St Michael’s Church, Workington 4 November 2018

All Saint’s Tide

I want you to imagine you were there.

You’re someone in the crowd, on that hot dusty day, two thousand or so years ago. You’ld come along because you’d heard Lazarus had died, and you were fond of him. He was a good man. Imagine it. There’s a great crowd of you, there to support Mary and Martha, his sisters. Imagine that dry heat, the flies, your dusty feet.

You’re weeping too; sad beyond words at the death of your friend, before his time.

There’s Mary, approaching the teacher and kneeling down before him. He’s standing on the outskirts of the village of Bethany, where he’d often visited his friends  before, taking time out to laugh and unwind. It’s as if he’s miles away. You wonder what he’s thinking. Enigmatic bloke, that one. Mary doesn’t mince her words. ‘If you’d been here, he wouldn’t have died’. She says, clearly and simply. She leads him to the tomb, the cave, with a great rock rolled across. You follow along. He’s crying too, now.

Then he says – out of the blue – ‘Take away the stone’. ‘What on earth!’ you think to yourself; ‘That’s not going to happen.’ Martha agrees. ‘He’s been dead four days, Jesus. Can’t you smell the stench?’ And yes, the stink is there – it fills your nostrils with that sickly, sweet, unmistakeable taste in your mouth, at the back of your throat. What can he be thinking?

‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’

You step forward to help roll the stone away. The stench is seriously overpowering, like a wave slamming into you. Inside it’s dark. You can’t see a thing. Despite the stink, the crowd presses forward. Jesus looks upwards and prays – the intimate, direct prayer that he always uses, talking to God as if he were his father. People don’t usually pray like that.

Then, well, it becomes bizarre. He shouts into the cave. Lazarus, Come Out!

Now, imagine you’re in church, a hundred years ago, this Sunday. Your boy is away at the Front. You don’t know it yet for sure, but there are rumours it’s all nearly over. You sit and listen to this same story – the story of a young man, brought back to life, by Jesus. You look around you, at Mrs Norman, over there. At Mrs Sisson. At the Pattison family. You wonder that they can listen to the reading, with such a sense of calm, knowing their boys will not return. You’ve heard of the mud, the carnage, the madness, the lice, the shell shock. You think of your Bert, and pray so hard that he will survive these last few days – hopefully only a few days more. He’s only nineteen. A careful, gentle young man, he was. He loved his birds – would go for long rambles on days off from the mine, to listen to the skylarks. Kept pigeons. They were waiting for him. You’re waiting for him. To emerge from the darkness of the most awful tomb of death that humanity has ever imagined. ‘Come Out, Bert!’ you whisper to yourself.

Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?

Jesus’ words stay with you as you walk home from church on All Saint’s Sunday, 1918. How hard it is to believe in the glory of God, when life is so painful, so full of grief. When you’re beside yourself with worry, hoping against hope that Bert will come back to you. Knowing he won’t be that same carefree lad he was.

It faces us all, doesn’t it, at some stage of our lives. We look into the deep cavern of despair and death, and God seems far away. Perhaps we too have lost someone we love, and the grief overwhelms us. Perhaps we’re full of anxiety at the state of the world; the impact of climate change. Perhaps we’re facing into addiction, or know someone who struggles to find a reason to live. The tomb that Lazarus occupied is a tomb familiar to all of us.

Today we celebrate All Saints. We pray in the collect that God will give us grace to follow his saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we might come to those inexpressible joys prepared for all who love God.

What makes a saint? I wonder. Perhaps it’s those folk, through the ages, who have looked into the tomb of death and despair with the eyes of Jesus, and have seen life.

St Lazarus emerged, his hands and feet bound with cloths. ‘Unbind him, and let him go’, said Jesus. Again, imagine you step forward to unwind those bands, and as you do, the scent of roses fills the air.

It is very hard indeed to believe, and see the glory of God, in many human experiences – whatever age we live in. Each of us will have been brought there, where God’s glory is the last thing that can be imagined.

But that’s what we called to do. We’re called to believe, to see God’s glory in the face of death. We’re called to expect that Lazarus will emerge from the tomb.

Mrs Norman, Mrs Pattison, Mrs Sisson, who lost Jack, and Walter, and Ted. There they are, remembered, next to you in the pew. Many of those mothers of a century ago will have found it difficult to come to church, in the years following 1918. Many will have lost their faith. Others, though, will have continued to believe that they had not lost their sons for nothing. That their deaths on the fields of Flanders were caught up into a greater life and purpose than could be known. As the poppies grew, and sprinkled their life-giving blood across the ravaged land the following spring and summer, the glory of God was still there, to be experienced and known.

For you and me today – whatever we face – we are called to continue to believe that the glory of God is all around us. We are called to belong to a great communion of those who have believed and followed Jesus Christ. We are surrounded by a great company, a host of saints and angels, who are with us through our darkest hours. They strengthen us; they bring hope, the courage to face the future whatever it brings.

Even through death, they are there, bearing us when we stagger and fall. They hold out the promise of inexpressible joys. We are called to join them, the heavenly host, who are all around us. Called out of the tomb of the fear, despair, and grief of death, into the glorious light and life of God. So, yes, let’s not just imagine, but know ourselves to be there, part of a great company of fellow saints, who believe, and have seen the glory of God, even in the face of the darkest tomb. For the life of Lazarus is ours.