St. John's, Centreville
April 2, 2017
5 Lent A
God of new beginnings, meet us where we are in our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This past week, I have been dealing with the subject of death. I learned of the death of a long time parishioner, Barbara Thaler, with whom I shared communion and conversation during the many months she was in a nursing home. Another woman, who I have been trying to help over the past few years has terminal cancer with a month or so months to live, and two young children who she will leave behind. And yesterday was the fourth anniversary of the death of my mother.
The subject of death can be a reality check for many of us. We all know on an intellectual level that we will die, but we don't know when or how. It's something we don't like to think about or make plans for. We all hope it is "way out there somewhere."
But our lessons this morning look differently at death. They all have to do with bringing life out of death. In our Old Testament lesson from Ezekiel, we hear these words, "Thus says the Lord God to these dry bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord."
The dry bones represent the people of Israel who have been offering pagan sacrifices and profaning God's name. The spirit of the people is dead. But God can cleanse them and forgive them. God says to God's people, "You shall be my people and I will be your God." God is willing to restore Israel as a sign for all the nations. They will see the restoration of Israel as an act of God. God brings new life to Israel - new life, new hope, new dreams.
In our gospel lesson, Jesus gives Lazarus new life. After hearing that his good friend Lazarus is ill, Jesus waits two days before starting his journey to Bethany. We don't know why he waits. Perhaps he knows what the outcome will be. Maybe he already knows what God wants him to do. What Jesus does will be to God's glory and point others to God.
When Jesus arrives outside of Bethany at the cave where Lazarus is buried, Martha, and later Mary, meet him there. Both of them say to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." At first glance, this seems to be a rebuke of Jesus. But if we look at it from a different perspective, we can see the great faith that Mary and Martha have in Jesus. They may not have been blaming him for not being there, but rather recognizing the power Jesus has and who he is. Martha says to Jesus, "I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world."
At the tomb, Mary and Martha and those who have gathered there are surprised when Jesus orders that the stone in front of the cave be rolled away. Jesus says to the sisters, "Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?" Believe me, Jesus is saying. Believe in God. Mary and Martha are trying to stop death. Jesus is showing them there is a way to outlive death, to live eternally, to live forever with God.
Jesus then calls out with a loud voice, "LAZARUS COME OUT!" And Lazarus, who has been dead for four days, and has been wrapped in burial cloths, comes out. And Jesus says, "Unbind him and let him go." He, like the dry bones, has been given new life.
Jesus calls to us in the darkness and death of our lives. He calls us out of our caves of death, whatever they may be, to new life and new hope. Then Jesus unbinds us from our sins and lets us go into the light of a new day, with new hope and new vision and new beginnings. Jesus can raise us up from our pain and hurt and failures and mistakes. He can make us new again, as he did in the valley of the dry bones in Ezekiel, making us not just physically alive but spiritually alive.
How many times have we gone through death and darkness in our own lives - when people die before their time, when people suffer the burdens of pain and hopelessness, when we make a mess of our relationships with those we love. At times like these, we cry out like Mary and Martha, "Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died." Lord, if only you had been here. If only you had told my loved one to go to the doctor sooner; if only you had not let my son get in that car; if only you had not let them take that trip; if only......
But what we are missing is the fact that God IS here with us in the midst of our tragedies and pain. The core message of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is that there is NO darkness, no misfortune, no death, that cannot be transformed and called out into the light of day as Lazarus was called out of the dark tomb. Lazarus climbing out of the dark tomb into the light embodies the power of the gospel to make all things new - even things that have been dead for weeks or months or years.
God can and does breathe new life into each and every one of us when we put our faith and trust and hope in God. When we surrender ourselves to God's life-giving ways, we can be raised from death and sin to new life in Christ. That does not mean that nothing bad will happen to us. That does not mean that we will never physically die. What it means is that God is in the midst of it all, raising us up, healing our wounds, loving us, and giving us eternal life with God.
God can and does breathe new life into each one of us. But we have to be open to God's Holy Spirit working in us and through us, being open to change and living our lives differently for the furthering of God's kingdom. As in the valley of the dry bones, God speaks and acts to bring new life. The Holy Spirit breathes new life and energy and spirit into us, if we are open to its presence.
It is the death of the old self that makes possible the resurrection of the new self. Just as Jesus calls us to new life daily, he calls us to die daily - to let go of the old sinful parts of ourselves in order to make room for the new spirit-filled self.
Jesus 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 shall never die." That is our hope. That is our promise. That is the rock of our faith in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.