Lent 5 2nd April 2017

Sermon Title: LENT 5 2ND April, 2017
Date: 2nd April 2017
Preacher: Rev’d Susanne Chambers
Church Date: Lent 5
Lectionary Reading: Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45

I began nursing training at the age of 17.  In my first year as a trainee nurse, I was going around the ward at night, checking that the patients were ok.  On entering one room, the man in the bed had died.  I calmly went out to tell the senior nurse and she was very caring making sure I was ok.  As you can imagine, this was the first of many deaths I have encountered in nursing and in my ministry within the church and also in my family life. Babies, young children, teenagers and the spectrum of adulthood. When I look back at me as a young woman, I often hid my sadness and grief behind a smile. It was too hard at times to go to the pain of what death/separation meant for me, so being taught not to cry but to be strong for the one grieving in my training in nursing and early pastoral care, this suited me very well but I have had to be careful not to block my feelings, my tears as I care for others.

So, these readings of the valley full of very dead, dry bones of people which had been lying there for who knows how long and of Lazarus dead in the tomb… touched some deep stuff in me and so it has taken quite a bit of reflection of what this means for me in my relationship with others and with God and hopefully my reflections will be helpful for you as well.

Both these stories can be reflected on different levels. I will speak of one level and then on another level.

Ezekiel was speaking of the defeated exiles in Babylon, the whole house of Israel who were feeling like a heap of dry bones.  No hope. No future. Feeling like they are in the grave or will be there soon. Ezekiel followed the voice of God to bring them back to life and slowly, slowly, sinews, flesh, skin covered the bones and then God said “prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.” [i]

Why did God ask the mortal to do this? It was so that they may know that God is God! It is from God where they will find life.

On this same level, the raising of Lazarus was the last sign or miracle in John’s gospel to his community, to give them hope. It was also a foreshadowing of Jesus own death and resurrection.  As Brendan Byrne, NT scholar said:   “In the structure of the gospel, this last sign brings to a climax and concludes the public ministry of Jesus. It also functions as a bridge to the second half of the narrative. What begins as a kindness to a family that Jesus loves soon becomes a notorious public event that renders the authorities in Jerusalem hostile to Jesus beyond endurance.  The raising of Lazarus is the ‘last straw’ that sets irrevocably in motion the moves to bring about his arrest, condemnation, and execution. Going to Judea to give life to the one he loves will in the end cost Jesus his own life.”[ii]

Both the stories from Ezekiel and from John’s gospel are very descriptive and the psalm today links so well with the emotions that must have been going on in both incidences.  So now to the other level.

To let the stories come alive for us today, we need to enter into them and see where they touch our story through our experience of friendship, dying and death, abandonment and hope.

When I read the story of the valley of dry bones again, I thought it must have been such an eerie place. A grave yard but not an ordinary cemetery we know which is usually well kept and dry bones not seen. This place Ezekiel describes is a place most of us would say ‘nah, don’t want to go there! Take me down to the beach, or to a busy café where there is obvious life around me!

And yet, we know this valley.  I wonder how many of you are saying to yourself… ’oh Susanne, don’t take us there! Life’s tough enough… we are trying to cope the best we can… we don’t’ need reminding!”

I can understand these thoughts and yet the vision of Ezekiel came from the people saying ‘our bones are dried up, our hope is lost; we are cut off completely” and in many ways this is what I have been hearing from some of you and from those in our community and the wider community we hear on the tv and radio… our bones are dried up… life is tough…  there is illness in the family… I’m scared of what the future holds… I feel ‘scattered’, I don’t have it together. … I am in the valley of the shadow of death.

“Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel responds ‘God …you know whether these bones can live.  From our human perspective and in our strength, the answer is well no, look at them! Not possible.

Ezekiel, in conversation with God, listens and responds to what God says… and suddenly the bones start connecting with each other, the sinews and flesh and skin all come together! What a marvellous sight! But still…there was no breath in them. The breath being ‘ruah’… The wind, breath, Spirit of God.
It is this divine breath that gives life.

When we are in this valley, we can feel scattered like the bones… it’s hard to settle. We keep ‘doing’ things… our minds are flitting from one thing to another. It’s hard to concentrate.  When we are scattered and feeling disconnected, this can impact relationships with family and friends and also with God.

There is strength in being vulnerable and to acknowledge our dry, dead bones… and therefore our need for God who can recreate us, reconnect us! Why does God want to do this? So that we can be fully alive! Connected with God and with each other.

And isn’t that what we yearn for? This connectedness! This yearning to be fully alive physically, emotionally, mentally and spirituality!

And although you may not feel it, sense it..the breath of God is in you and me… God is with you helping you to stand up/rise up!.. to become who you are meant to be. Helping you not only to be fully alive yourself, but also others may experience fullness of life too!

Remember the whole valley of bones came alive!

The story of Lazarus, Mary and Martha, the Jews, the disciples and Jesus, is one of various emotions and beliefs.  Lazarus had died and Jesus came late much to Mary and Martha’s disappointment.  Lazarus was someone Jesus loved, along with his sisters.

Lazarus means “God helps” and Bethany means “the house of the afflicted”. So on this level of reflecting on this story, it is about how God helps those in the house of the afflicted. Who are they? It could be you and me and those who you know who maybe feeling disconnected, isolated, feeling like they are in a dark place, abandoned and sad and angry at the lack of understanding of a situation.

What Jesus did in this story was significant.  He wept.  He wept.  He wept because he loved this family. He wept too because he was frustrated at the lack of understanding and cynicism of some of those around him. I get that.

Jesus also called out in a loud voice: “Lazarus come out!” He names Lazarus.. as with us, he know who is in the dark place, the tomb and calls us if we can hear his voice. He wants us to live but sometimes it’s very hard even if the stone has been rolled away. It takes time to hear the voice of love.

What was also significant was Jesus getting those around involved.  One to roll the stone away (even if they didn’t want to because of the smell! sometimes we are asked to do things we don’t really want to do!) and then when Lazarus came out from the tomb he said to those around, ‘unbind him and let him go’.

Tears and community and relationships

Compassion and connectedness.

This is what Jesus the Christ is wanting us to understand.  He knows each of us by name. Loves us dearly and weeps when we find ourselves in dark and painful places. He knows too, that we need each other to be there for each other..to listen… to roll whatever the stone, the block, the things that tie us up, so we can join community again.

The valley full of bones became whole human beings and rose up all of them when the breath entered them.

Lazarus was raised from the dead and many around him were raised by being awoken to something wonderful happening.

I want to play you a piece of music called The Deer’s Cry which begins and ends with the words ‘I arise today’. I hope that these words that you will hear will give you hope and strength, if not for yourself right now but maybe for you to be the calm presence, knowing that God is with you, calling you to fullness of life and that this ‘sense of being’ is something you can share with others.

The Lord be with you.

[i] Ezekiel 37:9,10

[ii] Life Abounding : Brendan Byrne  page 183