Rev Kate McFarlane
Wasn’t today’s psalm beautiful and apt: ‘My soul waits for the Lord…..in his word is my hope.’
We are, all of us, in this uncomfortable and difficult time of waiting, waiting to see what new developments each day will bring, waiting to feel that the danger has passed, waiting for normal life to resume. And we don’t like waiting; we hate even normal supermarket queues, and waiting times for A and E and the doctor are our perennial concern; any delay is a deep irritation and frustration to us.
Yet in our psalm waiting is seen as part of our faith; ‘I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him….My soul waits for the Lord.’ There is something holy, it seems, about waiting. If we are consciously waiting for God, we are open to recognise our need for him and open therefore to opportunities to encounter his presence.
Beautiful sentiments! The sort of holy thing a priest should say. But actually those aren’t the feelings I’ve had in the last week. I’ve felt, at moments, frightened, angry, desperately sad, frustrated, thwarted, imprisoned. I hate waiting. I loathe uncertainty. I detest not feeling in control of my situation. So while I see immense beauty in our psalm and while it conveys how I perhaps ‘ought’ to feel, right now I need something different. So what of today’s Gospel?
Well, it’s complicated. This story of Lazarus depicts Jesus’s long-standing and deep friendship with a whole family, with Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Jesus has been welcomed into their home, eaten with them, spent time in their company. The sisters’ desperate message to him is ‘he whom you love is ill.’
When Lazarus becomes sick the family naturally, instantly, turn to their friend Jesus for help. But does Jesus leave immediately, rushing to his friend’s bedside? No, he waits …. a couple of days; he waits till Lazarus is dead! And what he says, to anyone who has experienced grief, is shocking; Jesus says that his friends’ fatal illness gives glory to God, it is ‘so that the Son of God may be glorified.’ That’s not what I want to hear either, in our current context. This proclamation is almost callous in its complacency. I resent it and reject it the way I do when someone says of any experience of suffering; ‘Well, it must have been God’s plan’!
What do Lazarus’s grieving sisters make of Jesus’ response? Well, reading the bible in services, it all sounds very civilised. I try to be expressive when I read but we still, all of us, tend to read scripture in a measured, formal way which, I think, can be very misleading. I wonder if, when, days later, Jesus finally approaches the family’s village and first Martha and then Mary come to meet him, their tone is anything but controlled and polite; ‘if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’
The bible says Mary ‘got up quickly and went to him’, kneeling at his feet. Was she simply eager to see him? I doubt it! I think it’s more likely she was raging, storming off to call him to account. ‘Why did you wait?’ I think she hurled the passionate fury of the bereaved at Jesus, collapsing at his feet distraught and exhausted.
And I notice too that these encounters happen ‘at a distance’. Jesus has not yet come to the family’s home or even into their village. He is still distanced from them. I wonder if this story is showing us Jesus, fully divine, knowing God can work his purposes out, even through terrible events, but not having grasped yet what having to wait in a time of suffering is like for one who is fully human too. This he only now learns from the sisters.
He must listen to their rebuke. He must see their tears and, only then, does he begin to become truly engaged, ‘greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved’. Confronted by his grieving friends, Jesus learns something about what it means to be human, what it means to wait and what it means to face loss and even death.
They say to him ‘Lord, come and see’; these are the exact words Jesus used to the first people he called as his disciples, ‘Come and see’, come and learn. The disciples came; they followed; they learned; they were changed. Now Jesus himself is invited to do the same …. and he goes with them.
Our distantly powerful, all-seeing God now truly comes amongst us, entering into all that it means to be human. Now … ‘Jesus wept’. Now he weeps with them. He shares their sorrow. No more is there any separation between God and humankind. No longer will anything separate us from God’s love. He weeps with us. We neither weep, nor wait, alone.
And, of course, in this story, there are threatening hints of Jesus’ own death which now fast approaches. Jesus must encounter what it means, not just to face the death of those you love, but to face death himself. He is entering into the very darkest parts of our human existence. The people will, as he proclaimed, come to see the glory of God, but it will be a God accepting an agonising death on a criminal’s cross. But in today’s gospel, perhaps above all others, we see Jesus, God and man, entering fully, with those he loves, into our grief and loss, journeying with us through the darkest times towards the resurrection, the new life we wait for with such longing.
So perhaps I can read today’s psalm again now, hearing it differently in the light of the Gospel; ‘I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him; in his word is my hope.’
We are in a waiting time, and we may rage as Mary and Martha did, at the waiting imposed on us, but we do not wait alone. We share in this as a community, a community which I see growing stronger every day, with so many gestures of friendship, love and practical care being offered. And, Jesus, who was made by those passionate, strong-willed sisters, Mary and Martha, to learn fully what it means to be human, is lovingly present with us in the waiting , every moment of it. It is in that knowledge I can say; ‘in his word is my hope.’