Mary, Martha and Lazarus, Companions of our Lord
Isaiah 25:6-9, John 11:17-27
It was the Saxons who first built a chapel here at St. Martha’s, no doubt falling in love with the beautiful view from the top of this hill as countless generations had done before them. A few centuries’ later the Normans built a larger church on the site, which by then was known as Martyrs’ Hill, probably commemorating the early Christian martyrs who were regularly remembered in the prayers.
By 1262 the church had become a monastic place of worship, staffed by the monks of Newark Abbey. During the ensuing centuries it welcomed the odd group of pilgrims on their way from Winchester to the shrine of Thomas a Becket at Canterbury. And then it was famously blown up in 1745, during an accidental blast at the gunpowder works down in Tillingbourne Valley, and so remained in a semi-dilapidated state for the next 100 years or so, a picturesque ruin, which was all the rage at the time.
And so it would have remained, had not the 6th Duke of Northumberland Lord Lovaine commissioned Henry Woodyer to rebuild the church for the significant sum of £700 – a task that the young architect took on with considerable skill and sensitivity. And it has sat here ever since – a simple, beautiful, astonishingly situated building, which has become something of a magnet to walkers and cyclists and wedding couples and worshippers: and today – July 24th 2016 - this church is incorporated into the parish of Chilworth, where it most naturally belongs.
Martyrs. St. Martha’s. We don’t know exactly how one became the other – but whether it was deliberate or a happy accident, it’s good to be worshipping in one of the very few churches in this country dedicated to Martha of Bethany. For despite having a rather sharp tongue on occasions, the three qualities with which St. Martha is most closely associated are faith, hope and love.
The house belonging to Martha, Mary and Lazarus – two sisters and a brother – was on another Pilgrims’ Way, just a couple of miles outside of Jerusalem – and Jesus and his disciples used to stay there on a regular basis, whenever they made the 70-mile trip from Galilee to Jerusalem for one of the big three pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. One of those occasions is famously recorded in St. Luke’s Gospel where Martha prepared a rather elaborate meal for Jesus, and Mary simply sat at her Master’s feet, earning the rebuke of her sister but the commendation of her Lord. Another is recorded here in John’s Gospel, a story that culminates in the raising of Lazarus from the dead.
There are just five people in the whole of the New Testament of whom it is specifically written that Jesus loved them – and can anyone tell me who some of them were? Apostle John; rich young ruler; Mary, Martha and Lazarus. So this was clearly Jesus’ favourite family, and their house in Bethany was a home from home whenever he made the increasingly perilous trips to Jerusalem, culminating in that most perilous trip of them all with its triumphal entry, its cleansing of the Temple, and the hard, dull thud of nails being driven through human flesh and onto the cross below.
So how might St. Martha speak to us as we celebrate a new chapter in the long and sometimes eventful life of this beautiful church?
Faith is a good starting-point: for in our gospel reading this afternoon we witness Martha at her most faith-filled. Her beloved brother Lazarus had just died. She was feeling upset and angry with Jesus that he hadn’t come sooner and saved the day. Her first words to him scarcely suppressed that sense of frustration and disappointment, as she blurted out, ‘Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died’. Yet here’s how she continued: ‘But even now, I know that God will give you whatever you ask him’.
‘If only…. But even now’: here are words of faith: not of a dead, formulaic faith which piously mouths the phrases of the Apostles’ Creed Sunday by Sunday: but the words of a living faith in a living God. It’s the living faith expressed by the prophet Isaiah in our Old Testament reading this afternoon, who foresaw a day when Mount Zion – and the city of Jerusalem on which it sits – would be rescued from its Babylonian oppressors. ‘This is the Lord for whom we have waited’, Isaiah proclaimed, ‘let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation: for the hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain’ - though even Isaiah didn’t foresee the fullness of the salvation which would later pour out of Jerusalem through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And it’s the living faith that has characterised the very best and richest chapters in the long history of St Martha on the Hill. Indeed perhaps that verse from Isaiah should become the church’s strapline: ‘The hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain’.
Dog walkers, cyclists, wedding couples: all congregate in and around this building, some of them with no faith, some of them with a little faith, some of them who’ve lost the faith they once had. Each one of them needs the hand of the Lord to rest upon them, in guidance and reassurance, whether they know it or not. And the exciting challenge for this church and the congregation which gathers here, is the calling quietly but confidently to communicate a living faith in the living God. May those awestruck words of Jacob in the book of Genesis – ‘surely the Lord is in this place, but I was not aware of it’ – be words that are echoed here and in our own day, as men and women, young people and children have their faith awakened and their eyes opened to the presence of the Lord among them! May St. Martha on the Hill become more and more a place of encounter, a place of epiphany!
Hope. It’s closely related to faith in this afternoon’s gospel reading, but there’s a lovely transition here that takes place in Martha’s thinking, from a pious, traditional understanding of hope to something far more heart-felt and robust.
It started with Jesus’ assertion, ‘Your brother will rise again’, to which Martha conventionally responded with, ‘I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day’. But then Jesus pushed it further, ‘I am the resurrection and the life’, he said, ‘Those who believe in me will live even though they die; and whoever believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ To which Martha responded, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world’.
A living faith. A living hope. Again not something simply pious and conventional, but the first stirrings of a sense that Jesus, the Son of God, could do anything, could even conceivably raise her brother from the dead. Once again it’s a hope that the prophet Isaiah foresaw in our Old Testament reading, ‘God will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all the peoples, the sheet that is spread over all the nations; he will swallow up death for ever’, he proclaimed: ‘Then the Lord will wipe away the tears from their faces… for the Lord has spoken’ – though once again even Isaiah didn’t foresee the drama that would later unfold around Jerusalem as death was defeated through the cross and the empty tomb. Once again it’s a hope that has characterised the very best and richest chapters in the long history of St Martha on the Hill. ‘The hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain’, yes; but also, ‘God will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all the peoples’…
So where do people go when their future is shrouded with fear and uncertainty? Where do they go when a loved one dies, say, or when they themselves book an appointment with the doctor only to hear the phrase, ‘It’s bad news, I’m afraid’, complete perhaps with that first dread mention of the ‘c’ word, ‘Cancer’? Maybe they go for a walk in the countryside to clear their heads. Maybe they go to church. Here at St. Martha’s, maybe they do both. And you don’t know, and I don’t know, just how many people come to this place each year in search of a living hope, but I suspect it numbers in the hundreds and even thousands. So that as we gather to worship here week by week, and to celebrate the presence of the Risen Lord Jesus among us, let’s never forget to pray for those men and women, struggling with grief and anxiety, with fear and depression, who will walk up the hill to St. Martha’s at all times of day and night, and here seek fresh hope as they sit in the pews or on the benches outside.
Faith, Hope and finally Love. For at the beginning of John chapter 11 we read these words, ‘Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus’: and Martha responded to Jesus’ love with a deep love of her own, regularly welcoming him into her home, and offering Jesus a hospitality which on one occasion may have backfired, but on many others, I’m sure, was deeply appreciated.
In our reading from Isaiah we read of love and hospitality as well. ‘On this mountain the Lord will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines…’ – now that sounds delicious - and note that phrase ‘for all peoples’. God’s love extends to everyone, regardless of nationality, colour or creed. For here’s the living love that has characterised the very best and richest chapters in the long history of St Martha on the Hill. ‘The hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain’. ‘God will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all the peoples’… And now, ‘On this mountain the Lord will make for all peoples a feast’…
I experienced your welcome here at St. Martha’s when I first arrived in the diocese, and before anyone knew who I was. I arrived with various members of our family and Oscar the dog, and we were warmly welcomed in, Oscar included, and given a little tour of the building and an interesting history lesson. Had it been on a Sunday I’m sure I would have been offered coffee and biscuits or a cool drink as well. And I wonder how that welcome might reach out further, how the hospitality offered in this place might extend to people of all sorts and backgrounds, for whom St. Martha’s might provide a living love, a living family. True, we should never replace prayer with activism, sitting at Jesus’ feet with a desire to serve others. That was a lesson that Martha learnt the hard way. But as this congregation grows in a living faith and a living hope, how good too if we could grow in a living love, responding to the call of John the apostle, ‘Dear children, let us not love in word and speech but in deed and in truth’.
Perhaps we might give the last word of this sermon not to Isaiah or to John or even to Martha or Jesus, but to the Psalmist. Because as today this church becomes part of the benefice of Chilworth, my prayer is that many whose lives are in the valley might look to this building and this community as a source of living faith, hope and love. As the Psalmist famously put it:
‘I will lift up my eyes to the hills, from whence comes my help’.
Copyright 2016. Reproduced by kind permission of Andrew, Bishop of Guildford, July 2016