Sermon preached at Evensong on the Third Sunday of Easter (5 May 2019) by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean

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Sermon preached at Evensong on the Third Sunday of Easter (5 May 2019) by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean

 

The Dean reflects on the gift of human life in the story of the raising of Lazarus. 


All human beings will die. That’s a simple fact. But most of us act day by day as if we’re immortal, and put off thinking about the reality of death. We have a pattern of life we expect we should follow (though many can’t), which is an exciting youth, a fulfilling working life, and a long and happy retirement. And we don’t think about what happens when our retirement ends... 

Most of us will have experienced the death of others, especially those we love; and some of you here will have faced the reality of death for yourselves, whether through a near-death experience or a close shave with death or through a doctor’s diagnosis of how long you may have to live.

The centuries-old Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer, from which this afternoon’s service of Evensong is taken, also contains a service for the visitation of the sick, which was composed in a time when plague and disease were commonplace and medicine was much less effective than now. 

That service assumes that the sick person is as likely to die as not, and the local priest is to encourage them to sort out their sins and broken relationships and make their will before they die. But the priest as well as the sick person is told to leave the outcome of the illness to God, whether for life or death, because we just don’t know.

However – how would you respond if you became very ill, and the local priest came round to comfort you and said: ‘Get your affairs sorted out, because God says you’re going to die’?

That’s what happened to King Hezekiah of Judah around the year 700 BC. Hezekiah had fallen sick with an infection, and the equivalent of the local priest, the prophet Isaiah, came to tell him that God said he will die. How would you or I have responded to such news that our life was about to end...?

Hezekiah’s response was to pray earnestly for God to change his mind, and instead heal him from his untimely death. And Isaiah then tells him that God has heard his cry, and he will live for another 15 years. The Old Testament reading this afternoon sets out Hezekiah’s poetic response to his sickness and healing.

‘In the noontide of my days I must depart; I am consigned to the gates of death for the rest of my years. I shall not see the Lord in the land of the living; I shall look upon mortals no more. Like a weaver I have rolled up my life; from day to night you bring me to an end; from day to night you bring me to an end.

‘O restore me to health and make me live! For Sheol cannot thank you, death cannot praise you; those who go down to the Pit cannot hope for your faithfulness. The living, the living, they thank you, as I do this day.’

This poem carries a mixed message: acceptance of the reality of death – I must depart, I am brought to an end, in bitterness of soul, the dead don’t praise you; and also thanksgiving for recovery, with the promise of praise to God. The poem has an upbeat ending – for now; because Hezekiah has recovered, this time.

But the view of death in the time of Isaiah was stark – for the ancient Hebrews there was no remembering after death, no heaven to hope for, only darkness and disintegration in Sheol, the abode of the dead where consciousness of God was lost. Hezekiah found healing for a time, but he knew that one day he would die, and there would be no reprieve, no healing.

Compare this with the story of Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead in John chapter 11. The raising of Lazarus wasn’t the result of an appeal to live a bit longer, nor was it a private spiritual matter between a man and his God. Isaiah came to a man on a sickbed, but Jesus came to a dead man in a tomb. 

Unlike the private conversation between Isaiah and the king on his sickbed, Jesus came into a very public setting, a whole village community in mourning, supporting the two sisters of his dead friend Lazarus.

And the raising of Lazarus wasn’t because his death was untimely, or his life incomplete, but because of an appeal to love and friendship and the power of God over death – it’s the power of love in Jesus that brings Lazarus back to life.

But, like Hezekiah, Lazarus still had finally to die. The raising of Lazarus from death to life was not yet the resurrection of the dead – Lazarus comes back to life, for a while, not onwards into eternal life beyond death... 

One reason for these two stories of facing death being different is a change in understanding of what death meant. For Hezekiah and Isaiah, death was the end of your personal existence, and life with God continued through the ongoing corporate relationship between God and the community of the people of Israel. There’s little conception in the Jewish scriptures of a life beyond this world for any person.

But for Jesus and his contemporaries, there was a greater understanding of the value of individual life, with the view that each person has to live in relation to God, and will be judged by God on the basis of what we’ve done and who we’ve become through our lives, however long or short.

There will be a life beyond this one: and our eternal destiny rests on our relationship with God. And it’s in that context that Jesus in conversation with Martha refers to himself as being ‘the resurrection and the life’, which Martha believes – not an abstract concept, but a belief and trust in this Jesus, this person, to know us and love us and hold us through death into life beyond. Resurrection and eternal life is rooted in love and relationship with God.

Our modern world-view has in some ways gone backwards from the view of Jesus, seeing death as the end of consciousness and the absolute end of each of us as persons. Some take comfort from an idea that our life force as well as our body will be recycled in the world around us, whether as a tree or an insect or as another human being; but in effect this means the same thing as simply the end of you as a person, because the person you are now, your bundle of experiences and memories and feelings rooted in your particular physical body, will cease to exist, for ever.

Do you and I ever think about our death? It’s been a spiritual practice in most religious faiths to meditate on our own death, as a way of living a better life now, of learning to let go with grace and thanks. 

What may help that is to re-think the pattern of life which we’ve inherited, and to forget the idea that we will have heaven on earth for a while in a well-deserved retirement. Much better to see the whole of our life as our work, our vocation, a life given to us by God to build into relationships of love for God and others, life as a gift which we don’t deserve, which may not seem fair in length or experience, but which we will one day lay down as we retire from living, and rest in hope in the love of God for us and for others.

In our readings today there are two signs. The sign of Hezekiah is that life can be extended in the face of sickness, and our medical developments have been very effective in doing that – but it’s only for a while. The sign of Lazarus is that, while we will all die, we can live in relationship with God through Jesus Christ, on either side of death.

As Jesus stood near the tomb, he began to weep for Lazarus, and those with him said, ‘See how he loved him!’; Jesus, whose tears of love are stronger than the power of death; Jesus crucified and resurrected, not come back to life like Lazarus, but gone forward into new life for ever.

All of us will die, sooner or later. For now, we trust in Jesus Christ, to be ready at any time to let go of this gift of life, to enter the gates of death in hope of a joyful resurrection, all the while being with the God who loves us, who weeps for us, who holds us all in being.