This was a sermon in response to a tragedy; the (only) churchwarden at one of the churches I am minister at died suddenly and unexpectedly on Friday. He was a faithful and long-serving member of the church and so I thought it was important and necessary to mark his death.
I had been planning to use my Wedding Banquet sermon, but I did a significant rewrite to reflect the changes. I also used a reading attributed to Bishop Charles Brent (amongst other people), although not very securely. Anyway, I hope that this helped…
I last saw Robert last week after the service here. As usual we had a bit of a laugh and a joke and then I left him in the vestry sorting things out. “See you next week” I said. “Yeah, bye” he said and that was it.
It’s entirely possible that Jesus’ final words to Lazarus were equally inconsequential. A final goodbye as they both went their separate ways. Final words don’t tend to be that significant for people that you know and expect to see again soon.
I’m sure that as Jesus wept by the grave he remembered his last words to Lazarus, whatever they were. And as he stood there he wept. Wept for the pain that Lazarus had suffered. Wept for the pain that Lazarus’ family and friends were feeling. Wept for his own pain.
In the sermon last week I asked ‘What kind of God is this?’. That’s a question that often gets asked when we suffer loss and bereavement. ‘What kind of God is this?’ One who stands by the grave of our friends and weeps with us. One who shares our pain and suffering.
We read together Psalm 22 which speaks of the pain of loss, which contains the words “My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer”. That can reflect exactly how we feel sometimes. And those opening words of Psalm 22 “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” are ones that Jesus cried aloud on the cross.
And it is not just that Jesus shares our pain. He has suffered it too. He suffered the pain of loss as we heard in this reading. But, more than that, his adoptive father, Joseph, had already died.
Jesus doesn’t just share our pain by suffering. As we know, Jesus suffered the pain of death himself. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he cried. And when we’re feeling like that, it’s OK to cry out like that to God. He knows, he understands, he has felt it too.
Of course that’s not the end of the story. But we can move too quickly towards it, and forget the struggle and suffering that are included in a few words of the story. Lazarus was dead for four days. Jesus was dead for three days. We can pass over that bit, but there’s an awful lot of suffering contained in those few words.
I know that Robert was a keen cyclist to the end, and cyclists tell me that the good part about struggling up a steep hill is the thought of free-wheeling down the other side. Of course, that doesn’t make the struggle any less, but the hope of what is to come keeps them going.
And, hopefully for us, the end of the events can give us a glimpse of hope as we go the long way through our own struggles and suffering. Because, as we know, death was not the end. God raised Jesus from death to show us that death is not the end.
Jesus raised Lazarus from death to show us that his resurrection was for everyone who believed in him. And this of course is where the reading from Revelation comes in. The reading that we have just heard is a vision of God’s promised future. It was written to encourage the first Christians, who were suffering and troubled. It was written to inspire them with hope for the future, no matter what the present was like.
As the reading from Revelation reminds us, as Christians, we are all invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb, of Jesus the Messiah. People can get a bit lost in the book of Revelation because they don’t realise that when we try to describe God and his future all our language is metaphorical and fragmentary. That’s what the book of Revelation is like. We don’t get a detailed map or a precise photograph but an impression, a vision of something about what it will look like.
We are invited to the wedding banquet of the Lamb, whatever that will actually look like. God takes the ordinary, the physical, and transforms it. This is powerfully shown in the Incarnation of Jesus, where Jesus takes on our humanity and transforms it. In the gospels we read that Jesus’ resurrected body was physical. He could touch, he could cook fish, he could break bread. His wounds were still visible. And yet this physical body was also unlike our physical bodies. It was somehow transformed.
This transformation as a sign of what will happen to the whole of God’s creation. Jesus’ death and resurrection have decisively brought God’s rule to earth. And through the Holy Spirit we are commissioned and equipped to put that victory into practice. We are made in God’s image and so we are to carry on God’s work here on earth. God’s heavenly rule is breaking into earth, to transform it into his heavenly kingdom.
God takes ordinary, physical things and transforms them. In baptism ordinary tap water becomes a sign of God’s transforming grace in people’s lives. In communion ordinary bread and wine become the signs of God’s broken body and shed blood through which we can enter into his presence. The work of human hands becomes a means of drawing closer to God. The final transformation won’t take place until Jesus returns, to finally bring the fullness of heaven to earth. But, in the meantime, we can catch glimpses of heaven on earth, and we can work towards that day.
Jesus spent a lot of time at parties and meals and feasts. He knew the importance of eating together, of sharing in people’s lives, of caring about the everyday, the seemingly ordinary. We can sometimes struggle with remembering that, of acting like that. But the example of God shows us, reminds us, to value the small things, and to seek to see God in the ordinary, and to seek to show God in the everyday.
The readings we heard tell us that Jesus is bothered about what happens to us, that Jesus wants us to celebrate all the good that is in our lives, and that he will be with us in the difficult times as well. Is Jesus really interested in the everyday events of our lives? Does Jesus really care about what is happening to us day-by-day? His actions tell us the answer is yes. The promise of Jesus is that, if we invite him, he will be with us at all those times, in all those situations, helping us, transforming us. The challenge of Jesus is for us to seek to bring Jesus into those everyday events and problems that we encounter, and to seek to show his concern and love in those everyday things. And the invitation of Jesus is to that great heavenly banquet, where we can celebrate God’s overflowing love for us forever.
I want to finish with some words that are attributed to Bishop Charles Brent. They say:
A ship sails and I stand
Watching till she fades on the horizon
And someone at my side says,
‘She is gone’.
Gone from my sight, that is all;
She is just as large as when I saw her.
The diminished size and total loss of sight
Is in me, not in her,
And just at the moment
When someone at my side says
‘She is gone’
There are others who are watching her coming,
And other voices take up a glad shout
‘There she comes!’
And that is dying. Amen.