Saturday, 28 March 2020

 The Raising of Lazarus : 5th Sunday of Lent John 11:1-45

There is an audio link to the service for the 5th Sunday of Lent here:

Please also look at the following link from the National Gallery London

In the league table of miracles “The Raising of Lazarus” is near the very top and among the best known. Deservedly, for it is a great event. Even so I was surprised by Sebastiano del Piombo’s painting which shows a much larger crowd than I had ever imagined streaming out from the town; there are people really pressing around Jesus and to me more surprisingly around Lazarus - and look how healthy he is! It feels even more surprising perhaps in light of our social distancing but somehow I always thought I would be seeing this from a distance afraid of what was going to happen when Jesus said “take away the stone.” I am sure that I would step sharply back and certainly would not be like the young man on the right of the picture peering over Lazarus’ shoulder to get a better look.  But perhaps Piombo has the better idea.

Indeed we read early on that Jesus intends this to be “for God’s glory so that the son of God may be glorified by it,” for which reason he stayed two days more even though he loved Mary, Martha and Lazarus. He continued this idea saying to the disciples “For your sake I am glad (I was not there) so that you may believe. Let’s go to him.” Jesus wants to be close up.

This account of lazarus only appears in John’s Gospel and its absence from Matthew, Mark and Luke has led many to question its truth. After all if it is so significant and it was certainly dramatic, why would the others have left it out? Readers considering Jesus’ miracles are sometimes tempted to explain them in terms of moder medical understanding but the details of this one as John tells them make it difficult to explain this one away like that.  Dead for four days, laid to rest by his sisters, wrapped in the grave cloths, the tomb sealed up. We are in no doubt that Lazarus is dead and that people, his closest relatives in fact, have seen him so and all this points up the magnitude of the miracle.

Still you may have some doubts.

When Somerset Maugham visited China in 1919 he made observations of what he saw and heard in a set of yellow notebooks and from these he later produced a set of stories1. One of these, only recently published, talks about stories themselves. The tale concerns the Japanese who wanting to build  an ocean liner applied to a firm of shipbuilders for a design and a quotation.  The shipbuilder sent both knowing that the Japanese would never accept the quotation. When the Japanese of course built the ship themselves from the plans it was found to have a great design flaw: It was so top heavy that it would only remain vertical if the hold were filled with a lot of concrete. But if you did that the boat was commercially unviable. Maugham’s short story tells that this very doubtful happening is told the length and breadth of China by everyone he meets and he sees that they tell it in their own way.

Now maybe you think Lazarus was not raised but the story of Lazarus is told, retold, depicted in classical and modern art and has a proverbial presence in our culture. Part of the miracle is that the story is told the length and breadth of the world.  We believe Jesus could have done this and that He intended us to hear of it.

Back for a moment then to the picture which is in the National Gallery - the crowd is good for Jesus wanted the world to know, the closeness is good for he wanted the world to see - so you know what I am going to say: we may not just now be able to be physically close to one another, social distance yourself please but not from Jesus for he loves us close up.


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