Passion Sunday Sermon 2017

Texts:

Ezekiel 37:1-14

John 11:1-45

May I speak and may we listen, in the name of God who is Father Son and Holy Spirit.

Amen.

 

‘Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.’

We gathered here today, have heard those words from Ezekiel and perhaps we struggle to really make sense of them. They are words for another time and another place – they are not, perhaps words for us.

We are not in a valley of dry bones this Evening, nor are we the prophet Ezekiel being told to prophesy to the dead, nor are we stood weeping at the grave of Lazarus, shouting at Jesus in our anger saying to him as the women in John’s Gospel were: “Lord if you had been here….this wouldn’t have happened!”

Both our readings for this Sunday, are readings of desolation – readings of despair – readings of people longing for a reason to hope again. People who are longing, if you like for spring.

Ezekiel, this mysterious and dark prophet from Jerusalem spends his time mostly in Babylon we don’t know much about his personal life, he comes from a priestly family, and ends up deported to Babylon where at the end of his ministry he eventually dies.

God makes much use of him – sends him messages, particularly in visions like the one we heard today.

Make no mistake, the people to whom Ezekiel is prophesying are not in the situation that we are in today. They are a people who have been in Exile long enough to have given up their hope of returning to their land. These are people who have if you like, been away from home long enough, to have forgotten what home even looks like. They feel as though God’s presence has left them, that they are virtually dead, they feel cut off from God, abandoned and their hope of restoration is destroyed.

And Ezekiel is taken by the power of the spirit on a tour of this valley of bones – and not just any bones, but the bones of the exiled. Bones which have been lying there so long that they have come to absolutely nothing but sundried remains.

That valley, is an image of complete desolation – and perhaps you have been there, in your own lives…to that

image of death

an image of a wasteland

an image of total abandon.

And the prophet has to stand there and look upon that image, as he is asked by God that powerful question: ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’

And if we were there in that Valley and God asked us that question – we would probably say:

Lord, what do you mean can they live – they are bones, and dust – of course not?

And Ezekiel, who has seen his fair share of warzones give a response which, is so perfect –and so profound because he says:

‘Only you know, O Lord!’

So even in the midst of that valley – face to face with despair and desolation and death – Ezekiel knows who God is. The God who called him, the God who made him, the God who causes all things to live and move and find their being.

And then suddenly, Ezekiel is invited to participate in the heart of the vision, rather than simply observing it from the sidelines. God tells him to get up and do something! To prophesy to the bones….to command them to come back to life.

You know that Ezekiel is a prophet, because he does exactly what God tells him without any of the thought processes that some of us might have – that’s why Prophets always get themselves into trouble, because God tells them to do something and they do it – it makes them unpopular to the rest of the world, because we can’t see God at work in what they’re doing.

But in the midsts of that valley, in all of that despair, in all of that desolation, in all of that God, through Ezekiel, promises to open the graves of the exiles, to reanimate them with his spirit, and to return them to their land.

You see – God’s promise is always to restore us to that place and that time when were most alive, most at peace, the place and time in which we felt the most joy.

So as God promises to be God – in the midst of utter ruin, what God is also promising is to make the people themselves again…..that language of returning to the land is also about being returned to our real selves.

Because as long as you’re in someone elses land you will never have life as you had it at home.

As long as you’re in someone elses land you will feel somewhat dislocated from your memory.

As long as you’re in someone elses land your life and routine is restricted by the norms of that new place – where you are fundamentally, in exile.

So even in the depths of the valley – the lesson for Ezekiel, the lesson for those who died in exile, the lesson for those still living in exile is that even then God is still God.

The message to those in exile is:

God is still your God.

You still have identity,

You still have purpose,

You still have a place in the grand scheme of life.

That’s not a bad lesson to learn as we journey closer to the end of Lent.

Today is of course, Passion Sunday, and before we get to Palm Sunday next Sunday – we see this very long section of John’s Gospel given to us.

 

And in this portion of John’s Gospel – we hear those words, which are familiar to us:

Words which I say at the beginning of every funeral service I have ever taken –

Words which are said in almost every denomination: Those words of Jesus:

“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

You might think those words are said at the beginning of every service because we can’t think of anything else to say – but it’s because as people of faith, in the face of death – we have a kind of theological amnesia, we forget the promises of God – and so at the very beginning before anything else is said or done, the scene is set in the context of the one who has been through death, and who has risen to eternal life.

Death is not easy to understand, and so often in life on the TV and on the Radio it’s made light of.

If you’ve ever had to travel with funeral directors as much as any Minister has, you begin to learn quite quickly that they have a very dark humour around death – and that’s their way of coping day in day out.

Well, in John’s Gospel – there is no funeral director, no undertakers, no-one to lighten the mood. – and as Lazarus has died the people have done the undertaking themselves. Which would have been usual.

Now, Lazarus had been dead for four days – that’s longer than Jesus spends in the tomb. (John trying to make the point that Jesus can even raise the dead, aswell as being raised himself.)

Jesus has been taking his time to come to the family of Lazarus, and now Lazarus’s tomb is beginning to smell….so Lazarus is dead dead…not just a little bit dead. The natural processes of life have begun to take place. Mary and Martha are mad with Jesus because he’s taken so long to come, and when Jesus gets there – when he sees Mary cry, and sees Lazarus’s tomb – ‘Jesus weeps’.

That shortest verse in the Bible. Just two words: ‘Jesus wept’ – showing us just how human and how emotional our Saviour is. Of course, St Paul says to us that we are to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.’

And in that frenzy of grief, and despair and anger and desolation – Jesus cries, and then brings Lazarus back to life.

And John’s Gospel is full of paradox – in the beginning of John’s Gospel we hear about the light in the darkness.

In the resurrection account, we hear that the resurrection occurred while it was still dark.

Today in the Gospel, the decomposing body of Lazarus is causing an awful stench,

And on Maundy Thursday just a chapter later in John’s Gospel – the house where Martha, Mary and Lazarus are is filled with the beautiful scent of perfume as Jesus feet are anointed.

And so in that awful scene of mourning from John’s Gospel what Jesus does is enter into the darkness of that encounter and totally transforms it. And it isn’t just any darkness, or just any despair, or just any desolation.

The darkness and despair of that valley of bones,

Is the same darkness and despair of the friends and family around Lazarus –

It’s the darkness and despair of World War Two,

It’s the darkness and despair of Apartheid,

The darkness of the American Deep South,

It’s the darkness and despair of 9/11 and 7/7

And any other tragedy in human history. The darkness of the cross.

The darkness and despair of what we might feel occasionally in our own lives, or in our walk with God. – And ii those moments, Jesus weeps again!

And why is this important this Sunday of all Sunday’s it is because come next Sunday – we will be there amongst the crowds – singing our hosanna’s and throwing our cloaks on the floor for the ‘King of Kings’ on his donkey, and at the very end of that same week having had our feet washed by him, and having betrayed him – we will be standing at the foot of the cross in despair and grief and silence.

And sometimes we will feel like Ezekiel staring at a valley of bones,

And sometimes we will feel like Mary and Martha weeping at the tomb of a friend,

Angry with Jesus wondering where he is or what is taking him so long –

 

But those words from God to Ezekiel and the words of Jesus Christ to his friends stand true:

Jesus is the resurrection and the life.

Those who believe in him, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in him will never die. The Question that Jesus posed to Martha is a question he poses to us:

‘Do you believe this?’ or as God says to Ezekiel: ‘Mortal, can these bones, live?’
And the words of God in that valley are words of promise to us:

That God can and will do for us, just as he did for Jesus – that we are not just objects who have been redeemed but subjects which are being redeemed, and given the promise of that precious gift of eternity.

‘Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord’.

 

At times – the challenge is for us to see the potential for life in situations which do not seem to have potential.

At times – the challenge is for us to wait on Jesus, like Martha and Mary and Lazarus.

At times – we have to weep with Jesus, at the state of things and allow ourselves to be moved with pity as much as he is in John’s Gospel this evening.

It’s our calling as Christians to find a way to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice, but it’s also our calling to hold onto that precious image of Jesus in whose life, death and resurrection we can find hope – and promise – and comfort.

Not because he is some superhero,

Not because he is a great ruler,

Not because he can raise people from the dead,

But because he is Jesus.

Because he is God.

Because he is our Saviour.

And in the face of a valley full of dry bones, and in the very stench of death – that truth does not change.

“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

Do you believe this?

Amen.

 

 

 

 

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