SERMON

Sunday, March 29

We have walked

in darkness but now we are in the light.

 

LENT V – 2020

Ezek. 37:1-14

Ps. 130

Rom. 6:15-23

John 11:1-44

 

Epiphany, Cloudcroft – Year A

My soul waits for the Lord

More than watchmen for the morning,

More than watchmen for the morning.

 

Good Morning! And welcome to the last Sunday of Lent. You can’t really count next Sunday. Sundays are not actually counted as part of the 40 days of Lent anyway, but more to the point, next Sunday is Palm Sunday, and it is the beginning of Holy Week. So Lent will be over almost before we know it! And of course we pray than our shelter-in-place practices can be over soon as well.

 

But I hope this year’s Lenten journey, whether in the church or at home, has stirred something within you that will lead you to share more of Jesus’ last days during Holy Week. In a larger congregation, in less infectious times, we would likely be having worship services on each day during Holy Week. This year, however, even private confessions, traditionally offered on Holy Saturday, may have to be done electronically instead of personally. But absolution can happen that way, too!

 

In looking ahead, however, I do not at all mean to gloss over our readings for today. Indeed, our readings present two of the most vivid word pictures in all of Holy Scripture. If you have not yet read the lessons, please do so before going further. Better yet, read them aloud. If you read them aloud to one another, it is almost like we are all in church together!

 

First, of course, is the vision of Ezekiel of the Valley of the Dry Bones. It is a vivid picture for us because we have a three-dimensional understanding of bones. Most likely, we have all seen a plastic human skeleton in a medical office or at least on Halloween. No doubt you can buy a very realistic one at Amazon or on E-Bay. So we know what human bones look like and generally how they are supposed to be put together. We have seen lots of special effects in horror movies and otherwise, and so it is not difficult for us to visualize a skeleton coming together, the sinews and the flesh being added, and the skin growing all over it. Medical science, with some help from Hollywood, has done a lot for us. Hollywood has also helped us visualize the dramatic scene in the Gospel reading about the raising of Lazarus, where, in the exciting climax, Lazarus comes lumbering out of the tomb wrapped in his burial clothes. I have to confess that the picture that comes to my baby boomer mind is - forgive me, Lord - one of Lon Chaney, Jr, in the old classic movie, The Mummy! Nowadays in some churches, you might even see a dramatic video presentation of today’s readings, giant color illustrations on a big screen that would bring even more life to these images. You might even see it in 3-D. Visualize the ushers passing out 3-D glasses with the Sunday Bulletin! And then collecting them, of course, to save for next year. You know how that works.

 

But I don’t think God’s point in Ezekiel, chapter 37, was to demonstrate heavenly special effects. The original hearers of Ezekiel’s message would have associated dry bones with just that, old bones lying in a field somewhere, long ago stripped of flesh, scrubbed clean by the rain, and bleached white by the sun. Such a valley full of old bones would have been associated with death on a large scale, a scene of horror unimaginable to anyone who had not seen something like it, even smelled it, and tasted the death in the air. The picture in Ezekiel, chapter 37 is one of death, death that is as dead as dead can be, with a finality that is as dark as dark can be. It doesn’t get any deader or any darker than this. That picture was designed to meet the house of Israel where it was, in exile, with Jerusalem overrun and the temple totally destroyed. In their circumstances, at the time of the prophet Ezekiel, it couldn’t get any deader or any darker. In today’s vision, then, God was giving them hope. God was telling them He knew the depth of their pain and their despair such that they were crying out, v. 11, “‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’” Even so, God says, vv. 12-13, “‘Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord . . .’”. God never gave up on His chosen people. He never abandoned them. Yes, there were consequences for their apostasy and for their spiritual adultery, most especially for their leaders. But there was re-birth ahead. It was more than just a physical re-occupation and reconstruction of the homeland, God would go a step further, v. 14, “And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live.” Like the breath coming into the flesh of the re-assembled bones such that they lived and stood upon their feet, God would breathe new life into His chosen people such that they would not only live back in their homeland, but they would also know that the Lord had spoken and had done it. Then they would give God the glory! God knew how to do special effects long before Hollywood even existed.

 

In the same way, Lazarus was as dead as dead could be. I understand that the ancients believed that a person’s soul would linger near the body for up to three days after death. After that, the person was, so to speak, dead-dead. The person couldn’t get any deader, it couldn’t get any darker. For those who knew him and loved him, after four days, Lazarus was just as dead as those dry bones, as dead as

the temple and the Promised Land was to those in exile in the time of the prophecy of Ezekiel.

But nobody is too dead for Jesus. No sin is too deep and too dark for Jesus to forgive, no pain is too great for His healing, no person or community is beyond His saving grace. Think about that for a moment. Let your mind focus on the eternal vision. Try to visualize the Church as God intends it to be. Holy Scripture paints a picture of the Church as the bride of Christ, prepared for the marriage feast, washed in the Blood of the Lamb. For us, that picture can even be three-dimensional, like the plastic skeleton in the doctor’s office, with every bone in its correct place and held together with sinews and cords that cannot be broken. In the glorious vision in the Book of Revelation, the Church has come together, bone to its bone, held together by the love of God and the blood of the martyrs. What a magnificent picture, the fulfillment of the Church as the bride of Christ, brought together from dry bones that had been scattered over a landscape of sin and pain and pride and self-righteousness by the power of the Holy Spirit.

 

But then there is our present reality. It’s difficult, isn’t it? It’s quite a challenge to visualize the Church, as we know it, as the Bride of Christ. We have seen the history of the Church, we know how far astray she has gone. Somehow it is much easier to visualize the Church as a valley of dry bones, with broken pews and a few broken crosses and splintered wooden signs with faded letters, the Church of this or the Church of that. I wonder why that is. Have we lost hope? Do we, like the Chosen People in exile, question whether the dry bones can ever live again? If so, then we are not understanding the depth of God’s love and God’s forgiveness. We are not investing ourselves fully in the promise of new birth and new life that Jesus Christ brings to us through the power of the Holy Spirit. Even if we are well grounded in Holy Scripture, we sometimes still struggle. As individuals and as the Church, we seem to be unable to bring all of our self-love and self-concern to the foot of the Cross so that our old life may be crucified with Christ. We would rather ignore our darkness than to see it crucified with Him and let it finally die so that it is dead-dead. We must really be attached to it. Think about it this way. Most of the time, we seem to be able to grieve the death of friends and family and those close to us, then leave them behind and go on with our lives. But for some reason we are unable to fully and finally bury our old life, to bury it with Christ so that He may bring to us His new resurrection life in its entirety. Or maybe it’s that we fear to turn loose of some or all of our old life because we aren’t so sure that Jesus can indeed give us a new birth and a new life. Maybe we think that if He saw us as we really are, He might not like us. And that is right, He would not like us. But He loves us - loves us enough to die for us, even before we have gone to the funeral of our sin and rebellion. Nevertheless, we still struggle with that fear that we are too much of a challenge for Him, that our bones are too dry and our stench is too great. And so we never realize victory in Jesus and enter into the fullness of life in Christ.

 

I’m sure there are differences as to each of us, but for all too many of us, there is a roadblock somewhere to fully abandoning ourselves to God. Somehow there are speed bumps of denial or fear that keep us from coming to Jesus without reservation or restraint and letting Him have His way with us. It is hard to go there, but Lent is a time for us to help each other to go there. We have been on our Lenten pilgrimage with Jesus for five weeks now, and we are about to arrive in Jerusalem with Him. My prayer is that we have been listening to what He has been saying to us through His Holy Word. My prayer is that we are ready to go to the Cross with Him, instead of blending back into that crowd that will be so joyous one minute and so brutal the next. It is not an easy road with Jesus - after all it is the way of the Cross. But it is one we must walk if we are to walk as children of the light. We must walk with Jesus and let Him take our hands. And then let Him take our hearts. He is calling us to hold hands with one another even as we take His hand. It’s OK to be infected with Jesus! Let us no longer pull away in fear or in shame or in doubt, or in dislike of the one whose hand is held out to us. For as vivid as these readings are about death, they are even more vivid in their promise of new birth and new life. Yes, as Paul said, the wages of sin is death, but he also said that the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. That is the hope with which we must enter Jerusalem with Him. That is the hope with which we must enter Holy Week and the prospect of Good Friday and the Cross, knowing for sure the power and promise of God to bring about Easter Sunday and life eternal for us as sons and daughters of the living God, brothers and sisters of Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

AMEN