I want to tell you about a book I have just finished reading. It is one of the best I have read in many a year. It isn’t one of the academic theological books I read. It’s one I want to recommend to my congregations. Unfortunately, I can’t wave my copy in front of you, because I read an electronic version on my Kindle. I could wave my Kindle at you, but that wouldn’t make much sense.
The book is called ‘Resurrection Year’, and it is by an Australian author called Sheridan Voysey. He is a successful radio presenter who has achieved his dream of broadcasting a talk show about life and faith across his native land. But his wife Merryn, a medical statistician, longs to start a family. It is their unfulfilled dream. The opening chapters of the book are a journal of ten years in their marriage when they hope to have a child. They are told they are exceptionally good prospects as adoptive parents, but no phone call about a child to adopt ever comes. When they tell the adoption authorities they want to try IVF again, they are told they cannot remain as potential adopters.
Several rounds of IVF fail. They take one last chance, and all the tests indicate that Merryn is pregnant. They tell their friends and family that a baby is on the way. But it’s one last false dawn. Yes, a gestational sac is growing, but there is no foetus. They have to let their dream of having children die.
The rest of the book chronicles their questions and struggles in faith. God never answers their ‘why’ questions. It also tells how they rebuilt their lives with new hopes – their ‘resurrection’.
For many of us – perhaps most, possibly even all of us – the life of faith bumps up at one or more times in our lives with broken dreams. We hoped for something big. It never happened, or it did but it was taken away from us. Since Mum’s death six weeks ago, our daughter has been asking question after question about why God couldn’t have done things differently for Nanny, or why we will have to wait so long before being reunited with her in Heaven.
I am sure you can add your own examples. In some cases, I know what they will include. For others of you, I do not necessarily know.
But of this I am sure: the Bible knows of this very dilemma, and we do so in today’s Gospel reading as Jesus approaches Jerusalem. The death of Lazarus is a broken dream. And Jesus just seems to make it worse. He knows Lazarus is ill, and he stays away. Not much of a pastoral visitor, was he? Lazarus is a friend. Mary and Martha are friends (verse 5). But still – in a culture where medicine was so primitive – he stays away two more days (verse 6).
So the first thing I want us to appreciate this morning is a painful, yet hopeful truth: Jesus is involved in our broken dreams. Broken dreams do not mean the absence of God, even if they do mean a loss of hopes. We do not understand why Jesus’ work in our broken dreams is what it is – Mary and Martha don’t really receive much of an explanation – but that doesn’t change the fact that he is still here.
It’s rather like the Book of Job. Lots of people are under the misapprehension that the story of Job gives us an explanation for the existence of suffering and of a good God. But it doesn’t. Job only answers one question: ‘Is there such a thing as innocent suffering?’ Its answer is ‘Yes’. When Job finally comes before God towards the end of the book with his questions, God doesn’t answer them. In fact, God more or less says, ‘Where were you when I created the world?’
If Jesus is still involved in our lives when he doesn’t answer our prayers for the fulfilment of our dreams, then what is our response? In one respect, our response is simple, but probably not what we want to do. We simply hang on to him in the disappointment.
That can be tough. But if it is, then remember these things. When we are screaming at God for not bringing to pass the things we have cherished in our hearts, we are not complaining from a position of unbelief. Rather, we are like the child beating their fists against their father’s chest, all the while being held in his arms. God is still holding us in our pain. He may not be answering us for reasons that are inscrutable to us, but he is still holding us.
And moreover this: when God is holding us, his grip on us is stronger than our grip on him. When our world has fallen apart, we may well feel like we cannot hang onto God. But he is stronger than us. As we cry out in our agony, he does not intend to let go of us. He wants to hold us close to him, even if that does mean we punch him in the chest. Remember how many of the Psalms are written by people calling out to God when life is dark. Like Jesus using Psalm 22 on the cross, saying, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’, we have that sense of abandonment but we can still call the Lord ‘my God’.
And this links with the second thing I would like to say from the passage: the faith we exercise is faith in Jesus. I know, I know: this is another of those times when I say the obvious in a sermon. But that’s what happens for Mary and Martha: when Jesus finally arrives in Bethany, called by some ‘God’s favourite place on earth’, he hears them both say, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died’ (verses 21, 32).
But there is a difference in their responses. Mary, who is held up as the paragon of faith in Luke’s Gospel for sitting at Jesus’ feet and learning from him, is not the faith-filled one here. Martha, whom Luke depicts as distracted and frantic, is the one who shows glimmers of faith in this story. Mary doesn’t say any more – although we should note that Jesus is not judgemental about this, he is moved by her tears (verse 33).
But Martha does. Listen again to her exchange with Jesus:
20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
She still believes Jesus can do something for her. Her faith is still at one level that of a typical devout Jew, believing that the resurrection of the dead will happen ‘on the last day’. You know and I know that her faith is about to be elasticated, but there is basic faith in God and in Jesus going on here.
And sometimes that’s all we need. That is the raw material God uses to make something beautiful that we had never imagined.
It all puts me in mind of Rolf Harris. It may be contentious to mention him now, given the criminal charges he is facing, but his many talents were a large part of my childhood. An LP of his greatest hits was the first record I bought with my own money (actually a Sunday School prize), and we always watched his television shows. I am sure you recall his catchphrase when he was painting something: ‘Can you guess what it is yet?’ What looked like a few random brush strokes was the beginning of a work of art.
When our dreams are broken, the only faith we may be able to offer Jesus might be just a few random brush strokes, just some basic faith. But God too is able to work with that and create something beautiful.
And that leads on to the third and final strand of what I want to say this morning. Jesus can transform our broken dreams. Mary and Martha wanted their brother Lazarus healed. It didn’t happen. When he died, Martha could still at least believe God would answer Jesus, and that her brother would be raised at the last day. But what Jesus actually did was far more than they could ever have imagined. He goes to the tomb, has the stone rolled away, defies the retching stench, and says, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ (verse 43) He has promised Martha she will see the glory of God (verse 40), and in this miraculous sign she does. He told her he was the Resurrection and the life (verse 25), and now she knows he is.
But the thing about resurrection is that it comes after a death. For Jesus himself to be the resurrection and the life will have to follow his crucifixion.
Yet this does at least mean that if our dreams have died, then the stage is set for new life. Death is not the end for us. It is the end of one act and the curtain closes, preparing us for the next.
Sheridan and Merryn Voysey never did get to have children. And their ‘resurrection’ involved not only the death of that dream, but the burial of Sheridan’s radio career in Australia. They came to the UK, where Merryn was offered a job at Oxford University, and new opportunities began to present themselves to Sheridan in writing and speaking – but not yet in radio again, I believe.
In my own life, I could think about some of the dreams I had for ministry when I set out that have never been fulfilled. Ordination has never opened up doors to the new vistas I hoped it would. Early in my ministry, I was a seminar speaker at two big Christian conferences, but that side of my calling has never taken off. Sometimes ministry has been less about my dreams and more about my nightmares. But at the same time, I have found myself doing other things that I never imagined I would. Things that I never thought would bring me contentment and fulfilment do indeed bring those blessings.
So I want to encourage you this morning if you have broken dreams in your life. Consider today an invitation – an invitation to bring those broken dreams to the altar of God. Remember that an altar is a place where living things are placed in order to be sacrificed. I dare to invite you to lay down your dreams to die, to place what questioning faith you have in Jesus, and enter into your grieving.
But wait for God to bring new life from the tomb. It is what he promises, and it is what he does. You may be tempted by the thought that laying down your unfulfilled dreams on the altar will lead only to a future filled with regret, but we believe in the God who makes dry bones live, the God who brings life out of a cave used as a tomb.
In short, we believe in a God whose Son said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
During our first summer as ministerial students, the college sent us all out on six-week placements in circuits. Because I came from an urban area of London not known for its wealth, I was not exposed to poverty as some students were. Instead of ‘Mission Alongside the Poor’, as a certain church campaign of the time was known, I was sent on what amounted to ‘Mission Alongside the Rich’ in Surrey. (So perhaps it was a good experience for our forthcoming move to that county!)
The church was large, and well-to-do. When I heard what the weekly offerings averaged, they dwarfed my home church.
Until I did some Maths, that is. I realised that in this wealthy church, the average giving per member per week was exactly the same as in my home church. It didn’t seem quite so impressive then.
It was a story that came back to mind this week as I read the account of Mary lavishing her expensive perfume on Jesus.
Imagine you are in the house where the incident happened. The first thing that would strike you would most likely be the aroma. A strong, pervasive smell has a powerful effect upon people.
When I visited the Holy Land on a special trip for theological and ministerial students, we were a mixed bag ecumenically, from free church types to bells and smells. One of our number was an Indian. He was a Syrian Orthodox priest who had been studying in the UK. One evening he took prayers in the chapel at the institute where we were based. Before the service began, the pungent smell of incense from the censers filled the chapel. I found it so overpowering that I couldn’t stay for the service. As a result, a friend dubbed me ‘low church by reason of allergy’!
But other smells greatly appeal to me. Freshly baked bread. Our breadmaker has languished in the garage during our Chelmsford sojourn, but to set it to work overnight and come down in the morning to that aroma was a joy. Maybe in the new house?
I think we are meant to understand the aroma of Mary’s perfume as a beautiful sensory experience in this story. It contrasts with the stench present elsewhere. Firstly, it stands over against the thought of Jesus’ death. He says that
She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial (verse 7)
And you can see why it would be a contrast. The beauty of the perfume counters the smell of a corpse as it degrades. Remember that when Jesus brought Mary’s brother Lazarus back to life four days after his death, people were fearful of the smell that would emanate from the tomb. But here, the beauty of Mary’s act symbolically says that death will not end in defeat. Decay will not have the final word.
After all, Mary has only recently had a glimpse of what that might be, through the miracle of her brother’s return to life. In that story we learn that she and her sister already believe in the Jewish doctrine of the resurrection of the dead at the last judgment, but Jesus tells them he himself is ‘the Resurrection and the Life’, and then they witness him calling Lazarus from his tomb as a foretaste of what is to come. She may not have grasped that Jesus will be raised on the third day after his forthcoming execution any more than any of his disciples had, but she has had this glimpse of the kingdom coming. And the aroma of a perfume that quenches the stench of death is a suitable symbol. For that is what Jesus will bring to all who follow him.
Therefore we his disciples know here – as in so many places – that we need not be dismayed or discouraged by the prospect of death. There is plenty of stench around it for us, as we watch people suffer, or as we hear the taunts of militant atheists. But we have smelt a beautiful perfume – the Resurrection of Jesus – and we face death and suffering differently because of it.
That isn’t the only way in which the beautiful aroma of Mary’s perfume contrasts with a foul smell in the story, however. The miserable words of Judas, in despising her devotion, are words that stink, particularly when we hear what his heart was like when it came to money:
“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) (Verses 5-6)
He hides behind a moral reason, but he isn’t going to get his hands on Mary’s cash, because it’s been spent on the perfume. It’s no surprise his loyalty will soon be bought for thirty pieces of silver. The perfume seems to represent the beauty of Mary’s devoted heart, in contrast to the polluted heart of Judas. Its beautiful smell here, then, becomes a warning that it is worth us examining our own hearts for unworthy motives that might grow into disloyalty to Christ. The story calls us to simple, whole-hearted commitment to our Lord.
Then there is the stench of the chief priests, so angry that people are beginning to follow Jesus because he raised Lazarus that at this point they don’t merely plan Jesus’ death, they plan an execution for Lazarus (verses 9-11). Here too are poisoned hearts, experienced religious people whose commitment has been twisted from the kingdom of God to personal empires. Why else would they be worried about desertions to Jesus? It’s like the spiteful comments you hear about different Christians and their churches in some parts of our religious world. Again, the contrast is with a woman who – by virtue of her sex – will not have had the education of these chief priests, yet she can outshine their commitment in one simple, beautiful act. All of which should make us pause to consider what our priorities are.
The second aspect of this story I’d like us to consider is that which strikes us so powerfully apart from the aroma. It’s the extravagance of Mary’s gesture. Her extravagance shocked people then, just as extravagant acts of devotion to Christ shock religious people today.
For example, you have heard me talk about a project I was involved in ten years ago. An Anglican rector I worked with in the last circuit had a vision for celebrating the Millennium. He wanted all the churches in Medway to close and gather together in Gillingham FC’s Priestfield Stadium to worship Jesus. I was one of a number of local church leaders who were willingly co-opted onto the planning group for the project.
From beginning our plans to the date of the event was two and a half years. We held a morning service with an orchestra formed from local Christians and masterminded by a local Salvation Army musician. The late Rob Frost came to preach. We brought a Ugandan gospel choir over to sing (and tour Kent). In the afternoon and evening we planned a concert with leading Christian musicians such as Noel Richards, Ishmael and Phatfish, with Roger Forster as the preacher. In the event, about two and a half thousand people attended that concert, and in the morning six and a half thousand local Christians gathered for worship. Of the ninety churches in the area, over seventy closed their doors that Sunday morning for that united service. A few insisted on keeping their doors open, one at least saying they were doing so ‘in case a visitor turned up’.
The budget was somewhere around two hundred thousand pounds. Fifty thousand pounds of that was for a special covering over the pitch to protect it, which we had to hire from Wembley Stadium. The debt was not cleared by the day of the event – that took the best part of a further year.
Some scoffed at this enterprise, and some of the reasons given – apart from the church that wanted to stay open for the mythical visitor – were rather like Judas Iscariot’s protests about giving money to the poor. But my rector friend kept coming back to this story: sometimes it is simply the right thing to make an extravagant act of devotion to Jesus Christ as a sign of our love for him. It is one aspect of loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.
We do not stint from showing extravagant love to other human beings on certain occasions. I was utterly moved by the gifts and special things arranged by Debbie and my children for my recent fiftieth birthday. In one respect they really didn’t need to do it, and I would certainly have been happy with less than what they did. Yet somehow the fact that they went to such expense and effort was a touching sign of their love. Might something a little bit similar be true of our relationship with God?
Maybe part of the problem is that extravagant giving and devotion challenges us. The other day, I was reading another minister’s blog. She was reflecting on this passage, and included a powerful story. She told of a grumpy missionary surgeon who was invited to lunch by a lady on whom he had operated. The woman and her husband were poor. They owned an angora rabbit and two chickens. The woman combed the rabbit for hair and span it to sell for income, and their diet was the eggs from the two chickens. What went in the pot for the meal? The rabbit and the two chickens. Truly a ‘widow’s mite’ story, and also one of extravagant love, just as Mary spent a year’s income on the perfume (verse 5).
And I think the reason these examples are challenges to us is that they make us feel uncomfortable about our own grudging love for Jesus Christ. How many times have I heard people with an amazing testimony to God’s forgiving and transforming grace be dismissed as nutters or patronised as immature by other Christians? Too often, I’m afraid. Is Judas alive and kicking in some church circles? I fear he is.
What’s the difference between extravagant Mary and her detractors? Mary has not lost her simple, passionate devotion to Jesus who will die for her and be raised from the dead for her. Judas may well have started out with a commitment to following Jesus, but he found other things more attractive – money, for one. The chief priests have become devoted to religion and the institution, much in the same way that many of us become caught up with maintaining a building.
All of which amounts to a warning for many of us. Mary’s despisers were consumed with the very things that dominate our thinking at Church Councils and the like – finances and institutional matters. But Mary kept the main thing the main thing. For her, faith and live were about unswerving devotion to Jesus. May that be true of us, also.