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.