Fifth Sunday in Lent
April 2 2017
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130:1-8; John 11:1-45; Romans 8:6-11
Rev Anita Venter, Heritage of Faith Ministries, South Africa, and Bethlehem Bible College
Randy was an elderly homeless man, unemployed and often sick. Many years ago, I found him at a traffic light in Bryanston, a wealthy suburb in Johannesburg. Many called him “stinky” behind his back. Occasionally he would to come with me to church.
One Sunday I overheard the conversation of a young couple. The young lady was seriously annoyed by having to sit beside stinky Randy. It was the young man’s reply that struck my heart. “This is the smell of homelessness, poverty, hunger and loneliness,” he said. “It is the smell of alcoholism, drugs, and adultery, of one who has no place and no urge to bathe. This is the smell of spiritual death.”
As I prepared my sermon this conversation came to my mind again. I realized that if we looked at our own lives honestly, we would have to admit that in many ways we smell of death too. It hangs like a cloud over London and the Belgian city of Antwerp. It blows throughout South Africa and countless other places filled with corruption, oppression, injustices, war, and violence.
Death wraps itself around us like stinking grave clothes.
It is there in our lack of love for our neighbours, in our anger, hatred, resentment, and lack of forgiveness. It flourishes in our despair, in our fears. It is evident in our addictions, broken relationships, doubts, and unbelief. It drifts into our own lives, affecting or taking away those we love and cherish.
This morning’s texts speak to all manners of the human condition, and especially to the extremes of life and death. In his letter to the Romans, Paul has some advice for our condition. He tells us that setting our minds on the flesh brings death, but if we set our minds on the Spirit, walking in the ways of Jesus, it brings life and peace.
In the thick of Lent, the resurrection stories from Ezekiel and John seem a bit “out of season”. I guess we have them to spur us on toward Easter Sunday. These stories dare us to believe for resurrection in both, the now and in the hereafter.
There is the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. On the one hand, it seems impossible to raise someone who has been dead for four days. Yet Jesus tells Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” On the other hand, Jesus has said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Ultimately he asks her, “Do you believe this?” If you are like me, we desperately want this to be true!
But what does that really mean? As much as we may want to, we cannot take Jesus to mean that we never actually die, because Lazarus died once and would die again – according to the Orthodox tradition, about 30 years later in Cyprus.
Sure it is a hard way to go. I imagine that this might be why we see Jesus weeping, because he knows that there is no way around physical death. The only way is through. The good news of Easter does not eradicate the truth of Ash Wednesday. What we have in the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is not an escape from death, but rather an assurance that there is a power in the universe that is stronger than death.
Ezekiel looks around the valley where the Lord sets him down and all he can see is death in the form of dry bones. The experience of desolation and anguish is hard to miss. The “dry bones” represent “the whole house of Israel”. Their land has been taken, their temple destroyed and being exiles in Babylon they cried out, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely”. In the midst of this, Ezekiel is asked an absurd question and then given a seemingly hopeless task.
His vision is astonishing, but it is by no means otherworldly.
It gives us hope for resurrection and restoration in the here and now, on this side of death too. Where we see endings, God sees a new beginning. Where we see death, God sees life. This is a message for everyone who feels dry and broken, separated and disconnected, hopeless and devastated. God promises to mend and restore us. Our condition is not permanent.
There is a second aspect to our gospel reading.
Jesus is a noted healer, and Mary, Martha and Lazarus are said to be his closest friends. They send word to Jesus that Lazarus is critically ill. Yet Jesus lingers!
The first rule of pastoral care is when they send for you, you have to go. You might not have a clue as what to say or be confused about why they want you, but if you get the call, you turn up. But not Jesus; not that day!
Often we do not know why something bad has happened to us. The understandable desire to search for an answer is exhausting. Why will this pain not go away? Why did that other person get the job? Why does my husband not come to Christ? Why did my loved one die? Why did Jesus not come to help?
It is because God’s timing is so mysterious, because he does not always deliver us from suffering fast enough, that we wonder what we have done to deserve the things we have to bear. However God’s love is not tied to such a concept. God’s plans are beyond our understanding, but he promises that his plans are to prosper us, not to harm us, to give us hope and a future (Jeremiah 29.11). God manifests his love through Christ as he enters right into the midst of our hardships, weeping with us while we wait for relief, assuring us that we do not have to suffer alone. On the other side of suffering there is always new life.
I guess Martha fully understands this as she meets Jesus on his way, being rather gentle with him, saying: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even though you are too late, I still trust you. Whatever you ask of God, He will give you.”
Note that this bold confession was made by a deeply bereaved woman after Jesus had disappointed her by not showing up in time. It is a confession of faith coming out of emotional sorrow. A confession made from the spirit and not from the flesh. Martha was moved by faith and not by sight. It portrays the courage of a crushed woman who reaches out in faith to grasp the hand of God. In doing that, despite all, she finds God to be faithful and true as she sees her brother coming out of the grave.
One thing common to these resurrection stories is the role of volunteers willing to help out. God provides the breath but asks Ezekiel to speak to the dry bones. Jesus commands Lazarus to come out of the grave but depends on the bystanders to remove the grave clothes. Throughout our lectionary we see two types of people – those who are in need of resurrection, and those who are called to help others come back to life.
Each of one of us fits into one of these two groups. If you face affliction this morning, our stories encourage you to lift your eyes up to our Lord and wait in faith as you hear the words of the psalmist, “I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him; in his word is my hope” (Psalm 130:4).
On the other hand, if you are well, you are called to reach out and participate in the work of facilitating resurrection in others, turning suffering into a holy encounter.
We can help bring other people back to life in many ways. It might be through a listening ear, a supportive presence in someone’s life, offering a prayer or financial support. Even just a hug and some true compassion can make a huge difference, because when we meet another person in the midst of hardship, we are Christ to that person, we are Jesus weeping with Mary and Martha.
Resurrection does not only take place on the other side of death, but also in the here and the now. It takes many forms: stinky Randy is restored to life, a loved one finds Christ, a sickness is conquered, a devastating loss is transformed into a new opportunity. Bones come up from the valley and Lazarus walks out of his tomb …
In two weeks, on Easter morning we celebrate another grave that was opened, and death that was defeated forever. In Jesus Christ, the very breath of God has overcome all the forces of death, despair, and hopelessness. With God nothing is impossible! Throughout the ages we hear the voice of Jesus echoing as he asks: “Do you believe this?”
This is a day of new beginnings (CH4 526)
Spirit of the living God (CH4 619/620)
Breathe on me, Breath of God (CH4 596)
As a fire is meant for burning (CH4 252)
All hail the power of Jesus’ name! (CH4 457 ii)