Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent (29 March 2020)

By Revd Dr Andrew Warmback, Rector, St Pauls Anglican Church, Durban.  We are unable to gather for worship as usual on a Sunday morning at 7.30 and 9.15.

God of life and love and hope

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our strength and our redeemer.

Introduction

Today is the third day of lockdown – a concerted effort is being made by all in South Africa to prevent the further spread of the coronavirus.

At this time we are aware of the pain and suffering of many throughout the world – those who are infected and through the mounting deaths.  May God give us all strength and protection during this time, and healing and comfort to those who are sick and dying.

Scripture Readings

There are two stories from today’s readings from the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), set for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, that are about life, love and hope.  Firstly, there is the story of the “Valley of the Dry Bones” from Ezekiel chapter 37: 1-14, and then there is the “Raising of Lazarus to Life” by Jesus, in the Gospel of John, chapter 11: 1-45.

 “Valley of the Dry Bones”

In this first reading the prophet Ezekiel is taken by God to this valley of dry bones.  God asks him: “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel’s responds, “O Lord God, you know.”  God then tells him to prophesy to the bones, that breath will enter them and that sinews and flesh and skin will cover them.  Ezekiel did what God told him, and to the sound of much rattling, the bones came together again – there were sinews on them, and then flesh and then skin covered them.

But there was no breath in them. God commanded Ezekiel to again prophesy that the winds would come and breath enter them.  And when this happened, they all stood up – a vast number of people.   Life is more than flesh and bones, flesh and blood.  We need to ask God to breathe life, God’s spirit, into us too.

There is a context to this story. In verse 11 we read that the people complain “Our hope is lost, we are cut off completely”.

God gives an explanation of what is going on: “These bones are the whole house of Israel,” God says.

The background is that the prophet Ezekiel is speaking to a traumatised people, a people who have faced devastating losses. In 587/586 BCE, the Israelites had been attacked by the Babylonians: during the siege they suffered famine and disease, and lost hope. The city of Jerusalem was destroyed, the Temple flattened to the ground, many of the people killed and others forced to go into exile in Babylon.

For them the exile was more than just a crisis of physical suffering; it was a crisis of faith too: the key symbols of their faith – especially the Temple and the Davidic monarchy – had been destroyed.  With such a catastrophe they may have wondered if God was still faithful to them.

We then read of the promise of God to them, in verse 14: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil.”

A wonderful promise of God to a suffering people: they will survive, they will return from exile; their hope is restored, so too is their faith in God. The God of life is to be trusted.

Jesus Raises Lazarus to Life

There is a strong connection in this story with the gospel reading for today.  We read of Lazarus, the brother of sisters, Mary and Martha, becoming ill.  Jesus knew this family, he used to visit them, and the Bible says he loved them.  The sisters sent word to Jesus that their brother was sick. Jesus, however, does not rush to their house.

After Lazarus has died they come to see Jesus telling him that he could have helped if he had only arrived earlier.

When Jesus does arrive at their house, a few days later, we read that he was “disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.”  With the other mourners, Jesus also weeps at the death of his friend – a very human reaction; Jesus is familiar with human suffering and loss.

Jesus then orders them to take the stone away from the tomb and calls out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” Lazarus then comes out with his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. And Jesus says: “Unbind him, and let him go.”

This is the work of God, of God restoring life in a context of death.

In our darkest valleys, in times of despair, let us call on God to help us – and we will often experience God’s loving presence most when times are tough.  Let us never think that all is lost.

Conclusion

In this time of Lent, as we prepare for the celebration of Jesus’s resurrection, let us continue to reflect on our lives, become aware of God’s presence among us, pray, and care for those who are most vulnerable and lonely at this time.

We know that before the joy of Easter there is the suffering: Jesus’ arrest, his unjust trial, his torture and execution on the cross.  The resurrection came out of a seemingly hopeless situation.

So as we have seen it is out of situations like the destruction of Israel and the death of Lazarus, that God brings new life.    The God of life, of love and hope is to be trusted, and more especially at this time.  Let us have faith and call on God.

Prayer

I end with a prayer for during this pandemic

Let us pray:

 

God of life and love and hope,

Bring healing and comfort to

All who are sick and dying

Grant our leaders wisdom

Protect our health workers

Strengthen the most vulnerable

Still our fears,

Assure us of your love

Restore our hope

And empower us to care for others

Through Jesus Christ

Amen