Sunday Retold – Lazarus raised from the dead

Part of the Sunday Retold series, based on the readings some churches follow.
This week it’s

John 11:1-45

Please feel free to use any of my material that helps you, saying where it is from.

We are preparing to enter the season of Passiontide, towards the end of Lent when we turn our attention more fully to the coming of Easter.  This strange and powerful story is at such a  turn in John’s Gospel, a turn of the road that will take Jesus through death and into life.  We have had hints of what will come before, but this is something much more significant, which attracts much more attention. Crowds pour out of Jerusalem to see Jesus, and Lazarus, and the religious leaders are afraid, and their resolve to be rid of him hardens.

It also contains one of the great I AM sayings which form the backbone of my  next Book

 

Lazarus

By Jacquie Binns

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Jesus is now close to Bethany, when Martha, Lazarus’ sister, comes out to meet him.

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,”  she says, the same phrase  Mary uses later.  They have such confidence that Jesus would have healed their brother, if he had been there.  Then, Martha continues….”But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”

Martha’s confidence in Jesus seems to hold even in the face of his delays, and her brother’s death.  We do not know what she expected might happen – maybe she didn’t know herself, speaking in fresh raw grief.  Perhaps she was simply throwing her whole self, her whole confidence and trust, on this dear friend who was unlike anyone else she knew.
“Your brother will rise again”
“I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
To Martha, this talk of rising may have sounded like a conventional consolation, and  Martha takes it up, this hope, and places it on the Last Day, a day when the dead will rise. It is hope that death is not the end.  It is a distant hope, though, for a distant future.
“I am the resurrection and the life.”   Jesus moves that distant hope – a time, an event, a particular future thing, and says this instead:  He is the resurrection and the life .  Now.
In him is life.

Jesus is more than the one who rises from the dead on Easter Sunday, for others to look on and marvel, and believe if they can.  He himself  is resurrection, and that means something transformative for Lazarus, and Martha, and Mary, and all of us.

After Martha makes her extraordinary statement, she quickly moves on.  Her sister, Mary, is still shut inside.  She must be told that Jesus is here.

Jesus  meets Mary, and the raw grief that she and the others bring with them.  She says the same thing as her sister –
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  She says it weeping.  She says no more words beyond these.  The tone, therefore, feels different.  Her words sound desperate, almost accusing.  Maybe they are accusing.

“Where have you laid him?”
“Come and see”

The pain of the moment now is overwhelming.  Jesus is described as being greatly disturbed, deeply moved.  There is no talk here of denying the hope of the resurrection by grieving.  No accusation of lack of faith for being overcome with emotion.  Grief here is fully experienced – for his friend, and for those who love him still.  Grief too for all the death and loss that are caught up in this, and in the death that Jesus himself will face very soon…..

Jesus moves to stand by the grave with those who weep, and weeps too.

Perhaps we can learn from this “come and see”, to invite Jesus into the darkest places in us.  It is the same phrase Jesus uses to answer “Where are you staying?” right at the beginning, inviting Andrew and another to follow him (1:35-39).

He will follow us too, even to the grave of one we love.

And then, and then…….

JESUS AND LAZARUS 

Jesus followed the road on towards Jerusalem, stopping at the desert place by the Jordan where John had baptized him: where the sky had opened and the Spirit had come down like a dove.  Many people came to him there, and many believed.  While he was by the Jordan, a messenger arrived.
“Teacher, I bring word from Martha and Mary of Bethany.  Your dear friend, their brother Lazarus, is very ill.”
“This sickness will not end in death, but in God’s glory!” Jesus replied.  But he did not follow the messenger back.   Two days later, he stood up and turned to his disciples.
“Come on, let’s go!” he said.  But they were afraid to go so close to Jerusalem, remembering how Jesus’ life was in danger there.
He stepped forward into the sun-baked road. “Now it’s daylight.  Lazarus is asleep, and I’m going to wake him up!”  And the disciples followed Jesus despite their fears.

As they came close, they saw Martha running towards them.  “Lord,” she called out, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Sobbing shook her as Jesus stepped towards her, steadying her. “But I know,” she carried on, quietly, “even now, God would do anything you asked.”
“Your brother will rise again,” Jesus said.
“Yes, I know, on the Last Day – the day of resurrection, of new life.”
“I am the resurrection, I am the life.  Whoever believes in me will live, and will never be swallowed up by the dark emptiness of death. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Lord, I believe you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was promised from long ago!”  Then she went back to find Mary.
“Sister, the Teacher is here!”  Straight away Mary got up and went out, followed by those who had come to mourn with her.  She went up to Jesus and fell weeping at his feet. “Lord!” she said. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died!”   Jesus saw her sorrow, and looked at those around, draped in black, and weeping. And he, too, shuddered under the heavy weight of grief.  “Where is he?”  Jesus asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they answered. And Jesus wept. “See how he loved him!” said some.

“Could he not then have saved him?” questioned others.

They came before the tomb – a cave with a stone rolled across the entrance.
“Take away the stone!” Jesus said, but Martha hesitated.
“Lord, he has been dead four days.  The body will smell,” she said.

“If you believe, you will see God’s glory!” Jesus answered, and they rolled the stone away.  He prayed in a loud voice, and then, he looked into the deep darkness of the tomb. “Lazarus, come out!” he called.  And Lazarus came out, wrapped in linen grave clothes, with a cloth around his face. “Set him free from his grave clothes!”  Jesus said to those around him, who stared in astonishment as the man they had been mourning stood before them, alive again.

From The Bible Retold

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Henry Ossawa Tanner

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Vincent van Gough

What would it mean to be a resurrection people?

To follow Jesus into this experience too? To participate with Jesus in this walk down to the darkest, deadest places, and participate in this bringing of life and hope,  of making things new.  To be part of the new heavens and new earth, to pray and work for his kingdom to come now, on earth, as it is in heaven.  Is it possible to move from discussion of the meaning of resurrection, important as that is,  to beginning to practice it, to live as if it were the way things were meant to be and were becoming?  In any experience of darkness, perhaps we can take courage  to walk through the valleys of the shadows (Psalm 23), to not be afraid, to trust there is a way out the other side.  And, when we are ready,  to look up, to look for signs of light, and life.

Here is a poem, one of a series.  You can find the first, and follow them through,  here

Mary, sister of Lazarus, at your feet a second time

She sits in the shuttered room,
the room where her brother had laid,
dying, dead, the messengers sent out
returning empty, with no reply,
like prayers that bounce  off ceilings
or stick to the roof of the mouth,
choking with sorrow.
When you stay by the Jordan
that shuttered room is where Mary stays.

This is her shadowed valley, the dark forest of her path,
foreshadowing yours, it is all foreshadowing you.
The room where her brother had laid,
how can she ever leave it now?

But leave she did, at last, when you called for her,
she came quickly, running, trailing darkness behind
her weeping.  Mary, once more at your feet,
and when you saw her weeping, you wept too.

You know us in our grief.  You come to us, call to us.
In our darkest, most shuttered places,
your spirit moves, breaks with ours.
Death lay heavy upon you, too, and all the sooner for
this, what you do now, standing before that tomb.

For now, you who are Life,
Word made warm and beating flesh,
and weeping,
call Lazarus out,
You, who are life, and will rise,
call out one who is dead from the cold tomb.
You watch as they run to free him from the graveclothes,
pull darkness from him, calling in strange bewildered delight,
and you see Mary’s face as she sees now,
her brother, who was dead, once more in light,
astonished, seeing your glory, part of your glory,
as she weeps again, is weeping again
breathless with joy.you staying, right at the beginning, inviting Andrew and another to follow him(

Come, O Joy:
Let heaven break into my dark night of sorrow
like the early dawn of a summer morning.

From Prayers and Verses

 

1:35-39).  He will follow us too, even to the grave of one we love. 

The one coming into the world.  This is an interesting bit.  I like the continuous tense.  It is not just the one who was promised, although it holds that meaning too.  It is one who is coming into the world.

Sunday Retold – The Woman at the Well

Part of the  Sunday Retold  series, based on the readings some churches follow week by week.:

This week we’re looking at

John 4:1-42

Please feel free to use any of my material if it helps you, saying where it is from.

This is a powerful and extraordinary story early on in John’s Gospel, one of the important conversations he has with just one person that are recorded for us.  It is a story I have turned over in my mind for a few years, and at present it forms the basis for a chapter I am writing in my next book on the I AM sayings  – not one of the classic seven I know, but I have been exploring a little beyond those, and find this story too interesting and too significant to overlook.  What follows are some of my reflections as I prepare this chapter, a very early share before I have gone through my editing process.  I hope you find it helpful.  I hope it gives you living water.

 

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Mural by  Emmanuel Nsama

 

At a time when our politics is increasingly divided and divisive, where people divide each other into categories, and make some lesser than others, this is a particularly relevant conversation.

John the Evangelist is preparing us for this story very carefully, for it is profoundly counter-cultural. Jesus stops to rest near the plot of ground that Jacob gave his son Joseph.   Jacob’s other name was Israel – one who wrestles with God.  We are going back to Israel’s common spring, common source, at Jacob’s well.  We are being reminded of a time long ago, before the time when and the Jews and Samaritans became peoples who saw themselves as separate.    It is a place that holds meaning and memory for Jews and Samaritans – of their common father, and their common salvation story.  John is placing us on common ground……

 

I think it is no coincidence that John begins this story by setting it against an atmosphere of potential conflict – between cousins, between related nations.  We see Jesus acting out his mission to be a peacemaker, a reconciler.  “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” Eph 2:14.  Jesus himself is common ground,  and his presence changes things.  If we look carefully at how we are prepared for this encounter, we can see that we are being led away from conflict, towards reconciliation, to inclusion, and to hope…….

And so, as Jesus waits for the disciples to find food, as he waits by the well in the heat of the day, a woman approaches.  We can only imagine what it must have been like for her, in a culture where a woman could be divorced “for any and every reason”.  We often think of her as one utterly disgraced in her community, having to visit the well at such a time.  That may well be so.  It is a highly plausible explanation.  Her multiple husbands are hardly a marital model, but, we must remember that at this time divorces were easy for a man to come by, and early death not uncommon.  However her situation came about, she had most certainly known her share of tragedy and disappointment.  She may have known deep shame and disgrace.  If we are thinking in terms of barriers and divides, she has many to cross.

And yet she, like everyone else, gets thirsty, and needs water to drink, and water to wash with.  She is as human as everyone else.  So often, we do not see people like this.  So often, we make quick judgements, build fences, wonder about people’s worthiness, and in our own pride and insecurity, seek to feel superior, safe, chosen, righteous in some way.  Not so Jesus.

His question bursts through all our categories and barriers in its gentleness, its humanity.  It is a question that changes everything for this woman, and for her community.
“Will you give me a drink?”

It is not just that he recognises her thirst, but that he humbly admits his own.  He speaks, not to rebuke a sinful woman, not to point out what she needs to do to straighten out her life, but to make himself vulnerable before her, and to call out her goodness.  For this is what the question does. It recognises her goodness.  It recognises and awakens this truth about her – that she is made in the image of God, she is a God-bearer in the world.  That image can be buried beneath layers of hiding, of shame, buried under words of condemnation that have been spoken over a person, it can be twisted by hatred and fear and darkness, but it is always there, and Jesus sees it.
If we have  come across the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 this question opens up others – the thirsty person before us, asking us for water, for help, is Jesus.  How do we respond?  Do we give?

 

samaritan-woman

She does not know who is speaking to her. Of course not!  Neither does she know the gift of God.  But Jesus is revealing both of these things to her.  Jesus is the greatest gift. And he has living water.  We are diving deeper now.  We know that in John, there is often an association between water and Spirit.  Jesus’ previous encounter with Nicodemus (Ch 3) touches on that…. and it is such a beautiful counterpoint to this one.  Here we have a woman, an outcast, a Samaritan, in the heat of noon – there we had a man, a Pharisee, member of the ruling council, at night.
This water that Jesus gives, it can become a spring in us, as indeed the Spirit in us is a spring, bubbling and welling up to life.

 

From The Bible Retold

LIVING WATER 

It was hot when the woman went to get water from the well, near her home town of Sychar in Samaria.  As she drew near, she saw a Jewish man sitting there, in the shade.  She hesitated a moment, nervous of this stranger.  For the Jews and Samaritans had been enemies for centuries, since the time of the exile.  “But,” she thought, “I must have water,” and she carried on walking to the well.

The man was Jesus.  He had left Jerusalem and was making his way back to Galilee.  His disciples were buying food, leaving him to rest from the burning sun. He looked up at the woman.
“Will you give me a drink?” he asked, with a thirsty smile.   Jews and Samaritans never ate or drank together: it was against all the laws and customs.
You, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan for a drink?” She was so startled she nearly dropped her water jug.
“If you knew who I was, you’d ask me, and I would give you real, life-giving water!”
“How can you get water?  You have nothing to hold it in!”
“If you drink from the well, you’ll be thirsty again.  If you drink the water I offer, it will become like a clear spring within you, bubbling over with eternal life!”
“Sir, I would like that water!”  she replied.  But Jesus questioned her about how she lived, and amazed her by revealing her secrets: things she had kept hidden, for shame.  Could this man be a prophet?
She ran back to town, telling everyone.  They invited Jesus and the disciples to stay, and he taught them for two days.

The people of the town said to the woman, “Now, we don’t just believe in Jesus because of what you said.  We’ve heard the truth for ourselves!”

 

“The well is deep”  What does that mean for you?

Meditation suggestion:

Pour out a large jug of water, and set it before you, together with a glass or glasses.
Consider the water, and ask yourself what you thirst for right now?  Try to allow honest answers to rise in your mind, and note them.  Are there places in your life that feel dry and unproductive? What would bring them life?

 

Take a look at the photographs drawn from different cultures.  How do you respond to them?
You might like to place a picture reminding of of this story above a place where you wash, or your kitchen tap.

 

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Detail of stained glass at Gloucester Cathedral, above the place in the cloisters where the monks washed.

 

This is what God says

“I myself will look for my people and take care of them in the same way as shepherds take care of their sheep.

“I will bring them back from all the places where they were scattered on that dark, disastrous day.

“I will lead them to the mountains and the streams of their own land, so they may make their home amid the green pastures.

I shall be their God, their Good Shepherd; they will be my people,  my flock.”

From Ezekiel 34

From Prayers and Verses

 

May your week be bubbling up with life-giving water

Rain

 

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So, today, it rains.  I am loving listening to the sound of it fall o the dry ground, the coolness, freshness, even the greyness of the sky and the newly soft light.

While waiting for the rain, my mind turned back to this poem.  I wrote it a couple of years ago, and so the raspberries in the pictures, this year’s crop, are healthier than the ones described below.  Water has been on my mind as I’ve been working on my  new book   on John’s gospel – water poured out as an offering, water to wash the eyes of the one born blind, water the bubbles up within you, so you are never thirsty again.  That gets closer to the other kinds of thirst here, in this poem.  There are many things we can be thirsty for.

Rain

The breeze stirs the raspberry patch,
the leaves with crisp yellow edges
rustle under their net,
and under them
are deep red fruits, dusted grey,
The colour of blood spilled
not today, or yesterday,
but months ago.

They are strong,
an intense sharpness.
They have lost their sweetness.
Yet, even so, the blackbird balances
on the net,  reaching down
with a hard yellow beak.

The ground beneath is grey, too, and
fissured like the fruit.
The heat rises, stillness falls on the ground
like thin shadows.
This thirst, this longing for rain,
grows stronger.
Desperate.
Joy, and gentleness,
love and lovingkindness.
Presence and peace.
These I long for.
I need them like flowing water.
Come like the rain.
Come to us like rain.

New Book News!

 

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We arrived back from a few days away to find that, as usual, some post had built up behind the door.  One of the envelopes was quite fat, and it contained a contract for a new book with BRF!  Good news!  It’s a book on the I Am sayings of Jesus,  with an emphasis on how we can respond, and embed these deep truths in our lives.

This book idea began when I was writing a series of meditations for BRF’s Quiet Spaces and found there were too  many ideas, too much to say, to compress into that concentrated format.  I am so grateful they were open to the idea of reading more.   I have till next May to write it, so it will be a while before it is available, but I shall keep you posted on this blog, and hopefully post a few snippets for you to try for yourselves.

I would also like to say thank you to the dear friends who have encouraged me, and especially the St John’s Church Advent Retreat, who patiently listened and tried out various ideas I had been developing, and helped no end with their thoughtful and generous response.

That was not the only post, though.  There was also a parcel containing this:

 

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Recently published, it’s the first time I have held Prayers and Verses in my hands, and it is a beautiful piece of work from Lion. It’s always a strange thing, to see your words printed on a white page, to see the way what you hoped for – something where the different verses and prayers seem to  interact with each other and enrich each other – might be happening on the page.  Below you will see it with its companion volume, The Bible Story Retold.

 

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And here is a spread from the book – I hope you will excuse the slightly variable focus!
In the UK we are facing a time of huge uncertainty, and I thought I would share with you these few prayers and verses. They are reflecting on the time of Exile in the Jewish story, which seems to be a relevant theme for many, whatever their nationality.

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Thank you for taking the time to read this little bit of good news.  May there be more good to come for you, too.