If only

IMG_2378Well, what a feast that gospel reading provides! It is a wonderful story full of intimate love and grief, of anguish and questioning. Rather than split up the flow, the lectionary this morning gave us the entire story of the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-45) from him being taken seriously ill, his dying, being buried, and then astoundingly being brought back to life. It gives us the shortest sentence in the Bible too, “Jesus wept” (v35), and with it the outpouring of grief for his friend.

The questioning comes because Jesus delays in travelling to be with them. If only he had been there Martha’s and Mary’s brother would not have died in the first place because surely Jesus would have been able to fix it. Despair, anger, and frustration mix as so often they do when tragedy strikes. How often would we like to turn the clock back if we could? Accidents happen in a split second and a moment’s lapsed concentration can have catastrophic consequences. That’s why the penalties have been increased for using mobile phones while driving. Sometimes we don’t realize just what the significance of events is, or what is at stake and if we could with the full knowledge of hindsight go back and take it all more seriously, we would. But we can’t and hindsight is a cruel tormentor. So many doors that we could have taken in life but didn’t walk through, the possible lives we could have led but we chose another course. The wrong decisions we’ve made.

Is everything now lost? Lazarus is dead and Jesus has to say this very plainly to his disciples. They latch on to the easy comfort of euphemisms. Lazarus is just sleeping! Clergy are often the only ones around funerals to use the ‘d’ word. When I ask funeral directors when someone died, I am told when they passed away. They refuse to use the ‘d’ word. Jesus is not so squeamish. He gives his disciples the reality check they need to face up to what has happened. When we are tempted to use Henry Scott Holland’s much abused poem ‘Death is nothing at all’ we need to know that the sermon it comes from goes on to say the long silence tells us that this is not true. The day after the Westminster attack I was leading prayers and prayed out loud for the homes where someone who was present is now absence; where the long silence would now be keenly felt. They have died and it is irrevocable.

If we are still tempted to soften the reality of this, Martha shows that she knows Lazarus is dead because when Jesus tells them to remove the stone from the tomb she objects: there will be an odour! In a hot climate the dead are smelly and that is why they anoint them with strong fragrances.

Lazarus walking out is like something from a horror film. When the dead walk it means that the zombies have risen. The undead dead are not good news. But this is different. New life has been brought into what was otherwise a hopeless situation, full of ‘if onlys’, and weeping. Here our first reading (Ezekiel 37:1-14) echoes. Ezekiel’s dry bones are as dead as you can get. There isn’t even an odour with these they are so beyond repair. And yet the hope that Ezekiel proclaims is that just like the beyond hope bones can be brought back, so can a situation, an exile and destruction of the nation, be brought back and given a new start.

So we are back to the ‘if onlys’. What would new life look like for all of those? We can’t undo what has been done. There is no time machine to change the unchangeable. This is one of Dr Who’s fixed points in time: it was, it is and it has to stay that way. But there are always signs of new life in the grace of God.

Offenders can find repentance and change how they live going forward, even if they will have to bear the consequences of a record that might show up on DBS checks. Sometimes people have to come to terms with terrible mistakes and deliberate actions, or weaknesses that got the better of them. Even if the scale of our ‘if onlys’ is not at the extreme end, there is always a new hope and new life in the hope that comes from God. Through living the abundance of God’s gift in his grace we can always make each new day a chance for that light to shine in and through us, ahead and around us.

In God’s grace hope is never lost, even and especially when it looks like it is. Each new day is an opportunity to be renewed in that light of love and shine with it wherever we are. And that transforms the world. In Christ even death, the final unchangeable, is not beyond reach. For to the decaying corpse of Lazarus new life is brought. As we journey to the cross, this is the hope in which we mark this holy Passiontide season.


Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 2nd April 2017


About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His latest book is 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus (Sacristy Press 2017). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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