A sermon preached for Preston High Street UCA on 5/11/21 for the week of All Saints Day 2021 on John 11:32-44
“If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Today’s story is about grief. It is about the injustice of life. And it is about trust.
Just like we saw with the story of Job last week, bad things happen to people all the time. Our culture, which organises itself around controlling the world, with stopping bad things from happening to good people, has been profoundly challenged by the events of the last eighteen months. Locked in our houses for most of the time, unable to leave the country without special bureaucratic permission. Fear of COVID has driven so much of our lives and continues to do so.
Our fantasy of total control seems distant. If we can’t solve something as simple as a tiny virus, then are we really in control of our lives? Perhaps COVID has merely laid plain something which has always been true, but we have been able to ignore, or at least to push out of our consciousness.
Where do we stand in this? If we can’t have faith in our own mastery of science and technology, then who are we? If we aren’t God, as seems increasingly clear, then to what, or to whom, do we turn?
Today’s reading begins with the simplest and hardest of things: the death of a loved one. We begin right in the middle of the action, skipping the increasing ratcheting up of dramatic tension as Jesus hears that Lazarus is dangerously sick but chooses to linger for a few days before journeying to Bethany. It doesn’t dwell on the danger which Jesus is walking into – in returning to Judea where the authorities already attempted to stone him. It even skips Jesus’ famous declaration to Martha that he is the “resurrection and the life.”
It begins with the emotional core of the passage: Mary, kneeling at Jesus’ feet, making the astonishing declaration that, had Jesus been there, then Lazarus would not have died. When presented with suddenly catastrophe which upends our lives, we look for answers. We ask: where is God? What is he up to? Why has God abandoned us?
For Mary it is different. She doesn’t accuse God: she directly confronts Jesus. If you had been here, my brother would not have died. Who exactly does she think Jesus is? What power does she think he possesses?
Jesus’ reaction is surprising. In the setup to this passage, it is clear that Jesus knew exactly what was happening. He told the disciples that “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” He makes Lazarus sound like a pawn in some celestial game of chess: Lazarus dying is regrettable, but necessary in the main game of increasing the disciples’ belief. It sounds cold, like the watchmaker God who winds up the gigantic apparatus of the universe and then steps back to let it do its thing. Or like a general who has to make calculated decisions about who they will send into extreme danger for the good of the rest of the regiment.
It’s an uncomfortable thought. Is that what God is like? That’s certainly how things feel sometimes – that life is at absolute best some sort of unknowable process in which we are just pawns, just cogs in the galactic machinery as it ticks along.
Perhaps even worse, maybe there is no plan at all? Maybe everything is just completely random, absurd, without meaning.
This image of the universe is well summed up by the joke at the heart of one of my favourite books, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. At the centre of the book is the story of a vast, hyper-intelligent computer which was tasked with finding the answer to “life, the universe, and everything.” After the little spinning wheel of busy-ness had spun for millions of years, the answer came back: the answer to life, the universe, and everything is, in fact, forty-two.
Which is to say: there is no answer, no meaning, nothing we can grasp.
This leaves us between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
Perhaps God is unfathomably remote from us – a celestial hacker who sets the program running and then steps away. This is a picture of what we might call the “god of the philosophers.” Alien, unutterably strange, remote from us and our concerns, surely more concerned with the doings of equally unfathomable structures like nebulae and galactic clusters than with the doings of ordinary men and women, who, like the flowers of the field, are here today and gone tomorrow.
Alternatively, we are the inhabitants of an entirely meaningless universe. There is nothing more to say about it – we are the victims of a bad joke, a meaningless scribble in the sand left by the wind. The only appropriate response to the question of “what does it all mean?” is to shrug our shoulders and change the topic. There is no “why” – there is simply chance and necessity spinning incomprehensibly out through time and space, leaving us unutterably alone in an empty universe.
Caught on the horns of this dilemma, what are we to do? Where are we to turn?
On with the story.
Mary and her friends are weeping, and Jesus himself is deeply moved. This leads to the shortest verse in the Bible: Jesus wept.
Jesus is moved in spirit.
Jesus, the eternal Word of God, the one who was with God in the beginning of all things, the one through whom all things were made, the one who is God’s light, shining in the darkness of our suffering, sinful world, wept.
So it turns out that we are not trapped in quite the dilemma we thought we were. The Christian witness is that the universe is neither an experiment of the great scientist in the sky of Deism, nor is it the meaningless fluctuation of subatomic strings.
Instead, the universe is a personal creation – and we, us tiny, puny, mortal humans, are much loved.
But, amazingly, the story doesn’t stop there. It isn’t merely that the God who created all things has come to us in Jesus, it isn’t merely that Jesus weeps and rejoices with us. It isn’t even just that our lives have meaning in God’s big story of the universe.
Jesus says to Martha “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God? Lazarus, come out.”
And Lazarus, dead long enough to begin to rot, comes out of the tomb.
This is the point at which we part company with all our naturalist assumptions about the world. We are, frankly, in the realm of miracle.
This is not at all a comfortable place for us to be. We don’t like the idea of God sticking her nose in, interrupting our tidy little lives. If God could do this astonishing thing, both because Jesus loved Lazarus, and because Jesus’ mission was, and is, to be God’s expression in the world, then what on earth could this interfering God do next? And what might this interventionist God want of us, with our precious plans and precarious sense of control over our lives and our universe?
This deeply uncomfortable claim is at the centre of our story. God loves us, but is not content to sit in the sky mourning. Instead, God gets stuck in, gets involved into the mess and dirt and grief of our lives, and acts freely and sovereignly. This definitely goes counter to our whole picture of the universe, and it is a hard thing to get our head around.
I’m not going to attempt a defence of the idea of the miraculous, except to say that the universe is weird beyond our wildest imagination – just google “subatomic string” – and to note that, if God does exist, then why on earth wouldn’t God be able to do precisely what is necessary to accomplish God’s mission, what God has set out to do?
Which brings us to another pressing question. If Jesus brought back Lazarus from the dead, then what about all the many, many people who have died and who Jesus hasn’t raised?
Today we mark All Saints’ Day, and that particularly reminds us of all those who have died in the faith – in advanced old age, of illness, as martyrs, or in all the many ways in which life can be snatched from us. What of them?
What does it mean to be a saint? It means to be one who, like Abraham, like Martha, trusts God. The people we refer to as “capital S” saints are those whose trust was so life-giving and transformative that our whole community remembers them. People like St Paul, St Thomas, most unfairly called “doubting Thomas”, St Columba, St Francis of Assisi, or St Ignatius of Loyola, all saints particularly important to me, whose lives attracted public notice. No doubt you will be able to name others.
But there are others, uncounted numbers, millions upon millions of people who have trusted God with their lives without any recognition by the wider church. They too are saints – those whose lives are defined by fundamental trust in God.
And that, I think, might be the pointer towards this mystery of why Lazarus was raised and so many others have not been. God isn’t magic. God isn’t the celestial vending machine who dispenses rewards when sufficient prayer points have been accrued. God isn’t a frequent-flyer programme. God created a world where death and life are in a perpetual dance – where death is required for new life to come. But it is also, and more importantly, God created the universe purely out of love.
God is working God’s purposes out, and we are caught up into those purposes. Our fundamental role in God’s plan is to trust God like Martha trusted Jesus. Like Abraham trusted God. This trust will reveal itself in the fruits of the Spirit in our lives. The witness of Scripture, and of our ancestors in the faith, is that God will prove Godself trustworthy in life, and in death.
In what we see here and now, and in whatever unity with God that lies beyond death, the God who loves us enough to die for us is utterly trustworthy, and our primary task is to increasingly grow into and reflect our trust of God in the death and smells and everyday reality of our lives.
 Pascal’s term, not mine. But I try not to cite too many philosophers in a sermon.
 ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Romans 4:3, c.f. Genesis 15:6. I’m choosing to emphasize the “trust” element of belief here, because we are so very strongly tempted to read “believed God” as “believed in philosophical claims about God”, which ends up making faith a theological exam.