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March 26, 2023

Fifth Sunday in Lent

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Psalm 130

Romans 8:6-11

John 11:1-45

Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,

grace and peace to you

from the one whose spirit dwells in us. Amen

Well our Lenten journey is coming closer to the end,

this is the last Sunday in Lent,

next week we will wave palms

and hear the story of Jesus’ final days,

but first we have the stories of Ezekiel and the dry bones

and the raising of Lazarus

and the theme of hope when all hope seems lost.

All along the way this year

we have been exploring the themes of a life of faith

with the ancestors of the faith

and it seems like they have all been building to this last theme,

in fact when faced with what seems to be a hopeless situation

we will probably encounter all the previous themes,

we will be tempted to place our trust in something (other than God)

that promises to give us exactly the outcome we want,

a promise that is false by the way.

We will face times of doubt,

where we doubt that even God could do something with this situation,

and our doubt gets so great

that we begin to wonder

if we’ve lost our faith.

Life in community will most likely be difficult,

some folks will want to deny the reality

of what is happening

and continue on as before

while others, facing reality,

will give up and drift away,

and there will definitely be unexpected things along the way,

unexpected occurrences

that have directly contributed to reaching this point

where all seems lost,

like there is no future,

and if no future than nothing to hope for,

and it’s at this point that God comes to us

and instills hope in us through the Holy Spirit.

Mary and Martha send word to Jesus

that their brother Lazarus is sick,

they have seen Jesus heal before,

they know what he can do.

And when Jesus receives word

he stays where he is two days longer.

He does this deliberately,

Jesus is very intentional about the signs he does in the gospel of John,

they are not miracles,

they are signs so that those who witness them and us may believe in him.

Jesus is going to do a sign,

so he dawdles about two more days

then tells the disciples he’s going back to Judea.

And they are confused

because they’d just left Judea

because people there had been about to kill him,

they’d even picked up the stones.

So the disciples try to convince him

to stay where he is,

until he plainly tells them “Lazarus is dead” I’m going to him,

and he goes to Martha and Mary

and their point where all seems lost.

John makes sure to tell us

that when he arrives

Lazarus had been in the tomb four days

according to the Harper Collins Study Bible “Jewish custom at that time required that burial take place the same day as the death, if possible. Jewish belief also held that the soul lingered near the body for three days, so that death was truly final on the fourth day” (Harper Collins Study Bible, 2035).

Jesus’ delay meant

that there was no doubt about Lazarus being dead when he got there,

making what he was about to do all the more astonishing

but first he encounters Martha and Mary in their grief,

grief you could argue made worse by the fact

that they trusted him and he did not come when they sent word.

And Jesus meets them in their grief

and gives them what they need.

Which is different for each of them.

Martha hears that Jesus is coming

and she doesn’t wait,

she goes to meet him on the road

and she lets him have it

“Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

She’s angry,

but she also leaves an opening

for the possibility of more

continuing “but even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”

And Jesus proceeds to have a theological discussion with Martha

about belief in the afterlife

and he reveals to her that he is the resurrection and the life,

and she believes that he is the Messiah.

Martha in her grief needed this discussion,

needed to figure out how her grief and her beliefs fit together,

and satisfied for the moment

she goes and sends her sister Mary to Jesus.

Mary prostrate with grief

kneels as Jesus’ feet and echos her sister

“Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

and Jesus looks at her weeping

and those friends and neighbors

who had followed her out of the house to weep with her,

and he too begins to weep.

Mary didn’t need a theological discussion,

she needed her Lord to weep with her,

and that’s what Jesus does,

and perhaps Mary reminds Jesus

of the human cost of his sign,

John tells us that upon seeing her weeping

“he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved”

and the same thing happens when he reaches the tomb

before he calls Lazarus out,

and Lazarus comes out, alive.

“Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.”

Many believe in Jesus

because of this sign,

so many that Jesus becomes such a threat

to the religious leaders

that they plot to kill Jesus,

the plot that leads to him hung on a cross,

the cross which he used to draw the whole world to himself.

Jesus knew what he was doing,

how it would all fit together for the greatest good,

a picture incomprehensible to Mary and Martha in that moment,

and perhaps still to us today,

and yet even in the midst of it all,

he was with them in the ways that comforted them,

that would have comforted them

even if he had not brought Lazarus back from the dead

(which by the way was just for the moment,

Lazarus was going to have to die again

because all humans die,

it’s just that with Jesus death is not the end).

We humans struggle with the big picture

no matter how hard we try

we eventually end up focused on our own suffering,

even Job, the best sport of them all

eventually asked God for an explanation.

God’s response:

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” (Job 38:4) and goes on to describe in detail

the wonders of creation,

eventually Job responds

“I know that you can do all things and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge? Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” (Job 41:2-3)

God is so much greater

than we can even begin to understand

and allowing room for this,

even in our despair

is I think the key to hope when all hope seems lost.

Martha upbraided Jesus for not being there

but in the next breath said

“but even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”

Ezekiel is faced with a field of bones,

dry bones so we know that they are very dead,

and when God asks him “Mortal, can these bones live?”

he answers “O Lord God, you know.”

which is I think the diplomatic way of saying

“I don’t think so, but you’re going to tell me God.”

and God does tell him,

God tells him to prophesy to the bones,

and he does, and sinews and flesh come upon them,

but they do not have breath

and so they are not alive.

So God tell Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath, the spirit,

and the breath of God,

the spirit of God that first moved over the waters at creation

comes rushing in and the bodies live.

Life, living comes through the spirit,

the spirit that is gifted to us by God at our baptisms,

as we just witnessed when Charlotte

was sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.

And now the spirit of God dwells in her,

as it does in all of us.

Life in God,

with God in us

is so much more than simply being alive, it is living,

and the Spirit of God

has shown time and again

that God can and does act

when we humans have run out of options,

and so we hope when all hope seems lost.

The spirit in us

creates a small space,

just a crack even,

for the possibility for God to act.

And Jesus comes to us,

In the way that is most comforting for us

in the waters of baptism,

in the bread and wine at the table,

reminding us that he is as close to us

as our own breath,

that the spirit dwells in us. Amen

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