All Saints’ Day, Year B, 2015 – Isaiah 25:1-10; Psalm 24; Revelation 21:1-6; John 11:33-44
When I first discovered Google Earth I found it creepy and a bit terrifying. For fun, I tried looking up the street where I grew up in Bombay. First the whole subcontinent of India appeared and by simply holding down the zoom button I felt as if I was dropping down from a satellite, falling quickly upon the west coast of India, then seeing the outline of the city and very quickly recognizing the buildings and the streets of this great metropolis. I could see double decker buses and taxis and even people walking around oblivious to the visual intrusion into their lives. Today one can simply type in a street address and instantly you find yourself looking at the front door of the desired location. But something is missing in this efficiency. You lose the sense of location; the position of the island on which Bombay is built, nestled on the west coast, far away are the mountain ranges of the north that preserved India from devastating invasion despite being attached to the same land mass as Europe and China.
By jumping straight onto the street you lose the sweep of a nation’s place and history.
Something of this is present in the challenge to preach and teach about a few verses of text from the Bible. And it is true of this wonderful account of the raising of Lazarus. We can’t, of course, preach the whole sweep of the Bible every Sunday. So we do our best with each passage. In our text from the gospel of John, Jesus has finally arrived at Lazarus’ hometown for a spectacular confrontation with death. Up to this point Jesus has turned water into wine, broken a social and religious taboo by speaking with a Samaritan woman at the well, healed a lame man on the Sabbath, fed five thousand with just a few loaves and a couple of fish, walked on water and stilled a storm. Woven into the narrative is a growing confrontation with the religious rulers of the day who resent his authority and his claims about God. When Jesus hears that Lazarus is ill he knows he has a chance to demonstrate his power not just over sickness but over death itself. Will this convince the authorities, who are now seeking to silence him, even kill him, for claiming he was the Son of God and the long-awaited Messiah? If we had the long view we would immediately recognize all the means in Israel’s history by which a loving and merciful God tried to change life-destroying religious perspectives, and reveal what true justice and righteousness looked like. The long view would immediately bring into perspective all the faithful prophets sent by God to turn the people around. It’s the image of the absentee landlord sending his agents who are bullied and humiliated and who then sends his own son, saying to himself, maybe, just maybe, they will treat him better. Our gospel text this morning is set crucially within the drama of a serious confrontation with death and with the blindness of dangerous religious elite.
When Jesus first hears the news that Lazarus is seriously ill, he waits two days and sends a message to his beloved friends, “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”. But he dies. Of course, as Lazarus’ sisters point out, if Jesus had come promptly he could have easily healed their brother. Jesus was, however, on a clear mission to face death head on and by doing so further enraging the religious leaders.
When Jesus finally decides to go to Lazarus, his disciples are alarmed because he would need to go to Bethany, a village in greater Jerusalem and way too close to the centre of religious power. It seemed foolhardy. They tell him, “the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and you are going there again?”
When Jesus arrives, Lazarus had been dead four days – thoroughly dead, you might say. If Jesus were to perform this miracle he didn’t want people to say that Lazarus was really still simply hovering between life and death. He needed to be good and dead. To Martha he says, ‘your brother will rise again’. Then to drive home the message that he is the anointed Son of God he makes the most astonishing statement – one we must hear on All Saints Day, when we remember all the holy ones who are now with Christ in glory.
He says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they died, will live.” I myself am the resurrection. No prophet in Israel spoke like this man. No prophet in Israel made claims that only God could.
If this was not the very Son of God, then who was he? Our gospel text this Sunday begins here.
Jesus arrives and sees Mary and some of the Jews with her weeping. ‘He was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved’ says our translation. This is an unfortunate ‘dumbing down’ of the Greek. Scholars say it should read, ‘Jesus was angry and greatly disturbed’. And why might Jesus have been angry? Was it unbelief in the crowd? Was it anger at death itself, at the pain and grief it causes? Could it have been anger and agitation at the prospect of his own death in Jerusalem, as Chrysostum suggests? All of these are possible. And taken together they capture the intensity of the moment very well. Jesus moves into a fierce attack on death by commanding that the stone at the mouth of the tomb be taken away. After a prayer affirming his relationship to God the Father, he calls out Lazarus by name, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ from beyond this text, can we hear what Jesus once said, “for the hour is coming at which all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out’. We are all Lazarus.
This is a wonderful image isn’t it?
The word of God goes forth to create life, and restore the broken and here, to defeat death. Like Lazarus we are all called to life at our baptism.
Jesus speaking of himself said, “He, the Great Shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out into green pastures” Today in our baptism service we will hear Jesus calling forth young Tekoa. Last month it was Ariana. Not long ago it was Beatrice and Caspar. Next month it will be Rhys and in January the latest member of the Boldt family and so on. We are all called to life in the church militant and even so, we shall we shall be called at our death to life in the church triumphant. Such is the Google Earth sweep of this All Saints Day: a call by God into life in its fullness in time and beyond it. As a people, we will welcome young Tekoa into this mystery.
The miracle in the story of Lazarus is that a stinking dead man walks out of the tomb, not because of anything he did but because he was called by Jesus, to come out to live again. He would die again one day, of course. But this great miracle was a signal that the final victory would be won when Jesus himself took on the agony of death and defeated its crushing power for all time. What was once the wide sprawling river between the living and the dead is now the ‘narrow stream of death’ as the great hymn by Charles Wesley has it. We simply cross from one life into another in the defeat of death prefigured in this account of the raising of Lazarus. “I am the resurrection and the life”, said the Great Shepherd,” Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” – and live they shall, with all the holy ones of God who have gone before.
Our great privilege is to proclaim the truth of the inevitable pain and brutality of death but also to proclaim the greater truth of the triumph over death in Jesus. As we worship God today we are one with the great multitude all those who have died in the faith of Christ.
We remember, on All Saints Day, with deep gratitude, the famous ones, of course, but also the not so famous ones – some of them perhaps family members, or beloved friends, frail human beings like any of us, but who heard God call their names over and over from the first day of their baptism. They got up when they stumbled, woke up when they had grown indifferent, were graced with faith in the midst of doubt and simply followed.
They are the ones who join with us and all the angels of heaven in worship. All because Jesus faced down the power of death, angry at the damage inflicted on his loved ones and with much agitation offered himself to defeat death for those who went before and those who would come after.
‘I am the resurrection and the life’, says Jesus. ‘Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die”.
Let us throughout this service recall our favourite saints. What is it that makes them so compelling to us? Then let us recall those we have known, who this past year alone crossed the narrow stream of death, never to cross it again. We will be caught up with them in the church’s two great sacraments; baptism and the eucharist. Jesus calls us to life again and feeds us with his body and blood. So great is the mystery of God’s love and forgiveness.