Sermon delivered on Sunday, Lent 5A, April 6, 2014, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
If you would prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Ezekiel 37.1-14; Psalm 130.1-7; Romans 8.6-11; John 11.1-45.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What are our readings with their theme of resurrection and new creation doing in the Lectionary on this fifth Sunday of Lent and the beginning of Passiontide, with its focus on the passion and death of Jesus? It is this question I want us to look at briefly this morning.
“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord! Lord, hear my voice!” These are the first words of our psalm lesson this morning. How many of you have cried out to God using those words or something similar? I have. I remember the time when I had gotten divorced and learned that I was not going to be tenured at Miami. I thought I had lost almost everything that was important to me and I almost took my own life as a result. I would cry out this lament regularly through my tears during those dark days. I barely hung on but by the grace of God I did. I suspect if we went around the room and you were honest in your response, every one of you could recount times when you too cried out this plea for help. Perhaps some of you are crying out to the Lord right now because you are in great pain. The fact is, we live in a world where we are confronted regularly by all kinds of hurt, sorrow, loss, and suffering. Nobody is immune to it.
Certainly Mary and Martha were not immune to it because John records that Martha essentially cried out the same thing to Jesus when he finally came to her. “Lord, if you’d only been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11.21). If only… How many times have we uttered this phrase as we cry out to the Lord in our pain! Rather curiously, John tells us that Jesus waited for two days before he left for Bethany, even though he loved Lazarus and his sisters, and we are left to wonder why because John only gives us a partial answer later in the story. And we can relate to this bad sense of timing on the Lord’s part (at least from our perspective) because we too are often left to wonder about God’s timing and God’s intentions toward us as we walk in the dark valley. For example, while certainly not a matter of life and death, some of us are wondering when the Lord is going to show us a place we can move to and call our own as St. Augustine’s. We’ve apparently been looking for love in all the wrong places because very little is happening on that front. And so we are tempted to wonder if God hears our cry to find a suitable worship space or worse yet, if God really cares?
We are confronted with this kind of nasty stuff in our lives so that we cry out to God because as Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson, we humans naturally set our minds on the flesh, not the Spirit. But what does that mean? When Paul talks about setting our minds on the flesh, he is not talking about our skin. He means that we focus primarily on things of the world, especially those things that pander to our fallen nature. When we focus on these things, we will inevitably start to behave selfishly or violently or unjustly or in destructive ways because we inevitably become what we worship. To focus on things of the flesh means that we must exclude God from our worldview and thinking because we are focused on ourselves first and foremost. This, of course, means that we are certainly not living as God’s wise and faithful image-bearers to his world and this kind of thinking/acting got us kicked out of paradise and allowed evil a foothold into God’s good creation so that we incurred God’s curse on us and his creation. This state of affairs is known as the human condition and every one of us is so focused on things of the flesh, i.e., so naturally focused on us and our disordered desires, that we cannot possibly heal ourselves because it is literally woven into our DNA. We’ve got inoperable and terminal cancer, so to speak, and without outside help, we are doomed to face a life that is interlaced with both good and bad things beyond our ability to manage, and which will inevitably result in our death. I’m not sure about you, but I don’t find a lot of hope and purpose for living in this scenario. This, of course, is what we focus on during Lent: putting to death the flesh, i.e., all that exists in us that keeps us self-centered and hostile to God (how are you doing with that, BTW?). But at the same time, we have to ask if there is more to life than just this?
And when we get to this point, painful as it is, we are ready to hear the good news that is in the story of Lazarus and that Paul announces to us in our epistle lesson. One of the questions we must always ask when we read the gospels is why a particular story appears in the gospel. The four evangelists didn’t include stories willy-nilly or just because they thought they were cool (even though they are). They included stories like today’s because they help us learn more about Jesus and his work here on earth, work that primarily included announcing the kingdom of God was at hand and then demonstrating this fact with mighty acts of power.
Stories like the raising of Lazarus help us see the very heart of God. We dare not miss seeing, for example, Jesus in tears, perhaps over his friend’s death, but just as likely over his own impending death because he knows he must bear the sins of the world to make possible our own future with God. It is a heart full of love and mercy for his disordered image-bearers, a heart that desires for all people to be saved (healed) so that God became human to announce that he himself was going to do and be for Israel—the people God called originally to help bring his healing love to his sin-sick world—to finally bring that love to the world in ways that Israel simply did not (and apparently could not) do. Whenever we see Jesus healing the sick and casting out demons, we are seeing what happens when the kingdom touches individual lives. And here, in what is the mightiest act of healing in all the gospels, we see Jesus raising the dead and giving us a taste of what the coming new creation will look like, even though technically Jesus only resuscitated Lazarus because Lazarus would die again. But resurrected people in Christ do not die.
When God raises our mortal bodies from the dead, he will have reversed the curse and destroyed the last enemy: death (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.26). God does this because God is faithful to his creation and creatures, especially his image-bearing ones. And let’s be clear about resurrection. We are not talking about some form of disembodied existence. We are talking about newly reconstituted bodies that are Spirit-animated and freed from all that weighs our mortal bodies down as Paul so strikingly explains in our epistle lesson. That’s why it’s called new creation. We won’t have the same old recycled stuff, although our resurrected bodies will be physical in nature. We will have bodies that are fundamentally different from our mortal bodies.
And as Jesus reminds us, resurrection isn’t some technical thing that will happen at the end of time. Resurrection is found only in a relationship with him, i.e., resurrection is relational and personal. And because it is relational and personal, resurrection is not about us as individuals getting a brand new body, it is about the community of believers (or as Fr. Bowser would insist, the family of believers) being raised to carry on their God-given tasks in the new heavens and earth, whatever that looks like. This is what our OT lesson is all about. It isn’t about individual Israelites being raised from the dead at the end of time. It’s about God ending the nation of Israel’s exile so that they can carry on their God-given task of bringing God’s healing love to his hurting world and we must always think of our own resurrection in the same way. We should always read stories like Lazarus with Ezekiel 37.1-14 in the back of our mind.
All well and good, you protest. But Jesus is gone and we are not really sure stories like this are true. After all, when is the last time you’ve seen someone raised from the dead, dude? Caca! retort the evangelists and Paul. You are setting your mind on the flesh again. Stop it! The evangelists would tell us emphatically that we can trust these stories because they are rooted in history, history on their terms and as they knew how to tell it, not ours. This is the basis of our faith, after all. We believe the future promise of resurrection and new creation because we believe in the historical reality of Jesus’ resurrection which was the first-fruits of the resurrection to come (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.20-28). These things really happened, the evangelists would tell us. Are you so hard-hearted in the face of all the evidence that you still refuse to believe?
And Paul reminds us about as clearly as anyone can, that the risen and ascended Jesus is available to us in the power of the Spirit, the same Spirit who will one day raise our mortal bodies and give us eternal life in God’s new creation. But we don’t have to wait till we die to be in Jesus’ presence. We can have it now in the power of the Spirit. All we must do is to set our minds on the Spirit, i.e., believe it’s true and then focus on what that means and how it plays out in our daily lives. While the list of possibilities is virtually endless, at minimum it means that we are being transformed and healed so that our character is more in line with Jesus’ character so that we act more like Jesus over the course of our lives. It sometimes gets messy because we still live in mortal, fallen bodies and our DNA is not going to let us ignore our fallen desires. But when we believe that Jesus really is alive and the Lord of the cosmos, including this world, we are assured that we will win the war, even while we lose some of the battles. We believe this because we know that Jesus is faithful to his people and desires to forgive and heal us (cf. Luke 15.11-32). This is the heart of God as embodied and made known in Jesus. Do you know it?
Here then is real hope and purpose for living. Resurrection signals new creation which signals God’s faithfulness to his creation and creatures. It means this world and its people are important to God and here we find our purpose for living. We are healed and redeemed so that we can embody God’s healing and redeeming love for us in Jesus to those around us. We do this as individuals but we also do this as Jesus’ body, the Church, because as we have seen, God calls us together as his family. Despite our hurts and fears, despite the sorrow and loss we all suffer in our life, we are called to live our lives in the joyful hope and expectation of resurrection and new creation. God has defeated evil and death in the death and resurrection of Jesus. And God gives us his Spirit so that we are able to stay in relationship with God. If your hearts are not set afire at this good news, I have done a lousy job preaching it or you have either not read the stories with understanding or have a hopelessly hard heart.
And this is why it is appropriate for us to talk about resurrection and new creation on this fifth Sunday in Lent. As Christians, our reconstituted DNA is all about resurrection, new creation, and real and eternal life as God created and intends it to be. During these hard days of Lent with their emphasis on confessing sin and repentance, and on self-denial and putting to death all that is hostile to God within us, it is good and right that we pause for a moment in the midst of them to remember the Big Picture of God’s story of redemption that culminated in the death and resurrection of Jesus and which will one day come in full at our Lord’s second coming.
All this leaves us with a challenge and an offer. The challenge is to us as Christ’s body and it is to celebrate and embody our Easter hope to the world. Easter is more than just Resurrection Sunday. It is a season of seven weeks and it is (or should be) the most joyous celebration of the Church. So our challenge as St. Augustine’s is how do we embody our Easter hope to a world that desperately needs to hear it and see it embodied? I issued this same challenge last year and we frankly missed the mark. But we are Spirit-filled people of hope and so I want us all to start thinking and planning how we will live our lives individually and corporately as Easter people. What can we do to proclaim to the world in word and deed that we are resurrection people, that Jesus Christ is alive and well and ruling his world, primarily in and through his healed and redeemed people, and that they too can be resurrection people?
But what if you are one who is hurting badly right now and who is crying out to God in the manner of Psalm 130? By all means, continue to cry out! But don’t get stuck on the first couple of verses. Read the entire psalm and see the hope and promise contained in it. As you do, notice its emphasis on waiting for the Lord. Then go and reread our gospel lesson today and spend some time reflecting on it. Like Psalm 130, pay attention to God’s perfect timing and start to trust it because in doing so, you are killing the flesh and setting your mind on the Spirit, i.e., you are learning to trust God in and through Jesus, not yourself. Then follow Martha’s lead and run off to meet Jesus so that you can bring your problem to him. Ask him your hard questions and be prepared for a surprising response. I cannot tell you what it will be exactly, but I can tell you its nature. In whatever way(s) Jesus responds to you, he will bring some part of God’s future with its good news, hope, and new possibilities into your present situation. But it won’t happen automatically. You must have faith. Remember that faith must be grounded in reality, not wishful thinking and unreality, so do the things you need to help remind you of this. For example, think about all the times God has brought healing to you and others. Ask faith-filled friends to pray for you and support you in tangible ways. Doing these things will remind you of God’s faithfulness in your life. It will also remind you that you ultimately have Good News, now and for all eternity, because Jesus is with you now in the power of the Spirit to help you walk in his light and has guaranteed your future with him by his own precious blood. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.