(This is the first of the weekly publications of the text for services of worship for home use while the ban on public worship is in place. If “two or three” are gathered with you, you may choose a ‘leader’ in order to use the responsive prayers and readings as you would in church. You may also wish to light a candle, as a reminder of the spirit of the Lord among and within you. There are also links to YouTube files for music and, should you rather listen than read, sound files for some of the text, including the sermon . [I’m sorry about the commercials that often come with YouTube clips. Be sure to click on the “Skip Ad” box when it appears in the lower right of the YouTube clip] When the clip has finished, simply click on the back button of your browser to return to this page. Pictures can be enlarged by clicking on them.)
A NOTE FOR NEWCOMERS: Common churchy words like “God” are used freely, but those who have not been exposed to my use of such words may misunderstand. Though I am an old man, my theology is not. Traditional usage of those familiar churchy words in popular Christianity is often wide of the mark of a good theological understanding. To acquaint yourself with more up-to-date definitions (i.e. ones that actually make sense in our modern world), see “Words of the Word” on this website. (You might start with words such as “Prayer” and “G-O-D”.)
A THOUGHT WITH WHICH TO BEGIN
“It is a poor thing to fear that which is inevitable.”
L: Thus says the Lord God to these old human bones: I shall cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.
R: We wait for the Lord, our souls wait, and in God’s word we place our hope.
L: Choose this day whom you will serve.
R: God has set before us life and death, praising the light or cursing the darkness, loving others or cultivating selfish indifference.
L: Therefore choose life, loving your God, obeying God’s voice, and cleaving to God all your days.
R: By the grace of God we this day choose life.
PRAYER OF APPROACH
If you wish to listen to a spoken prayer rather than reading it, click play on the audio file below. Otherwise, just continue readings.
Loving God, ruler of life and death, please look with compassion on us as we come before you. As we worship you in the glory of all your love, please multiply the sources of abundant life within us, that we may live boldly, and at the end of this earthly journey, die into your arms without dismay or regret. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen!
JOURNEY INTO SILENCE
Audio File for Journey Into Silence:
When a baby is born, and lies in its adoring mother’s arms, there is only one prediction about that child that we can make with absolute certainty: It shall die. This is our fate, our destiny, and perhaps the ability to recognise this is the defining characteristic of the human being.
- Do not go gentle into that good night,
- Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
- Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
- Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
- Because their words had forked no lightning they
- Do not go gentle into that good night.
- Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
- Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
- Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
- Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight.
“Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night” by Dylan Thomas
Come apart from the busyness of family and work, and dwell in the presentness of God who is our source of being. May the silence which we now share quieten us, touch our need, refresh our courage, enlarge our wonder.
(at least 30 seconds of silence)
CALL TO CONFESSION (Psalm 130: 1,2)
Audio File for Call to Confession and Prayer of Confession:
L: Out of the depths I have cried to you, O Lord;
R: Lord, hear my voice! Let you ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.
L: If you, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?
R: But there is forgiveness with you, that you may be feared.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
L: The Apostle Paul writes that “to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” We confess, O God, that when we, as your people in this place, set our minds on the things of the flesh as opposed to the Spirit, our lives become all too easily influenced by and attracted to the powers of the world.
R: Forgive us when our vision is limited by the power of the ‘bottom line’; whether we can afford to make plans for the future or not.
L: Remind us that all things are possible when our minds are set on the Spirit.
R: Forgive us if we remain captive to patterns and programmes of the past.
L: Remind us that newness and future possibilities can become reality when our minds are set on the Spirit.
R: Forgive us when daily news reports and personal experiences fill us with fear and depression, hopelessness and despair.
L: Remind us that when minds are set on the Spirit, you give us the ability to cope because your Spirit, O God, brings life into the most deadening situations.
R: Forgive us when our words and actions conceal the truth of the gospel.
L: Remind us that our integrity is alive and well when our minds are set on the Spirit.
A time of silence
L: Gracious life-giving God, set our minds, our hearts, and our lives anew on the Holy Spirit so that we are filled with your life and love, mercy and peace.
R: May all our relationships be so bound together with these qualities that we are visible reminders that your Spirit, O God dwells in us all. This we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen
ASSURANCE OF FORGIVENESS (Psalm 130: 7-8)
“O Israel, hope in the Lord; for with the Lord there is mercy, and with him is abundant redemption. And he shall redeem Israel (and you)from all iniquity.” And so I can declare to you, the door to life has been opened to us./ Thanks be to God!
FROM THE HEBREW SCRIPTURES – Ezekiel 37:1-14
Audio File for Old Testament reading:
SONG “Dem Bones” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pYb8Wm6-QfA
FROM THE GOSPELS – John 11:38-44
Audio File for the Gospel reading:
Audio File for sermon
As I sit here in my isolation, I am reminded of the disciples hiding in fear behind locked doors following the crucifixion, lest they be the next to hung on the ‘tree’ by the Romans. Today’s readings are particularly poignant for a people ‘in hiding’, trying to avoid the threat of death-by-pandemic lurking outside. Because this week was to be my Sunday off, I had not prepared a sermon, but the following one from three years ago seems to fit the occasion quite well.
We’re in Lent, the season of the cross, moving steadily, sombrely, week by week, toward the inevitable death of Jesus. You know how the story ends. Which makes it a bit surprising that here, on the fifth Sunday in Lent, the church should place this story, the raising of Lazarus. Shouldn’t we wait until after Easter for this one, sometime after the resurrection? Not here in Lent, the season of death. Why would John put the Lazarus story right before Passion/Palm Sunday? It’s the wrong time, the wrong place for a life-dealing, Easter sort of story.
No matter, it’s a good story. Lazarus is living with the sisters Mary and Martha over in Bethany. You remember Mary. Just before Passion/Palm Sunday, she anoints Jesus and wipes his feet with her long, beautiful hair (11:2). But it’s Lazarus who ought to be the centre of this story, even though he never mutters a single word. Not a word! So right off you wonder if Lazarus is here mainly to show us something about Jesus rather than to show off Lazarus.
John goes out of his way to show what good friends Lazarus and Jesus were. Robert Capon suggests that perhaps Jesus liked him because, like most preachers, Jesus enjoyed hearing himself talk and quiet Lazarus liked to listen. John doesn’t say. All he says is, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (11:5). When Jesus saw the tomb where Lazarus was buried, he wept (11:36), and the bystanders know what Jesus’ tears mean, “See how he loved him!” (11:38).
But the beginning of the story finds Jesus out somewhere teaching. Mary and Martha send him the bad news: “Lord, he whom you love is ill” (v. 3). Jesus downplays the news. “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” (v. 4). Now, we don’t know if it made Lazarus feel a bit better to know that his sickness was going to provide a sermon illustration for Jesus. All we know is that, upon receiving the news of Lazarus’ illness, Jesus stayed put there for two days longer. He didn’t rush to Lazarus’ bedside, no matter how close a friend he was. Don’t you find that odd? Finally, he says to his disciples, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him” (v. 11).
Typical of the disciples in John’s Gospel, they misunderstand, thinking that Jesus meant that Lazarus is just resting comfortably after his recovery. No, Jesus says, “Lazarus is dead” (v. 14). Well, off they go. But not before his disciples remind Jesus that, if they go back to Judea, Lazarus might not be the only corpse. They ask Jesus: “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” (v. 8).
“Those who walk at night stumble” (v. 10) replies Jesus, whatever that means. Death and darkness be damned; off they go.
When Jesus finally gets to Bethany, Martha runs out to meet him. And she lets Jesus have it. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v. 21) Mary is so put out, she doesn’t even come out of the house. Martha then adds that she thinks Jesus might help since anything he asks, God will do. But Jesus isn’t interested in what she thinks. He’s more concerned with what she is able to believe, her faith. So he reassures her, “Your brother will rise again” (v. 23).
So? With Robert Capon’s commentary, let’s imagine that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were Pharisees. That is, they believed in the relatively new Jewish notion of the final resurrection of the dead. So when Martha responds to Jesus (11:24) she repeats what she’s always been told about resurrection. “Yeah, yeah, I know all that. I know he’ll be raised on the last day.” She’s just repeating the phrase from the creed, what they told her in Sunday school. There will be, someday, a resurrection of the dead. But that doesn’t give Martha much help right now. She wants life today, not someday.
Imagine it. The family emerges from the Intensive Care Unit. They are met by their minister. “She’s gone,” they say. “Mummy’s gone. Dead.”
And the pastor says, “Why these tears? Don’t you believe in the life everlasting, the resurrection of the body? It’s in the Creed. “
“Mum’s dead. We don’t want her back two thousand years from now. We want her living now.”
What Jesus says to Martha is more radical than what the Pharisees had in mind when they said “resurrection.” He says to her, “No! Your brother will not rise on the last day; your brother will rise now, because I am the resurrection and the life, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”
Martha comes through. “Yes, Lord, I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (v. 27).
Old radical F. D. Maurice said this little exchange between Martha and Jesus depressed him because, now after two thousand years, most Christians have not yet gotten beyond the Pharisees to the point of Martha’s confession. We still think like Pharisees that resurrection is some time in the future, in the sweet by and by. That day, in the middle of grief, Jesus got Martha to the stunning recognition that resurrection is now, present, in the flesh, face to face in front of her.
It’s not some wild theological idea concocted by the Gospel of John. Jesus raised a widow’s son (Luke 7:11-17). He raised Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:41-56). Now, there’s Lazarus. Biblical scholars would remind us that these are not really ‘resurrections’ in the sense of what happened to Jesus, because after Lazarus was resuscitated, brought back to life from his death, Lazarus still eventually died. However, we’ve still got to hear this as an Easter story, as stunning testimonial to the life giving power of Jesus.
Lazarus rises because Jesus has that effect on the dead. The dead rise months, years before Easter, while we’re still in Lent, because they are face to face with Mr. Resurrection even before he is resurrected. Jesus is the in-flesh presence of a kingdom in which everybody rises. No matter whether they meet him in Lent or in Easter, whenever Jesus gets to the cemetery, the dead rise.
Well, Martha tells her sister, “Jesus is here and he’s asking for you. You might as well come out.” Mary comes out and says bitterly, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v. 32).
But Jesus doesn’t reply. He is just as angry and upset about Lazarus’ death as Mary. Being Jesus doesn’t keep him from being angry over death and he lets Mary vent her anger because he understands, he shares her anger. He hates death as much as anybody.
Jesus moves on because he isn’t here to wring his hands over death or blame, transfer, deny, or resignedly accept it. He moves out to the cemetery and orders that the stone at the door of the tomb be rolled away. Ever practical, good old down-to-earth Martha notes that Lazarus has been in there for a good four days now and, in the words of elegant King James English, “he stinketh.” Jesus simply reminds Martha of what he had said, lifts his eyes, thanks God, then in a voice loud enough to wake the dead says, “Lazarus, come out!” (v. 43).
“The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.” Jesus says, “Unbind him and let him go” (v. 44). So much for dead Lazarus.
It was, for Jesus, the beginning of the end. After he raised Lazarus, the powers that be, the authorities, the death dealers get their act together, stop pussyfooting around and, says John, “So from that day on they planned to put him to death” (v. 53). Too much resurrection for one day, too much Easter set loose. The folks up at the Pentagon just can’t stand so much life.
The powers-that-be, the defenders of the status quo, the watchdogs who keep everybody in place and everything tied down love darkness rather than light, choose death over life. So they immediately set to work to find a tomb for Jesus, this time a stone bigger than the one with which they attempted to entomb Lazarus. It is all downhill now, down toward darkness, down toward death. A little later Jesus comes out of hiding long enough for a dinner party with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus at Bethany. During the meal Martha anoints his feet with some high-priced oil. Judas says that she should be rebuked for wasting good money that could have been used for the poor. Jesus tells Judas to back off. He knows her act of extravagance is in response to his coming act of extravagance on the cross. She anoints Jesus for burial, just like she prepared the body of once dead Lazarus.
Jesus leaves Martha’s table, with sweet smelling funeral oil on his head, and moves on toward Palm Sunday, on to the cross which is also where we’re headed in that like Lazarus, none of us will make it out of this alive.
But in the meantime, on the way to the cross, to his death, deep in Lent, I want you to ponder what Jesus told Martha: resurrection is not something you wait for until Easter, not some forthcoming day in a still undetermined future. Resurrection is now. It is a present reality, more than just a coming one. Anytime ]esus arrives, the dead are set loose.
You see, if resurrection and raising the dead, unbinding corpses are just events on Easter, that overlooks a number of places in the Bible where Jesus kicks death in the teeth. The resurrection of the dead is not confined to Easter; it is here, at all times and places, not just an isolated event or the distant future. What God did to Jesus on Easter was what God is busy doing all the time: bringing the dead back to life. The same God who brought us creating out of nothing, brings life out of death. All his creativity requires is nothing. All his resurrection needs is death.
Now, death is death. Lazarus wasn’t “asleep.” He was dead as dead could be. When we say “resurrection,” we Christians aren’t talking about some pagan drivel about “the immortality of the soul,” some eternal flame within a person that just goes on and on forever. In a sense, we agree with the nonbelievers who say, “As far as I’m concerned, when you’re dead, you’re dead.”
OK. Death is death. When you’re dead, you’re dead. But it’s the dead whom Jesus loves to raise. All he needs to get creative is nothing. He is most glorious, most alive where things are most deadly.
So, they can call out the Army; they can sew you back up and take you from the oncologist to the mortician; they can send in their tanks and seal the borders; they can entomb you in sarcophagi of race, colour, gender, or class; they can tell you that the ‘game’s over,’ ‘the jig is up,’ ‘you can’t fight city hall’ and that ‘we’ve done all that medical science can do.’ But once resurrection is let loose, unbound, then your only hope is that Mr. Resurrection will again do his life-giving thing and bring life from the jaws of death. The powers of death that trap us in defeat are little more than a good excuse for Jesus to show off his glory.
Life! Glory! Brothers, Sisters, COME OUT!
FOR YOUR PERSONAL REFLECTION
I hope you got the message from the sermon that this story is not really so much about the resurrection of dead people as the resurrection of the dead parts of people, the dead parts of society. So the question you should address here is: From what tomb must you come out? Where are the dead parts of your life, i.e. what prevents you from having the fullness of life intended for us all? Very often, at the core of all that prevents us living is the fear of death. This is the fear for which faith is an antidote. At this time of pandemic, its symptoms are easy to recognise. For more thoughts on this matter, see “Resurrection” under “Words of the Word” on this website. If you have questions, I will be pleased to respond. Just send them to firstname.lastname@example.org
Audio File for prayers of intercession and the Lord’s Prayer
Source of life, God of love, let your salvation surround the living who walk under the shadow of death and the dead who are gloriously alive. Great Spirit-Friend,/ Come with your life and light.
Be close to your dying children. By simple faith in your undying grace may they have peace in the hour of their departing. Great Spirit-Friend,/ Come with your life and light.
Be close to people who caught up in the rawness of a new grief. Enable them to weep well, free from bitterness or despair.Great Spirit-Friend,/ Come with your life and light.
Be close to all who care for the dying; in hospitals or at home, in a hospice or on a battlefield; give them your quiet strength. Great Spirit-Friend,/ Come with your life and light.
Be close to ministers, priests and lay pastors, who pray with the dying, minister last rites, or sit holding a hand. Great Spirit-Friend,/ Come with your life and light.
Be close to those who fight against untimely death. Those who spend their days working for the elimination of cancer, aids, many diseases; the carnage on our highways, and the butchery of warfare. Great Spirit-Friend,/ Come with your life and light.
Be close to the preachers of the gospel of peace. By your tireless Spirit, may inadequate words take flesh and become powerful agents in helping people to begin living eternal life now. Through Christ Jesus, who taught us to pray, “Our Father…”
L: The God we worship is never confined to this holy place. So go and travel with the God found in ordinary and surprising places. You are wayfarers, following roads to the end of the earth, pilgrims on your way to the end of the age.
R: We are travellers on the road to freedom, a community of grace, with good news for all we meet.
L: Travel lightly, travel together, learn as you go: you are disciples, the mission is urgent, the journey is long.
R: We will take heart.
L: When the way is uncertain, shadows are sinister and dangers threaten,
R: we will not be afraid, for we are in God and God is in us.
Audio File for the benediction
God has set before us life and death. That you may not sit on the fence, but choose whom you will serve, I convey to you God’s blessings.
So that by the grace of Christ you may continue to choose the life that is boundless, I convey to you God’s blessings.
God will bless you and keep you, smile upon you and be gracious unto you. Christ will send his own light upon you and give you his peace. Amen!
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