The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
Print This Page

Evensong      1st May 2022
Take away the stone - Lazarus and resurrection
Jeremy Fletcher

John 11
As a fan of quotations and quizzes I’m tempted to begin with a question as to where this quotation comes from: ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’ Another one is ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’.
The Poem is In Memoriam written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. It is an expression of his devastation at the death of his greatest friend, Arthur Hallam, when Tennyson was 23 and Hallam 22. Tennyson went into a deep depression, and the poem, published years later, chronicles his journey through deep grief, and the darkness of despair, to the dawning light of faith. 
I studied the poem as an undergraduate, and was interested, as a Christian, that Tennyson looked in the Bible for people who had died, and what had happened to them, notably Lazarus. It was here that I first realised that Lazarus, having died and been brought back to life, would die again: he is, if you’ll allow it, resuscitated, not resurrected, dead though he was for some days. 
Not only that, but Lazarus is not reported as saying anything about what it was like to be dead. How many documentaries would he be on today? The Bible records nothing of his experience. 
Tennyson asks a question in section 23 of his poem: 
'Where wert thou, brother, those four days?'
There lives no record of reply,
Which telling what it is to die
Had surely added praise to praise.
From every house the neighbours met,
The streets were fill'd with joyful sound,
A solemn gladness even crown'd
The purple brows of Olivet.
Behold a man raised up by Christ!
The rest remaineth unreveal'd;
He told it not; or something seal'd
The lips of that Evangelist.
Why is it that John’s Gospel is silent about this, simply recording that Lazarus is around and a cause of concern for the authorities, but silent?
Let me offer a few thoughts. Firstly, though the occasion of the miracle is Lazarus, it is not about him. It is about Jesus, who backs up what he says about himself with action, or rather, his saying encapsulates what he is and what he does. Think of the “I am” sayings: Bread of life, light of the world, good shepherd. All are illustrations of Jesus’s life and actions. His words and his life are one. Jesus says “I am the resurrection and the life” here. He shows his power over death by what happens to Lazarus. And so they can believe in him when he too comes to die. In raising Lazarus Jesus shows what he will do for us all: not even death is to be feared. It is simply the last of our enemies. The miracle is then about Christ, not the one who was raised.
Secondly, death remains real. To concentrate on Lazarus would be to diminish the power of death, to wonder whether, if he has cheated it, perhaps we can too. There is a fascination with studies of those who have had near death experiences. Sometimes they can seem to minimise or trivialise the reality of death. One of the greatest leaps of faith is to realise that one we love is to die, and that we should let them go. And that is second only to the knowledge that we also will die. This should be world changing. To make Lazarus a celebrity would be to somehow minimise the power of death. Jesus raises Lazarus to show how great death is, not to minimise it. We concentrate on the power of the healer, not on the healed. 
Thirdly, Jesus walks with those who mourn. It is possible to interpret Jesus’s actions in John 11 as knowing what will happen. His delaying until Lazarus is dead is not callous: he knows that God’s power will be revealed. Yet faced with the reality of death and the devastation of the mourners, Jesus is deeply moved, and weeps. The power of death is huge and devastating. The resurrection and the life does not take mourning away. He accepts it and brings it into his love. Resurrection will put death in its context. Death is now not the end, but it is an ending, and endings hurt.
And lastly: Resurrection is there for all who believe, who receive it by faith. The experience of eternal life is now – we are ‘kept’ in eternal life when we confess our sins, not just promised a future everlasting life when we die only. Thanks be to God for the hope of resurrection, and the knowledge of eternal life now. Thanks be to God that Christ walks alongside those who mourn. And thanks be to God that as we die, through faith, in Christ we will live a new life for ever. Our eternal state is secure. 
Take away the stone, says Jesus. May we rise in glory. Amen.

Print This Page


Sermons from previous years are here | 2021 | 2020 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005