Sermon for Evening Prayer for the Prayer Book Society, Guildford Branch, on Saturday 12th March 2016 at the Founders’ Chapel, Charterhouse Jeremiah 20:7-18, John 11:17-27

Jeremiah said,
Wherefore came I forth out of the womb to see labour and sorrow, that my days should be consumed with shame? (Jer.20:18)

What happened to the covenant, the special relationship between the Lord’s chosen people and their God? They are held captive, exiles in Babylon. Psalm 137: By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept.

It was a time of sad reflection. Had their God abandoned them? What would look like an exile from the Promised Land today? It’s difficult to empathise with the exiles in the Old Testament, not only because there’s a gap of nearly 3,000 years, but also because we aren’t in exile: in fact, we are very much at home. In Surrey we can almost pretend that we are in the Promised Land.

But does it mean that we can’t feel something of what Jeremiah was crying out against? Is the whole world like the Promised Land today? It’s sad, but it’s not. There are even parallels with the mass exile of the chosen people, of the Jews, in the current mass migration and refugee exodus from Syria and other troubled parts of the Middle East and Africa.

The Babylon into which the Jewish exiles went was, just as we are, relatively stable and affluent. But it didn’t feel that way. The mere fact of being in exile was a bitter fate.

And then we have heard, in our second lesson, the most complete answer to such a time of despair. If the logical implication of an imperfect life, a life of suffering, is its eventual death, then victory over death is its antidote, the confirmation that the suffering was not in vain.

Lazarus has died. Both his sisters, Mary and Martha, are distressed. Jesus doesn’t arrive until Lazarus has been dead for four whole days.

Both sisters clearly believe that, if Jesus had been there in time, he would have been able to stop Lazarus dying. That in itself is a remarkable thing to believe: but Jesus had demonstrated amazing powers of healing already.

And indeed, even though Lazarus has been walled up in the tomb for four days, Jesus calls him out, and Lazarus comes back to life.

But you know all this. What has it got to do with us in Guildford Diocese today, enthusiasts for the BCP as we are?

Jeremiah is all about a people who had abandoned their covenant with God, had become separated from God, eventually literally: they were driven out of the Promised Land into exile after Nebuchadnezzar had captured Jerusalem for a second time in 587BC.

The story of the raising of Lazarus has a metaphorical significance (leaving aside the question exactly what happened), that it is one of the occasions when Jesus said ‘I am’ something. Here, ‘I am the resurrection and the life’. Death has no more power.

Jesus is God’s sign that we can come back from our spiritual exile. If we believe, we will no longer be separated from God, and we will have eternal life.

Can we know what happened? It’s striking that it’s made very clear that Lazarus had definitely died. Jesus knew that was the real position. Lazarus wasn’t just asleep. Nevertheless Jesus delayed going to him. When he finally arrived, Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. The body would have begun to decay, and to smell. Lazarus was emphatically dead; but equally emphatically, we are told that he came alive again out of the tomb. Lazarus was among the guests at the dinner party for Jesus where Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with pure nard. Lazarus was definitely alive. We have to understand it as best we can.

You might think that such a message, or such a phenomenon, would have been a cause for universal rejoicing. But it wasn’t. The Pharisees said among themselves, ‘If we let him thus alone, men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation’. The Romans had devolved to the Jews the day-to-day government of Palestine. If the people, the Jews, honoured Jesus rather than the Chief Priest and the Pharisees, the Romans might take away from the Pharisees the job of administration of the country.

I have to observe that this important passage in the lead up to Christ’s passion looks rather artificial, if it’s meant to be an eyewitness account. If Jesus had indeed raised a man, who had died and been in the tomb for four days, back to life, surely what the Romans might or might not do with the local government would seem to be of relatively minor importance. It does seem that what this story, of the raising of Lazarus, signifies, is much more important than just the minutiae of provincial government.

What Lazarus’ story really signifies, is that God is present with us. We are not alone, we are not separated. We’re no longer in exile.

Never mind what the Pharisees did: we can respond, we can respond to such a wonderful revelation, in several ways. The first is worship. This little congregation is gathered together because we want to uphold and support the use of the Prayer Book in worship: we think we will have better words with which to approach the Almighty, if we use the Book of Common Prayer.

And if that brings us together in fellowship, that’s good. ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them’, (Matt. 18:20). We could say that the Prayer Book, for us, is a kind of conduit of God’s grace. As we meet together and worship, using Cranmer’s ancient and beautiful words, we pray for God’s grace.

Nothing we can do can earn that grace, that eternal salvation, but we have the assurance that if we believe and trust in Him, we will be saved, we will receive the grace of God.

And the way we will receive God’s grace will be through the Holy Spirit coming among us. How can we tell? How can we tell if the Holy Spirit has in fact, come among us?

Remember what St Paul wrote to the Galatians.
‘But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance;’ (Gal. 5:22-3). Our Lent reflection today should be whether we do exhibit those qualities – and how as Christians we are dealing with the opposite of the works of the Spirit, the works of the flesh.

A person called Jack Monroe Tweeted this week:

‘Does anyone else get overwhelmed?

….

Hope too much?

Calais, welfare reform, ESA, food banks.

My heart is just broken.’

ESA stands for employment and support allowance, the benefit which has replaced incapacity benefit. ESA is a much harder benefit to claim than incapacity benefit, primarily because the medical test – the work capability assessment – is very much harsher. The government has just announced that it is going to make it even harder for disabled people to claim this benefit, and thereby to save over £1billion – that is, £1billion will be taken away from the already reduced amount given to disabled people.

Incidentally, in my work as manager of a food bank, I recently came across a statistic, that over 2,000 people have died after being declared fit for work and denied disability benefit under this new regime. 2,000 people: fit for work: dead.

Where does that all fit in? Fit in with our salvation as Christians, I mean. What are our various churches doing? Are you happy about the cuts in benefits for disabled people? What about Calais? Are you following the Diocesan links to Guildford: People to People and the other charities coordinating help for the refugees? Perhaps we should have a PBS collection for Calais. What do you think? Let’s talk about it over tea in a minute or two.

The link that I’m trying to follow is that our love of the Prayer Book is fine, and very understandable, but it ought to be seen as something which leads us to God’s grace, grace in our worship. Worship which is just ‘having a nice time’ isn’t proper worship, and isn’t worthy of the Almighty. Let’s exhibit some of the fruits of the spirit as well.

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