A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Andrew McKearney on 2 April 2017
The story of the raising of Lazarus which John’s gospel and no other gospel gives us, is extraordinary and powerful.
Hearing it read as we’ve just done, can leave us quite overwhelmed with questions tumbling over one another. Did it happen? And if it did why is there no mention of it in any other gospel? If Jesus loved Lazarus so much, why did he not rush to help when he heard of his illness instead of staying where he was for a couple of days?
Then there are the conversations that happen at cross-purposes!
First between Jesus and the disciples when Jesus uses the metaphor of sleep to refer to the state that Lazarus is in; and of course the disciples’ response is to say that well, if he’s just asleep he’ll be all right! Then a little later between Jesus and Martha, with Martha trusting in the resurrection on the last day while at the same time grieving her brother, whereas Jesus is suggesting that the resurrection is here and now, and not seeming to grieve at all!
Up to this point, as John gives it to us, it’s all quite puzzling and convoluted – very typical John! But then something simple and profound happens. Mary comes and kneels at the feet of Jesus – and the whole thing shifts gear.
Out go the questions, the puzzles, the theological conversations, and we become deeply engaged in something that is both emotionally familiar and spiritually profound.
Mary kneels at the feet of her Lord weeping. She says:
‘Lord, if you’d been here, my brother would not have died.’
Similar thoughts are often around when someone dies – if only we had done this, or someone else had done that. They are familiar words of recrimination and regret. We hear them again a little later when some of the others ask: ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
There’s also the intensity of emotion that first starts with Mary and those who are weeping with her, but which then touches Jesus to a depth that we only hear about elsewhere in the Garden of Gethsemane. In this story of Lazarus Jesus becomes greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved, so much so that he begins to weep. And again when he gets to the tomb of his friend he is greatly disturbed.
It’s intense emotion that those of us who have experienced the death of someone close will recognise.
This part of the story is so different from what we heard at the beginning – now it’s emotionally familiar and we’re there, attentive!
The story then moves to what is a spiritually profound moment with Jesus standing before the tomb of Lazarus.
My appreciation of this story goes back many years to when I first read Dostoyevsky’s great novel ‘Crime and Punishment’. In this book, the story of the raising of Lazarus has a pivotal role to play.
Raskolnikov has murdered Lisaveta, the woman pawnbroker, believing that his life is worth more than hers. He then finds it increasingly difficult to live with himself.
He goes to see Sonia a prostitute, who is in prostitution to earn enough money to support her parents and siblings.
Their conversation turns to faith, which Sonia has and Raskolnikov does not – for him faith is for the feeble minded. But he asks her to read the story of Lazarus to him, and she does so, hoping that he too will find faith.
The next evening Raskolnikov returns to see Sonia again and he confesses his crime to her. Sonia falls on her knees in front of him and says: ‘What have you done to yourself?’
She then embraces him and kisses him, saying she will never leave him. His heart now softened a little by her, he echoes her words by saying:
‘I killed myself, and not the old hag. I did away with
myself at one blow and for good.’
Sonia then tells him to go at once and stand at the crossroads and bow down. First he must kiss the earth that he has defiled and then he must bow to all the four corners of the world and shout aloud ‘I am a murderer!’ Then, Sonia says, God will send you life again.
Eventually Raskolnikov turns himself in to the police, and goes to Siberia where Sonia accompanies him. Acknowledging to himself the enormity of what he has done takes time with layer upon layer of resistance needing to be peeled away inside him. But then, and I quote:
‘How it happened He did not know, but suddenly
something seemed to seize him and throw him at her
feet. He embraced her knees and wept…But at once she understood everything. Her eyes shone with intense happiness; she understood, and she had no doubts at all about it, that he loved her, loved her infinitely, and that the moment she had waited for so long had come at last….They were both pale and thin: but in those sick and pale faces the dawn of a new future, of a full resurrection to a new life, was already shining.’
On his return to the prison barracks that evening, under his pillow lay the copy of the New Testament from which Sonia had read him the story of Lazarus the day before he had confessed his crime to her. A thought flashed through Raskolnikov’s mind: might her convictions, her feelings, her faith be now his too?
And there this remarkable novel ends.
I read it when I was 16. I was at a point in my life when I was searching intensely for meaning. At one point Dostoevsky writes in that novel:
‘Mere existence had never been enough for
Raskolnikov; he had always wanted something more.’
The same was true for me. Reading Dostoevsky, and this novel in particular, was key in my own journey to Christ. And at its heart is this wonderful story of the raising of Lazarus.
That moment of Jesus standing before the tomb of Lazarus is one of great spiritual depth – I have an icon of it where I pray.
Whether we’ve been involved in a crime of the magnitude of Raskolnokov’s, or whether our search for meaning has been as intense as my own as a young man, this is immaterial. They are facets of being you, facets of being me, facets of all of us with many more besides.
The central thing is this: Christ stands before each of us.
He calls us by name, to come out from all that entraps and diminishes us, the tombs we make for ourselves, the tombs we put each other in.
We emerge, with hands and feet still bound, faces hidden and we struggle to unbind ourselves. But Christ’s work is utterly steadfast: to empower each of us to stand before him, face to face, and taste that freedom and that joy which he longs to give.