Friday, 2 November 2018

A sermon for All Saints day

John 11.32-44



It is lovely to be back here in St Petersburg

In our reading, Mary – and those with her – look at the grave of Lazarus and they see and they smell death. Jesus looks at the grave of Lazarus, and he sees the glory of God.

This is not just about being an optimist or pessimist, whether you see a glass half full and half empty.

It is about seeing the world in two completely different ways: it is about seeing the world through human eyes or seeing the world through Holy Spirit eyes.

I don’t know whether you noticed how often the verb ‘see’ appears in our passage.

When Mary saw Jesus v32
When Jesus saw her v33
They say to Jesus, ‘Come and see’ v34
And when Jesus weeps, they say, ‘see how he loved him’ v36
And the great statement of Jesus in v40: ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’

And there are other references to seeing and not seeing.

When the people ask each other why Jesus had not healed Lazarus, they remember how he has healed a blind man. He enabled someone who could not see to see.
And when Lazarus comes out of the tomb, Jesus commands them not only to unbind his hands and feet, but also to unbind his face, to take away the wraps that were covering his face– so that he can see.

That is the gift of God: the miracle, the gift of the Holy Spirit who enables us to really see.

When I worked in London I used to go and visit Derek. Derek was going blind. But week on week as I met with him, I was astonished at how God was coming daily more alive for him, giving him not external physical sight, but deep inner spiritual sight.

And Paul writes about how we are blinded by the god of this world, how our faces are covered with a veil, but how the Spirit comes and takes away from us that veil, so that we can begin to truly see.

Mary and those with her looked at the grave of Lazarus and they saw death.

Last week the wife of Sergei, one of our guards, died. Natalya Alekseevna was only 53 and her death was completely unexpected. The funeral was on Friday. And he is devastated. Death has stepped in and shattered his life. It has stripped him of the person he most loved, and of the person he had built his life together with for the last 35 years.

And for the people of this world, who can only see this world, it is desperately tragic. Death for them really is the final word.

That is why we find it so difficult to deal with:

In our pain and grief we sometimes look for someone to blame. We see that here: Mary says, ‘Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died’. And the crowd echo her criticism: ‘he has made blind people see, so why couldn’t he heal Lazarus?’

Just as an aside, I do have sympathy for doctors. We expect them to save us – to save us from death. But they are only human. They work in human institutions, they make the sort of mistakes all humans make, and they have limited human knowledge. They cannot stop death. And yet so often they get blamed when death happens.

And we push death away; we pretend it does not happen; we do everything we can to avoid facing it (especially in Western societies) – and when it does happen, and someone who we love dies, we are - quite literally - gutted.

Mary looks at the grave of Lazarus and she sees death

But Jesus looks at the situation with very different eyes

1. He looks at those who are bereaved with the eyes of love and compassion.

He sees the grief of Mary and Martha.

He sees that it is as if someone has taken a hammer and smashed their world into smithereens.

Not only had they lost someone they loved dearly, and who had loved them dearly, but they appear to be unmarried and to have lived with their brother, and so in their culture they had lost the person who would have provided and protected them.

Jesus sees their grief, their devastation. He sees the grief of others who have come to mourn Lazarus. He sees what death does. And he is moved. He weeps.

John 11.35 is one of the shortest verses in the bible: in the Greek it is only two words long – Jesus wept. But it is also one of the most precious

That was really what they needed. Not some platitude which changes nothing. When I was in the parish in the UK we had many funerals. And there were some occasions when there simply was nothing to say. And all I could do was go in and simply sit with the person.

And in her grief and confusion and despair in the face of death, Jesus comes to Mary and he listens to her and he weeps with her.

2. But Jesus looks at the tomb of Lazarus and he sees the glory of God

He asks, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They say to him, ‘come and see’.

They take him to see a grave, a tomb. They take him to see a full stop – not a full stop at the end of a sentence or the end of a paragraph, but a full stop at the end of the book. The last word has been written. The last full stop is in place. And the book of Lazarus is closed.

But Jesus does not see a grave that is a full stop. He sees beyond the grave. He says to them, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God’.

Jesus knows what his Father in heaven is going to do for Lazarus, and he knows what his Father in heaven will do for all those who put their trust in him.

The grave is only our temporary resting place. We only have short term tenancy. Our bodies may decay, they may become as nothing, but one day – to the glory of God and by the glory of God - they will be raised.

Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth, ‘For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality’.

Today we remember All Saints day.

And it really is all about how we see things.

How do we see ourselves?
I think it was Ernest Hemingway who wrote,
‘Life is just a dirty trick. A short journey from nothingness to nothingness’.

Or as Macbeth says, on hearing of the death of his wife,
‘Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow,
A poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more:
It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’

Because both Hemingway and Shakespeare are speaking truth if death is the end.

And how do we see the church?
A human institution that is hopelessly compromised and irrelevant to what really matters?

On Thursday I went to a meeting of the Russia British Chamber of Commerce. The old Trade Centre in Moscow was packed out with men and women in suits. And I confess I was tempted to think, this is the place where it really happens, that really matters, where things get things done. Making money, doing business. And Christianity – it is just a leisure time activity for people like you or me with rather odd ways of thinking. And I felt very little and very much on the outside.

And maybe we look at ourselves here, Anglican Christians in St Petersburg with a small congregation, no full-time pastor, struggling to survive on the edge, and dependent on the kindness and generousity of our hosts. And we look at ourselves and we think we are simply irrelevant.

We need Jesus to work a miracle in us.

We need him to open our eyes as he opened the eyes of the man born blind.
We need him to order them to take away the wrappings that cover our face so that we can see.
So that we realise that the grave – while it is awful because it separates us from those who we love - is not final. It is not the full stop.

I love that phrase that Paul uses: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory’
2000 years ago, Jesus Christ was crucified and he rose from the dead.

And yes we are separated from those we love by space and time; yes there is a great divide; but we are also at one with them, in communion with them, because they are in the Lord and we are in the Lord.
As one great hymn writers put it, ‘We feebly struggle, they in glory shine’.

And we need him to work a miracle in us, so that we see the true Church:
the glorious Church of men and women forgiven and made perfect, of angels and saints, of those who have gone before us and of those who will come after us.
When we come here together, we don’t come to summon up worship of God. We come to join in with the worship of heaven.
When we pray ‘our Father’, ‘our’ is not just us gathered here – ‘our’ includes all who have been and all who are and all who will be followers of our Lord Jesus Christ, members of his Church. We are joining in with the prayer of the true Church, the prayer of the people of heaven addressed to the Father of heaven.

We need that miracle so that our eyes are opened and we see worship and the praise of God, and the work of loving people into this community of worship, not as some religious sideshow, but as the ultimate purpose and joy of the whole of creation.

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