Church of England Diocese of St.Albans Letchworth

Lent 5 - Sermon

29 Mar 2020, noon
From_the_Vicar Lent

Lent 5 29th March 2020

‘Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice!’ (Ps 130.1a)

This Sunday morning is unusual. The coronavirus pandemic brought our daily lives to a halt. It has also stopped all public worship and caused our churches to close.

We’ve been asked to stay at home, unless what we do is absolutely necessary for our lives to continue; and this is why we are now meeting online - I at my home and you at yours - physically separated but at the same time united in the shared hope we all have in the living Christ. Thanks to the wonders of technology we now have this precious and much needed time to worship together, and I for one am grateful for it.

Although the fact that we can’t meet in church causes us pain, this experience reminds us that church is not simply a building but a living community of faith, hope and love. The church is where people gather around the living Christ and are fed with his word and body.

The Church is where Christ is, and no door can lock him out. Christ is in our homes, on our streets, in our hospitals, and even in the supermarkets – and so the body of Christ, his Church, is everywhere where God’s grace can enter and give life. This includes the world wide web.

We have come together in the “virtual” church because our hearts are united in the desire to receive this life-giving grace of God. We are here not because we like “playing” church but because we long for being together once again, and we long for Christ’s healing and comforting touch to reach and embrace us during this frightening time when human touch has the potential for becoming our mortal enemy.

We live through the time of crisis, the time of war with an invisible enemy of the deadly virus. It is a world war fought by people everywhere, with health workers of all nationalities and backgrounds positioned on the front line of our hospitals.

It is out of this time of crisis that we want to cry to God with the Psalmist, ‘Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice; let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication’ (Ps 130).

Our prayer this morning comes out of the depths of the experience of confusion and fear, of isolation, of being at war against Covid-19. We cry out of the depths and we find ourselves out of our depth. In order to cope with it all we need the skill and expertise of medical scientists and health workers, but we also need God’s help. Our prayer, our cry for God’s mercy, should never cease, especially right now. With the Psalmist, we pray, ‘I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him; in his word is my hope’ (v. 4).

The word of God we hear in the readings set for this Sunday is brimming with hope. But a hope of which it speaks is not one of naïve optimism. Rather, it is a hope rooted in our human experience of desolation, death and grief.

In our first reading, we are given the passage from Ezekiel describing his vision of the valley of dry bones and how God’s breath brings the bones back to life.

Ezekiel was both a priest and a prophet, and he was called while Israel was in exile in Babylon. His ministry (approx. 593 – 571 BCE) fell during a harrowing time of fear and anguish when Israel had neither temple to worship in nor the promised land that could provide a visible sign of God’s presence among his people. Ezekiel’s name means “God strengthens”, and it was his task to preach this truth to a discouraged nation of Israel.

In the vision, God said to Ezekiel, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely” (Ezekiel 37.11). The people were ‘lost among the dead’ (Ps 88.5), they were crushed and didn’t know where to turn for help. But God never abandoned them, God’s breath brought a new life out of the rubble of destruction and put the people back on their feet. We are assured that no one is ever lost to God’s mercy. God’s spirit remains present even within the darkness of a grave.

‘To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace’ (Rom 8.6), writes St Paul in his letter to the Romans taken from today’s second reading.

St Paul reminds us about what is essential in our lives of faith. It is the life of Christ within us: ‘If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells within you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells within you’ (Rom 8.11).

We might be wondering how we are going to keep Holy Week and Easter without being able to worship in our churches? Are we still going to celebrate this great Paschal mystery of our faith, the greatest festival of all, or should we just give up and postpone it until the more appropriate time?

Of course, that we are still going to keep the Feast! Christ is risen! And this proclamation of the hope of Christian faith needs to resound even louder than ever. As St Paul reminds us, because Christ is risen, death has lost its sting (1 Cor 16.55), and, ‘We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus’ (Rom 6.9-11).

While the form of our Easter celebration is going to be different this year, its content will stay the same. Today’s gospel reading might help us to understand how this can be done.

Jesus, when faced with the death of his friend Lazarus, did not despair but kept his faith. We know Jesus loved Lazarus and so we might be taken aback by these strange words he spoke on hearing that his friend was gravely ill: ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it’ (John 11.4). Lazarus did die and, when Jesus arrived at Bethany, his friend was already in the tomb for four days.

On the one hand we see Jesus being very focused on his mission to help his disciples believe he is the resurrection and the life (11.25), and that is why he appears so methodical and maybe even cold in what he says and does. On the other hand, however, we find Jesus among his friends, engaged in passionate conversation with Martha and Mary.

‘Greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved’ (v. 33b), Jesus weeps (v. 35). He weeps out of love for his friend. He doesn’t ignore the seriousness of the situation. He shares in the suffering of the people around him, but he doesn’t despair. He knows that death is not all powerful, that it doesn’t have the last word – only God has; and he shows it to everyone by raising Lazarus back to life.

I hope that during this dark and uncertain time we will be able to encounter the life-giving presence of Christ. Holy Week begins next Sunday, and we are invited to accompany Christ on his way to Calvary until we reach the joy of the day of Resurrection. This joy may not be felt in the way it has been in the past, the desolation of Good Friday may indeed stay with us for much longer than we would have liked, but we can be sure that God will never abandon us.

May the celebration of Holy Week and Easter help us understand that Christ suffers and weeps with us, but also takes us by the hand and assures us that in him no one will never be lost, even in a grave illness and death. God doesn’t want us to remain locked in a grave. He longs to breath his spirit upon our dry bones and give us a new heart beating with faith, hope and love.

‘I am the resurrection and the life’, says the Lord. ‘Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.

Do you believe this?’ (John 11.25-26).