Good morning, and welcome to our worship today, which is the 5th Sunday in Lent. Wherever you are, whether you are watching this live or not, know that you are in my thoughts and prayers at this unusual time. In the days to come, I will be posting either a prayer, written by me or someone else, on the church’s Facebook page, in addition to the one I write for my own page every day, or a hymn, or a reading from Scripture, or a streamed devotional. So please check back each day.
Our Scripture readings for today are: Ezekiel 37: 1 – 14, Psalm 130, Paul’s Letter to the Romans 8: 6 – 11, and from John’s Gospel 11: 1 – 45.
Again, we will not be reading them all, but I invite you to take some time later today to read each one. The reading from Ezekiel is set in the valley of dry bones, where the Lord told Ezekiel to prophesy to the dry bones, and they were brought back to life. This pericope led to the Gospel song Dry Bones, which is still sung today in many evangelical churches. Our psalm is one of lament, as the psalmist cries out to God to hear his voice. I am sure that these days, there are many people crying out to God, and today we will join our voices to theirs. Paul reminds the church in Rome – and us – that we dwell in the Spirit, and that this is where we are to set our minds. Let us remember this at this time, even though so many of us are presently focused on our bodies. And our Gospel reading tells the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. If you remember, it seemed at the beginning, that Jesus had not paid enough attention to the summons from Mary and Martha, who had called him when their brother was taken ill. And by the time he arrived, Lazarus was already buried. The sisters reproved him, but Martha had faith that Jesus could still do something. Which, of course he did. And Jesus can do whatever we ask of him, too.
In normal times, we come to worship with our hearts full of joy. We bring our pitchers to be filled with the living water which Jesus can give us. Today, we come differently. We gather without gathering. We come together while staying apart observing compassionate isolation. We share our hearts without sharing our physical selves. Come, all of you, lay down your burdens, for here you will be welcomed. Here you will find rest.
Let us pray.
Lord, during this time of pandemic, we often find it hard to hope. And yet as we look outside the window, we see it brimming out of the trees getting ready to bud. We see it in the melting snow running in rivulets down the hills. We see it in the children who still go outside to play, being careful not to touch things they shouldn’t. We hear it in birdsong, as the birds are starting to return from their winter sojourns. We hear it in the laughter of children, whose joy cannot be contained. We hear it in music on the radio, on YouTube, and in myriad other places, sometimes when we least expect it. We smell it in the scent of spring, that peculiar smell that we cannot define, but that we recognize as soon as we smell it. We smell it in baking bread, speaking to us of the bread of life, and promising nourishment for the body and soul. We smell it in disinfectants, which are everywhere now, reminding us of the difference between clean and unclean. So, let us come to you in hope. Hope for the future, for a time when this will be just a distant memory. God of our lonely places and hard times, there is no place so dark that your presence cannot bring light. There are no situations beyond your grace. Yet we confess we sometimes lose track of you, when sorrows stack up or loneliness surrounds us. Forgive us our hopelessness. Stay with us as we go through the valley of dry bones knowing that you can bring them to life. Bring life where there is death, healing whether there is pain, and courage where there is fear.
Let us come to you in faith
Faith that you will not fail us
That you will walk with us
On this journey none of us would have chosen
And as we begin our worship today
I light a candle
And I turn to you
As I always do
As I did last week, I have posted links for today’s hymns so that you can listen to them or sing along with them. It is my hope that music will help you find an oasis during a week of bombardment with news from the world which seems to be filled with COVID-19.
Our focus text for this morning is taken from John’s Gospel. It is a lengthy reading, and I miss having someone else to read it for me as I normally do on Sunday. However, I will read it as she would have, and I invite you to listen carefully, even if you think you are already familiar with the story. John 11: 1 – 45
Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”
When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”
“But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?”
Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”
After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”
His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.
So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.
When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.
“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”
Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
Therefore, many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable to you this day, our Rock and our Redeemer. Members of my congregation will remember that I have a certain amount of difficulty preaching from John’s Gospel. And hearing today’s reading will probably explain some of my issues. Many of the things Jesus says just don’t seem to make sense. For that matter, many of the things that happen also don’t seem to make sense. For instance, why did the writer of this Gospel feel that it was necessary to identify Lazarus’ sister Mary as the same one who had poured perfume on Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair? Other Gospels seem to disagree with this. Matthew does not give the woman a name at all – something which is quite common in Scripture, not to name the woman – but just says that she came to Simon the leper’s home and anointed his feet with nard. Mark’s Gospel tells the same story, but with considerably fewer words than Matthew. Luke sets this in the home of a Pharisee, who I suppose could have been Simon the leper, but in his account, it is a sinful woman who does the anointing. Again, the woman is not named. Earlier in John’s Gospel – chapter 12, to be exact – we are told about the anointing, which, according to this writer, took place at the home of Lazarus, and it was Lazarus’ sister Mary who did the anointing.
Of course, we know that the writers of Matthew’s, Mark’s, and Luke’s Gospel all used the same source – one whom Biblical scholars refer to as “Q”, while the writer of John’s Gospel didn’t. However, it seems odd that there would have been two anointings, which is what we must accept if all of the stories are correct.
So here is the first lesson for today. Just because something is not factually correct does not mean that it is not true. We have to accept that a woman – whether it was Mary of Bethany or some other, unnamed woman – did wash Jesus’ feet with her tears, and anoint them with nard, and dry them with her tears. The point of the story, of course, is to prepare us to accept the fact that Jesus will soon die, and that he will then be anointed for his burial.
Then we read: “So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.” Now, I don’t know about you, but when I hear that a dear friend is sick, to the point that his family is asking me to come, I would drop everything that I was doing to be with him. But then, I am not Jesus, and, as we learn a little later, he had his reasons for delaying the trip to Bethany.
His followers, as we read, thought that this was not a great thing to do. They reminded him that the last time he had been in Judea, people there tried to stone him, and they suggested that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to return. They went so far as to ask him why he would go back. I can see their faces, and hear their unspoken thoughts. They were no doubt wondering what on earth was the matter with Jesus, and why he would want to place himself – and probably them too, in danger. Now, Jesus’ answer puzzled me greatly. He replied, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”
Does it seem to you that he answered their question? No, I didn’t think so. He kind of rambled around, using words that made sense in another context. But in this one – not at all. However, that was his answer, and he didn’t explain it. He just left it there. His next sentence must have made them even more confused, for he said, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”
Now, as we know, sleep is considered to be nature’s healer, and Jesus’ followers were at first relieved, but then Jesus contradicted himself and said, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
And here comes another unusual thing. Thomas – yes, that same Thomas who was to doubt the resurrection in just a few short weeks – took a leadership role, and said to the others, “Let us go also, that we may die with him.” You see, the disciples were convinced that Jesus was to die in Jerusalem, and, as we know, they were not wrong. But for Thomas to say that he was ready to die WITH Jesus – well, that was a first. And even more unusual – they all followed him. Peter, the blunderer, James and John, the sons of Thunder, Judas the soon-to-be betrayer, and the rest of them. They all followed Jesus to Bethany.
Of course, when he got there, the first thing that happened was that Martha reproached him. But even while she did so, she petitioned him to return her brother to life. Again, it seems that Jesus speaks in riddles when he says, calmly, “Your brother will rise again.” Now, this is not what Martha wanted to hear. She said something like, “Yes, yes, I know that. He will rise at the last day. But that’s not what I want.”
She is not unlike the little boy who was afraid of the dark in his bedroom and wanted his mother to stay with him. His mother comforted him by saying, “Don’t be afraid. Jesus is with you.” The little boy replied, “Yes, I know, but I want someone with a body.”
Just so did Martha want someone with a body. Just so did she want her brother back NOW; she did not want to wait until the last day to be reunited with him. So the two of them had what must be one of the strangest conversations in Scripture. Just listen again: Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
This whole pericope has been a series of disconnected conversations, in which people ask questions and get answers that seem to have nothing at all with the original questions. And that is one of the things about John’s Gospel. It makes us think. It makes us see things differently from the way we have always seen them.
Now, I don’t know about you, but when I read this Gospel, I was struck by how appropriate it is for us right now. I am preaching to you from my home. We are not permitted to be together. In a sense, we are all like Lazarus in the tomb, isolated from each other. In another sense, we are all like Martha and Mary, who were grieving the death of their beloved brother. We are grieving the loss of companions. We are grieving the huge number of deaths that have already happened, and dreading the ones to come. Like Martha, we do not want to wait until the end the end of the world to be reunited with our loved ones. And I have to tell you that I never thought about Lazarus as being quarantined until this past week. And now – well now, I kind of am thinking about him that way. He was in the tomb and he could not get out. Just so are many people here in the province of Québec in their homes and unable to leave them. Just so are many of our seniors in their residences, some even confined to their rooms, and unable to leave them. We are separated from each other, just as Lazarus and his sisters were separated from each other.
And when they took Jesus to the tomb, we read the shortest and, to me, the most moving, verse in scripture. Jesus wept. He wept because his friend was dead. He wept because he was fully human, with all of the emotions we experience. He wept because he loved Lazarus. Even knowing what he was about to do, Jesus wept. Even knowing that Lazarus was about to come back, Jesus wept.
The people who saw him weep had different emotions. Some of them saw how much Jesus had loved his friend. Others nasty, making comments like, “Well, if he REALLY loved Lazarus, he would have gotten here in time to keep him from dying.” Doesn’t it strike you as odd that these people, who were actively plotting against Jesus still acknowledged the power he had? Doesn’t it strike you as strange that these people, who wanted to get rid of Jesus still admitted that he could heal the sick?
Now we come to a rather messy verse, for when Jesus tells them to roll away the stone from the tomb, Martha objects, saying that, since her brother has been there for four days, there would already be a bad odor. Other translations are much blunter. The new King James version reads, “Lord, there is already a stench because he has been dead for four days.” And the King James version we are more familiar with says, “Lord, by this time he stinketh, for he hath been dead four days.”
This past winter, when we lost electricity, we also lost a deep freeze that was full of meat. It took us a while to realize this, because we didn’t use that one a whole lot. By the time we found it, it was too late to save anything. And I learned firsthand about the stench of rotting meat. So I can imagine the people standing around, with their hands or robes covering their mouths and noses; some of them probably already gagging at the thought of what they were about to see. Remember, this was in the days before embalming, and it was likely quite warm in the area.
The stone was rolled back, and Jesus prayed, saying “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” He prayed for the benefit of the people standing around, not because it was necessary. He knew what his father was going to do, and so he
called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” Then we are told that the dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
Our reading ended with the words: Therefore, many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
But if we had read just a little further, this is what we would have read: But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. And this is where, if we were writing a screenplay to make a movie of this, we would cue music of an ominous nature. This is where we would realize that the raising of Lazarus from the dead set into motion the events that would ultimately lead to Jesus’ own crucifixion and death. But that did not stop Jesus from doing what he did, even though he knew what would eventually happen. That did not stop Jesus from doing what he did, even though he knew that some people would even use this against him.
And nothing will stop Jesus from helping us at this unusual time, this time when we cannot even gather together in person, this time when people who cannot meet virtually are not meeting at all. Jesus knows how to handle this situation, just as he knows how to handle any situation. He has gotten us through difficult times before, and he will get us through this time now. So I invite you to place your trust in him; to turn to him, knowing that he is more than able; to put your hand in his, stepping forth into the future together, a future filled with new life. Thanks be to God.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
Let us gather our thoughts together as we bring to God the prayers of the people. Let us pray. Let us begin with thanks this day, O Lord. We thank you that our Gospel story reminds us of your mighty power, of the fact that you are the master of life and death, of the record of your love which helps us to trust you and lean on you. Thank you for the Spirit who blew over the earth at the very beginning, whose breath then blew over the valley of dry bones, and later appeared as tongues of flames over the heads of your followers. Thank you for your son, our saviour, Jesus Christ, whose touch healed the lame and gave sight to the blind, whose word raised Lazarus from the dead, and whose death brought us salvation. Thank you for those we love, for family and friends, and thank you also for your other creatures who are also included in our circle of love. Thank you for all your gifts to us, even for those we often do not notice until we no longer have them.
This day we pray for all those afflicted by COVID-19. We pray for those who are still in self-quarantine after returning home from a vacation to something they never expected. May their time in isolation pass quickly and may they return soon to a new normal. We pray for those who are working on the front lines, as nurses, doctors, and technicians. Grant them the energy they need at this time, and keep them well. We pray for those people who are cleaning and disinfecting public places such as hospitals and supermarkets and other places deemed essential. May we come to a true appreciation of their work now and in the future. We pray for cashiers who are constantly out in the public and interacting with other people. May they be kept safe and healthy and may we thank them for their work. We pray for those who are stocking shelves and greeting us at the supermarkets with a squirt of hand sanitizer. May we greet them with a smile and a word of thanks. We pray for those people living in residences who are now even more isolated than before. May we make the effort to stay in touch with them through telephones or the internet. We pray especially for Frances Kelly, who has recently exhibited symptoms of COVID-19. Grant her peace at this time and pour your healing grace upon her and the other residents who are also exhibiting symptoms. Lord, you whose Spirit gave breath to the valley of dry bones, give ear to our prayer today. As this time I will hold silence for a space of time so that you may lift up to God those people or situations you know of who especially need God in their lives this day. (Silence) We ask all of this and we give thanks for all of this in the name of your most precious son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
Let us remember that this day, and every day, we are called by Jesus. Listen now to his call.
Come out! Jesus commands, and calls us from the tombs of our existence into the brightness of a new day.
Come out! Jesus cries, and unbinds us from the chains of our past.
Come out! Jesus calls, and entices us into a world filled with grace and possibility.
Go out! Into a world that needs our life, our breath, our spirit!
Go out! Into a world that needs the Spirit of God, carried on our lips and in our loving arms.
Go out! Into the world to live as God’s resurrected people!
Go out: and go on the breath of God’s holy wind!
And as you go, may the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face to shine upon you. May the Lord turn his countenance towards you and grant you peace.