Sunday, April 6, 2014

Fifth in Lent

 (A) Ezekiel 37: 1-14, Romans 8: 6-11, John 11: 1-45

Grace and peace this spring morning, Fifth Sunday in Lent, and certainly as we hear in the readings this morning we are drawing near Jerusalem now and the great drama of Holy Week and Good Friday and then the Sunday morning after Good Friday.  All coming into view on the road ahead.  Something of an advanced warning system.  Notice the fasten seat belts sign:  flying into some turbulence.

The Old Testament and Gospel lessons are both part of the grand procession of readings in the new Prayer Book Easter Vigil service, which is structured like a service of Lessons and Carols for Holy Week and Easter.  As we read Ezekiel 37 we recall the long and horrific siege of Jerusalem, the whole world crashing down around them, in 587 b.c.  The inevitable judgment on unrepentant generations: a  long era of corrupt and faithless kings, religious leaders who turned away from the faith of their ancestors.  A people more concerned with self-interest than with loyal obedience to the God of their Fathers. 

And now this.  The city surrounded by the massive enemy army.  Starvation in the streets as supplies of food are cut off.  Fear, disease, death everywhere.  Beyond the city walls the whole valley a kind of bone-yard, as every effort to send troops out to break the siege ends in disaster and defeat.  Fathers, husbands, sons, and often impossible even to retrieve their bodies for burial.  And then the final attack, the Holy City ransacked and put to the torch, the Palace and the Temple pillaged, the few survivors among the poor flee to the countryside.  Those surviving among the working and ruling classes are bound in chains and carried off into humiliation and exile--to be settled eventually in slums and refugee work camps stretching from Egypt to Iraq, their lands and possessions divided as a war-bonus among the soldiers of the victorious Babylonian army.  The promise and Covenant of Abraham all but forgotten.  The pledge to David if anything an ironic joke.

 And then.  And then.  As Jeremiah the Prophet had prophesied,  70 years and two long struggling generations later the words of this new prophet Ezekiel ring out in the darkness: the Lord has spoken; open your ears, Israel: the promise is renewed.  Not because we’ve somehow earned it, through our suffering or our piety.  Not because we remembered him,  but because he remembered us.  

As the Spirit of God first breathed life into Adam, so his breath now renews, revives, restores his people.  Forgiveness, mercy, gracious gift.  What seemed beyond hope, a nation dead and buried and swept out into the dustbin of history, alive again.  The steadfast love the Lord never ceases.  His mercies never come to an end.  They are new every morning.  Great is thy faithfulness.

And of course as we’ve heard John 11, the last and greatest of the Wondrous Signs in John’s Gospel.  Lazarus.  Dead and buried four days.  And then the command, that the stone be rolled away.  “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

All pretty amazing, wonderful, mind-boggling.  Again, speaking to us, shaping our hearts and minds, our memories and our imaginations, as we approach the story at the heart of the story, Friday afternoon and Sunday morning.  Still, hard to get our mind around all this.  What it all means.  Someone says, “Did you hear the news.  Jesus of Nazareth.  He was executed.  He died on the Cross on Friday.  But then on Sunday his tomb was empty, and he wasn’t dead anymore.  He was alive.”  

And perhaps the reply: “wow.  That’s amazing.  Boy, was he lucky.  Everybody I’ve ever known, everybody I’ve ever heard of, once they were dead they  stayed dead.  That Jesus story is really one for the books, no doubt about it.”

Which is why this snippet from Romans 8 is important for us to hear this morning, and critically important as we will turn the corner next Sunday at Palm Sunday to the drama of Holy Week.   This Letter to the Romans sometimes called the Gospel according to St. Paul, and the whole 8th chapter the heart of that Good News.  Turning away from this notion that we can base our hope on anything other than the faithfulness of God, who saves us before we know we need to be saved, who frees us from the grave while we’re still under the illusion that we are alive. 

Why these stories are important, Ezekiel’s vision, Lazarus’s return, Easter morning.  Not because they are about amazing and wonderful things that happened to people long ago and far away.  But because they are about what happened then and what keeps happening.  Because what was true for them continues to be true for us.  Again this morning, Romans 8, verses 10 and 11, as we would hear these words echo all the way down: “If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.  If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

Life in Christ.

From a hundred camps and slums, the Word of the Lord spoken by the Prophet, the Spirit of the Lord, breathed new life into a people as good as dead.  And God opened a way for their return.  And the City was rebuilt.  The Temple again restored and filled with the praises of his people.  And on that evening at the dinner table Mary and Martha and their friends from Galilee were not in tears and sorrow for the one they had lost.  Their brother was with them again.  Amazement and joy, and to think about tomorrow.  And certainly the question: what should the rest of our lives be like, now that we’ve seen this?   Questions that we ask in Holy Week and Easter.  Same old world around us, but we’ve already turned the page.  “The strife is o’er, the battle done, the victory of life is won; the song of triumph has begun.”

A little later in Romans 8, at verse 28, Paul says, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.  For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren.  And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

It takes more than a Sunday morning sermon to unpack all that dense language.  And I won’t even begin to try, except to say that it is the best news of all.  The flower of Easter that grows out of the soil of Holy Week and is the blessing of our lives.  

All about grace and peace, forgiveness and mercy.  While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.  About what we can know to be entirely and absolutely true about the faithfulness of God, which is the foundation of his holiness, his divine character, and how that faithfulness then can make possible the renewal and transformation of our lives.  How it makes a difference when we wake up in the morning.  As we open our lives to his Word, as we manage and discipline our own bodies, as we apply our intellect, as we use our hands to work, as we live in relationship to others, our families, our friends, our communities, all the wide world.  Daily application, transformation, renewal.  As we show forth his praise not only with our lips but in our lives.

Paul continues at verse 38 of the 8th chapter, and I’ll just leave it to him this morning, as we will go deeper next Sunday in the Passion Gospel of Matthew and the whole week ahead after that, deeper and deeper-- the center and highlight of the Church Year.  The story we tell over and over, because this old story is our story.  Romans 8:38:  “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all reaction will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

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