Lent 5 A 2020
Today I am speaking to you from an empty church- this feels very like a tomb to me. A month ago we were a bit worried but we couldn’t anticipate a world where we wouldn’t be at church on Easter Sunday. I had everything planned for services, Judy has been painting the Pascal Candle, we were organising palm crosses. You probably knew who was coming, or where you were going, the cooks had started thinking, at least in my case, of roast lamb. Simnel cakes were made, but not eaten by those they were made for, Easter eggs anticipated and now nothing is the same. And it’s not just Easter, is it? People we know have lost jobs. Children we know are at home instead of at school, our superannuation has taken a hit. Our trips have been cancelled. We can no longer count on hugging the people that we love and our lives have been turned upside down.
As we go through this time of uncertainty we experience fear- some of us are frightened of death, I suspect not so much for ourselves but for others we love. And the isolation, for some, feels like death. It certainly feels as if everything has changed, and indeed it has- we are in contact through the internet instead in the flesh and we have no way of knowing for how long we have to endure this.
It has, of course, happened before. There was the Spanish Flu, and before that the Bubonic Plague both of which stopped things in their tracks. And there have always been wars and upsets of other kinds that meant that humans could no longer count on things that they thought were certain.
The incredible vision of the prophet Ezekiel is written into just such a time. The Israelites had been dragged off into the Babylonian Exile. The immediate context of the vision that we read today is that the Lord has promised that where there has been desolation, it will be like the garden of Eden. Then Ezekiel sees all the bones of the dead Israelites, dry and dusty, coming back to life. It is a fantastic picture in every sense of the word. It is a metaphor for what God can do for the people of Israel, and indeed what God can do for us. And the bones live when the Spirit is blown into them. It is God’s breath that gives regeneration just as it was God’s breath that animated Adam.
For Ezekiel the question is: can life come back into our nation? And the answer to that is: YES! God says, look at me breathing my life back into your bones. The next question is: Can we be the same as we were before? And the answer to that is: yes and no.
When the man Lazarus became ill, his sisters wanted Jesus to come, so that he could heal him, restore him to his normal state. And Jesus delays, intentionally. He tells his disciples that the illness will not lead to death but for God’s glory, even though he knows that Lazarus is already dead. Mary and Martha didn’t hear that, thank goodness, because of course, Lazarus dies, and when Jesus gets there he has already been in the tomb four days. He is well and truly dead. As I approach the anniversary of Stephen’s illness and death this story resonates with me, as it would with many people who have loved ones hanging between life and death at this moment, all around the world. You desperately want the intervention that gives you hope of healing and recovery. Mary and Martha had lost that hope. They were both sure that had Jesus come he could have done something, but now there is nothing to be done. Jesus comes to the tomb and weeps. Does he grieve for his friend? Undoubtedly. Does he anticipate his own death? Quite possibly, but I believe that his grief was for the whole of humanity, for loss and separation. Most particularly, separation. Jesus weeps for the relationship that has been severed, between friends and family, and of course, that is what I weep for as well, as do all of us. We believe in the Trinity, God in three persons, and that Trinity moves in its constant dance of relationship holding the world and all the universe in being. In the Gospel of John, that is the great promise, that relationship with God is possible, we can abide in God and God abide in us.
Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb by name. Just as he has invited the disciples to come and see, and the woman at the well, the man born blind and so many others, he calls Lazarus into a new relationship with him. Jesus gives life, and not only life but life abundant. In the next scene there is Lazarus leaning against Jesus at the table. As we read in the 23rd Psalm last week, “My table he has furnished in presence of my foes.” This is the generosity of God, the abundance of God, that we can have a life in God of relationship, symbolised by a banquet.
This story, of Mary and Martha, Lazarus and Jesus, prefigures Jesus own death and resurrection. Jesus is killed as a result of this action, in John’s account. The people around him choose death but in God’s power that death turns to life again. But that isn’t the end of the story for humanity. In John’s gospel the culmination is the ascension, God going back to be with God. The ascension only comes after the disciples receive the breath of God, the Holy Spirit. They are given life in that moment. This then leads to us, the body of Christ here on earth. Together, in St Dunstan’s and dispersed from St Dunstan’s.
Jesus, after his resurrection is not quite the same as he was before his death. He has been changed by the experience. And so will we be, when we recover from this pandemic. We as individuals will certainly be different having lived in the wilderness of physical isolation. Our society, particularly our economy but other aspects as well, will also be changed, and one would hope it might be for the better. And the church, will it be the same? St Dunstan’s? I think that it is very unlikely to be quite the same as it was. One thing that will be different is that our relationships will have changed. At this time we have the opportunity to go much deeper with each other. Alternatively, we might lose touch. Our prayer lives, and our connection to God, may also grow so much deeper, or indeed there we may lose touch as well. The thing that is certain is that Jesus calls us to life, to life in abundance, to life in relationship with God and with each other. And it is a life of generosity and grace. Jesus uses the death of Lazarus to show the Glory of God. We, who are his body here on earth can use this Covid 19 pandemic to reveal the Glory of God to those around us.
We can choose to have life and have it abundantly in the midst of isolation and fear and death. Jesus says, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ As we look back from some point in the future my prayer will be that we will see the glory of God.
Rev. Roberta Hamilton