Over the past year we’ve lost some of our most faithful older members of St Michael’s. Over the past 12 months we’ve witnessed the death of several of our long-serving ‘saints’.
As we mourn their passing, we can be grateful that Easter is approaching. After all, Easter marks the conquest of the grave, and the defeat of death. It’s the season when Christians have their hope of heaven refreshed, as we joyfully remember the resurrection of Jesus.
But the resurrection wasn’t the only time that Jesus conquered death. It was certainly Jesus’ most dramatic and personal conquest of death, but it wasn’t the only occasion on earth when Jesus brought back to life someone that had died. For example, Jesus restored to life the widow of Nain’s son (Lk 7:11-17), plus Jairus’ daughter (Lk 8:49-56). And in our passage from John’s Gospel this morning, we read how Jesus responded to the death of a friend. We read how Jesus brought hope and joy to two women who were bereaved.
Bereavement can produce a variety of emotions, can’t it? Grief, sadness, denial, despair, confusion – even anger. At its worst, bereavement has been compared to “a hole in the heart”.
In our Gospel reading just now two sisters called Martha and Mary were going through that same range of emotions. They had just lost their brother Lazarus. He had been taken from them in the prime of life. He had succumbed to some unknown ailment or infection and had already spent four days in the grave. Many emotions must have passed through Martha and Mary’s minds.
In the midst of this emotional turmoil and grief, Jesus arrives on the scene. Christ comes to meet both Mary and Martha. He came to offer them compassion, he came to give them a promise and he succeeded in giving them real hope. And I want to remind us that he can do the same for us today.
Christ offers us compassion
When Jesus arrived at Bethany, he encountered Mary and Martha, plus many others, all grieving the death of Lazarus and seeking to comfort one another. It was a place of sadness, loss and weeping. Jesus was not immune from this sadness. He was not aloof and uncaring, but utterly compassionate.
We are told that Jesus was deeply moved by Mary and Martha’s grief. He cared for them and shared their grief. He was troubled, as they were, by the tragic death of their brother. When he was taken to the place where Lazarus was laid, Jesus wept. That may be the shortest verse in the Bible, but it speaks volumes.
When we experience bereavement, the Lord knows them and understands them. He too has wept at the graveside of a loved one, he too has been distressed at the death of someone close to him. God the Father has even seen his Son die a cruel death on a Cross. He can empathise with you and your emotions in a way that no other human fully can.
Christ gives us a promise
As well as offering us compassion, Jesus also offers us a wonderful promise. It’s the same promise he gave to Martha in our passage today. Jesus says: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. Whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”
With those words Jesus is promising eternal life - life beyond the grave - to all who believe and trust in him. As the eternal Son of God, Jesus is the very source of life itself. In relationship with him, there can be no lasting death. Attached to him, the grave cannot hold us.
Christ gives us real hope
Jesus proceeded to back up his astonishing promise with a practical demonstation. Jesus gave Martha and Mary a visual aid, a vivid demonstration, of his power over death. He requests the stone across the tomb of Lazarus to be taken away, and calls Lazarus out of his grave. In one of the most remarkable events in human history, Lazarus then walked out of his tomb, with his grave clothes still draped around him.
Jesus is doing the same today. But whereas he called Lazarus out of the grave back into this world, today he calls people out of the other side - out into God’s everlasting kingdom, into God’s eternal embrace.
But the best reason for trusting Jesus’s promise of eternal life isn’t even his raising of Lazarus. The best reason for relying on Jesus remains his own resurrection from the grave on the first Easter Sunday. Jesus was killed on a cross just a short time after his encounter with Martha and Mary.
It was the raising of Lazarus that prompted the plot to kill him (Jn 11:45-53). Today’s passage began a sequence of events that over a few weeks culminated in his arrest, trial, conviction and crucifixion – a series of events that we will be following in John’s Gospel over the next few weeks. A series of events that left Jesus lying dead in a tomb.
But the tomb could not contain him, could it? Because we all know what happened next, don’t we – the stone was rolled away, his body rose and 500 people witnessed him alive over the next forty days.
You see, the promises Jesus gave to Martha and Mary in our passage today were no empty words or wishful thinking but a trustworthy pledge from the one person with the power to defeat death and return to life. Jesus’s resurrection is the foretaste, the first fruits, of the resurrection that all God’s people will enjoy. A resurrection into a new world with new bodies. A resurrection into a world where death, disease and decay are no more.
As I finish, the experience of Martha and Mary should reassure us that the Lord understands our grief and empathises with our sadness. It is OK to cry. Christ wept too.
But despite being a time to mourn and to shed tears, bereavement does not also have to include despair. At the height of her grief and sadness, Jesus invited Martha and Mary to trust him for life beyond the grave, to trust that he really could overcome death and open the door to God’s glorious kingdom. And he wants all of us to trust him for those same things too.
As Mary and Martha discovered, Christ can give us comfort today, and a sure hope for the future.