Sunday, March 9, 2008

Fifth Sunday in Lent
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Jehovah. Lord, hear my voice: let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.

Someone suggested this week that the Gospel lessons during Lent get progressively longer to train the readers for the crucial but very long readings during Holy Week. The Palm Sunday reading is nearly two chapters of Matthew. On Good Friday we hear two chapters of John. The Lent readings may also help train the people in the congregation for hearing the texts. As we sit and listen to such long readings, we can easily get lost in our thoughts, especially since these are stories that we have heard so many times before. We believe we know every word, that we’ve heard it all before. So, we stop listening.

The problem for a writer like me and all the pastors prayerfully planning their sermons for this week is that this text is filled with so many important lessons. This is a crucial moment for Jesus. It is a catalyst for what is to come. For the teaching pastor, there are a dozen details that could be expounded upon to help us better understand the time during which this happened and the people to whom it was happening. John writes well beyond the physical particulars of the story, so we could spend pages or hours discussing the spiritual dimensions of this story. We could look at the people and the relationships in this story, try to identify with their experiences and see God in our own pain and suffering. How do you take forty five verses of text and write a few hundred words or speak for a few minutes? Add to the Gospel text the other passages for the day, and finding one message becomes very difficult.

The Old Testament story is a miraculous witness to the work God can do in this world. I have never really liked the imagery in this story. It sounds like something out of a horror movie. There’s Ezekiel standing in the middle of a cemetery when suddenly the bones begin to rattle. Tendons grow and skin is formed. Then God breathes life into the bones. The dead came back to life before Ezekiel’s eyes.

The prophet Ezekiel was having a vision. In the middle of this valley of dry bones, the LORD asked him if the bones could live again. Ezekiel answered, “Only you can know.” The bones represented the people of Israel who were exiled in Babylon. They were a people who had lost hope. They were defeated, oppressed and far from the temple and their God. They were dead, not in flesh but in spirit. God asked if life could be restored. Ezekiel responded that only God could know. Only God can bring life to the dead.

The LORD gave the prophet Ezekiel the words to speak so that the dead were raised to new life. This is what God does every day with His Word. Those who do not look to God or to Jesus as Savior are walking like dead men in this world; they are dead in their sin because they have not heard the saving words of forgiveness that comes from the blood of Christ. God’s Word will bring them to life again. By His Word, God puts His Spirit into their hearts so that they will have faith and hope in His promises.

I’ve heard it said that there are dead churches, places that seem to have no life. Perhaps this is true; there are many Christians who are like the walking dead—not really believing the message of the cross and the forgiveness of sins which Christ brought when He came into the world. Yet, if God can bring life to the valley of dry bones and life to the people of Israel who were exiled, He can also bring life to the deadest of Christians and congregations.

Our Gospel lesson is also about death and I don’t think that imagery either. Lazarus had been dead for four days, buried in a tomb and most likely already decomposing. A bad smell would have permeated the tomb by that time. The body may have been attacked by creepy crawlies or small rodents. It certainly would have been going through the normal stages of decomposition and the body would have looked more like something out of a horror movie than the man named Lazarus that everyone loved. I’m not sure any of us would like to experience either of our stories first hand. Death is frightening and uncomfortable for us, but it is a surety. However, we do not know how to experience the raising of new life out of death.

Even in spiritual terms this is difficult for us to understand. Bring life out of death represents the life we have in forgiveness, in grace. However, when we know someone has done something wrong, especially if they have wronged us, it is hard for us to imagine him or her as forgiven. We can’t imagine forgiveness for our enemy or new life for those we would rather see dead. Jesus turned the world upside down with the things He said and the things He did. For the Jews, His talk of forgiveness was blasphemy and His raising of Lazarus was the catalyst of their scheme to destroy His ministry.

The Jews were concerned that Jesus was going to incite riots and upset the Romans. Though they were watching and waiting the promised Messiah, the power Jesus demonstrated was beyond their control. They expected the Messiah to be one of them, but Jesus upset the status quo. Though the raising of Lazarus should have convinced them that He was the Messiah, they knew that Jesus would not do their bidding. They were willing to ignore and reject Jesus for the sake of their own power and position. They were comfortable in their world and would not accept a Messiah that threatened their own status in the kingdom.

Jesus rattles our world, too. He doesn’t always act the way we want Him to act, or do the things we want Him to do.

Lazarus, Mary and Martha were friends of Jesus. I imagine they spent many hours hosting Jesus in between His journeys. They offered a home, a place to rest, the comforts of family and friendships. While Jesus was away from His friends, traveling near where John had baptized in the Jordan, Lazarus became sick. A messenger came to give Jesus the news. He was probably sent by the sisters to ask Jesus to come to heal their brother. Jesus did not leave immediately, telling the messenger that the illness would not end in death.

A few days later, Jesus told the disciples that they must go to Lazarus’ house. They didn’t get it when He said, “Lazarus has fallen asleep.” After all, He’d said just a few days before that Lazarus would not die. They were concerned for His safety. Those in Jerusalem were already plotting His death. He told them, “Lazarus is dead.” For their sake, He was glad that they did not go to Lazarus immediately.

This is the part of the story that does not make sense to us. Why would Jesus want Lazarus to die? Why would He allow His good friends to suffer the pain of grief for even a few days? By the time Jesus arrived, Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days, well beyond the possibility of physical resurrection. The Jews believed that the soul departed the body on the third day. There was no Lazarus left to resurrect. The sisters said to Jesus, “If only you had been here!” They still had hope in the spiritual, but they wanted their brother in flesh and blood.

In this story we see two sides of Jesus. We see the caring friend who comes to mourn with those who have lost a loved one. We wonder why Jesus might have waited. Wouldn’t He have at least wanted to be with His friend during the illness? Most of us have had to rush off to the hospital to be with someone we love who is suffering. It is hard for us to understand why Jesus would wait. Yet, in this story we also see the Divine. Jesus knew there was more to the illness. He knew the illness would not END in death. Lazarus did indeed die, but so that they—and we—might believe, it ended in resurrection—not just spiritual, but physical.

We are reminded that Jesus is indeed our friend, there for us in our times of need. However, He is also the Divine, the Son of God, and He knows the end of the story. We might think we need Him to be here at this moment, to heal at this time, to finish His work right now, but He sees beyond our immediacy. He knows the right time to come and He will be there. We will probably react like the sisters, complaining that if only He were there when we thought we needed Him, things would be different. We learn in this story, however, that God might have something even greater planned for us on the other side of our suffering. Trust Him. He is faithful.

He is willing to do whatever it takes to make us love Him, but we easily forget all that He has done. There are many reasons why this might happen. We get caught up in the cares of this world and forget that God will give us rest. When we are comfortable, we think we do not need God, so we forget that our success and prosperity comes from Him. We are easily distracted by the schemes of the devil or just with our daily living that we do not realize how near He is and how much He truly loves us. Once in awhile we wake up to the love and it is on those days we find ourselves truly rejoicing.

Life begins when we meet God. He lives in us and we live in Him. His kingdom flows out through our lives by His Spirit. Sometimes we forget our God. We forget what He has done and how much He loves us. Yet, God never forgets and He will continue to come to us in mercy and grace to make us fall in love with Him again. He dwells in our hearts and we can rest in the promise that we will be with Him for eternity because of the love of our Lord Jesus Christ

We don’t always like the images we see in the scriptures and we do often take them for granted, but these texts have incredible depth and are invaluable to our Christian growth and maturity. They have something new and unique to tell us each time they are read. We hear and respond to the texts according to our current circumstances, but if we do not listen we may not hear what God has to say.

The stories talk about death. Who of us is not dealing with death from one point of view or another most of our lives? As we hear the story of Lazarus, we might identify with any of the characters. Has someone you love recently died? Perhaps you can hear some words of comfort in the response of his sisters. Do you have a friend who lost someone recently? We can learn from the mourners how to help our friend, and how not to help. In the disciples we see fear about facing the circumstances. In Jesus we see strength in sorrow and concern for others. We can even identify with Lazarus. There are times in our lives when we are as good as dead, wrapped up in those grave clothes and buried in a tomb. It might be loneliness or depression. The burden might be an addiction or obsession. Whatever it is, this text may help us to hear Jesus calling out to us by name, commanding us to come out of the tomb. Through this text, we might even see that Jesus is calling us to be like Him, calling people out of their tombs to a new life of faith. In the Old Testament text, we can identify with Ezekiel, because God calls us to speak the words of life to the dead and dry bones in the valleys where we stand.

Martha and Mary both protested to Jesus that if only He had been there, Lazarus would not have died. They believed that Jesus could heal their brother, but they did not have the same confidence once he was dead. They did not consider the possibility that God had something greater to accomplish. When Jesus saw their grief, He too wept. Those watching were divided about the meaning of His tears. One group said, “See how much He loved him!” The others said, “If he could heal others, why didn’t He come to heal Lazarus?” They had lost hope. Even though Martha confessed her faith in Jesus, she still doubted.

The Israelites in Babylon called out to God over and over again for salvation, until they no longer had hope. Isn’t that they way we react to illness and death in our own lives? We cry out, “God, why won’t you help me?” “Why don’t you hear my pleas?” We blame God for not coming to our rescue when we demand or beg for His help. We do not see the possibility of something even greater.

We all sin. We don’t treat our neighbors with love and respect. We get angry with our children and our spouses, gossip about others, take things that are not ours. We fall to the temptations of this world. We are greedy, lustful, abusive, self-centered. We want it all and we want it now. We look for help in all the wrong places. Sadly, we often do not even realize our sin. We recognize the biggies, especially in the lives of others. But when it comes to our own failure, we are blind. We think we are good enough. We are better than our neighbors, anyway, so we go on our way without turning. This way of life takes us on a path that will lead to more sin.

Even one wrong thought, word or deed against God or man is a sin and we are all guilty. None of us could stand before the holiness of God. But God is gracious and merciful. He forgives our iniquity. He not only grants forgiveness, he also forgets our sin. God forgot His wrath when the Israelites cried out to Him from Babylon. He breathed new life into His people and they danced again. Jesus ignored the doubts of the sisters and the mourners to show them God’s power to bring life out of death. He faced the inevitable backlash from the miracle so that His people would know that they were not forgotten. He went to the cross knowing that you and I would continue to doubt and fear despite His faithfulness.

Washed by the blood of Christ, we are cleansed and made new and right before Him. As we live in this hope, we find ourselves walking in the light of Christ, covered by the unfailing love of God and reconciled to Him. When we wait for the Lord and watch for Him, we are less likely to fall into the temptations of this world. Though we may still fail in our daily walk of faith, He is near with His forgiveness and He hears us when we cry out to Him in our pain.

Whatever it is we face today, we can find some comfort or strength through the words of our scriptures lessons. Yet, we too often take these beloved and well-known stories for granted. We stop listening because we think we’ve heard it all before. This time, take special care to listen and meditate on the words. Hear God’s voice in the story, the voice that is speaking directly to you. This time it might not be just a story, it might hold for you the answer to your prayers

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