Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent – March 29th, 2020

Ezekiel 37:1-14 Revised Standard Version (RSV)

37 The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley;[a] it was full of bones. And he led me round among them; and behold, there were very many upon the valley;[b] and lo, they were very dry. And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord God, thou knowest.” Again he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath[c] to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath[d] in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold, a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And as I looked, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath,[e] Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath,[f] and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great host.

Psalm 130 Revised Standard Version (RSV)

11 Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you home into the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. 14 And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken, and I have done it, says the Lord.”

A Song of Ascents.

130 Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord!
    Lord, hear my voice!
Let thy ears be attentive
    to the voice of my supplications!

If thou, O Lord, shouldst mark iniquities,
    Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with thee,
    that thou mayest be feared.

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
    and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
    more than watchmen for the morning,
    more than watchmen for the morning.

O Israel, hope in the Lord!
    For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
    and with him is plenteous redemption.
And he will redeem Israel
    from all his iniquities.

Romans 8:6-11 Revised Standard Version (RSV)

To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, indeed it cannot; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

But you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Any one who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you.

John 11:1-45 Revised Standard Version (RSV)
The Death of Lazarus

11 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazaruswas ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness is not unto death; it is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it.”

Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go into Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were but now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If any one walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. 10 But if any one walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” 11 Thus he spoke, and then he said to them, “Our friend Lazarushas fallen asleep, but I go to awake him out of sleep.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 13 Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead; 15 and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Jesus the Resurrection and the Life

17 Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus[a] had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles[b] off, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary sat in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life;[c] he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.”

Jesus Weeps

28 When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying quietly, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 Then Mary, when she came where Jesus was and saw him, fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled; 34 and he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus wept. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Jesus Raises Lazarus to Life

38 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb; it was a cave, and a stone lay upon it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. 42 I knew that thou hearest me always, but I have said this on account of the people standing by, that they may believe that thou didst send me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with bandages, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him.

In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.

The lessons for today seem to be tailor-made for our current situation. Ezekiel speaks of the miracle of dry bones obtaining flesh, sinews, and coming back to life; the Psalmist sings of God’s forgiveness, love, and redemption; the Apostle Paul tells us that, in Christ, we are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit; and the Gospel lesson from John recounts the incredible story of Jesus raising his best friend Lazarus from the dead. 

Underneath and informing each of these powerful passages is theme of the rock-solid and unwavering love and grace of God. Anyone who has ever felt as though they were “all used up” or nothing more than a collection of old, dry bones can relate to Ezekiel’s vision of miraculous new life infusing them, re-energizing them, making them stand again on their own two feet, able to live and love again.

The Psalmist tells us that God hears us even when we cry out to him from the depths – the depths of fear, the depths of despair, or the depths of disappointment. No matter where we are, no matter what our situation might be, God hears us, and helps us, and loves us with the same steadfast strength that holds the universe together. And with the Psalmist, we sing: Hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is plenteous redemption.

Life. Hope. Redemption.

We see all of that at work in the Gospel lesson, and more besides. We see here Jesus of Nazareth, the human being, and Jesus the Christ. This is the most personal story in the Gospels, as this is the only place in the New Testament where we specifically read of Jesus showing emotion: “Jesus wept.” That is the shortest verse in the entire Bible, as well as one of the most profound.

Jesus loved Lazarus like a brother, and Mary and Martha were like sisters to him. Think of your own best friends, and how you enjoy their company and then you’ll realize that’s .exactly the kind of relationship Jesus had with Lazarus and his sisters.

So the death of Lazarus was for Jesus the same kind of body blow that any of us feels at the death of a close friend or loved one. We have all heard many times that Jesus knew exactly the life we know, and this is proof of it – God truly does feel our pain.

We so often focus on the miracle itself that we tend to forget the importance of those tears shed, not just by Jesus, but also by Martha and Mary. The closeness Jesus had with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus is a reflection of the closeness God wants to have with each and every one of us, which is why Jesus came to us in the first place.

Jesus wept. Jesus knew sorrow and heartache. Jesus knows what we’re going through in our dark moments, because he’s been there, too.

The part of the story where we read that Jesus “tarried” for three days before going to Martha’s and Mary’s house might seem inexplicable at first, but it shows us the other side of Jesus, the “Christ side.” As Jesus tells his disciples, “This illness is not unto death; it is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it.” Even so, when he stood with Martha and Mary before the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus still felt such deep sadness at the death of his friend that he wept. The fact is that death is real and harsh. No resuscitation of Lazarus from the dead should sentimentalize, simplify, or gloss over that plain unvarnished fact.

We can understand how Martha and Mary felt when each of them said “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Who hasn’t felt the same gut-wrenching emotions at times? Somebody we have come to reply on – father, mother, sibling, friend, wife, husband, whoever – fails us. And we feel shattered. We aren’t sure how we’re going to move on.

Worse yet are those times when we cry out “God, why is this happening?” In these past few weeks, there have no doubt been many people asking that question, as they see the statistics of the apparently implacable progress of the COVID-19 virus, or worse, when a friend or loved one comes down with it, or even worse yet, when they are stricken with it themselves. They look around and see closed workplaces and shuttered stores; they hear and see the news of overwhelmed hospitals and healthcare workers, some of whom are stricken themselves by COVID-19 and die; they feel anxiety about getting the supplies or the help they need. So maybe they’re right now saying something similar to “Lord, if you had been here…” or perhaps even “Lord, where are you in all of this?”

Yet Jesus makes it abundantly clear that God is always there for us, working on our behalf, no matter the circumstances. When he says to Martha: “Your brother will rise again,” he echoes the words of Ezekiel, the Psalmist, and the Apostle Paul which proclaim that those who call on God will not be ignored, and that God, “whose eye is on the sparrow,” will not hesitate to come to bat for us: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” No mere virus can get in the way of that promise.

Fr. Mark Link recounts a resurrection experience Robert McAfee Brown, who became a leading 20th-Century Presbyterian minister and theologian, once witnessed: “Robert McAfee Brown was on a troop ship bringing marines back from Japan. One day they were studying the raising of Lazarus. After the session a marine said, ‘God seemed to speak to me today.’ He went on to explain that while in Japan, he did something that filled him with guilt. He’d even considered suicide. During the session the thought struck him that since Jesus was a man like him, Jesus could understand his situation. And since Jesus was also God, he could help him in the most powerful way imaginable. Jesus could raise him to new life, as he did Lazarus. In short, the marine had discovered in a personal way that Jesus was indeed ‘the resurrection and the life’ – not only in the life to come but also in this life right now.”

And Fr. Link puts to us a question that we need to ponder in these last days of Lent and especially as we deal with COVID-19: “How do I want Jesus to be my resurrection and my life, in this life right now?”[1]

Let us place our trust in him today. And remember: This, too, shall pass.

In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.

[1] Link, Marl, S.J., Jesus: A Contemporary Walk with Jesus, Allen, TX, Resources for Christian Living, 1997