Today is the start of Passiontide. It marks a turning-point in the Season of Lent, from following Jesus into the wilderness to walking in his footsteps towards Jerusalem. From here we will journey to Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and, at last, Easter Day: triumphal entry, last supper, trials and crucifixion, burial, rest, and resurrection. Today is the turning-point.
We’ve been asking ourselves, through Lent, who is Jesus to me? And today, I want to ask again, who is this Jesus? Who was he to those who first met him?
Today, the Gospel – or, good news – begins with a family, a brother and two sisters, Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. I love the way in which they are introduced into the story, because it is clear that this family is well-known to, and well-loved by, the community John is writing for. You know Mary, he writes; the one who anointed Jesus feet with perfume. That hasn’t happened yet, in the story. John doesn’t recount that event until the next chapter. But the people he wrote for, the first hearers of his telling of the good news, know exactly who he is speaking of. Why? Because this family are so close to Jesus, so loved by him. This family who had opened their home to Jesus when he passed through Bethany, when he visited neighbouring Jerusalem. A love for one another so deep that the sisters do not even need to name Lazarus: he, and they, are known by their identity as those whom Jesus loved. And in their hour of need, they send to Jesus.
We find Jesus himself in a very low place – geographically and emotionally. He has gone from Jerusalem, up in the hills, down to River Jordan near where it empties into the Dead Sea, the lowest place on the surface of the Earth. He has gone to the region where David hid, centuries earlier, when King Saul was searching for him to kill him; and he has gone for the same reason. In Jerusalem, very recently, an influential lobby had feared him so much that they had been willing to risk the wrath of Rome by carrying out the death penalty, stoning Jesus to death. He has made a strategic retreat. Almost certainly the Psalms of David penned in similar circumstances will be on his lips. And in this place of grief, he hears news that a dear, an oh-so-loved, friend is seriously ill.
I wonder how he felt. I wonder whether you can relate: that sense of kicking-a-man-when-he-is-down; that sense of it-never-rains-but-it-pours; that sense of is-there-really-any-need-for-so-much-sorrow-at-once? Through the storm, he hears the still, small voice: wait, rest in me.
He waits. He rests. And then he turns his face towards Jerusalem. And the disciples ask, Are you out of your mind? Don’t you remember why we left there? If you go back, they will kill you. But Jesus is going back, is going to be with his grieving friends. And Thomas makes a decision: Let us also go, that we may die with him. I’d rather be dead with Jesus than alive without him. Come what may, being where he is, is where I need to be. (That, by the way, is why Thomas struggles so much when he alone of the disciples, brave enough to go out in search of supplies when they are hiding behind a locked door in fear for their lives, misses being there when Jesus, risen from the dead, stands in their midst.) In this place, where the world as we have known it has already come to an end, what we need is Jesus.
When Martha hears that Jesus is on his way, she goes out to meet him. He is the hope that she is holding on to: had he been present, Lazarus would not have died; and now that he is present, even now God will give him whatever he asks. Yes, she knows that there will be a Day when God makes all things right; but Jesus makes all the difference in the here-and-now, whatever comes, because he is God come to be with us, come to lead us into tomorrow.
Jesus wants to see Mary, also; here, privately, away from the crowds. She comes to him; but others follow. Mary comes to Jesus, kneels in front of him, and washes his feet with her tears. She’ll do the same again, at a later time, a dinner given in their home in his honour. Undone by emotion: grief now; thankfulness mingled with fearful anticipation then. She does not hold back in his presence, and he can take it. He is not embarrassed; does not feel awkward; will accept no apology from her, as those who weep often feel pressure to offer. Jesus is deeply moved. And so are those who look on. And this is messy: for John tells us that those who came to comfort Mary ad Martha were ‘the Jews’ which is his shorthand for the influential group centred on the life of the temple, many of whom wanted Jesus dead. In other words, his friends’ friends were his enemies. How does that feel?
Jesus asks to be taken to his friend’s tomb, and as they tell him, ‘Come and see’ – echoing the words with which he invited two of John the Baptist’s disciples to follow him right back at the beginning of the Gospel – something inside him breaks. Jesus began to weep. To weep for his loss. To weep for his friends’ loss. To weep because of the complexity of a world in which among those good enough to care for Mary and Martha were those evil enough to want him dead – some of whom will be transformed from enemies to friends in what will unfold; others of whom will double their enmity, seeking not only to kill Jesus but to kill Lazarus, to put his sisters through pain-upon-pain. Jesus began to weep, with those who weep and those who were angry or cynical or perplexed. Jesus was greatly disturbed and deeply moved, in solidarity with us all.
A tomb – a cave, with a stone covering the entrance. Take away the stone. God’s glory is not seen in keeping death behind a closed door, in Moving On or Getting Over It. Jesus calls Lazarus out, gives instruction for him to be unbound. And I believe. I believe that this took place, that Jesus raised Lazarus from the grave; that this was a miracle that helped prepare us for his own death and burial and resurrection. But I also know that this is the exception, not the rule. That in time Lazarus did die again. That everyone we love must die. That grief is common to all humanity. That this is the context in which we listen to this good news.
When we find ourselves where Mary, Martha, Jesus, Thomas found themselves, the good news we need is Jesus coming to us: Jesus, who brings God’s glory to the most unpromising of circumstances; Jesus bringing something of the future into the present; Jesus, who rescues us; Jesus unashamedly letting us wash his feet with our tears; Jesus weeping with us; Jesus unafraid to have us take out our loved one – even if we are afraid of what we might find – and unwrap their memory, and set them free, over and over again. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.
Some of us know this; and some of us are yet to know it; and some of us need to know it today. That is why we return here, together, year on year. That is why we wait, and weep, and help one another to believe, and step into the light, and bind up broken hearts and unbind the constriction of unhelpful expectations, in the precious name of our Saviour, Jesus, and to the glory of God. Amen.