Lent 5 A Sermon for Sunday March 3, 2020
Our readings for the day: Old Testament: The Prophet Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Epistle: Paul’s epistle/letter to the Roman gathering of Christians 8:6-11; The Gospel of John 11:1-45 (see your Bible or the following link if you’re online: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=28)
My dear brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ,
This is the third Sunday since we last were together to hear the Word of God, of where he is at, of what he is doing in our lives. And it has been three Sundays since we have been able to come together to be renewed in fellowship with him and with one another by consuming his body and blood, the bread of heaven, the cup of salvation. I don’t know about you, but I know I have found this absence from you a sharp and stabbing reminder of our frailty, of the temporary nature of our lives – as our reading from Ezekiel puts it – a reminder that we are but dry bones without flesh or spirit without God’s sustaining presence with us.
To be quite honest, I often, and it would seem that most of us often forget our frailty and how temporary our lives are. Some of us certainly do have reminders. I am diabetic and relying on insulin to keep me alive does sometimes make me more aware of how vulnerable I am to other diseases and to death than perhaps is the case for many. I know several of you have had or have cancer, mental illnesses, chronic pain, severe headaches, etc. And yet these are certainly not situations or conditions that affect every human being on earth.
But now, now we are brought to the brink of our mortal existence – not just your or I, not in existential or abstract form – but concretely. The threat of one disease, COVID-19, has ground the culturally, nationally and linguistically diverse and geographically disbursed world’s economies to a halt. Here, as in most other places across the entire world, we have been asked to stay home, to stay inside, to stay away from one another for even unknowingly, we might carry a disease that affects the capacity for others to live. And as we have been asked to isolate, the things we take for granted – gathering for social events, for cultural events, for sporting events, even for worship, travelling, going to see friends and family near and far – have been halted. It is as if the world were covered by a flood that stopped all human enterprises of making families, of building and running businesses, of travelling to trade, of exploring of ladder climbing, of tower building (see Noah’s Ark, Genesis 7).
How does this make you feel? Fearful? Untethered? Uncertain? We are certainly not used to living with these things in the acute way they have occurred for us. We have no real immediate experience to compare this event to. Perhaps we’ve read history books and know about the plagues that killed millions throughout the centuries, about how towns and nations shut down at various times and places. We know, at least from a distance of time and experience, that what we are experiencing now, is not unheard of. But that’s just the point: we have no personal experience of the reality most people through history have lived with: physical, mental, emotional suffering and death, on a regular basis. We have medicines, hospitals, technologies, shelters, foodbanks, hospitals and senior’s homes in which the suffering and dying are removed from our immediate vision, from our homes, from our streets. But now that reality of human finitude is not just on our doorsteps but is being experienced in our physical bodies, in our hearts and minds.
And we might ask: where is God in all of this? Some pastors have claimed that this is God’s punishment of a way of life, or of one particular group or another. Is there truth in this claim? To be frank, I cannot say. One of the things that ought to be said, if you weren’t already aware of this, is that the events of plagues and diseases in Scripture which God caused or which he used, were interpreted ‘at a distance’ that is, often 2-500 years after they actually occurred. In other words, interpretation of God’s purposes and works is not only a retrospective (looking back at what occurred and what the longer range outcomes were), but also a communal and not an individual determination. So to imagine one can claim ‘what God is doing here’ with any certainty is, I think, the work of a true fool, not a fool formed in and by Christ.
Part of the reason we cannot say where God is in this is because we don’t yet know what this ‘break from our normal routines and ways and thinking’ will mean, of what it will change, of how it will change us, or those with whom we interact from the person who lives beside us to the person who lives over in Taiwan thousands of kilometers away from us. Another part of the reason we cannot say where God is in this is because I think we have for too long, imagined that God is somehow going to work consistently with what we think, believe, and desire, as if God is in our ‘employ.’ We imagine that “God with us,” means God “supports our way of life and thinking and doing and living.” We imagine that God’s judgment is something that only occurred in the past and that now we are set free to do as we please. But Scripture of course tells us that the ways that we as individuals and as a whole nation (by nation I mean the people of Israel and Church) live, are often inconsistent with what he desires of us.
So on the one hand, we must be open to the fact that whether God causes (I doubt this) or whether God uses the events that occur as a result of this virus (I think this is more likely), there may in fact be condemnation of aspects of how we live, of the presumptions we make, etc. What could these be? I think there’s a long list – destroying the created world God gave us to live on largely in greedy pursuit of land/homes, money and possessions, caring more about ourselves than fostering community and care for the most vulnerable, harming children through enslaving them, or neglecting them because we are too busy at work, hurting one another in relationships, concentrating most of the world’s wealth in the hands of a few while billions starve and live in their own feces, building suburbs and projects to amass more safe personal space for nuclear families while simultaneously creating the most lonely generation of people that has ever existed, failing to teach the Christian faith with specific Christ formed virtues, instead falsely presuming it to be coterminous with our nationalistic libertarianism – and the list goes on.
All of these things, along with everything else that we do and presume about who we are before God, all of these things I think we will need to individually and collectively question as we take them to God in prayer. Are they consistent with what God reveals throughout the whole Bible. What does it mean to be a steward of creation? Is the way we treat the earth we live on, the animals and plants we live with consistent with being the stewards God calls us? Is our constant material consumption of possession and food consistent with being God’s steward of his creation? What does God want of families? Why do they exist? What does he want of single people? What is their purpose? How does God call us to work? What is work for? What does it mean to return, through our work and through our families, to God these very things that God gave to us?
This morning the key theme of our reading is that it is God who judges wrong our sins by which we literally suffer and die. Psalm 130, verse 3 says, If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord who could stand? Iniquities are failures to follow God’s will; they are sin. So who can stand if God is judge of human failure to follow him? Well we see who it is who stands. It is the one who himself alone is both human perfection and as God is perfect: Jesus Christ. It is the One who, when he raises Lazarus in the Gospel from John, foreshadows or lets us know that He alone has the power to raise us; for it is He alone who is raised and rises from the dead.
In Lazarus’s being raised from the dead, we can see ourselves, having been raised in our baptisms, from death by Jesus. For far too long we have taken this basic Christian claim for granted. We’ve taken it for granted so much that we’ve forgotten or cannot figure out how to explain it to people who don’t go to Church because socially, they don’t have to. And so our Churches – all of them – have emptied out. This is the most basic claim of the Christian faith. Through one man – Adam’s, sin – all fell (that means you and me both). But through one man’s faith – a Jesus Christ’s faith – all are made alive. It is the claim that makes us distinct from groups that just follow a good moral story, or self-help manuals, or a variety of Western secular morals.
Where is God in all of this? I don’t know for certain. Is it a form of judgment? I don’t know for certain. Will God use it as a form of judgment? Scriptural precedent seems to indicate that he will. He will call us out of our iniquity. But here’s the central part – that reassuring part I think we’re all looking for – he doesn’t stand far off as we struggle in the sort of uncertainty and fear and anxiety, and upheaval that Lazarus surely did before his death, or that the people of Israel – in the midst of their judgment – did when being addressed by Ezekiel. Nope. God does not stand far off. He doesn’t even leave it to us to somehow get to him. What does he do? Well first, he does give us time. And sometimes that time is spent in suffering the fate of sin: disorder, struggle, and pain, whether in literal terms, or in more figurative terms.
What does he say when he’s told Lazarus is dying? He waits. He actually stays two more days “in the place he was.” He doesn’t go immediately and stop Lazarus’s march toward death. In fact, he says that this movement toward death is going to glorify God. This would be a horrible thing to say, a monstrous thing unfitting a loving God, if Jesus didn’t have the power to raise him from death not just at the end of time, but back into the midst of his family and friends, to be a witness indeed, to the power of God right there and then. Jesus did not leave Lazarus, even if he didn’t respond when everyone wanted or expected him to. God does things in his own time and in a time only he knows.
By the time Jesus got to him, Lazarus stunk because he’d been dead for four days. Jesus commands him to come out and sure enough, out comes Lazarus not at the end of time, but right then and there four days later, back to his family and friends, back into his life in one way, and yet into an entirely new life given and experienced and known and so seen through the life of God that is the true light shed on all the events that take place in this world: “O dry bones hear the Word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” And we see then that even though he did it in his own time and for a purpose we could not understand, God was never absent from Lazarus, not in life, and then we discover, not even in suffering, or death, and most certainly, not in the new life Jesus made happen.
This is what I think we can draw from this: even when we cannot see where God is, when we don’t understand what he could be doing, or why, even when we are faced with true, concrete fear, disease, suffering, anxiety, loneliness, we can be assured that God has not abandoned us. He has given us time. And in this time, potentially he will use this situation of having to face into the reality that we are mortal, that we are fallen sinners who are not living in accordance with his desire for us, as a kind of giant ‘reset button’ like that hit with the Flood and his Ark.
You see the Ark in our lives is the Ark in every human life: it is the Cross of Jesus Christ. That Cross casts judgment on the broken and sinful ways that we live. So when an event occurs that causes the kind of universal pause we have before us right here and now with COVID, as with the Flood, we are given time to ask what the Cross illumines in this world that is of God, and what it illumines that is not of God. And perhaps through this event, we can go to God with more humility and less anger, less presumption, less sense of control and autonomy, and ask: “O Lord, I wait for you, my soul waits and I cry out from the depths, hear my voice as I raise my questions to you, answer me Lord and give me direction.
In today’s gospel lesson, we hear a religious leader of the Jews named Nicodemus say to Jesus: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." Jesus replies to Nicodemus: “no one can see the kingdom of God without having been born from above.” Likely just as you and I would respond, with confusion and doubt, Nicodemus says, "How can these things be, we’ve already been born and grown up, how are we to enter our mother’s womb again?"
Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? You have heard God’s word and know the signs and the disciples and I we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. You fail to recognize the signs God told you of manifest in my works, so how will you believe if I try to tell you about being born from above, about heavenly things that is?
Here is the sign spoken through God’s word: do you remember when Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness? That was a sign of what is to come: and now the Son of Man, me, Jesus, must be lifted up on the cross so that your faith is not in vain but secured in my resurrection to life. I descended from heaven to the earth, all the way to Hell, and will ascend to heaven, so that the whole of creation might be transformed, and you might be reconciled to God, “that whoever believes in [me] may have eternal life.”
Now it’s important to understand something here: the signs that Jesus is doing, have been given already and we read about them in the Old Testament Scriptures. For example, we hear of Moses lifting the serpent so that anyone who looked at it would be cured of the venom of the serpent, literally, of the effects of sin. Recall it is a serpent who is spoken of in Adam and Eve’s fall from grace, so also is this Jesus’s tempter. Like this serpent lifted high by Moses, so Jesus Christ is raised on the Cross, and again raised from the dead, his faithfulness in enduring this, overcoming the effects of sin and granting life to those who believe, who have faith in God. We see similar signs in Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his Son Isaac. But that his Son Isaac, is saved from death by God by Abraham’s faithfulness, God’s own faithfulness, and Isaac becomes the ancestor of the Messiah and so every gentile, all of us.
So Nicodemus has no excuse: as a teacher of the Israelites, he knows these signs well. So Jesus says to him: “look I am fulfilling all the signs you ought to know in the things I’m doing here day-to-day. Can you not see dear Nicodemus, that only God himself could fulfill these signs, do you not recognize who I am, Nicodemus? Are you still blind to God come into your midst? If you do not recognize me as the fulfillment of the signs you know as an Israelite, how hard will it be for you to hear of the heavenly things? If you were to recognize me, you would know that you must be born not simply from a mother and father on earth, but from the grace of God above.
Let us contrast Nicodemus for a moment with the woman who risks her life simply to grasp onto Jesus garments in faith that he is the power who will heal her. Hers is a recognition that she must be born from above. Or think about Mary who anoints Jesus feet with oil, spending likely most of what she has, not paying attention to the housecleaning and the social customs that must be done, for she has this one moment to invite Jesus into her life, recognizing him as God, she gives freely of everything she has in that moment. Or think of Mary when she trusts an angel of God, giving up her safety, and likely her life, even her future, to bear the Son of God solely by faith. Hers is the recognition that one must be born from above by risking a life bound to faith in God, not certainty of her own circumstances. Or think of Abraham and Noah who step out to sacrifice a Son and to spend years laboring to build an ark with only the word of God to motivate them.
All of these people are signs of what it looks like to recognize Jesus Christ as Lord of all, as God, and to be taken up in him and born anew in him, of the Holy Spirit. To see the kingdom of God – isn’t a moment of insight – but a lifetime spent following the one who is the very kingdom unfolded across time: Jesus himself. But there’s this catch, to see Jesus Christ’s life unfold, to see the kingdom of God encompassing all creation, well, this requires faith. To be born from above in the life of Christ is, in this world still not yet reconciled to God, not a matter of knowing with certainty, but trusting God and so following him in faith that he will bring about the reconciliation he has promised.
To put this in Scriptural terms, to see the kingdom of God one must be born out of the womb of God; from the nothingness to which sin returned us, to new life, by grace won for us in Jesus’s death and resurrection; and in new life, to receive this grace taking our first breath in faith that the air given by God might fill our lungs and make beat our hearts; and in following being made fit, our dry bones enfleshed, crawling in confession and repentance and prayer on our knees; and in following, so also receiving the Spirit who enables us to first step out into the kingdom, into the very life of Jesus Christ. This is what it means to be born from above. It is the new life of faith that we receive by grace and mark in the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist. Having been born from below already, as Nicodemus remarks, to be born from above is to step out from the safety of our lives into the uncertainty that comes, inevitably with faith in God whom we see now only through a glass darkly.
We like safety though; so as much as we’d like to think we would turn to God like Abraham or Job, or Ruth, or Mary, or Paul, we often end up like Peter denying Jesus three times at our circumstantial cockcrows; or like David and Solomon, given much only to make a huge error of judgment which drags us into disordered relationships that affect all around us, or maybe even like Judas, in willing betrayal of God, even knowing and having seen him as the fulfillment of all the signs God has scattered throughout our history.
Even having been born from above, born in Christ, sustained in him by the Spirit, so too do we often fall back into what Paul calls, the old life, the life of flesh; a life ordered simply to the things of this world, forgetting how the kingdom of God looks. Why? Well why does it happen for God’s people? Likely because faith is a mighty difficult thing to sustain in light of what a lot of us go through, big and small events. To offer ourselves to God in faith, to step out and follow him has become unnatural for us, enmeshed as we are in a world of sin and brokenness. We’re so often stung by our encounters in life, in sometimes horrific ways: disappointment, a lack of experienced love, the loss of relationships, fear of judgment, exclusion and rejection; disease; fear of violence, or economic failure.
Mostly though, I think that faith is difficult to sustain because we lose sight of how the events of our lives that seem our only reality, are taken up into God’s own life. Perhaps it is because we do not know the Scriptures – all of them, not just the parts that we like to read – and so we think God cannot handle the most twisted and trying events of our life. It is very hard to trust and have faith in the trials of life if we do not see how God has already taken our trials of life and death, birth, work, self doubt, abuse and persecution, destruction and falling apart, betrayal, confusion, loneliness, anxiety, fear and anger, how he has already taken these on himself. If we do not see this, how can we know we have been given a place on the ark, raised out of a watery grave, a place to live, to love, to share, to give, and to grow, where we are reminded of hope brought to us in the midst of the figurative floods of our own lives. How could we catch glimpses through our lives of the figurative olive branch carried by the dove, the Holy Spirit, that indicates the flood of our circumstances will subside, caught up in God’s own ordering of all things and our lives therein, to the good, to the dry land where we are secured by the olive tree of the Cross which brings about new life in his resurrection.
Faith can and often is in fact filled with a lifetime of painful realizations, of acts of letting go, of humiliation and of humility, of patience, endurance, courage, perseverance and confessing that whatever circumstances we come from, we are utterly dependent upon the grace of God poured out for us in Jesus Christ. Only as we let go and go up to him again and again, can the most broken aspects of our lives be healed; for only in him is love poured out in perfection that provides a balm for our wounds, whatever they are. Only as we let go over a lifetime of following, can the pain we experience be soothed by the balm of his body and blood poured out for us; enfleshing our tired, cracked, dry bones and hearts chaffed raw by the trials of life. Only then can we come to see the kingdom of God; of our true birth from above; held in perfect love in the bosom of God himself. AMEN.
In the beginning our uncreated God created all things, including us, out of nothing. He created us to be images of him in the world he made and so to remain in relationship with him so that we could learn how to be like him and so a sign to others about who he is, as the particular people we are. God says to the two who represent humanity’s beginning, Adam and Eve, ‘I have given you everything you need to survive and to live well in relationship to me, fulfilling your vocation to be a created reflection or image of and because of this, living the most fulfilling life you could possibly have, since it is ordered to me, your creator.
But sure enough, Adam and Eve, like every human being, including Jesus Christ, are tempted to take their own path; to have autonomy and control over their own affairs, as if it were up to them to make of their life what they will. The serpent – who represents temptation either literally or figuratively, says to Eve, “Did God say, you shall not eat from any tree in the garden?” And She answers honestly, “yes.” The serpent, perhaps sensing her vulnerability or knowing of the capacity of desire we all have, says, “you will not die if you eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God is trying to trick you into being a slave to him. He knows that when you eat of that tree, that you’re eyes will be opened and you’ll be like him, yourselves knowing good and evil. He’s trying to control you. Don’t let him. Take back the control and autonomy that’s rightfully yours.” And of course Adam and Eve both eat of the tree God has forbidden them to eat of.
In our Gospel this morning we hear of how Jesus is tempted by this Serpent we call Satan: “Jesus I know you’re starving from fasting in the desert 40 days and nights, so make bread out of stone for yourself. You have the capacity to choose do it, just as Adam and Eve had the capacity to choose to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But unlike Adam and Eve, who, though they have the provision of all the food for survival and flourishing they need, still eat from the tree, Jesus rightly recognizes the temptation to satiate his own desire for asserting his autonomy and control, not simply as a human being, but as God himself, and he says to the temper: “it is said, one does not live by bread alone, but by the words that come from the mouth of God you hear in worship in your scriptures.”
He’s tempted by this fallen angel twice more: first he’s taken up to the pinnacle and told he should throw himself down to challenge God’s promise that he will bear his people in their sin and raise them up, that they will not suffer the inevitable injury and death that results from falling to a certain death, here both a literal reality of falling from height, and a figurative reality of falling from grace. Jesus implies something essential here, as the Son of God, God himself: “I could very well do this, but it is said, ‘do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Here he reverses Adam and Eve’s own presumption to fall to the temptation to put God to the test by asserting their own autonomy in their lives. And this of course foreshadows what it to come: take this cup from me Lord I do not wish to die on the cross, to suffer the death due to all humanity on account of sin; but your will be done. I willingly offer myself into your hands. Into your hands O Father, do I commend my spirit.
Finally, the tempter, Satan, takes Jesus to the top of a high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world and says, “fall down and worship me and I will give all these into your command.” Jesus says, “Away with you Satan, for it is said, worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” This of course is Satan’s/the serpent’s/temptation not just to Adam and Eve, but to all of us, “follow your idols, follow your gods, and you will have control and autonomy not only over your own life, but over the whole world you live in because you can construct your life in the world however you wish, since you know what is good and what is evil. This is a stunning response to Satan because of course the Son of God who is God himself knows what is good and evil, of course he has control over everything he created, and yet God does not exercise what is in his power to do. Why?
This is the key question here. Why does he not do this? Because were he to fall to temptation here, he could not fulfill what he was sent into the world to do: to reconcile human beings to relationship with God; to change the very nature of a fallen world by fulfilling not only the commandments to love God and neighbor and enemy required of all human beings, but by fulfilling his promise to reconcile all human beings to himself. As God and man, Jesus Christ could do this only by doing the will of God: taking the final rejection of human beings, the final horrific act of self-autonomy and control in executing the Son of God and, as with Adam and Eve, overcoming the sin that separates every human being from God. That very act, of continuing his life to the Cross, of every human sin being nailed to the cross with Jesus, is the sole means by which the acts of each person past, present and future, do not lead to death.
Indeed we hear in Romans, “just as Adam and Eve’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so Jesus Christ’s righteousness, the act of a human being fulfilling the commandments of God, and the act of God in taking on all of humanity’s sin in his Son, leads to righteousness for all who receive this undeserved grace in faith.”
And here we come to look at our own lives. Each year in Lent, we look forward to the resurrection hope of Easter Sunday, where we celebrate our having been received into Christ through the Holy Spirit; into God’s own body, the Church, through our baptisms. In the Church we have been handed the faith, which we are to come to learn, to make our own as a community and as individuals.
But of course we stand with Adam and Eve, and so too with Jesus, as human beings tempted away from the faith, away from God. We are tempted so often by fear, by uncertainty that becomes manifest as the desire for autonomy and control over the affairs of our life. These temptations threaten to pull us away from God and in so doing, from finding peace in the provisions for life he has given to us. Lent is a time set aside in the Church to examine our motivations, our fears, our anxieties, our responses and behaviors and to offer these up to God; to ask that he might use, change or eliminate them so that he can shape and mold us into his image we find perfected in Jesus Christ. I don’t know what these things are for you; most of us know what these are, even if we struggle to admit and grapple with them. Take them to God this Lent in prayer. This offering, laying ourselves bear and recognizing our sole dependence on God is simultaneously what it means to love God, to offer ourselves to his service and to rely upon his provision alone, and to repent of those things we know and don’t know, that separate us from him, so that we might be cleansed, be made new, conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. It is for this alone that we were made: that we might be the created reflection of God in the world. AMEN.