A Prize for Everyone

Sunday 25th March 2007
Year C, The Fifth Sunday of Lent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
John 12:1-8

I have pleasure in announcing the results of the Holy Trinity and St. George's free prize draw. But before I do so I want you all to know that everybody will win a big prize, so don't worry if your name doesn't come out of the hat first. There will be plenty of new houses, 6-figure investment bonds, annual cruise vouchers and unlimited access to your favourite store.

You must be joking! It's too good to be true! What a fraud!

Well, in this respect I am a fraud. But I can do better than that, as you will hear in due course!

On this Sunday which used to be called Passion Sunday because it marks the beginning of Passiontide, we are presented with an uncanny symmetry. In today's Gospel we hear of a meal Lazarus shared with Jesus and in the first sentence we are told of his death and revival; and we will mark the end of Passiontide in the Tridium with another meal, a death and a Resurrection. As our consolation for days spent with a heavy heart, today's Gospel points us to the end of our waiting.

The underlying purpose of John's narrative is a foreshadowing of the Jesus event in the Lazarus event, a literary and theological device common to the Bible. In the Old Testament there were recurrent themes which ran like consciousness-alerting veins in the tradition: God's Covenants with His people; the ebb and flow of faithfulness and rebellion; God's sacred answer to barrenness; and, later in the tradition, the promise of the Messiah. In the New Testament the circumstances were quite different because all of the Evangelists not only knew the beginning of the Jesus story, they knew the end of it and its aftermath and so they were able to use this knowledge to put their material in the best possible order to underline the literary and theological force of their writing.

In John, therefore, we are invited quite specifically to see the Lazarus story as a prefigurement, a much more specific device than the use by the Evangelists of selective quotations from prophets which formed the fertile soil out of which the redemption story grew. The Lazarus story is quite specifically used by John to point up his theology of new life. The importance, however, is not the actual raising to life as this is a common theme in the Gospels, what counts here is the way the story is placed directly before the account of the Passion and Death. In these events we are supposed to see what is to come. To our modern sensibilities, accustomed as we are to subconscious foreshadowing, to flashbacks, to all kinds of allegories, this device might seem crude but augury and foreshadowing were immensely powerful devices in cultures at the time of Jesus: the highly sophisticated Greeks could not pull themselves away from a dread of the Oracle at Delphi; the highly pragmatic Romans guarded the Sibylline books in the Capitol with more care than anything else in the Empire; and the highly indoctrinated Jews, brought up to depend on God and God alone, were deeply concerned with extrapolating their continuity into a working model of the future. By the time John was writing this account, with the Resurrection perhaps as much as 70 years behind Him and the church undergoing persecution, his narrative was inevitably coloured by a need for continuity which involved arranging events to underline the theology. That is why, to take the most vivid instance, the perfume, says Jesus, specifically foreshadows the anointing at His burial.

But what, other than as a foreshadowing, does today's story have to tell us about the events we anticipate so sadly and yet so eagerly? The central point is the connection in John's retrospective narrative between the Resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of humanity, symbolised by Lazarus. In theological terms, the Resurrection is the irreversible promise of God to humanity that with Grace we will attain everlasting life. Put simply, because Jesus rose from the dead we know that we will rise from the dead to be with Him, enfolded in the embrace of the Trinity of Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.

I often think that we find life difficult because we never really grasp the significance of our existence in what theologians call Eschatological terms; in other words, we don't really think of the reality of everlasting life; we think of it as an idea; something that would be really good if it happened, like winning a mega prize in a free draw, but of course we know it won't happen.

But it will! That is what today's Gospel is telling us; but it will! The Gospels are post Resurrection testimony. When Jesus, time and time again, said that He had come to bring good news to the poor He was not thinking of luxury cruises, not even food parcels, social security or an economically just state, admirable though these are, He was talking about the good news that would transcend suffering, the daily grind, the desperate business of living; He was talking about transformative Grace which enables everyone, including the poor - no, particularly the poor - to live in the eternal presence of God.

Let us then, avail ourselves of the generosity and thoughtfulness of those who chose today's Gospel. If the journey to Jerusalem is not frightening, if the Last Supper is not poignant, if the trial of Jesus is not an outrage, if the climb to Calvary is not painful, if the death of our Saviour is not humiliating, I wonder why we are here at all; but, as we are here, we will need all the strength we can draw from today.

Grief for its own sake is an indulgence, grief as a Lenten contrast to the rest of our lives is an indulgence, grief as a special luxury is a self indulgence. The point of Lent is to remember why Jesus died and what it cost; but in remembering the how we must never forget the why.

The point of Lent is to remind us that this life is only a staging post, prize draws on no prize draws, on the way to something so much better. So when, in the next two weeks, you look at the Cross of Jesus, imagine the glimmer of the Resurrection dawn just over the horizon; and then experience it at the Easter Vigil.