Lamentations 3:17-26; John 11:17-44

Service of Commemoration and Thanksgiving

St Barbara’s; 01.11.20

Rev Tulo Raistrick

This afternoon we gather to remember those whom we love who are no longer with us. And this year, perhaps more than almost any previous year, that loss may feel harder. For those of you here who have lost loved ones in the last few months, it may have been that you were unable to be with them in their last few days. Or it may be that the funeral was not the one you had hoped they would have, with limitations on numbers and length of service. And for those who have lost loved ones before the events of this year, it may be that the enforced isolation and the social restrictions has made your loss even more keenly felt. It has not been an easy year.

Well, the story of Lazarus gives us comfort and hope as we think about those whom we have lost.

Death only occasionally comes as we would wish, a loved one slipping away quietly and peacefully in no pain, at peace with the world and with those closest to them gathered round their bedside, having lived a long life.

Sadly, often death comes suddenly, when we least expect it, robbing us of a loved one far too soon, with no chance to say good-bye.

Or it comes after a long illness, filled with pain, discomfort and suffering.

Or it comes when we are not yet ready – when there are still things left unsaid, or when children or dependents aren’t yet ready to cope.

Or it has come during these covid times.

For Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, Lazarus’ death was not how it should have been. It was too soon, too quick. They had sent a message pleading with Jesus to come at once, but he had delayed, and in the delay, Lazarus had died. They are left hanging on to “if only’s…”

“Lord, if only you had been here Lazarus would not have died.”

Maybe as we think about loved ones, there are some “if only’s” for us too.

If only I could have said what I had wanted to say…

If only they could have had better care…

If only I could have been with them…

If only…

Here, this afternoon, is a good place to offer up to God those “if only’s”, to tell God the depth of our feelings, our regrets, our sadnesses. Like Martha and Mary, to say, “Lord, if only…”

Take a moment now to offer up to God any “if only’s” you may have.

What is striking in the story is not just the grief of Lazarus’ sisters, or the many friends and relatives who have come to mourn. We would expect that. What is most striking is the grief of Jesus himself. He is deeply moved in spirit and troubled. In the shortest verse in the Bible, we are told “Jesus wept”. The sense is of Jesus not shedding a quiet tear, but howling with grief, anger and pain.

Jesus, the Son of God, the Word made flesh, the One through whom the worlds were made, the one who is worshipped by myriads of angels and heavenly hosts, breaks down and weeps at the tomb of his friend. As the prophet Isaiah foretold, he is a man of sorrows, acquainted with our grief and pain. Jesus knows the depth of our sorrow. He has experienced it for himself.

There are times when grief can feel a very lonely place, when no one can truly understand what we are experiencing, whether that be the dull, constant ache of long-term loss, or the sharp pain of recent loss or a suddenly jogged memory. But we are not alone. God has been there before us. Jesus is distraught at the death of his friend; God the Father will just a few weeks later look down on the death of his own Son, and weep. In our grief, in our loss, there is one person who understands – God himself.

If you feel alone in your grief, or that no one truly understands you, find comfort in those two words from John’s gospel: “Jesus wept”. He knows. And He is with you now.

Take a moment to pause and know that God is with you.

But comfort is not all that this story of Lazarus offers. The story offers us hope too.

For Jesus calls forth Lazarus from the tomb. He brings him back to life. Lazarus, four days dead, comes walking out of the tomb, alive!

What has happened to Lazarus is a sign of something even more remarkable that is to come. For Lazarus has been brought back from death, but will die again. But Jesus will go through death and beyond it to eternal life. A life in full abundance. And that is the way he has made possible for all of us too. As he says: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.”

The congregation here at St Barbara’s will have heard me talk before about a picture in the National Gallery in London that I particularly like. Its a picture of the raising of Lazarus, painted by the Italian artist Sebastiano del Piombo, 500 years ago. It is huge, taking up an entire wall of the gallery. What for me is so striking is the figure of Lazarus. Of all the people in the picture, he is the one most bristling with life, his body rippling with health and vitality. Whilst all the others in the crowd look pale, Lazarus is bursting out of his grave clothes, the very picture of strength and abundant life.

It is the artist’s way of communicating a remarkable truth – that beyond death we will be more fully alive, we will be more truly the people God has always intended us to be, free from the limitations of our physical incapacities and sufferings, free from the emotional and mental turmoil and strains that have been a part of our lives.

When we think of our loved ones who have departed this life, we are to draw hope, for they have departed this life not for a lesser existence or a non-existence, but for a fuller, more vibrant existence, an existence where they are truly fully alive, where body, mind, heart and soul are whole and vibrant, where the black and white of our current life has been transformed into glorious technicolour.

Take a moment now to think of your loved one. Think of them at their most alive, their most joyful, their most vibrant. And give thanks that this is just a tiny foretaste of the life they are now living.

So this afternoon, it is right to mourn for our loss, for the grief that we experience, to offer that to God. And it is also right to take hope, and give thanks, that because of Christ’s death and resurrection, our loved ones are now in a place of eternal health and life.