The story of the Raising of Lazarus is one of the great miracles, the signs in the Gospel of John. It is a wonderful story, but unlike the other signs, it seems to have a shadow cast over it. For, in full tragic irony, Jesus giving life to Lazarus results directly in the decision to put Jesus to death. The shadow cast over the story is the shadow of the Cross.
For immediately after Jesus has raised Lazarus, we read: ‘Some of those who had come with Mary went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done.’ And the Pharisees were filled with fear. At once, they and the chief priests called a meeting of the council and said, ‘What are we going to do?’ the council was no less than the Sanhedrin – the highest Jewish court and governing body. That’s how serious the threat of this man Jesus was to them. The meeting was highly charged, and the most powerful emotion was fear. ‘What are we going to do?’, said one. ‘We can’t let him carry on like this’, said another. ‘Everyone will believe in him, and then what? The Romans will come and destroy our Temple and our whole nation.’ Next, Caiaphas the high priest joined in: ‘You know nothing at all.’ In Greek it is stronger, rather like, ‘You are talking rubbish!’ The tension was rising. Fear was everywhere. They all felt it. And what they feared most from Jesus is what they thought they would lose. If this man was allowed to carry on they would lose everything; their status, their position in society, their power – everything. They risked losing their very selves.
or Psalm 119:9-16
We are in the deep end of Lent now, the far side of the wilderness. The forty-day path of prayer, fasting, and acts of mercy, is drawing ever closer to the cross. It’s like the last few miles of a marathon; the last set of finals before the end of term; the last month of a pregnancy; all yearning and aching to end well but not quite there yet. Too far to go back, and so we continue to strain forward. There are so many ways that life in the world in general these days has been like a long journey. You would be forgiven for feeling a little or even very weary. But, take heart, because there is hope on the horizon although, it may not be readily apparent.
The Jesus whom we encounter in this 12th Chapter of John has also set his face toward Jerusalem and the completion of the race marked out for him. In fact, Jesus is more aware of this unravelling than most. When Philip and Andrew go to tell Jesus about a whole new group of people that want to see him you can feel a sense of eagerness and enthusiasm at beginning to know Jesus. His fame is spreading. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified!”
Oh, but glory looks different than fame and notoriety, which is why Jesus immediately begins to explain what it means for him to be glorified. It’s like a grain of wheat that falls to the earth and dies so that it may bear much fruit. Without descent and death, there can be no new life. Without transformation and conversion, it’s just a lone grain of wheat, small and ineffectual. Without being broken open, it remains closed and unto itself.
Cognitively we know that seeds produce plants. But, it’s a hidden process that takes place in the darkness of soil and isn’t immediately apparent to the eye. Planting a seed in the hope of new growth takes trust and patience. Experienced gardeners and farmers grow in that trust but planting is never without risk. What if the seed doesn’t grow? What if something goes wrong and it’s all for naught? That waiting in the dark can be terrifying when a crop is badly needed.
These days of sowing the seeds of renunciation and penitence can feel exhausting when spiritual fruit is hard to see and only the darkness, fear, and pain of death are near. Our rule of life describes the nature of this kind dying, “Hardships, renunciations, losses, bereavements, frustrations, and risks are all ways in which death is at work in advance preparing us for the self-surrender of bodily death. Through them we practice the final letting go of dying, so that it will be less strange and terrifying to us.” (Ch. 48, Holy Death)
At this point in our Lenten journey, Christ points to a glimpse of the glory we await because seeing is part and parcel of God’s glory. The root words in Greek and Hebrew that are ascribed to God both take on the meaning of visible splendor, power on display. Glory is outward. Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God and displays God’s power in his life. The death he was willing to die, like a grain of wheat falling to the earth, has produced great fruit for us to see.
I can still recall the wonder of the childhood experiments where we would place little beans against the side of a clear plastic cup lined with just some wet paper towel. It seemed like overnight we would come back to find that the outer casing had cracked open and little shoots were coming out, top and bottom. Before long, that original little bean was hardly recognizable as the plant grew right before our eyes. It was quick and gratifying to young attention spans and it gave me the visual confirmation of the process that typically goes on in secret in the soil. I could see with my own eyes how the death of that seed produced new life.
But the stakes are higher with a human life. The fear and uncertainty of death are magnified. And they get personal when Jesus tells us to follow him into a death like his. Thanks be to God, Jesus was willing to feel this, and to make it evident. “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”
Faced with death, and the ignominious death of the cross, Jesus goes to great lengths to encourage us along. “Father, glorify your name.” Show them what I have seen! And like, thunder the voice replies, I have glorified it and I will glorify it again. The signs and wonders of Jesus were all God’s visible splendor. The work of the cross is God’s power on display. “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.”
Christ was lifted up in his obedience to the Father as the letter to the Hebrews says. His obedience and submission to the Father has become the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. As Jesus calls us to follow him, to serve him, to lose our life like him, we are inexorably drawn to him like a strong magnet. Pulled inwardly to remain with him.
And we have seen this glory.
Who in your life has drawn you to Jesus?
Can you see them? Name them?
Do they know what fruit has been born of their dying to self?
They may not know it just as we may not know who is being drawn to Christ because of us.
The good news is that is has happened, it is happening, and it shall happen.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” (Hebrews 12:1-3)
Take heart, dearly beloved of God. The path we walk with Christ will lead us all the way to through death until our baptism is complete. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain” Unless we lose our life in this world we cannot keep it to everlasting life. Unless the bread is broken it cannot be given. Bind yourself to Christ in his passion. Pray for the consolations of Christ in this home stretch of our pilgrimage. Be nourished by the prayer, Anima Christi, in poetic translation by John Henry Newman:
Soul of Christ, be my sanctification;
Body of Christ, be my salvation;
Blood of Christ, fill all my veins;
Water of Christ’s side, wash out my stains;
Passion of Christ, my comfort be;
O good Jesus, listen to me;
In Thy wounds I fain would hide;
Ne’er to be parted from Thy side;
Guard me, should the foe assail me;
Call me when my life shall fail me;
Bid me come to Thee above,
With Thy saints to sing Thy love,
World without end.
Poet and author Elizabeth Barrett Browning is probably best known for the words she wrote in a letter to her future husband: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” Her father, Edward, was a controlling man who forbid any of his twelve children to marry, and when Elizabeth defied her father’s wishes to marry Robert Browning, her father never spoke to her again.
Elizabeth wrote weekly letters to her father in the hope that they might be reconciled, but for ten years there was no response. Then one day, after a decade of silence, a box arrived in the mail from her father. Her excitement quickly turned to anguish, however, when she opened it and found that it contained all of her letters – unopened. Edward Barrett’s heart was so hardened towards his daughter that he didn’t open a single one of the hundreds of letters she wrote to him.
Unforgiveness does that. It hardens the heart. It magnifies the perceived offense to the point where we can no longer appreciate a person’s value because all we see is how they have grieved us. If forgiveness is one of the most powerful forces for redemption in the Christian faith, unforgiveness is one of the most powerful forces for destruction. In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus gives us a parable that speaks to us about forgiveness and unforgiveness.[i]
Commemoration of George Herbert
Our God and King, you called your servant George Herbert from the pursuit of worldly honors to be a pastor of souls, a poet, and a priest in your temple: Give us grace, we pray, joyfully to perform the tasks you give us to do, knowing that nothing is menial or common that is done for your sake; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
In the calendar of the church, we commemorate today a 17th-century Church of England country parson named George Herbert.[i] Down through the centuries, he is most remembered for his arresting, revealing, passionate poetry.
How Herbert’s life ended is not how it began. The combination of his family’s tremendous wealth and privilege, his keen mind, his excellent education, his charismatic oratorical skills, his internal drive to be fabulous, and who knows what else, had brought him to the top of the heap. By age 30, he was counselor to two kings and a member of Parliament. He had gained the whole world but never found his soul.[ii] Two things happened, two breakdowns.
One question sometimes asked about Jesus, concerns his own self-understanding. How did he understand who he was, and the purpose of his mission? We get a glimpse of his answer today. ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’
It was as physician, healer, restorer, forgiver, saviour that Jesus, at least here in Matthew, saw himself. Such an understanding should not surprise us. In the opening chapter of Matthew’s gospel, the angel tells Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’
It is in that context, Jesus as saviour, that the rest of Matthew’s gospel unfolds.
The thing about a saviour is that, just as we don’t need a doctor if we are unaware of our illness, we don’t need a saviour, if we are unaware of our need for salvation. And that for me is the key, to Scripture; to Lent; even to myself.
Recently, I have found myself recalling the fact the first 10, now 11, and soon 12 months have passed, since we closed the guesthouse and then the chapel. You will remember those days I’m sure. We began hearing about this new virus and the reports of mounting deaths Soon we were horrified to discover that it had reached this country. Suddenly there was anxiety about how it spread, and were instructed to suspend various liturgical practices, such as the Common Cup, physically exchanging the Peace, and holy water at the doors of churches. Days after, we announced we were closing the guesthouse. By the end of that week, we closed the chapel. It’s now been almost a year.
Today, nearly half a million people have died from Covid-19 in this country, and almost 2.3 million around the world.
In many ways these last 11 months have been a time of disfiguration, quite literally, as many have been disfigured by disease and death. Some of those who have recovered continue to feel the effects and are living with post-COVID-19 syndrome. They live with chronic difficulties breathing, exhaustion, brain fog, and a loss of taste and smell. No one knows how long these symptoms will last.
Welcome everyone to this act of worship. Whether you are here in person or joining us on line, we are all drawn to this place to worship God. It is good to be here. What is it that is so powerful, so compelling, about worship? What draws us, from far and wide, to be here today?
I was reflecting on this question as I prayed with this evening’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus is comparing our outward acts with the secret thoughts of our hearts. And I would say that for me, worship is so compelling because it is the one place I can come and be completely open and honest, before God. Here we do not need to pretend. Here, at worship, before God, I can be who I most truly AM. As we pray at the start of every Eucharist, ‘To you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid.’ At worship there’s no need to pretend, no need to keep up appearances. You may know that British comedy series, ‘Keeping Up Appearances’. There is Hyacinth, played brilliantly by Patricia Routledge, who insists that her surname ‘Bucket’ be pronounced ‘Bouquet.’ She is a rather eccentric, social climbing snob, in constant fear of being embarrassed by her relatives, Onslow, Daisy and Rose.
It’s all very silly, but there’s enough truth in it to make us laugh, because we all know a little of how we too like to keep up appearances! Little distortions of the truth, little embellishments of the facts, to show ourselves in more positive light. Ways we try to impress, name-dropping, ways we try to enhance our image. You could say that the reading from Mark’s Gospel today is all about ‘keeping up appearances!’ The Pharisees and scribes were complaining that Jesus’ disciples were not observing some of the external traditions of the elders regarding the ritual washing of hands, cups, pots and bronze kettles. Jesus actually became very angry with them. They were more concerned with the externals, the appearance of things, than with what is actually going on within their hearts. Unclean hands, pots and pans do not matter. What defiles, what damages a person, is an ‘unclean heart’.
Pretending to be who you are not. Living a lie. This draws from Jesus a terrible rebuke. ‘You hypocrites’, he says. Hypocrisy is right at the top of those things which make Jesus angry. I think, because he knows how very destructive it can be to a person. Keeping up appearances can be gently amusing and pretty harmless. But it can also grow into something corrosive to the soul. When we get used to living a lie, we can slowly become alienated from our true selves. We can allow others to make us into the person that we are not. And one of the greatest challenges of living in relationship, in marriage, partnership, or community, is to allow the other person room to blossom and become the person they truly are. For if we try to live a life of pretense, in order to be accepted or praised, we run the risk of losing our souls.
In Dante’s ‘Inferno’, the hypocrites (and the Greek word literally means ‘actors’) are clothed in huge choir robes, made of solid lead, gilded on the outside with gold. Marc Foley writes about these hypocrites in his book, ‘The Love that keeps us Sane.’ He says, ‘These huge choir robes are so heavy that the hypocrites can hardly move. That’s a graphic image of the desperate need to be recognized by others, and the bone-weary insanity of trying to keep up appearances! Dante describes the garb of the hypocrites as, “O cloak of everlasting weariness!”’
But here, in this place, where the Lord is present, we can shed our heavy cloaks of pretension and appearance. We can stand before the Lord and unburden our souls. We can stand before the One who truly knows us and loves us – ‘just as I am’. But not only does God see us as we truly are, when we worship, not only does he love us and accept us as we are, but he also challenges us to grow, and become more fully that unique person God created us to be. The community of Taizé in France puts it like this in its Rule: ‘In worship we can stop hiding from God, and the light of God can heal and transform even what we are ashamed of.’
So welcome, one and all. Come and worship God, the One to whom all hearts are open, the One who longs to remove our heavy vesture and reclothe us in raiments dazzling white.
I reckon that most people, reading this story for the first time, would find it quite strange. It certainly is unusual, and describes a scene most of us would never have imagined. We would likely attribute the man’s condition to severe mental illness or trauma, rather than suspecting demons at work. Casting out demons – and sending them into a herd of swine – would be a very odd cure in our minds, and probably not one that we could imagine or recommend. The story is odd, but let’s take a closer look at it to see what insights it might provide.
The gospel writers recorded the miracles of Jesus as evidence of his divine nature, and this story certainly reveals his amazing power. But one thing that sets it apart from other miracle stories is that it takes place in the country of the Gerasenes, and it involves people who were not Jews, as Jesus was. It is remarkable that Jesus would deliberately cross over the Sea of Galilee to reach this place and bring himself in contact with a person who was ritually impure, to say nothing of being possessed by evil spirits. But Jesus, as we know, had a habit of setting aside the religious laws and practices of his day in order to show compassion – which is what he does here.
We are just two days past the Feast of Christmas on which we celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ into the world as a tiny babe in Bethlehem. The familiar stories bring comfort and hope: the young girl and her husband searching for a safe place for the birth to take place, the shepherds in their fields surprised by choirs of angels in the heavens; the wise men guided by a mysterious star. Each story bears a promise, a promise from God.
To Mary God’s messenger proclaimed a son, to be named Jesus, which means “savior.” He would be great, the Son of the Most High, and would receive from God the throne of his ancestor David. He would reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there would be no end. (Luke 1:31-33)
To the shepherds the angel announced “good news of great joy for all the people,” namely that the child born this day in the city of David would be “a Savior… the Messiah, the Lord.” “Glory to God in the highest heaven,” the choir of angels sang, “and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” (Luke 2:8-14)
If you love domesticated animals like cats, dogs, and horses, or even some unconventional critters like monkeys, beavers, and squirrels, you have probably run across a website called ‘thedodo.com.’ The Dodo serves up emotional, visually compelling, and highly sharable animal-related stories and videos with the aim of making the care of animals a viral cause. The videos that bring a tear to the eye of a sensitive guy like me are the dog rescue videos. There are countless versions of this scenario: someone comes across a mangy, emaciated pup, that is tired, scared, weak, and not far from death. Animal rescuers are called to gather the animal, carefully and patiently doing what is necessary to subdue it while protecting themselves from the pups self-preserving, fear-filled growls, yaps, and snaps. Ultimately, the animal resigns and is taken to a veterinarian for rehabilitation with the hopes of finding it a forever home. The dogs are bathed, shaved, treated for mange, parasites, and other injuries, fed and nourished. Each video is a brief time-lapse record of its recovery, ending with the dog fully recovered, happy, and unrecognizable from the condition it was found in; it’s disposition one of unreserved love and affection.