Fifth Sunday in Lent

Prayer of the Day
Almighty God, your Son came into the world to free us all from sin and death. Breathe upon us the power of your Spirit, that we may be raised to new life in Christ and serve you in righteousness all our days, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Readings and Psalm
Ezekiel 37:1-14  The dry bones of Israel brought to life
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11  Life in the Spirit
John 11:1-45  Baptismal image: the raising of Lazarus

Title:  Funeral Surprises
It has been a Lent of surprises, no?  Yes, it’s been surprising how cold March was after a record warm February.  But the Lenten surprises I want to draw your attention to this morning are found in the encounters of Jesus that we have heard played out in the gospel readings over these past four, and adding today, five Sundays.  Way back on the first Sunday in Lent we saw that the Devil came looking for an ally, someone who would join him in distracting humanity from a trust-filled relationship with God.  And he was surprised to find that he certainly did not find one in Jesus who came to restore our relationship with God.  Then Nicodemus came by night looking for answers from a wise and controversial teacher.  But surprise, either he left with more questions, or went his way with much more than answers – he went with the good news that God so loved that world that the Son was sent to save it.  (Looking to the fact that Nicodemus shows up again in the crucifixion story, helping Joseph of Arimathea bury the body of the dead Jesus, I’m going with the latter, that the old seeker, found more than answers to his questions.)  Two weeks ago the Samaritan woman came looking for water at the well, and instead was surprised to be given a drink of the renewing mercy and grace of God from Jesus.  And last week, a whole crowd of people were surprised to the point of confusion when a man born blind was surprised by the eye-opening Savior who seeks to open all our eyes to the compassion and healing power of God.

And if those surprises were not enough, today’s reading does not disappoint.  For this fifth and final story of our Lenten series supplied by the gospel writer John, we hear of the biggest surprise of them all.  Family and friends of Lazarus have gathered for a funeral, they are dressed in their best black, wailing with their best cries of grief.  Lazarus is dead.  Brother to Mary and Martha.  Friend to their neighbors in Bethany.  Friend to Jesus, even.  Everyone was initially surprised that friend Jesus had not come sooner.  He had built up his reputation for being a healer.  And as we hear from both sisters, the thinking was:  Surely Lazarus would not have died if Jesus had been there.  A statement of both confident faith and heart-breaking disappointment.  Most of us can relate to that questioning of “why didn’t you do something, Lord.”

The disciples are not surprised he doesn’t up and run to Bethany when Jesus hears of Lazarus’ illness.  More than anything the disciples are probably relieved he did run to his sick friend’s bedside.  Folks had been unfriendly to him there.  It’s much too close to dangerous Jerusalem.  The followers were probably most surprised when he finally does head off to the hostile territory.   After all, he said Lazarus was just asleep.  Why go?  Why risk it?  Thomas says it all – “oh, well, let’s go die with him.”

But Jesus goes, and the biggest surprise is delivered.  Lazarus is raised from the dead, and all those folks who were dressed and ready for a funeral have to do a major about face.  A huge refocus is needed.  The one they thought was gone, was bound and put away, was already decomposing, is returned, filled with life, new life, life given to him through the one who was full of surprises, Jesus the Christ.

Have you ever prepared for a funeral and were surprised to experience a resurrection instead?  Buried something away, put the stone on the tomb and left it to decompose, only to have it surprise you with rebirth?  It being a goal or a dream, a relationship or family tie, a hope for a future.

It can be quite unsettling when that which we thought was dead and beyond stinky rot, causes us a lot more rethinking than just what new, non-black outfit to wear.

One of the most dramatic and literal applications of this funeral turned to surprise resurrection in my own life occurred when I moved back to New York in 2000.  On a visit in May of that year for my mother’s birthday, it was clear that my father’s health was failing and he was drawing close to death.  I immediately made the decision to move back from Los Angeles to be closer and be ready to offer support when the time came.  Thanks to a procedure that brought him out of this place of crisis, he ended up living for another four years.  And while I valued those four extra years, that was not the resurrection of which I speak.  Upon returning I was placed in a context in which a life long wrestling match with the Holy Spirit over my call to ordained ministry was reignited.  A calling that I thought I had laid to rest, placed in a tomb, put a heavy rock over, a dream that had long since been stinky with rot, was resurrected and demanded that I be surprised that this call deferred was by no means dead and buried.  You don’t need the details, you know how this one ends.  Or should I say how this one re-begins.  Suffice to say it was not easy to re-orient, to re-examine, to re-turn.  It was not easy to live into the surprise of resurrection.

The exiles to whom Ezekiel was preaching thought their dreams of nationhood and independent living were gone, dead, dried up like old bones.  Where they saw a valley of death, God saw new creation, new life, a new future.  There were many who could not see the promise of new life and they chose never to return to that promised land even after they were freed to go.  They missed out on the resurrection and restoration of nation and temple.

For us, the cross and the empty tomb stand in the midst of that valley of death and give us more than a vision of new life, they surprise us with the reality of resurrection and new life that come to us by the grace of God through Jesus Christ.  We are called to leave that valley of decay, and come into the garden of new life.

Every time we enter this sanctuary and walk past that baptismal font, we are invited to be surprised by the resurrecting power of God through the work of the Holy Spirit.  We are invited to hear Paul’s words to the church in Roman and look beyond the limitations of the flesh and see new life possibilities in the Spirit.

Hear the invitation to be surprised.  Hear the invitation to rethink and re-examine.  Hear the invitation to see life where we once saw only death, despair, and decomposition.  The Lord of life, of new life, can take that which is most stinky and turn it into new, fresh, beautiful life.

Come, feed this new life at our Lord’s table.  Surrender to the one who longs to surprise you.  And, in faith and hope, unbind that which was thought dead and buried away.  Surprise!  The Spirit of God dwells in you.

The Rev. Mark Erson,

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