Tag Archives: Lazarus

Can these bones live? (Lent 5A, 6 April 2014)

Ezekiel 37.1–14
Romans 8.6–11
John 11.1–45


It’s 6 April. I remember 6 April 1968 (forty six years ago for the arithmetically challenged among our number). It was a Saturday; 6 April was the first day I awoke after accepting Jesus into my life. Today, I want to talk a bit about that time.

The night before, I had gone to the local Methodist youth group for the first time. I hadn’t known about this, but they were off to the Billy Graham rally in the Exhibition grounds that night.

I decided that I was glad to be going there. I had been wondering about God. I thought Jesus was a good man. I was distressed that Martin Luther King had just been assassinated. I felt confused about life.

I listened to Billy Graham preach. I didn’t understand much, but I did note he spoke well of Martin Luther King’s legacy. But the rhetorical flourishes of a preacher from the South of the good ol’ US of A were quite foreign to me. And he did go on a bit.

Billy Graham finished (finally!), and there was an altar call. I felt an irresistible magnetic pull on me. I can recall the feeling still. I had to leave my seat—me, quite possibly the most introverted kid in the whole place that night. I knew I had to leave the people who had brought me, not yet knowing the leaders’ names, not knowing how to find them later.

I just couldn’t stay in my seat.

It struck me reflecting on the story of Lazarus this week that I can identify with him. When Jesus says, ‘Lazarus, come out!’, he just came. It wasn’t a suggestion, it was a summons. Just so, I felt summoned that day. I had to come.

Jesus summons each one of us. Sometimes, we might even have given up on life when he summons us. We may as well be dead.

As I reflect on identifying with Lazarus, I think How was I dead? After all, in the story Lazarus was dead. As a doornail. How was I dead?

I could simply say I was dead in my trespasses and sins, unable to know God. And while that may sound harsh, it’s an image that works. I was constructing a life that kept God at bay, while at the same time wanting to know God better. We could use other language too; I was AWOL, and I was afraid to return to barracks. The scriptures also use other language, and we’ve come across it the past few weeks. So with the man blind from birth, I too was blind from birth. I couldn’t see Jesus, the true image of God.

And like the Samaritan woman, I needed to drink of the living water. I was spiritually dehydrated. I was being poisoned at the wells of false hopes and plastic dreams.

I was in need of a new birth. Just as Nicodemus had to be born of the Spirit, I needed the Spirit-wind to breeze through my life and turn me right around.

I think if I were telling a story like this for today, I’d use yet another image. I’d remind people of the frustration of trying to get your computer to work, asking around your friends for suggestions, finally gritting your teeth and calling the help desk only to be asked: ‘Is it plugged in? Is it switched on?’

Once you plug it in, everything is different. Just that one little change makes all the difference!

It seems a little grandiose to say that I was born again, drank of living water, made to see and brought to life that night. (Oh, and that I was plugged in to the transcendent Source of power.) Yet if you judge that night by the effect it has had on me, then these words are as good as any and better than most.

Those early days of April 1968 brought other discoveries to me.

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Caught up in something greater—Lent 5, Year C (17 March 2013)

Isaiah 43.16–21
Philippians 3.4b–14
John 12.1–8

Christ is among us—

God is doing a new thing!

Another Sunday in Lent, another wonderful passage from Second Isaiah, who wrote when the people were in Babylon, forced into exile for life away from Jerusalem, where their homes were demolished or in ashes.

Their life as a nation was over. The Babylonian armies had conquered. The Babylonian gods had won. It was in this setting that Psalm 137 was written:

How could we sing the Lord’s song

in a foreign land?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

let my right hand wither!

Isaiah’s message cut across this sense of doom.

I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

What new thing was God about to do? This is how Isaiah puts it:

I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.

Much earlier, God had brought the people out of slavery in Egypt. Then, God had made a dry path through the waters of the Red Sea; now, God would make a river to follow through the dry paths of the wilderness.

God was doing a new thing, and drawing them into a new story. No longer would they only be people delivered from slavery in Egypt—they would also be people delivered from exile in Babylon.

God was doing a new thing; God has been doing new things ever since.

The story of Mary of Bethany is the story of a woman who found that God was indeed doing a new thing.  Continue reading

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Fifth Sunday in Lent (Year A, 10 April 2011)

Blessed are those who mourn

Ezekiel 37.1-14
John 11.1-45

Blessed are those who mourn, 
for they will be comforted.

Matthew 5.4

Our community has mourned lately, and we’ve seen grief. We’ve mourned the damage done by the floods, and we see people continuing to grieve at the slowness of action to help them repair their homes. We’ve seen people mourning because of the damage done by Cyclone Yasi, in Christchurch and in Japan.

Yet Aussies are still not all that attuned to mourning. We seem to see it simply as a problem to be solved. We expect to be able to fix things up, or replace them. We want to keep moving forward.

A widow went to her doctor. She said she’d been told by her friends she was grieving too much for her late husband, and that she should be getting over it. The GP asked how long since he had died…her reply was Six weeks ago.

He was barely cold, and her friends wanted her to ‘move on’.

Blessed are those who mourn, 
for they will be comforted.

I don’t know about you, but ‘they will be comforted’ sounds like a very modest promise to me. It reminds me of Sigmund Freud’s rather unassuming aims in psychoanalysis, which were

to transform neurotic misery into common unhappiness.

Now that’s a promise even a pessimist could trust!

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted’ is a message that would never get Jesus a gig in one of the big mega-churches these days. If he were there, I think his message would have to be less modest, more like this:

Never mourn again!
You can be happy all the time!!
Your life will be wonderful every day!!!

Just come to our church, accept what we say, and put your money in the plate!

To be ‘comforted’ in a future time seems a little anaemic really. Yet it is Jesus’ promise to those who mourn. We shall be comforted. And this is the kind of world we live in, a world of hope and a world of promise, grounded in God’s word. The comfort may come in the future, or in the next life, but it is assured.

That said, it is a future promise. The Beatitude doesn’t claim that those who mourn are comforted now. As I said, it seems to be a modest kind of promise. Those who mourn, whatever they mourn for—

their own brokenness and sin;
the state of the world as it is;
or the loss of someone dear to them—

they will be comforted.

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A sermon on the Commissioning of Julie Mackay

It was my pleasure and privilege to preach at the commissioning of my good friend Julie Mackay as a Pastor in the Uniting Church in Australia last night. Julie is a chaplain at one of my old haunts, The Wesley Hospital.

Man of Sorrows; Man of Resurrection

Isaiah 43.16-21
Philippians 3.4b-14
John 12.1-8

Tonight’s Gospel Reading is simply quite amazing. Mary is at home in Bethany, at the feet of Jesus. In what could be fairly called an erotically-charged moment, she anoints his feet with fabulously expensive perfume and wipes his feet with her hair. (Judas complains; I think he was jealous.)

I was taught very early in my Christian walk (in fact, in the first Bible study I ever went to) that ‘text without context is pretext’. So let us avert our eyes from this scene, and take a look at its context.

In the story of Jesus that John tells, Jesus has only recently drawn Lazarus from the tomb, still bound in his grave clothes. You remember the story: Lazarus, a friend of Jesus, gets sick. Jesus waits three days before going to him, in which time Lazarus dies. Everyone’s really upset with him.

But, the story goes, Jesus brings Lazarus alive out of the tomb. In doing this, Jesus has revealed himself as ‘the Resurrection and the Life’. He has authority over death. Death has no power over him. It’s here that he says the beautiful words that we often hear at funerals:

Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.

So why does Mary anoint Jesus’ feet so soon after Lazarus is restored to them? I sure it’s partly because she is so very grateful for what Jesus has done in raising her brother from the dead.

But I also think it’s because she bought this perfume to anoint Jesus’ body at his death. She must have been a woman of deep faith and deep love. She wanted to do the right thing by Jesus when his time came to die. But what could she do with the perfume now? This man is the Resurrection and the Life! Those who believe in him will never die! So how can he ever die?

I believe that Mary concludes that Jesus will never die. How can he? So rather than not use the perfume for Jesus at all, she pours it out right there and right then. She takes the place of a slave, and offers Jesus the greatest gift she has, cleansing his feet with the perfume.

But Mary’s wrong about one thing. Not about the gift; not about serving Jesus. No, she is wrong in thinking that the One who is the Resurrection and the Life cannot die.

Jesus will die. Jesus knows he will die; and Jesus transforms this amazing gift of love into a prophetic act. Whatever Mary thinks she’s doing, Jesus says that she is proclaiming his death and burial by anointing him with funeral spices. And as we leave this beautiful little scene, we leave Mary still kneeling at Jesus’ feet.

But soon, there will be a great and unexpected reversal: Jesus will kneel at his disciples’ feet, and wash them as a sign of what it means to serve one another. I wonder: did Mary give him the idea?

And then Jesus will be taken and crucified.

Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life; Jesus is the Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief.

Julie, as a chaplain in this hospital you will meet people who relate to Jesus in different ways. For some, he is resurrection and rescue. He will make them well, usually with the caveat that they have to believe. And hard. For others, he is the shepherd who takes them by the hand through the valley of the shadow of death.

When St Paul set out to be a disciple of his Master, he found that in order to follow Jesus on the downward path he had to set aside the natural advantages he had (‘circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews’). Paul said that he set them aside because

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Paul too links resurrection and suffering. He reminds us that to share in Christ’s life means to let go of privilege and share in his death. It can happen in little ways. When I first started visiting the wards over ten years ago in this hospital with my brand new ID badge proudly displayed and glinting in the sun, I came to a ward where I was comprehensively and deliberately ignored by a junior member of staff. My immediate reaction was to think, ‘How dare you? Don’t you know who I am? I’m Dr Walton!’

But of course, I wasn’t Dr Walton any more. I was simply a chaplain who had to learn a new way of relating to my fellow workers. It was a small and unnoticed death. It was a death that I had to enter if I were to embrace a new kind of life. Isaiah was right. God is doing a new thing, something that the wise of this world could never foresee. God is bringing life where there is death.

So Julie: for you, for each one of us, Jesus is both Resurrection and Man of Sorrows. Accept the discipline of holding both together. Stay close to him when you celebrate life and when you mourn death. And as you stay close to Jesus, as you wash the feet of his people in service, as you take the descending path of service in this hospital, God is doing a new thing. You bear within you a living hope that doesn’t flinch from death. It doesn’t need to—because Jesus Christ is the Resurrection and the Man of Sorrows. As the Christian faith proclaims,

Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.


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Life is too short for fear

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

John 11.1-45


In the mysterious story we heard in today’s Gospel Reading, Jesus confronts the power of death face to face and emerges victorious. His friend Lazarus dies; and his death produces a ripple effect. Any death produces a ripple effect. Think of those you have loved, and are now no more. Their significance didn’t stop with their death. They are alive within us, in our memory, in the very people we are. They are there in the questions we ask—Why did this have to happen? They are there in the question a child asks—When is daddy coming home? They are there in the empty spaces they leave behind, in the touch that is not felt, and the voice that is no longer heard.

Lazarus died, and left his sisters Martha and Mary distraught. Not only them—Jesus was also grieving.

I remember years ago reading A Grief Observed, the book CS Lewis wrote after his wife’s death. Something he wrote struck me then, and has stayed with me: 

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.

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