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The 5th Sunday in Lent; Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, John 11:1-45

This Sermon was recorded and distributed via the Church’s Facebook page. The video may be viewed here

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.

Paraphrasing Ezekiel more than just slightly: The St. Andrew’s Preaching Schedule said to me preach to the 8:00 and 10:00 a.m Services (now one combined 9:00 a.m. Service) on the 5th Sunday in Lent, March 29. It didn’t say that on that day I would still be in self-isolation after returning from a vacation in Cuba, and hence couldn’t be at the church with the few that are there leading the service being streamed over Facebook Live, nor that because not wanting to risk losing the feed from the church by inserting the live sermon from my home office I would be preaching to a camera on Saturday evening. And that we would post this sermon separately on the Church’s Facebook page, and refer parishioners (and others) to it as part of the live service.

And the preaching schedule certainly did not say to me, at least not when I first looked at it, months ago, that on the 5th Sunday in Lent in the Year of our Lord 2020 this would be the norm; that effectively every worshipping community in Canada, and much of the world, would be meeting by some electronic means, literally 1 or 2 or 3 in a group, connected by the Internet. But, I am reminded, wherever 2 or 3 gather in his name, Jesus promised he would be with them!

Trusting that promise, nevertheless, I’m feeling a great deal like what the Psalmist felt, when he cried out “ Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD. Lord, hear my voice!” To which I want to add, “I just hope someone, anyone, hears my voice!”

The vision of the prophet Ezekiel of his nation, Israel, which in his time is identical with all of the Jewish faith community, is one of a valley of scattered bones. The temple in Jerusalem, the singular focus of the faith, had been destroyed, and the people dispersed throughout the foreign land Babylon. Unable to assemble for worship, the faith was, effectively, dead. Nothing but dry bones!

But in his vision Ezekiel is instructed by the Lord God to preach to these dead bones, to proclaim to them a vision of a future. A future in which the scattered bones, the scattered faithful are brought back together, enfleshed/incarnated, and though the words of Ezekiel the Spirit of the Lord makes them again into a living, breathing nation, a living, worshipping faith.

But historically, it is a different, stronger faith. From the inability to worship at the central Jerusalem temple a system of local worship emerged, the synagogues, and in later times that system allowed the Jewish faith to survive a 2000 year diaspora, a dispersion throughout the world, a synagogue system that still nourishes the Jewish faith today!

Hold those thoughts!

And now, let’s consider Lazarus.

His story appears only in the Gospel of John, but it is a familiar one. He is the brother of Mary and Martha of Bethany, near Jerusalem, and a dear friend of Jesus. He falls ill, and the sisters send word to Jesus, presumably so that he could come and heal him. Jesus delays going to him, to the puzzlement of his disciples, but who might secretly approve, because of the dangers involved in travel. When Jesus decides to go to Lazarus, they warn him of the danger, but, as he is resolved to go; knowing that Lazarus has died, they go with him. By the time Jesus gets to Bethany, Lazarus has been dead 4 days, and in blunt language, has begun to stink! Nevertheless, Jesus, Messiah, Son of God, prays, and Lazarus leaves his tomb, alive. And through this obvious demonstration of God’s power, and the power of Jesus, many (but not all!) come to believe.

There you have it, two stories, one from each of the Testaments. It’s fairly obvious why the compilers of the Lectionary paired these. Each of them is a story of a resuscitation, a resurrection, from death. Ezekiel’s story is the resurrection of a a whole valley, full of dry bones, to a living, breathing nation, to a worshipping community. The story of Lazarus is the bringing back to life of one individual. But, in essence, they are identical, they tell of the power of God to revive, to raise from the dead. In Ezekiel’s story, a worshipping community is restored. In the story of Lazarus you need to read beyond where today’s reading ended; Mary and Martha and Lazarus, and Jesus (and we assume the bystanders in the background of the story) share a meal. Lazarus rejoins a community!

But Lazarus is also changed. Lazarus disappears from the biblical record, but not from the traditions of the church. In the Eastern churches he is a legend; he lived forty more years, after the resurrection of Jesus he became an evangelist and then a bishop, and it is told that he never smiled again for the rest of his life because he took his mission of bringing people to Christ so seriously.

In each of these stories about the power of God restoring a people or an individual to community, there are details that are often missed. Consider this; God undoubtedly could have brought that valley of dry bones back to life, totally by God’s power alone. But God instructs the human Ezekiel to prophesy/preach to the bones, and it is through that human agency, that human assistance, that the whole nation of Israel, the whole worshipping Jewish community, is restored, but also changed. And in the story of Lazarus, did you notice the human agency involved? Jesus, Son of God, could simply have brought Lazarus out of the tomb, alive and well, But, first he asks the bystanders to remove the stone from the tomb. And then, having restored Lazarus to life, he instructs the bystanders to unbind him, to remove the shrouds which confine him, so that Lazarus can be totally freed and returned to the community. But Lazarus also is changed, and has a new mission.

God, the sovereign God, chooses to use humans to assist in the work of restoring life, to dry bones, to dead bodies. Humans cannot do this alone, God chooses to not act alone. There’s an old saying that captures that cooperation between God and humans; “Without God, we cannot; without us, God will not.”

I think it’s fairly obvious where I am going with this look at those two biblical stories, of the valley of dry bones, of Lazarus.

We will get through this present crisis that is so seriously hurting our world, our country, our communities, and yes, our church. It will take prayer, and God’s help, but it will also need our effort. The present Pope, Pope Francis once talked about how prayer works, and I’m going to paraphrase what he said and translate it to our present situation – You pray that God will end this pandemic, minimize the harm, and restore our world, our communities, and our churches back to normal, as soon as possible. And then you, we, do anything and everything that makes it more possible and likely for that to happen; that’s how prayer works!

I’m not going to lecture you on your tasks and duties in this crisis, there are enough qualified people doing that and you already know. But I will say that we all need to be involved – to lean in, as the saying goes – this is not a task only for governments, and health care workers, store clerks and sanitation workers, and in the church, bishops and clergy. Everyone has a part to play, everyone is important. For us as church people, prayer is important, so don’t neglect prayer. But don’t be too busy asking God what you want God to do, take time to listen for what God, and your community, is asking of you!

Let me leave you with one more biblical image. Several centuries before Jesus, Ecclesiastes, the Preacher, wrote,

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone. And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.(Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)

We will get through this, together! And we will be changed by this, together! If we work with God, God will work with us, and in the end our church will be stronger than before.

Finally a prayer; I don’t know its source, it was given to me by June on Valentine’s Day. I’ve only changed it slightly, to make it a prayer for all of us:

May all our needs attract the attention of God and may we continue to attract his favour, his mercy, and his protection.
      May the grace of God overflow into our lives;
            May our mornings be good,
                  Our afternoons be better,
                        Our evenings be glorious
                              And our nights be peaceful.
      May the light of God shine upon us; may God open the heavens to water our lives and keep us evergreen and flourishing.

Copyight ©2020 by Gerry Mueller