21st May 2017

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Jn. 11:(1)32-44

‘I have no plans to call a general election.’ ‘There will be no snap general election before 2020.’ Flashback to all the times Teresa May said a snap election was a terrible idea – until she didn’t, reports The New Statesman recently. It’s about that essential question of the trust that people can have in their politicians’ she says. Trust? It so often seems to be all smoke and mirrors, all fake news and lies. How do you know what to believe when we have lies about Brexit, about NHS funding, about deflection by focussing on another party’s blackhole calculations?

What about believing a sensational headline such as: Dead man walks! What sort of Anastasis, that is, resurrection, is this? This story about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead; what should we make of that? Is it so outlandish that it’s unbelievable, all fake news and lies? Or is it so off the wall that it has to be 100% real?  

The media and powers that be, have us believe what they want us to believe, whether it’s the truth or fake news and lies. We become drawn into the stories, thinking we have a choice in what to believe. Even with fake news. It’s what the media do, it’s what politicians do, and it’s what the Pharisees did. This most significant sign that Jesus performed won him many followers, who came to believe in who he was, and because of the countless other deeds and signs he had performed. Was this all fake? Had he fooled everyone?

In gaining evermore followers Jesus was clearly a threat to the structure of society, and raising Lazarus, Anastasis pre-empted, was the last straw. It’s an unbelievable and amazing thing that happened to Lazarus, and the Pharisees don’t actually dispute or deny what happened; in fact, they very much believed it was true. But this last act becomes one of the principle reasons for the authorities wanting him out of the way. It became increasingly apparent that Jesus wasn’t mounting a political-style revolution, and the theologian Tom Wright states ‘The victory Jesus intends to win will be won by self-giving love, not by normal revolutionary means.’ But in doing what he did he usurped the Chief Priests, and they clearly didn’t like it one jot. It unsettled them, unnerved them. There was a lot at stake. To believe the well-being of the nation needed to be preserved was a lie; it was for their own positions of power and prestige. Rejecting anything that doesn’t fit with their high-ranking, nice, comfortable life-style, and their safe position, both within their own nation and with the ruling Roman Empire. So, it’s either Jesus, or the nation. Not that they thought very much of their own nation, their own people, anyway. The Pharisees looked down their noses and sniffed dismissively at the common crowd; the rabble don’t even know their law. They consider themselves superior to the common people. They know their Torah and it suits them that most people wouldn’t even understand it. Rather like many politicians then, and their surreptitious ability to keep much of the general public in total ignorance; to maintain the smoke and mirrors effect, to offer unrealistic manifestos based on lies, whilst protecting their own interests. Yes, that’s definitely about that essential question of the trust that people can have in their politicians! So, it becomes increasingly difficult to accept truth even when it bops us on the nose.

So, what of this Gospel narrative itself and where do we find any truth in that?  The author invites us into what is a very intimate story; a story that although connected with the bigger picture of what God is doing in the world, is also a story on a much more personal level. We are invited to share in it, to become part of it, to be challenged by it in delving beneath the obvious face-value to the depths of the under-currant running through it, to defend the truth; but we still need to make up our own minds about what that truth is.

The raising of Lazarus is one of the most powerful and moving stories in the whole Bible. Powerful because Jesus not only foreshadows his own destiny, Anastasis personified, he also demonstrates the awesome and unfathomable power of God, and that God is master, even over humanity’s most powerful and overwhelming enemy, death. And its powerful because he didn’t come waltzing in, saying ‘everything’s fine, not to worry, I’m here now, business as usual’, like something akin to what Basil out of Faulty Towers might have said, and then sets about winding up some cosmic crankshaft into immediate action. It’s a story which is both unbelievable and uncompromising. But is it fake? Lazarus, along with his sisters Martha and Mary, were some of Jesus’s best friends. Lazarus was ill and died, and Jesus chose to remain where he was for a further two days. What sort of a friend would do that? So, when he eventually rocks up, Martha rushes out to meet him, and naturally expresses her grief and anger, ‘If you’d been here he wouldn’t have died.’ Wouldn’t he? What does she mean by that? Lazarus had already been dead in the tomb for four days (v17), so he died way before Jesus had a chance to get there. Is he for real? Or did Martha mean that if Jesus had actually been physically there he could have prevented it? After all, he was performing many other signs (they’re never called miracles) all over the place for random people, and these were some of his most special friends. The scientist and theologian, John Polkinghorne talks of ‘the deep-seated human intuition of hope.’ Both Martha and Mary said ‘Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.’ Such was their belief, trust and hope in who this friend of theirs was.

There has been understandable speculation over time about whether Lazarus was indeed really dead, or just in some sort of coma or something. Truth or lies? A few years ago, the Bolton Footballer, Fabrice Muamba’s heart stopped for 78 minutes. The wonderful medical staff were fortunately able to bring him back to life. Just in case there’s any doubt, 2000 years ago they didn’t have electric-shock machines or defibrillators. Lazarus was properly dead. The fact that Martha points out that there is already a stench leaves us in no doubt about this. Decomposing, decaying, putrefying. Dead.

Jesus finds himself surrounded by grief, and is greatly disturbed and deeply moved at the mourning and distress he witnesses around him. ‘Show me where he’s laid’ Jesus said, and then began to weep himself. There is no doubt among theologians, and others, about this being a historical truth, because the early church would either have left it out or not invented it at all in light of Jesus being venerated in his own Anastasis, his own victory over death. God in Jesus cries with the world; God the Word made flesh, feels anguish and pain. But what else could Jesus have been weeping about? Yes, the grief felt at the death of his friend, but if he knew what God would do through him in raising Lazarus again to life so that they would see the glory of God and that God had sent him, why would he feel that level of grief? Was it regret at not showing up earlier and having to witness the extent and depth of the grief and distress in those he encountered? It’s perhaps reasonable to assume he might also have been grieving over his own impending death, and all that that signified. The death of God Incarnate. God signing his own death warrant, for the sake of saving not only Israel, but delivering the whole world from its own dilapidated doom and fate. Is it fake that God has unwavering and absolute love for the world?

Jesus sets not just Lazarus free from death itself, but in the process, invites us as well as Mary to look to the future. He brings the future and the past into the present. He makes it explicit that this resurrection the Jews talk about is not an event at some distant point in the future. It’s worth noting that some of the Sadducees didn’t believe in resurrection, but most Jews did at this time. In Jesus is the resurrection; the resurrection is Jesus, and it is here and now. ‘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’, is commonly quoted at Christian funerals. Jesus is the end of time being brought into the middle of time, the beginning of time being brought into the middle of time, and the middle of time being brought into the here and now. The past, present and future tied up together, in this time within time. This time that is God’s time, not our time. Perhaps the truth of this can offer some timely semblance of peace and reassurance for students who have submission deadlines looming, or revising for imminent exams, and are more than likely feeling like some duck-billed, beaver-tailed, otter-footed platypus right now, not knowing whether their head still belongs to the rest of their body with the sheer pressure and demands of life.

Perhaps it is after all about that essential question of the trust that people can have in Jesus. The Greek word Anastasis means resurrection, or raising up, and the female diminutive is Natassa, so Happy Birthday Natassa; Happy Birthday Resurrection. A new day has birthed, and the resurrected Jesus invites us to leave the fake darkness, the lie of the darker forces of this world, the night of bitter tears, pain and anguish, to enter into the truth of a new life of light and love and joy. The joy of the Lord is our strength.

True resurrection is a living experience, in the renewal of body, mind and spirit.

True resurrection is the reversal of the verdict that humanity passed on God’s son.

True resurrection is the belief and hope which lies not just in some future event when Jesus Christ will return again; but the life a Christian lives in the here and now is a life which is already in possession of the life which is eternal.  

Christos anesti – Christ is risen!