“Jesus was greatly disturbed in Spirit and deeply moved” John 11:33; 38. That’s John’s account of Jesus’s reaction to the news of the death of his friend Lazarus. This is not just a sense of loss for a dead friend. Neither is it empathy and compassion for Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary – who are also close friends of Jesus. The statement has about it a sense of anger, disturbance and being troubled. I cannot help but think that if this were only the story of a sad and untimely death, the words about being disturbed in spirit and deeply moved would not have been used. The raising of Lazarus, so that he could die later anyway, has more about it than simply the unfortunate death of a friend. It is as though something else is going on. The dark forces of death and negation are lurking close by and they seem to have overwhelmed Lazarus. It is the darkness of some evil force that is perhaps so disturbing to Jesus.
On All Saints Day we think of the forces of light – the people of goodness and grace, powers that are life affirming pushing back against the powers of darkness and death and the disfigurement of humanity that so characterises Hallowe’en. It’s intriguing how much the imagery of darkness still pervades our so-called secular culture. Hallowe’en apparently is bigger business than Christmas in the US. The world remains fascinated by darkness and evil.
The stories of Jesus’ relationship with Lazarus, Martha and Mary are amongst the warmest and most human accounts we have of Jesus. He comes across as deeply feeling – humane – even humorous in his relationship with them. Remember how Martha explodes out of the kitchen indignant with her sister as she sits dreamily at Jesus’s feet, taking in his every word. ‘Why’s she not helping with the supper?’ insists Martha. “Just be patient, come and sit and chat – I’m not going to be around forever you know. And if you just come and do what your sister has chosen to do and sit here beside me, I’ll help with the washing up later.”
The great insight of the Christian faith – that is gloriously reinforced in stories like this and at “All Saints Tide” – is the idea of Christian faith as relational – it’s about love and friendship – companionship and the bonds of mutual interdependence. The fear of the Lord may be the beginning of wisdom, but Jesus has come to call us friends, and there is no room for fear in friendship. I remember Professor Duncan Forrester telling us at New College that the God Jesus reveals is a God not characterised by fear, so much as characterised by love and that rather than speaking of an “Almighty” God we should speak of “All-embracing God.
Sometimes – as I reflect on that moment when Jesus is so moved by his friend’s death, I wonder if Jesus needs Lazarus as much as Lazarus needs Jesus. There’s a wonderful and famous icon that expresses this idea that God might need us very beautifully. It is one of the most popular of iconic themes, Virgin of Loving Kindness.
In this icon, the baby Jesus is helpless and dependent and is cuddling up close to his mother – so close he’s clinging to her cloak and his face is right up against hers. There is what Rowan Williams describes as an “extraordinary hunger for physical closeness” The Christ child is defenceless and without the capacity to help himself – this is God’s movement towards us. Is God in search of us? Making himself utterly vulnerable and defenceless – Kenosis – so that God’s own wellbeing depends on us being able to love and care.
Is this what Jesus is feeling that day as he is greatly “disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” – has love failed?
Of course, the other character – Mary in the icon – reveals a profound truth too – there’s a deep love in her eye – but also a deep sadness. You can see love, compassion, protectiveness – but you can see how a sword is also piercing her heart; “To love is to be vulnerable” as C.S Lewis wrote. And, of course, to love this child, who is destined for the rising and falling of nations, is to carry a weight that is almost unbearable. She is perhaps the first person to know what it means to bear Christ – to be the Christ to others and know that the cost of that – the weight of it – the almost unbearable agony of love.
On the feast of All Saints, we are reminded of the relational nature of our faith – relations of love, mutual dependence, companionship, and the burden that is placed upon us to bear the weight of love which will scar us and cause us the pain of loss as much will bring us the ecstasy of joy. We’re reminded of a God who is not remote, waiting for us at a distance, but one who comes to us dependent on our love and vulnerable. And should love fail in us, in the world, in our relations, Lazarus will die. He will die a death that is not the quiet calm death of old age that comes to all, but the death that causes anguish and deep disturbance, as though the world has forgotten how to live in friendship and opposition to the forces of darkness that threaten to sweep our world away.
As we remember the Saints – we are remembering those who’ve been the Christ to us. Those who have borne us, carried us, sacrificed for us and carried the weight of us when we couldn’t manage life on our own.
In the face of death, negation, injustice and oppression; and in the face of eruptions of barbarism that turn parts our world into hell on earth – we too are no doubt greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved by a world that seems to unravel before our eyes, and Lazarus an emblem of lost and wasted and blighted lives, is bundled into his untimely tomb.
But – in the words of the Revelation of St John – ‘the tabernacle of God is with humanity and God will dwell with humanity and they shall be God’s people’. He is in us and through us – his law written on our hearts – his word in our inward parts. In him we live and more and have our being and love can have a home in us – and Lazarus be raised – the darkness of death need not be the last word. We have it within us to work against the powers of darkness, to burn against the powers of hopelessness and to bring people back from the brink of darkness, the tomb of negation and lost hope in which Lazarus was laid so prematurely. We underestimate what it might mean to be made a little lower than angels, to have that divine spark within us and close to hand. Whatever it means to be people of the way, followers of Jesus, it’s not just about signing up to a respectable club. The wonderful American nature writer Annie Dillard often expresses her exasperation at respectable religion, people in church in their Sunday hats when they should be wearing crash helmets and devoted to “raising tomatoes when we should be raising Lazarus”.
I conclude with these words from the hymn, Love’s endeavour, love’s expense by W. H. Vanstone who describes a God, not so much omnipotent, but all embracing, devoted only to love and relationship, as the only power that makes any sense.
Therefore he who shows us God
helpless lays upon the tree
and the nails and crown of thorns
tell of what God’s love must be.
Here is God – no monarch be
throned in easy state to reign
here is God, whose arms of love
aching, spent, the world sustain. v