s016g99 Somerton Park 21/3/99 Lent 5a
"Jesus began to weep" John 11.35
I wonder if Lazarus was initially stirred, not by the call that Jesus gave "with a loud voice" nor by the sound of the stone being rolled away, but rather earlier, by the quiet sound of Jesus weeping, audible through the stone?
This is the shortest verse in the Bible - it is even shorter in the Greek language in which it was written. What has struck me over the last few weeks is the length of the gospel readings. In the beginning of Lent we had some short readings - the Transfiguration on the mountain, the temptation in the wilderness and the conversation with Nicodemus. But since then we have had whole or nearly whole chapters from John's gospel. The third Sunday was that long interchange with the Samaritan woman at the well outside Sychar. Last week, all of chapter 9, the story of the man born blind. And now this week, from chapter 11, the raising of Lazarus. Next Sunday, Palm Sunday we have a long passion narrative from Matthew, and Good Friday two chapters from John, describing Jesus trial and death.
Jesus the bringer of living water, Jesus the bringer of sight, and Jesus the restorer of life itself. Messages of hope for a world despairing of finding any internal wherewithal to keep going, any light at the end of the tunnel, any new life or vitality.
These themes are so important and so central to the proclamation of Lent, it may cause us to begin to reevaluate what Lent is all about. During Lent we as the Church talk about penitence and self-examination. We perhaps come to Church during the week as if coming to church was a penitential exercise. People who are naughty have to go to church, when of course they would rather be doing other things. We have made our thanksgiving to God into a duty to perform or a mark of our religiosity. Is our building really a "penitentiary" and if it is, who would voluntarily enter here? A "penitentiary" is of course another name for a prison, and the whole focus of those in prison is surely on the walls, around which they are forever trying to escape.
And sometimes evangelism can be seen in these terms. A good evangelist is essentially a good spruiker, conning people into buying something they really don't want and don't need. So the good evangelist has to convince people who have no interest that here is something useful, desirable - to get them "in" - and once they're "in" to make sure they stay that way. No wonder we so often get burnt out!
In these three Sundays in Lent we focus on three great actions of Jesus - the acceptance of a woman, the restoring of the sight of a man born blind, and the raising to life of one who was dead and buried. And each of them concludes with a statement that people believed. First it was the neighbours of the Samaritan woman of Sychar who believed. Then it was the man born blind who believes and worships Jesus. Today we read that many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
Do we sometimes wonder if we have the wherewithal to keep going? Do we see a light at the end of the tunnel? Have we new life and vitality? In terms of the gospel reading for today - do we have new life and vitality to offer the world?
We offer new life and vitality to the world, when we accept people for whom they are and the good that they are able to offer, as Jesus did with the woman at the well. We offer new life and vitality when we forget about sins and moral living like the disciples and the pharisees did not do in last week's reading. And we offer new life and vitality when we, like Jesus, are prepared to weep with those who mourn and be joyful with those who rejoice. (Romans 12.15) We offer new life and vitality, not as we seek these things from above, but as we offer them to others ourselves - and as we accept that which is offered by others to us.
Isn't it strange - so often I think the Church is perceived as weeping when the world rejoices and laughing when the world is sad. This makes a mockery of St Paul who makes no such distinction. Indeed this verse to: "Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep." comes directly after: "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them." (Ro 12.14)
I said at the beginning these lessons perhaps lead us to reevaluate what Lent is all about, and indeed largely what Christianity is all about. Certainly the great experience of Jesus on the mountain of transfiguration, the victory wrought by Jesus over the devil in the wilderness, the success stories of Jesus and the woman at the well, the blind man and the raising of Lazarus - which culminate in the victory of the Cross and Resurrection which we clearly focus on in the next two weeks - are all things to give thanks for. Lent and Christianity are essentially joyful things. One old name for the Holy Communion was the Eucharist. "Eucharist" literally means "good grace" - thanksgiving.
These days with the service of Holy Communion being the main service on Sundays, now a days there is little we do without the Eucharist. I believe this is a very positive development, even though I have always enjoyed Matins sung well and Evensong. But it is right that we are a community which is ever giving thanks. St Paul says "In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus". 1 Thess 5.18
Indeed I begin to wonder what a "non-eucharistic" service might be. I realise this is probably intended to mean that it is not a service of Holy Communion, but I confess my perverse mind thinks of a group of persons in a circle, complaining bitterly to God that they haven't gotten their own way, most frequently using the words of the psalms I imagine ... Mind you, the ancient people of God have more reasons to complain than most. No one can forget the holocaust.
The proper emphasis, I think, should be thanksgiving that we can repent. We thank God that we can turn to God, and that God is gracious and merciful and does forgive us our sins. We thank God for prayer - that we can pray and that God listens. As I have said in the past God is in the habit of listening, because God is more interested in our activities than in forcing us in a particular direction. We thank God for fasting, that our efforts at personal devotion are important to God and that our bodies are as important as our souls (if such a distinction is really appropriate). And we thank God that our alms giving is blessed, that in doing so, we work alongside God to relieve the suffering and want of others.
I was grateful to have been reminded some time ago that the opposite of love is not hate but apathy. Similarly the opposite of thanksgiving is not sadness - such as Jesus expressed outside the tomb of Lazarus - but complaining - such as those who opposed Jesus, and Moses, were so want to do.
We have, of all people, much for which to thank God. One cannot but read that passage from the eighth chapter of Romans, and if one is not imbued with a profound sense of thanksgiving there must be something wrong with us. One cannot but come to the Altar rail and if one is not imbued with a profound sense of thanksgiving, again there must be something wrong with us. One cannot but look at the Cross and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and if one is not imbued with a profound sense of thanksgiving, again there must be something wrong with us.
Jesus wept for his friend Lazarus who had died. He weeps for us if we live anything other than a life of thanksgiving for it is simply so unnecessary. He died and rose again that we might not.
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