Sunday, 10 April 2011

Love and Death

St Giles Cheddington 10 April 2011 LENT 5

First Reading Ezekiel 37.1-14

The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me to and fro among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

I said, “O Sovereign LORD, you alone know.”

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’”

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin 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 it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet – a vast army.

Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.’”

Gospel John 11.1-45

Praise to you, O Christ, King of eternal glory.
Christ humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
Therefore God has highly exalted him
and given him the name that is above every name.
All Praise to you, O Christ, King of eternal glory.

Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to N.
All Glory to you, O Lord.

Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair. So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”

When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.

Then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”

“But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?”

Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? A man who walks by day will not stumble, for he sees by this world’s light. It is when he walks by night that he stumbles, for he has no light.”

After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”

His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.

So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

Then Thomas (called Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.

“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”

And after she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.

When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.

“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.

Jesus wept.

Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.

“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odour, for he has been there four days.”

Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”

When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.

Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him.

This is the Gospel of the Lord.
All Praise to you, O Christ.


Our society obsessed by death. News. Detective, crime series. CSI. War.

Ezekiel little read. Full of macabre stories. Strange, violent, incomprehensible, even offensive. No wonder that Christians are mainly only aware of Dry Bones. Even immortalised in song. Dem bones hear the world of the Lord.

Ezekiel also misunderstood by contemporary audience. Spoke in parables and riddles. And in Valley of Dry Bones God poses his own. “Can these dry bones live?” Ezekiel sounds exasperated. “O Lord God, only you know.”

Why these bones?
We ask – why is valley full of bones? What did they die of? Why unburied? Ezekiel’s time desperate one. Famine, torture, despair. Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem – 2 years. Destroyed city, Temple, carried off into exile.

Bones belonged to those slain – described as sufficient for a vast army when life returned to them. May have been massacred, or ambushed, or confined in a defile and starved.

Horrifying picture – but, like Lazarus, symbolic – illustrates that, to God, new life can come about even in the face of total loss and despair.

Appropriate readings for Lent. We have to experience the troughs of seeming hopeless abandonment before we can appreciate and understand rising to new life.

Trouble is, many of us come to worship on Easter Day, having not attended any services on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday. We rejoice in resurrection and salvation without ever experiencing the anguish through which that new life came to fruition. Surely unless we go through the pain of loss and take up our cross with Christ during Holy Week, we have no contrast between the darkness of degradation, humiliation and pain and the light coming into the world post-resurrection? Maybe we can do better this year? Maybe we can sit for a short while in vigil as we contemplate the enormity of what we as a human race have done?

In John’s gospel, death and love woven together. John 15 for example:
12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command.

Or this from John 3:
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

Story of Lazarus illustrates this. Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters. Yet seems to have deliberately delayed return when message came about his serious illness. Seems to have let them down at time of worst need.

Mary and Martha both love Jesus. Berate him each in their separate ways.”If you had been here, our brother would not have died.” They mean that Jesus could have healed him, had he returned in time.

Delay is understandable. Disciples did not want to return to Jerusalem at all. 2 attempts had already been made on his life by stoning him. Love and death inextricably linked. By coming to Bethany to visit his friend whose life is threatened, Jesus risks his own death.

But death did not overcome love. Jesus himself travelled in the light of day, and no one sought to arrest him. Nor did Lazarus remain in the tomb. Like Ezekiel’s dry bones, against all the odds Lazarus is called back to life.

Lazarus will die again. So will all humans. Jesus will not. In response to Martha, he says:
“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.
I AM – the name of God. Blasphemy to the Jews. Jesus is not only asserting what he will be, but claiming divinity. Do you believe? He asks. Yes, says Martha, you are the anointed one, the Christ.

This same love in the end leads to the cross. After this miracle, bystanders report Jesus to authorities. From this point, they start to plot his death. So love leads to death. One tomb to another. That’s the way of the cross.

Death and Life
Like Martha, Mary and Lazarus, we are in our own relationship with Christ. This means facing grief and death with him. Being there in the week before Easter, not just on Easter morning.

Yet we know, like Ezekiel and Lazarus, nothing is final, even in the complete absence of all hope. Nothing is ever dead for good. For the Christian, there is always hope in the future. Abundant life is always there in the end.

But we still have to endure. Endure the garden of Gethsemane. The torture. The cross. Knowing that if we endure with him, Easter will surely come. That’s our assurance. That’s our comfort. For if we walk with him in the garden of our own griefs, we will in the end meet with him again. Amen

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