Sermon preached at Evensong on the Fourth Sunday before Advent (3 November 2019) by the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, Dean of Melbourne

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Sermon preached at Evensong on the Fourth Sunday before Advent (3 November 2019) by the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, Dean of Melbourne

Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen.

I bring you greetings from the Primate of Australia, Archbishop Philip Freier, and the clergy and people of St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne. In August we were delighted to welcome your Canon Chancellor, Paula Gooder, to preach at ‘our’ St Paul’s, and I thank Dean David for his kind invitation to come and preach here this afternoon.

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What would you do with the gift of a new life? For Lazarus, in our second lesson from John’s gospel, this was not a theoretical question, but a reality. He truly had died by the time Jesus came to meet his sisters Mary and Martha. The four had been good friends; ‘Jesus loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus’ (Jn 11.5). In Luke’s story of Jesus, we see how he often had enjoyed their hospitality. On one of his visits he had commended Mary for her determination to sit at his feet and listen to his teaching, while Martha busied herself showing him hospitality. By her attentive listening, Mary had chosen the better part, Jesus had said then (Lk 10.42).

The sisters had sent for Jesus, to tell him that Lazarus was gravely ill. Jesus chose not to hurry to their home. Instead, he sent word back: ‘This illness will not lead to death, rather it is for God’s glory, that the Son of God might be glorified through it’ (Jn 11.4). God’s Son would be glorified by Lazarus living, Jesus told them. He did not tell them that in order truly to live, Lazarus first would die. A few days later, Jesus told his followers that Lazarus had fallen asleep, and that they were going ‘to awaken him’ (Jn 11.11). The disciples naturally assumed that Lazarus would be woken from the sleep of illness. But Jesus ‘told them plainly: “Lazarus is dead”.’ (Jn 11.14). In fact, by the time they came to his village, he had been dead four days.

When Jesus had arrived, Martha took initiative: ‘she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home’ (Jn 11.20). In their conversation, she showed that she had taken to heart Jesus’ words to choose the ‘better part’. She listened intently; heard Jesus tell her that he himself is the resurrection and new life, and that those who trust in him will never die. ‘This illness does not lead to death’, Jesus had said, ‘rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it’ (Jn 11.4). ‘You are the Son of God’, Martha now confessed, ‘I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him’ (Jn 11.22, 27). Martha was granted insight, faith and trust in Jesus’ words. As she mourned her brother, she also received her share of the better part, which is promised to all of us when we listen to and trust in Jesus’ teaching.

Next Mary came to Jesus. She knelt before him and wept at his feet: ‘If you had been here, Lazarus would not have died’, she told him (Jn 11.32). The people of Bethany wept with her. And Jesus, too, was overcome by the loss of his close friend. Even though he had told his disciples of his intention to ‘awaken Lazarus’, and had assured Martha that he was ‘the resurrection and the life’, he wept (Jn 11.11, 25). Because life had been cut short; friendships severed by death. ‘See how he loved him’, the villagers said as Jesus wept, and for the third time that day they asked an obvious question: ‘could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’ (Jn 11.35).

The answer to that question is clearly: ‘yes he could have done so’. Certainly, Jesus could have healed Lazarus. Mary, Martha and the people of Bethany did not expect that Jesus would do more than heal and restore a friend. But healing Lazarus would neither have given him a new life, nor glorified the Son of God. Nor would Jesus, who had been revealed to be the light of the world by healing a blind man, have been shown forth truly to be the resurrection and life. Because Jesus had not done as they had all hoped and asked, and remained away from Bethany at the crucial moment, everyone still believed that he was here only to weep with them and comfort them. Instead, he had come to fulfil what he had foretold: ‘just as the Father raises from the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he wills’ (Jn 5.21).

As they came to the tomb, Jesus commanded that the stone sealing the grave chamber be removed. Martha reminded Jesus that her brother had been buried for more than three days. His body was already decomposing, ‘there is already a stench’, she told him (Jn 11.39). Jesus reminded them how he had promised that Lazarus’ illness would show them God’s glory. Yet even with the stone removed, still no one expected Lazarus to be raised from the dead. At the open tomb, Jesus prayed to the Father: it is God himself who would be glorified by this most powerful act of giving new life, where death had held sway for three days. Jesus gives thanks to God for hearing his prayer: the Greek word used here is eucharizo, from which we derive our name ‘Eucharist’; the thanksgiving feast for our liberation from death (Jn 11.41). John uses that word only twice: here, and at the miraculous feeding of five thousand people. Then, Jesus revealed himself to be the true bread who had come from heaven, so that all who have a share in him may live forever. ‘This is the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life’, he then said (Jn 6.40). Now he is about to show forth that will.

Standing at the open tomb, Lazarus resting in it, tightly wrapped in grave cloths, Jesus prays that all would receive the gift of faith to see for themselves the will of the Father for the world. That all would come to believe that Jesus will ‘raise them up on the last day’ (Jn 6.40). God the Father has already heard the unspoken prayer of his Son. He has already granted the gift of life eternal to all who believe in the Son. Jesus’ prayer therefore is for us: ‘that they may believe that you sent me’ (Jn 11.42). That we may know the Father’s will perfectly fulfilled in the Son, who calls the dead by name and charges them to come out to new life. ‘Lazarus, come out!’ Jesus commanded (Jn 11.43). And the dead man came out, his name – Lazarus – in itself a parable: ‘God has helped’, the Hebrew means. God has helped: not by preventing him from dying by having his illness healed, but by gifting him a new life altogether. ‘Unbind him, and let him go’, Jesus charged (Jn 11.44). And many of the people of Bethany ‘who had come with Mary and seen what Jesus did, believed in him’ (Jn 11.45).

What would you do with the gift of a new life? Lazarus became a living sign of death defeated. We read in the gospels how he and his sisters helped shape a community of other believers who met in his home to share food, teaching and service. It was after dinner in their home, that Jesus was anointed with costly oil to prepare him for his own journey through death; ‘for the day of my burial’, as he told those who were aghast at this abundant generosity (Jn 12.7). Lazarus became a witness to Jesus’ authority and power among the people of God, testifying by his own new life that Jesus was indeed God’s Son: ‘on account of Lazarus many came to believe in Jesus’, we read later in the gospel (Jn 12.11).

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What would you do with the gift of a new life? One of my own heroes of faith, the London pastor and German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was given a new life in June 1939, three months before the outbreak of the Second World War. The outspoken opponent of Hitler’s Germany had literally been given a passport to a new life in the United States. Bonhoeffer had safely arrived in New York, ready to begin lecturing at Union Theological Seminary. Yet the following week, he returned to Germany on one of the last scheduled steamers home. He knew that he was called to be a witness, was convinced that the life that Jesus brought was greater than human suffering and death; greater, indeed, than any human authority. 

On his return to Germany, Bonhoeffer actively conspired against Hitler’s government. He wrote, spoke and plotted against Hitler; he engaged in smuggling Jews and opponents of the regime out of Germany. He put into prayer and poetry his firm belief that the authority of Jesus was greater than any human power. Even when he was himself in prison, he held firm to the faith that Christ had already set him free, that he had gifted him new life. That freedom, that life, was two-fold, Bonhoeffer believed: a new life for Germans when the Nazis would be removed from power, and another, even greater, new life: eternal life with God. The gift that glorifies the Son of God and recalls all who believe from death. Next year on Maundy Thursday it will be 75 years since Bonhoeffer was martyred in a Nazi concentration camp for his witness. He freely gave up his new life so that others might also have life and come to believe in the Christ, the Conqueror of Death.

What do we do with the new lives given to us? The life that Christ gives is for ever, and is stronger than death; the witness of Lazarus tells us. And the life that Christ gives is greater than any human authority, the witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer tells us. We live in an age where the uncertainties of today are eroding many of the freedoms we have long taken for granted. As human rights are increasingly diminished, and our societies become more inward looking, more suspicious of ‘others’, more intolerant of people who do not share our own background or views, we are encouraged to enter the witness of Lazarus and Bonhoeffer (and countless others with them), in standing up and speaking out for the liberating life that Christ brought. Like them we are called to build community, bring people together, to share with us in choosing the better part of life by listening to Christ’s teaching, and entering into the costly service of others.

At ‘our‘ St Paul’s we do this through our work with refugees and migrants, enabling people who are actively persecuted in their homelands, and not really welcomed in their host nation, to build new lives, new community. We give them a place of safety, a place of belonging, of learning and teaching. We shape community around the dinner table and our shared prayer. We advocate for refugees, both very publicly – six years ago we installed a 30-foot banner on one of our three gothic spires, calling on the people of Australia to ‘fully welcome refugees’ – and advocate for them privately, by attending the interviews and tribunals of refugees or by seeking ministerial interventions on their behalf. By our service, we seek to show forth what a new life could look like for people in Australia. And we share another life with them – the eternal life that Christ gifts. We invite people to consider seeking baptism, and to enter themselves into a life of witness. We stand up for those who seek new life, so that through our witness many others may receive new life, and so glorify the Son of God.

This ministry is costly. We found that there are many, not least our political leaders, who object to our witnessing and persistence. But this, too, is part of the new life to which Christ called Lazarus. The task of witnessing to the power of life itself will never be a life of ease. Lazarus himself immediately became a target for the authorities of his own age; his new life endangered because of his ministry. Bonhoeffer was executed for his witness in his own age. We may not all have to give our lives in Christ’s service. But we are all invited to give our lives to Christ. He calls each one of us to share his new life, confident that it is in giving our lives in his trust that we find true life; confident that all of us who die in his service will share his everlasting life.

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What would you do with a new life? It is my prayer for you and for me that we would live it in witness to the giver and restorer of all life, Jesus Christ, our Lord, who calls forth his witnesses in every generation – Lazarus, Martha and Mary; Dietrich Bonhoeffer; and you and me – to bring life to this world, to the glory of God. Amen.