Light is amazing. It is something that we so often take for granted and yet are affected by it often in ways we don’t always understand. As we emerge from winter into spring and the sunlight grows stronger, so many of us begin to feel better. SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder is a diagnosable condition whereby sufferers will display signs of depression at a particular time of year, usually the winter. Part of the treatment may be a spending time with a light box, a device which emits a lot of diffuse bright light to mimic the effects of the sun. Sunshine, as well as improving our mood, can also make things look much more attractive. Almost anywhere can look better in the sunlight. Artists will seek out particular locations because of the quality of the light. Southern France and Spain were favoured by the likes of Picasso, Cézanne and Dali. Besides the sun, modern technology allows us to do so much with lighting effects from the stage sets of large concerts to the clever internal and external illumination of buildings to show them off to their best effect.
Light is an overriding theme of John’s gospel. In the opening prologue in words used at Christmas, he writes: ‘The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.’ (John 1.9) In today’s reading, Jesus says to his disciples: ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble because the light is not in them.’ (John 11.9 & 10) Jesus’ world was one in which daylight mattered a lot. Electric lighting was unheard of and the only form or artificial lighting was provided by small household ceramic lamps burning olive oil or torches made from rags soaked with animal fat. Once the sun had set many of the villages and towns Jesus knew would have become dark, threatening places.
Jesus well understood that people needed daylight to move around and conduct their business effectively. They used the daylight to find their way around and the people they needed to speak to. At night, it was near impossible. But when John and Jesus speak of the true light coming into the world, they are not thinking of the sun or manmade light. They are thinking of a wholly different way of seeing things; of a light which illuminates the world; what is happening from God’s perspective rather than a human one.
How does this happen? I think we see it to good effect in the various conversations which Jesus has with individuals which John records for us in his gospel. During Lent, we have read two of these and today we have a third.
Firstly we looked at the story of Nicodemus in which Jesus led him to see that ‘being born again or born from above’ was not what he thought it meant. It was not about the physical action of a mother giving birth. It was about his heart and soul, choking and dying through selfishness and sin being given a new beginning by looking to Jesus.
Then we had the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. Unlike Nicodemus who was male and Jewish, who thought he had it made with God, the Samaritan woman is not in a good place. Society looks down on her for who she is and her personal circumstances are not great. Sitting beside the well, Jesus offers her living water. She assumes this means putting a bucket down the well, but Jesus helps her to see by means of his heavenly light that actually the ‘water’ he is offering her is the love and forgiveness of her heavenly father God. By means of that same light, Jesus is able to see deep into her life so that she declares that: ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ (John 4.39)
Today’s gospel (John 11.1-45) is another of those conversations which lead from the earthly to the heavenly from our physical world to the world of God. Jesus, the light illuminates the world differently for those who are touched by the great sign of the raising of Lazarus. The story begins very normally. Jesus is well known to the family of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. When Lazarus becomes ill and knowing that Jesus has performed miracles of healing in the past, a message is sent to Jesus to come. But Jesus does not see it in the same way as the sisters; it is not a blue light emergency! It will be for God’s glory and he delays coming for two days.
Then he tells the disciples who don’t know about the message he has received, that they must go to Judea. The disciples, seeing only by the light of this world, say no. They will stone you. It will be dangerous. When Jesus explains that ‘Lazarus has fallen asleep’, they assume he means he will wake up but Jesus then makes clear that he has used a euphemism, that Lazarus is dead, but seen by the light of heaven, this is not the end.
When Jesus approaches Bethany where Lazarus lived, Martha leaves home to intercept him outside the village. She chides him for being so slow: ‘Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ (John 11.21) But then she sees dimly by the heavenly light: ‘But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ (John 11.22) Jesus assures Martha that her brother will rise again and she affirms that will be so…on the last day. Jesus’ light now shines on full beam as he declares to her that he is the resurrection and the life. Martha, like the Samaritan woman affirms Jesus as the Messiah.
Next, Mary, the other sister comes to meet Jesus outside the town. She too chides Jesus with the same words as Martha: ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ (John 11.32) The conversation does not develop in the same way. Instead there is much grief and weeping which includes Jesus. Does he weep as much for their lack of understanding as out of sorrow for Lazarus’ death? Is it their inability to see with the heavenly light, their determination to stumble in the darkness that makes Jesus sad? How can he ever make them see?
The answer is not long coming. He orders the stone to be removed. Martha still bound by thoughts of the physical and practical objects that there will be a bad smell. Jesus then prays to the father for the sake of the crowd that they might believe, might see things from God’s perspective. Then he calls the dead man from the tomb and out he comes stumbling around because he is still wrapped in the grave cloths. The great command to Lazarus, the call of hope and salvation is uttered: ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
This is a key moment in John’s gospel. The light has come. How much brighter will it shine on the first Easter morning as it is Jesus himself released from the tomb? We can chose to see only by this world’s light, to say that dead men don’t rise, to gain our understanding of life purely from what we experience as Nicodemus, the Samaritan women, Martha, Mary and the disciples try to do. Or we can allow our hearts and minds to be expanded by Jesus, the light of the world, so that for us, the real world is God’s world in which the physical death of our bodies is not a full stop, in which human sinfulness is not allowed to triumph and in which we may live life in all its fullness for eternity.
Lent 5 Passion Sunday 02.04.2017