Every now and then, my wife will have a clear out of her wardrobe. She can be pretty brutal in discarding clothes no longer deemed fit for purpose. I, on the other hand, hang on dearly to my old familiar friends. I feel sure that, this time, I will indeed lose the pounds and inches needed to fit back into those trousers – or that fashion will turn through one of its inevitable cycles soon enough for that shirt to not look so completely ridiculous as it does now.
And, yes dear, I really do need all of those outdoor coats…
Underneath it all though, I realise that, despite their historical or emotional attachments, I will need to let go at some point.
Of course, there is an analogy here beyond clothing. Like a beloved jacket or jumper, we also put on practices and routines – perhaps even commitments and responsibilities – that might have served us individually and the community well in the past, but perhaps less so now and in the future.
We’ll come back to this later.
Raising of Lazarus
Our Gospel story today is often entitled the Raising of Lazarus. In truth though, of our 45 verses read today, only two of them are directly about Lazarus rising – of Lazarus stumbling from the shadows and into the light.
In the rest, we see intriguing glimpses of the relationship between Mary, Martha, Lazarus and Jesus. Their home is clearly a place of refuge for Jesus. A sanctuary of comfort and hospitality from the constant sniping and attacks of people out to get him. And when the sisters send their message to Jesus to come quickly, they describe their brother as the one whom Jesus loves.
A sermon today might have explored some of those aspects. Or we might have considered the women at the tomb of Lazarus and let our thoughts drift ahead a few days’ time, to the women at the tomb of Jesus.
The courage of Thomas
We could have talked about Thomas. Poor Thomas. We always seem to remember his doubting in the upper room, but we would do well to also remember that in todays’ story he is the one who shows his courage and willingness to die with Jesus.
And there’s Jesus himself. First that delay in journeying, then the decision to go. A choice which would soon lead to his own death. And then the weeping. Then Almighty Jesus showing what he is capable of, emptying himself in this miracle on behalf of his friend.
Inhabited by the Spirit
Or we could look perhaps at the parallels between this passage and our OT reading from Ezekiel. Both show us God’s power. Jesus sees beyond death, and, in a God-given vision, Ezekiel sees dry bones coming back to life. Both are places of grief, places where all is seemingly lost – but both are also inhabited by the Spirit and the hand of God. And both readings show that nothing is impossible with God.
From there I would have drawn out a thought that in places of grief today, places like Turkey, Syria and Ukraine – places where all must seem lost too – that it’s precisely there, amongst the rubble of peoples’ lives, that God can be found.
And perhaps your world is crumbling at the moment as well. Despite all signs to the contrary, the Spirit and the hand of God are with you, too.
What binds you?
So many choices. But instead, I want to take a slightly different turn with two points.
Firstly, the strips of cloth binding Lazarus. As we’ve just seen, our Gospel story contains all manner of personalities, choices and relationships – all sorts of parallels with passages from the OT and with the news events of today. And our own lives are built on this same patchwork quilt too. How and where and with whom we live our lives can affect how we receive and respond to God’s call. We might be swathed by habits and traditions, that just like our old clothes, may once have fitted us. Traditions that we may once have found smart or beautiful and still be attached to but are really long past their usefulness. Habits that now bind us and shroud us from the presence of God.
As we come towards the end of Lent, let us reckon with our most entrenched habits and traditions – both as individuals and as a congregation. Which of them are life-giving and help us to notice the presence of God? And which of them don’t. Which of them bind us, preventing new life and new hope from emerging? Let’s recognise that the human and divine Christ has power over them.
The second point is about Lazarus himself, since strangely we don’t often think about him in sermons.
Often the healing miracles in the Gospels seem in some way to rely on the faith of those doing the asking. Sometimes they’re asking for themselves and sometimes it’s for a loved one. But here no-one seems to think that what will happen will happen. Lazarus isn’t in a position to ask – and neither Mary nor Martha seem to realise what’s about to take place. Here, it is Jesus’ oneness with the Father which is the sole source of the awakening of Lazarus.
A choice to make
But when Lazarus was awoken by the voice, he still had a choice to make. To stay where he was or to come out. Nobody goes into the tomb to pull him out. No-one crosses the threshold to untie him. Not his sisters nor his friends. Not even Jesus. Lazarus has to do that for himself. He chooses to rise and return to the land of the living, walking tentatively from the shadows towards the light, towards the sound of that familiar voice. Only when he steps out does the unwinding of the shroud begin. Only then do his family and friends unbind him and let him go.
Towards a new freedom
I imagine that there are many in Turkey, Syria and Ukraine today, faced with overwhelming loss, who need to decide how best to carry on. To stay in the shadows of grief or to come out and embrace life. They will need the help and support of what family and friends remain to them and of the wider community to do that. But they have to take the first step.
Perhaps this Lent we, too, those of us here this morning, need to choose to make a step from the shadows towards the light. To move away, slowly and stumbling from whatever is keeping us in the dark, towards a new freedom, into that new life to which Christ calls each one of us. And to help free others when they choose to do the same. Amen
“From the shadows” was delivered by Ian Banks at Christ Church Walmersley on 26th March 2023. It was based on Ezekiel 27 and John 11.
- Hebblethwaite, M. (1994). Six New Gospels. Geoffrey Chapman.
We enjoyed a long discussion about the sermon at the Gathering today. We had not thought of the ‘choice’ made by Lazurus e.g. to walk out of the cave (we thought about his surprise on waking… a bit like waking up after an operation and thinking of food maybe?). We talked about the difficulty of giving up a habit especially if the habit was so ingrained, it became part of our identity. Sometimes a habit can be so automatic that we are no longer aware of it until it is brought to our attention, e.g. we experience a significant life change. Some shared a past habit of rejecting assistance, only to realise later how much that assistance was needed – if we can’t accept support and guidance from others, can we be sure we aren’t just as closed to God?