is the prelude to the Passion. The raising of Lazarus was the last straw for the Temple authorities, it meant that they had to do something about Jesus, because it made a big impression. As it says in the last line of our reading, “Many of the Judean people who had come with Mary, and who had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.” That was really dangerous for the authorities. This was happening on the doorstep, in Bethany, which is only a couple of miles from Jerusalem, so people no doubt went streaming back to the city telling the tale, of how Jesus was doing the mighty works of God. That was a real threat to the powers-that-be, to the Jewish elite who ran the Temple and whose wealth and privilege was bound up with it, and who backed the monarchy of King Herod. Because if there was a major disturbance, if things got out of control, and Herod and the authorities lost their grip, then the Romans would come down on them like a ton of bricks. The Judean elite knew very well that they owed their position of power, wealth and privilege to the compliance of Rome. Even if they thought they were completely entitled, or indeed, divinely appointed, to be in charge, they knew in reality that they were there at the whim of Rome. The military power of the Empire was overwhelming, and they were part of the Roman Province of Syria, but it suited the Romans to rule through local clients, the thoroughly unlikeable Herod family, who were closely linked by marriage to the priestly aristocracy who ran the Temple, but that was just a convenience for Rome, and the moment it ceased to be convenient, when it ceased to be an efficient and effective regime, then Rome could change it all. That was, in fact, what happened in AD70, when a major Jewish revolt (all over the Roman Empire) resulted in the destruction of the Temple and all autonomous institutions, and direct rule by the Empire. The trouble with Jesus was that he attracted the sort of religious nationalists and revolutionary enthusiasts who any foreign occupier would be wary of, and so he was obviously a danger to the status quo. So, when word started to spread that he had actually raised a man from the dead just down the road, in Bethany, the local authorities took steps, and resolved to have him killed.
And so, the raising of Lazarus is the beginning of the end, because this is what determines the authorities to have Jesus executed. But it doesn’t happen straight away; because Jesus doesn’t go into the city, because it isn’t the right time. Lazarus was raised in the winter, and Jesus then went and spent time in Ephraim before heading back to Bethany in the spring, just before the Passover. The Passover was the time it had to be.
As you know, St John tells us in his Gospel about a series of signs that Jesus did, which should have alerted people to who he was, and this, the raising of Lazarus, is the last, the seventh, the culminating sign. We are told twice that Jesus was “greatly disturbed” as he talked to the sisters Mary and Martha, and that’s not just because Lazarus was his friend, and he feels their pain, but because he’s in pain that these closest friends of his have still not understood the message of the signs. He’s hurt and disappointed that they don’t see the truth. That explains the stagey speech he makes outside the tomb, it’s all about a culminating sign for those who should have seen already. Because Martha has bitterly said to him that she understands, as a good Pharisee, that Lazarus will rise again at the general resurrection, at the end of the world, but that doesn’t answer her pain now. Jesus has to show her that resurrection is more than just a distant hope for the future. Resurrection is life transformed here and now. Death is not the end, and it is faith in Jesus Christ that is the gate to this new life. “Yes, Lord, I believe,” says Martha, and goes to fetch her sister. Jesus then says to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” which is an extraordinary thing to say when she’s mourning her dead brother, but then he calls that brother out of the tomb; death is conquered. We see the reality of God in Jesus Christ. And the glory of God is revealed precisely in the conquest of death. That is how it will be on the Cross, though in even more terrible relief. He is with us in our pain and suffering. He is with us in our fear. He is with us in our bitter isolation. He has, after all, been there before us. And he shows us the glory of God. In his life and his words he shows us what God is like, and shows us how to live; he shows us what love truly means, and how to live in that love, bound up in the love of God, through faith in Jesus Christ who has conquered death.
Father Henry Everett’s blog