Sermon for the 5th Sunday in Lent 2020
Ezekiel 37:1-14 - Psalm 130 - Romans 8:6-11 - John 11:1-45
Every Sunday celebrates the resurrection. On this Lord’s Day, that focus is amplified. Romans 8 contrasts the mortality of the flesh with the life of the Spirit: the God who raised Christ Jesus will give us new life. John 11 reveals a promise so potent that its early arrival can’t be postponed: Lazarus, come forth! Even this far into the holy season of Lent - so far we can almost hear the hosannas of Palm Sunday – even this near to the cross, God’s people are called to hear the promise of life.
In today’s readings, Psalm 130 cradles the promise of life in a powerful way – “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” Depths usually apply to those places of brokenness and loss, those places without hope. The intention of the psalm is not to dwell on being lost, but to speak about and to enact a transformation that liberates those in the depths into new freedom.
The psalm begins a passionate petition to God. This is Israel’s
primal address to God, voiced from a situation of deep need and powerlessness. Something we can relate to these days. This petition is from a deep valley where one can hardly voice a prayer. The idea confirms that a faithful Israelite is not a mute Israelite. The same applies to us today, as we face the uncertainty and fear in front of us. Even in a situation of deep need, the Israelite still speaks, still names God, still voices a petition, still makes an insistence, still sounds needy, and in so doing, still hopes.
From “out of the depths” we move to embrace God’s presence in wherever we may be. We move to that place where we can voice, “My soul waits for the Lord.” That place that suspends time so that we can be aware of God’s hand on our hearts, our heads, our lives.
In my journey in ordained ministry, I have encountered a number of folks who have lost a loved one. So many folks overwhelmed by grief and overcome with sorrow. Someone may “come down” with flu or the corona virus. A friend may quietly mention she is having a hard time getting up in the morning to face another day in the depths. But we know and celebrate….“My soul waits for the Lord.” God is with us.
What is common to all of us, is that the little deaths of disappointment, the temporary inconvenience of sickness, or the strain of difficult relationships can steal life from life. “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” We don’t dwell there....we move forward with God’s grace and love toward the understanding that with God all things are possible. So we wait, we breathe, and we believe…“My soul waits for the Lord.”
Even in their contrasts between life and death, all the readings focus on the life of the people of God this side of the grave, rather than on the resurrection. The psalm is an individual prayer to the Lord who redeems Israel and is motivated by his “steadfast love.” The Lord will save the person in trouble. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans compares the spirit of life and the flesh of death, for “to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” In the Gospel, we hear John’s account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.
The psalmist cries out while waiting for redemption, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits and in his word I hope.” Christ is the Word, the Truth and the Life.
Romans says, “But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” We are told that God’s Spirit, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives within us, and by virtue of this indwelling, our mortal existence will eventually be enlivened.
Next Sunday is Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday. It is so appropriate that we come to it with a Gospel message that prompts us to think of Jesus’ approaching death. John 11 does just that, for the raising of Lazarus is the event that precipitates the plot against Jesus’ life. The story seems to be about the death and raising of Lazarus, but just beneath the surface we see the deeper subject – the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The raising of Lazarus is a sign story. First, Jesus will act on his own, or clearly “from above,” rather than responding to the urgings of others. We know that he does not go running to Bethany when he hears the news of Lazarus’ illness. He stays two more days. Secondly, as a sign story, the primary function is to reveal God. What is about to happen, as Jesus says, “is for God’s glory.” This sign also has another purpose, “that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” The purpose of what Jesus does for Lazarus is to glorify the Son, which, in this Gospel, refers to the Son’s return to God. The means of this return to God would be the cross. “When I am lifted up from the earth” carried a double meaning: the cross and the ascension.
We know from the outset, that the story is not just about a family crisis in Bethany, but about the crisis in the world, a world caught in death and sin. It is not so much about resuscitating a corpse, but about giving life to the world. He can begin to say again and again that the urgency felt by others is not necessarily the same as the divine timing within which he works. Jesus’ aim is to reveal the glory of God’s work in him and in so doing, to promote the faith of his followers. Jesus is proceeding with his own sense of timing.
Jesus is wanting Mary and Martha to get to that place where they can voice, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits and in his word I hope.” That they can get to that place of comfort and reassurance that God has everything under control. That we can get to that place where we believe, where we voice it and live into it in today’s crisis and in every crisis. “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits and in his word I hope.”
The extent and passion of mourning reflect the honor and esteem of Lazarus in the village. Friends and family from far off come to join the scene. When Mary rushes from the house, she is followed by other mourners. By referring to Jerusalem, the text increases our sense of Jesus’ jeopardy when he arrives. Jesus’ presence in Bethany would certainly become known to his enemies in Jerusalem. He could not just slip into Bethany incognito and offer comfort to his dear friends, Mary and Martha.
Martha says, “Lord, if only you had come, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus responds to Martha’s expression of faith, her saying that she believes that God works mightily through Jesus. Jesus says, “Your brother shall rise again.” His response is one of the most quoted sentences in John’s Gospel, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will never die.” In other words, eternal life and rescue from the finality of death are not merely gifts given after an appeal to God; they are aspects of what it means to live a life in relationship with Jesus.
What is it that needs to die so that I may be resurrected in Christ? Perhaps, my taking myself too seriously – that can truly become important in dealing with emotional baggage. What is it that Mary and Martha had to give up – to let die – a sense of control, dependence for interdependence, their expectations of their relationship with Jesus. How can we get to that place to voice, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits and in his word I hope.” What is it that you have to let die in order to live for Christ – control, indifference, anger, fear, loss, or grief? Lazarus left the tomb, but the price was that Jesus had to enter it. “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits and in his word I hope.” Amen.