The Fifth Sunday in Lent
6 April 2014
O Almighty God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men: Grant unto thy people that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Last Sunday we celebrated Rose Sunday, Laetare, that Sunday in the middle of Lent when we take a little pause from our seasonal austerity and allow ourselves some refreshment. We heard more elaborate music, wore rose coloured vestments and had beautiful roses on the altar, and we ate delicious simnel cakes. Today we return to our normal lenten practices, and yet, in many ways, what we celebrate today, the scripture we read today, is more joyous than anything we have heard in weeks. Today, two weeks early, we get a little taste of Easter. We get a glimpse of the victory of love and the power of God to triumph in the face of pain, suffering, and death. We are given powerful reminders that, as I put it to a friend recently, “love beats death every time.”
In the midst of Lent we hear two stories that give us hope in the power of the God whom we identify with pure, unbounded, generous, abundant love; that give us hope that death—the death that will inevitably come at the end of our mortal life and the little deaths we experience in the course of our lives—will not have the last word. In one passage we celebrate the resurrection of a community, the resurrection of a people. In the other we witness the resurrection of a man. In both cases resurrection is born out of love, God’s abundant love for creation, and God’s unwavering purpose that all will be reconciled in all.
The passage we know as the Valley of Dry Bones, that we will hear again at the Great Vigil of Easter as we sit in darkness and await the proclamation of the Resurrection, is both macabre and beautiful in its literal description of dead bones, the material of the dust about which I spoke on Ash Wednesday, coming to life. “There was a noise, and behold, a rattling and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And as I looked, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them.” We are told, however, that the reforming of our fleshy bodies is not enough to make life and so God calls upon the “breath,” which is nothing other than the Holy Spirit, the very breath of life that enlivens every one of us, and commands, “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain that they may live.” In this very literal fashion Ezekiel describes God's power to bring life from death, bring life to Israel, God’s nation and people that was dead, but will now live again.
God has the power to restore our communities and our people, to breathe life into us even in the face of enormous pain, suffering, and dislocation. Ezekiel, writing in Babylon for both the Jews in exile and those remaining in Judah, addresses a moment of great despair and points towards a day and a time when God will make something new out of this seeming chaos and restore Israel to freedom and new life. It is a vision of both literal and figurative resurrection that in either case points to the power of faith, which is nothing less, nothing more, than trust in the power of Love to make a difference, to change the world.
It is, in fact, the power of Love that is most apparent in the wonderfully detailed account in John’s Gospel of the raising of Lazarus. In this story we have one of the most intimate descriptions of Jesus’ own interpersonal relationships. In this passage we have a glimpse into Jesus’s emotional life and the importance and power to him of friendships. We have an account of how God’s very incarnation, Love’s very expression into time and space, experiences the most human of feelings and allows himself to be vulnerable with the people about whom he cares. We have an account here of the power of love to transform life at the personal level, not just on the cosmic scale of nations and peoples.
We find ourselves not in a mysterious valley full of human bones, but in a real place, Bethany, localised with precision as being two miles from Jerusalem, a place to which we shall return next week when we begin to walk the way of the Passion on Palm Sunday. We find ourselves with familiar characters, Martha and her sister Mary and their brother Lazarus, who, we are told, has been ill. We find ourselves confronted with truly human situation: a family facing illness and death, a family reaching out to their friend whom they believe can help them and yet who does not come when they call. We encounter people who know Jesus well enough to both recognise him for who he is and who are not afraid to tell him what they think. In turn, Martha and then Mary tell Jesus that if he had come sooner their brother would not have died. It is almost as if they blame Jesus for what happens. We are witnessing real people experiencing real, human feelings and emotions, experiencing fear and casting blame, just as we do. Jesus himself, drawn into this world of human experiences, reminds them of his identity and shares with them his vision of the life to which God is calling them: “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus says; “he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” Jesus, the very Word of God incarnate, the living, breathing embodiment of divine Love, points to the reality that suffering, pain, and death do not have the last word. He tells them that he has the last word, that Love has the last word. He tells them that being in relationship with Love, with God, with him, assures that death can not be the end of all. And yet, even in this moment when Jesus makes one of the most definitive statements about his identity, Jesus’ humanity shines through, his love for his friends shines through, and he shows them this with his own tears and in his extraordinary action to, in this once case, show forth his love and the power of the Love of God to put death in its place.
In this story of the illness, death, and raising of Lazarus we see divine Love penetrating the human experience, imbedded in the human experience, and pointing the way forwards. We see that our God shares in our sorrows, participates in our experience, and can deliver us from the darkest of places, from the pain of illness and death. And while in our lives we are unlikely to experience the kind of direct intervention about which we are told in this tale, we are given hope, given faith in God’s ability to make new things grow out of the ashes of death, to create new opportunities for love to flourish, to expand the reach of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Love in which we have the power to be agents of that love into the world and change lives.
Today, in the thick of Lent, we hear about God’s power to transform communities blighted by despair and death, about God’s ability to transform moments of illness, pain, suffering and death, and bring forth new life, new possibilities. In these accounts we are reassured that even in the midst of sorrow, of suffering, of a penitential season, Love springs forth from the earth like the bulbs emerging in the Park in these days, and, if we are open, if we allow God in, transform our lives in powerful ways and inspire us to let that love shine forth in our lives.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
Lenten Feria, 5 April 2014
© 2014 Andrew Charles Blume