How quickly life has changed! The Sunday before last, we met for worship as normal, apart from some extra hand hygiene. A week later, all churches were closed and all meetings cancelled.
We know we are not alone; we hope the restrictions will be lifted before too long. But for now, we have all lost, in a matter of days, a way of life that we have been able to take for granted for many years. It is like a mass bereavement: it has left people in shock, and with a sense of loss and separation, on top of any practical matters that they suddenly have to sort out.
Happily, there is much to help us in our bible reading for this week, which tells us about the bereavement of Mary and Martha.
Read John 11:1-16
Mary, Martha and Lazarus live in the village of Bethany, just outside Jerusalem. The two women seem to know Jesus well from previous visits; they are the kind of friends you can just drop in on and be sure of a welcome.
Mary and Martha are anxious. Their brother Lazarus is ill and there is no treatment. They send for Jesus knowing he is their only hope – and Jesus doesn’t come. Lazarus weakens, and still no Jesus. The two women watch helplessly as their brother slips away.
Their anxiety turns to anger. If Jesus had been here, our brother would never had died! What is he playing at? Why didn’t he help?
Jesus will help in the end, in a way they could never have imagined, but they don’t know that yet. Their loss is compounded by frustration.
It is always tempting, in a crisis, to look for someone to blame. More should have been done, we cry; better decisions should have been made. It is terrible to feel helpless when the lives of people we love are at stake. Many of us, I’m sure, will find ourselves in a very similar place to Mary and Martha. And we will say the same things: what are you playing at, God? Where were you when we needed you? Why didn’t you help?
We may want to allow ourselves to sit with Mary and Martha, and acknowledge our own feelings about the crisis.
Meanwhile, what has been happening with Jesus? Why did he wait two days before responding to the message that Lazarus was ill?
Immediately before this passage, in John’s gospel, we are told that in the winter, so a couple of months ago, Jesus went to Jerusalem and the authorities tried to stone him to death. If he goes to see Lazarus, at Bethany, he would be going back perilously close to Jerusalem. He would be risking his own life and safety, possibly drawing fire towards his friends, and hastening the final confrontation with the authorities. No wonder he’s not rushing. But Jesus reaches the conclusion that this is what he has to do for his friends, and he goes.
Read John 11:17-37
Jesus has braced himself to expect the worst from the authorities, made the effort to reach his friends, only to meet an onslaught of accusation from Martha and then from Mary. Sometimes even Jesus can’t do right for doing wrong. But he listens, knowing they need to vent their rage, knowing that he can do more for them but they are in no position now to realise or understand. Jesus shares their grief; Lazarus was his friend too; for now, he simply stands alongside them and weeps.
One of the most difficult aspects of the current situation is that we cannot be with the people we love when they are in need. It’s hard not to visit relatives; it’s hard not to be able to meet as church. For us, it is not a matter of our own courage or otherwise. We know we have to stay at home – that any human contact increases the chance of the virus spreading – but we can still feel guilty or misunderstood. Some of us may well find ourselves like Jesus, feeling whatever we do is wrong. Perhaps the only thing we can do is walk with him, and let him bear the difficult decisions with us.
We may want to stand with Jesus, and let him enter into our weeping.
But this is not the end.
Read John 11:38-44
In the depths of grief, in the darkness of Lazarus’ tomb, God is at work. Amid fear and disbelief, Jesus orders the tomb to be opened and Lazarus to come out. Look,here he comes! Still bound in the grave cloths, waiting to be untied and set free…
And Luke leaves the story there. We are not told about any reunion and rejoicing. Instead, we wait, on the threshold of a life that is both known and new.
Already, amazing acts of kindness have emerged in this crisis. Neighbours are offering help, factories are making ventilators and protective equipment, and 750,000 people have volunteered to help the NHS. One day, the coronavirus will be brought under control; the restrictions on our movement will be lifted; we will be able properly to honour those who have died and comfort the bereaved. Life will begin again.
The question then will be, what will our new life be like? Maybe we don’t have to pick up where we left off, rushing around, buying too much, ignoring the needs of the poor and the strain on the planet. Maybe we use this time of separation to reflect, and pray, on what really matters, to allow God to work in us too. Then when we emerge, Lazarus-like, we will be ready to help shape a new future, grounded in compassion and community.
May God lead us through these difficult times to resurrection and life.