Another very long Gospel reading this morning – and perhaps we need to remind ourselves why this comes about.
Originally, Lent was a time of preparation for baptism and confirmation – which only happened once a year at the Paschal Vigil on Holy Saturday, the night before Easter day. And as part of the process of preparation, candidates were expected to receive instruction daily through that period. At the very beginning of Lent, candidates had to enrol which was something that generally happened before the bishop. Later on, this enrolment took on a different dimension – and the scrutinies came into being. Three times during Lent, the candidates would be subjected to a form of exorcism. And in the Eucharist associated with these three occasions, the longer Gospels that we have had for the last three Sundays would be read, with their messages about thirst, enlightenment and now, this Sunday, new life.
Now as soon as we mention the word exorcism of course, ears prick up and thoughts turn to all sorts of weird and sometimes of themselves quite demonic activities. It’s an area of language which is very easily misunderstood completely, taken literally with absolutely devastating consequence. Many stories that circulate about exorcism, not to mention the horror films, are about such crude and literalistic interpretations of people being inhabited by evil spirits from which they need to be liberated. And the liberation takes place through quasi-magical rites. None of that has any place whatsoever in Christian thinking.
But it is true that we all need to be liberated from evil, and there should be no doubt about the reality of evil in our world and of its power in our own lives. We know just how we can become hampered and bound by our past sins, and crippled by guilt which destroys our energy and fouls up our relationships. This kind of evil is something from which we certainly need to be delivered, as we pray in the Our Father. In Baptism, we acknowledge this as we renounce evil and affirm that in our lives we will follow Christ. As such we discover – like Lazarus in today’s Gospel reading – an unbinding from the powers of darkness and death. A true exorcism.
This story of the raising of Lazarus is central to one of Dostoevsky’s novels, Crime and Punishment. Dostoevsky was pretty much down on his luck when he wrote Crime and Punishment. He was broke – having gambled away much of his money and given the rest to try and help the family of his recently deceased brother. It is a complex tale (like other Russian novels!) but it wrestles with the themes of what is crime and how it is punished, not least through the inner torment of the perpetrators of crime. When today’s Gospel story comes into the novel, it is read at the request of Raskolnikov – a murderer who teeters on repentance – by his friend Sonya, who is a devout Christian though one forced into prostitution to provide for her family – headed by her father, the drunkard Marmeladov. At the end of the reading, they sit together in the light provided by a spluttering candle. Towards the end of the book, Raskolnikov returns to this story – the candle of faith (weak and spluttering though it is) has not gone out and after his punishment of eight years in Siberia, he begins to discover new life – there has been a progressive unbinding which will lead him to freedom. Or in traditional language, there has been an exorcism. A freeing of Raskolnikov from the dark powers that enslave him, that trap him, that cause him to turn in on himself, first of all seeking his own benefit through murdering the old pawnbroker and her sister and then by failing to confess his sinfulness, condemning him to long years of inner torment. Through Sonya’s help, Raskolnikov comes to new life. The end of the novel sees him having discovered redemption, and now on the way to moral reintegration.
Now over these last three Sundays, we have heard stories of human sin and human need being turned round to bring glory to God. There was the thirst of Jesus at the well of Samaria, and the meeting with the woman there, who herself had a complex history. There was the human need of the blind man at Siloam, enlightened by Jesus (though those who thought they saw discovered they were in fact the blind ones) and now this week the human pain of sickness and bereavement which is an opportunity once again for a glimpse of what transformation there can be when we are unbound from the powers of death. Unbound from anything that cuts us off from God.
Lent is the time when we seek to open our hearts to God traditionally through the disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving – when we seek to uncover to God what it is that separates us from him, what is of spiritual death in our lives. It is for all of us a lifelong process of turning again and again back to Christ our Lord, and asking to be unbound from this crippling burden. Which is why, at the end of Lent in the Easter liturgy we reaffirm our baptism vows. We acclaim once again that we reject evil and follow Christ.
And we discover once more that unbinding from sin’s power – the true freedom of God’s people – just a little more each and every time that we make that step of repentance. Like Lazarus, we are summoned by the Lord to step out from the spiritual tomb of death, to be unbound from what cuts us off from God and neighbour and live the new life that Christ shares with us.
This message of hope and new life comes to us particularly strongly in our first reading from the prophet Ezekiel. I have to say that Ezekiel is not generally a book of the bible with which I am overly enamoured, but this passage is one that I have always enjoyed reading or hearing – so much so that when I was at Theological College, my then principal commented on the fervour with which I had read this passage when it turned up at Matins that day! I think that there was a touch of irony in his comment as I was not generally given to such enthusiasm!
Nevertheless I always imagine just how Ezekiel’s hearers must have felt when he told them of this vision. A valley full of dusty dry bones rotting away suddenly coming back to life – a vision of the people of Israel presently suffering in exile being raised up by God mysteriously and returning to their own homeland once more in triumph. Something at the time so unthinkable that it could only be achieved through the mighty power of God, a power beyond our imagining.
And of course it goes deeper than that – early Christians thought of this story as a promise of the resurrection and indeed there are few other such explicit, not to say literalistic references to resurrection in the Old Testament than this one. Though probably this is to miss the important thing here which is that from situations of complete and utter hopelessness and despair, God can and does bring new life.
Just as Jesus shows us in today’s Gospel, where Lazarus is given back his physical life – though he will die again at some point. And this is a sign – the last of Jesus’ signs in John’s Gospel – of the promise of resurrection to eternal life in, with and through the crucified and risen Lord. This sign again is described in two short verses by John, because he doesn’t want to draw much attention to the nature of the ‘miracle’ – it’s the significance of it that is important.
And it is connected intimately with Jesus’ glorification. When he hears of Lazarus’ illness, Jesus speaks of it in connection with his own glorification. And again, we have to beware of the language here. Jesus does not look for human glory – a miracle producing the adulation of the crowds. Rather, this sign will lead ultimately to Jesus’ death. And that is Jesus’ glory for the writer of this Gospel. Jesus’ glorification is a process of ultimate self-giving without reserve, which will lead him through cross and death to resurrection and the eternal glory of Christ seated at the right hand of the Father. Yes, as with the healing of the blind man last week, there is urgency for Jesus to give these signs whilst there is still light for the darkness (of his passion and death) are at hand. And in this particular sign we see a new intensity of Jesus’ conflict with evil – the tears that he sheds are ambiguous. They may indeed be tears of sadness as interpreted by those standing around him – see how he loved him. But equally these may be tears of anger and determination as those shed in Gethsemane. Anger as Jesus confronts evil in the shape of the kind of death that alienates us from God. The kind of death that represents Satan’s realm. The death of sin – and indeed the physical death, too, that is without hope of resurrection and which just cuts us off from God and our loved ones without any consoling thought of fulfilment and new life.
As we have seen elsewhere through Lent in the Gospel readings, Martha is left in confusion at Jesus’ words to her – just as was the Samaritan woman of a fortnight ago. And also we have seen how Jesus’ signs – of which this is the final one – tell us more of who he truly is. And what he offers humanity. Here in his own being and person he offers us true life. Both here and now and also beyond this life in ways that we can only imagine.
I am the resurrection and the life says Jesus to Martha. The life is that life which comes from above, begotten through the Holy Spirit, conquering all alienation from God, even the ultimate alienation of physical death. The sign of the raising of Lazarus is the sign of Christ’s power to give this eternal life both now and in the life to come.
Here we come, then, to the heart of the joy of living in the Christ whose being we have explored a little this Lent. The joy we discover in worship, and in service. The joy of fellowship inspired by the Holy Spirit of love. The joy of discovery of God’s infinite love and truth. The joy of the mystery that it is in dying to self and sin that we find new life from the dusty bones we leave behind in the Christ who lives for ever. The joy of which S. Paul speaks at the end of the chapter of Romans that we heard from as today’s second reading – the joy that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 838-39).