Fifth Sunday in Lent
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you
from the one who goes through death into life. Amen
This lent we are telling stories of faith,
we’ve heard from congregation members
about their own stories
and from our weekly readings,
we’ve considered how stories shape our identity,
our understanding of what is necessary,
and how we interpret the unexpected.
This week, our readings ask us to reflect
on how we tell the story of death.
This is a crucial story to tell,
because how we tell the story of death
directly impacts how we live our lives.
Lately, in our society,
we have chosen to avoid telling this story
and that has had an impact on how we view life,
part of it is that through advancements in medicine
and the continued separation of people
from the production of their food
death is less of a daily reality than it once was,
we can go long periods in our lives
before directing experiencing death.
I was in my early twenties
and on my rotation of clinical pastoral education in a hospital
before I came into close contact with someone who had died,
with a dead body,
going in I realized that I needed the experience
and that I would probably get it,
but I was also afraid.
Death scared me,
on many levels,
some of which still admittedly exist,
but what was most scary was the unknown.
I knew on an intellectual level that death was part of life,
but I hadn’t experienced that reality in the flesh
and I didn’t know how I would react.
It’s the unknown that lies at the root of many human fears,
fears that turn into anxiety or anger
or other emotions that tend to separate us from our neighbors
rather than bring us closer together
and there is no greater unknown than death.
Now the way we usually tell that story, as humans,
is as a cautionary story,
death is something to be avoided
as long as possible because it is The End,
as far as we know it
and even if it isn’t The End
as many world religions suggest
we don’t know exactly what that looks like,
and so we hesitate to talk of it
because no matter how we tell the story
we just don’t know
and we are frightened.
Which is why we need so desperately
to listen to the story God tells about death
because this story is very different from the human story
and we have two such readings appointed for today.
In the first, the prophet Ezekiel is speaking with God,
the spirit of the Lord takes Ezekiel and places him in the midst of a valley strewn with bones,
there’s a lot of them and they are dry,
they’ve been there for awhile,
and God asks “Mortal, can these bones live?”
which seems like a trick question,
these bones are very dead,
but since it’s God who is asking the question
the prophet chooses the wise response
“O Lord God, you know”
and God instructs the prophet to prophesy to the bones
to say “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord”
and at the word of the Lord,
the bones come together
and bodies become covered in flesh,
but they are not alive until the prophet prophesies to the breath,
to the spirit of God
and then these bodies become living beings.
Then God explains the vision to Ezekiel,
the dry bones are the people to whom Ezekiel is sent to speak,
they are exiles in a foreign country
who witnessed their city destroyed
and their civilization stamped out,
it seems like THE END
from which there is no coming back,
and yet God says no “O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live”
this is not THE END God tells them.
Now we might wonder why God,
who has the power to breathe spirit into dry bones
would allow the bones to become dry at all,
just as we wonder why,
Jesus in our second story,
when he hears that his friend Lazarus is sick,
waits two days before going to him.
Martha and Mary both voice this wonderment
when they say to Jesus
‘Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died.’
Yes we say, wouldn’t it make more sense to just prevent Lazarus’ death?
And we think this way
because we’re still telling the story of death from the human perspective,
where the best thing to do is to avoid it in the first place.
But the way God tells the story,
death is not something to avoid,
death is something to go through.
As commentator Melinda Quivik notes in her commentary on working preacher this week (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4411)
“Jesus does not do the easy thing (keep bad things from happening),
Jesus does the hard thing, which is to reverse destruction.”
The easy thing is to keep bad things from happening,
the hard thing is to reverse destruction,
and Jesus has chosen the hard path.
Now, if we can set the question of why aside,
this is the choice I’d rather God make
because the reality of the world that we live in
is that no matter how hard we may try to avoid it,
and rather than a god who could have chosen to avoid it,
we have a God who weeps with us,
and then through God’s own power,
brings about new life.
Did you notice that in the story of Lazarus?
That the bystanders were just that, bystanders
Jesus goes to the tomb and sees the weeping of the mourners
and he weeps with them,
then he orders the stone in front of the tomb to be removed.
Martha ever the practical one protests
“Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days”
or as the King James Version puts it “Lord, he stinketh”
but Jesus insists,
the stone is rolled away,
Jesus publicly thanks his Father for hearing him,
and then he commands Lazarus to come out.
And he does,
still wrapped in the grave clothes,
and Jesus commands the crowd “unbind him and let him go”
And those who witness this
believe in Jesus.
Belief comes after witnessing the power of God,
power that does not depend on prior belief or petition from humans,
God takes action because that is who God is,
confronting the stench of destruction
brings about new life.
But I want us to notice one last thing about this story,
Jesus’ last command to the crowd,
“unbind him and let him go”
Jesus has faced the stench and reversed destruction,
but he leaves it up to those gathered witnesses
who now believe in him,
to clean it up.
In order for Lazarus’ new life to be fully lived,
those around him must also face the stench of destruction,
peel away the layers of soiled cloth
to free the man beneath.
Even as God goes through death to reverse destruction,
God expects us to follow that path as well,
there is no other way to get to the new life on the other side
than through death.
And that’s hard for us who tell the story of avoidance
We’d much rather prevent the stink in the first place,
and on our own, that’s a good strategy,
that’s why we’re staying apart from each other right now,
to avoid sickness and death,
and sure there is some fear involved in that
but also love and common sense.
But if that is the only story well tell of death and adversity
we end up missing out on the new life God creates
when we are faced with death and destruction,
new life that must be reached by going through, not around.
And that’s the difference listening to how God tells the story of death makes
The promise and experience of new life on the other side of death
allows us to face the unknown with hope
and when we have hope
we are released enough from our fear to look for opportunity,
opportunities to face the stench,
to unbind and let free the Lazarus’s of the world,
and in this way we too are unbound and set free.
Set free to move through death
To new life in God. Amen
Pastor Emily Johnson preaches weekly at Christ Lutheran. These are manuscripts of her sermons given at Christ Lutheran. Feel free to engage with them in the comments section of the blog.