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Sermon for Sunday 2 April 2017

FIRST READING Ezekiel 37:1-14

1The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. 2And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. 3And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.” 7So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them. 9Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” 10So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army. 11Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ 12Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. 13And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. 14And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.”


PSALM Psalm 130

1Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice; let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication. 2If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss, O Lord, who could stand?
3For there is forgiveness with you; therefore you shall be feared. 4I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him; in his word is my hope. 5My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning. 6O Israel, wait for the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy; 7With him there is plenteous redemption, and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.


SECOND READING Romans 8:1-11

1There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 3For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.


GOSPEL John 11:1-53

1Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 7Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. 10But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” 11After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” 12The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 13Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, 15and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” 17Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. 20So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” 23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” 28When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 31When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. 34And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35Jesus wept. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” 38Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” 43When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” 44The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” 45Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him, 46but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. 47So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. 48If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” 49But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. 50Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” 51He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, 52and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. 53So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.



As many of you know, on Tuesday mornings, I meet with several the other pastors in Hickory. I do this for several reasons; comradery, general sharing of ideas and pericope study. Most of the meetings are highly enjoyable and oftentimes stories are told that are interesting and humorous. Heidi shared a story the other day that I think you’ll find enjoyable.
Heidi has a Pterodactyl Lego set and she decided to use it to illustrate our Old Testament reading from Ezekiel for the children’s sermon. She had the kids assemble the Pterodactyl as she told of Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones. It took only a few moments for the older kids to assemble the Legos into a complete dinosaur. Once completed, she held it up and said that each Lego block is like the bones Ezekiel saw in his vision. Just because all the bones came together and made the body, that didn’t mean they were alive. Before God gave them breath, the people were just like this Lego dinosaur. Is it alive, she asked? Before any of the kids had a chance to answer, one of the 4-year old boys grabbed the Pterodactyl and said yes, as he ran down the center isle flying it through the air. Needless to say, Heidi, never got to finish the lesson.
As is the case with most stories, like Heidi’s, the end of the story is the best part. So this morning, it’s easy for us to move too quickly past the beginning of our gospel lesson for today about Jesus and Lazarus. We tend to rush through the beginning, because the rest of the story appears, at first glance, to be far more fascinating. Most of the time it’s what Jesus does at the end of the story that galvanizes our attention. There, after all, is the main drama, since it was at the end of the story that Jesus performed His most astonishing miracle: raising Lazarus, deceased four days, from the dead.
In John, we can read of the other miracles Jesus performed, such as turning water into wine, how He healed a paralyzed man and restored sight to a man born blind. But to raise someone from the dead? Now in all fairness, Jesus had already performed this miracle twice before. He raised both the son of the widow (Luke 7:11-15) and the daughter of Jairus (Luke 8:41-55) from the dead. But this was different, they hadn’t been buried for four days. The raising of Lazarus was breathtaking, unheard of, unexplainable, a remarkable sign of the inbreaking of the eternal, an anticipation of Jesus’ own resurrection. It’s no wonder the end of the story attracts our attention; it’s where the fireworks are. Sometimes, however, when we’ve finished looking at the end of the Lazarus story, we still have enough energy to shift our focus to what Jesus did in the middle of the story — namely, He wept. This piece of the narrative is captivating as well.
As many of you know, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35) is the shortest verse in the Bible, at least in the King James Version, but it’s not the easiest verse to understand. Why did Jesus weep? Was He moved with grief over the death of His friend Lazarus? Was He in sorrow over the unbelief around Him? Was He hurt because of Martha and Mary’s statements, “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Or, was it because He was anticipating His own death? John doesn’t say. But even though the reasons for His feelings remain somewhat mysterious, we still find ourselves drawn to this picture of an emotionally affected Jesus; tears falling down His face.
Because Lazarus’ raising at the end of this story is so dramatic and Jesus weeping in the middle is so puzzling, it is, therefore, easy to overlook the beginning of this story. After all, what could, at the beginning of this story, possibly rival the action in the middle and at the end? But to overlook the beginning, would be a loss, since there’s something curious and important at work there as well. What’s so intriguing about the beginning of this story is the fact that Jesus is intentionally delayed.
Jesus plans His schedule so that He appears to arrive on the scene too late. Jesus receives word that Lazarus is ill in the village of Bethany, but John makes it clear that Jesus was in no hurry to respond. In fact, John draws our attention to Jesus’ delay. John records that even though Jesus loved Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha, nevertheless, Jesus waited another two days, after He heard the news, to go to Bethany (John 11:5-6). By that time, it was, of course, too late. Lazarus was dead. He’d been in the tomb four days.
Both Martha and Mary pour salt into the wound by pointing out to Jesus that His tardiness has cost a life. “Lord, if you had been here,” they both say, “my brother would not have died” (John 11:21, 32). Indeed, Jesus wasn’t there, intended not to be there, and Lazarus did die. And John waves a flag over this fact, precisely to draw our attention to this very point.
Now our temptation, at this juncture of the story, may be to judge Jesus a bit too harshly. What kind of person would fool around while a friend lies dying? What could possibly have kept Jesus where He was while Lazarus, whom He loved by the way, sweated out his last few breaths on his death bed? What Jesus did, seems to violate basic human compassion; not to mention a scorning of the elementary instincts of pastoral care. Why in heaven’s name, would Jesus choose to be late?
As it turns out, this is precisely the question John wants us to ask. Why in heaven’s name was Jesus late? John knows that if we keep asking that question, we just might discover something profound about heaven’s name, about Jesus and about God’s ways in the world. But what could that be? What good can we possibly find in Jesus’ tardiness?
Part of what we find, is that Jesus sometimes saves us by being absent rather than present, at least not present in the ways we demand or expect. Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus tells His disciples that He will soon depart from them. “You will look for me,” he says, “… [but] where I am going, you cannot come” (John 13:33). This announcement, that Jesus plans to separate Himself from the disciples causes fear, perhaps even panic, to set in. The disciples cannot imagine being apart from Jesus. They plead that they will be lost without him (John 14:5), beg to be allowed to follow Him (John 13:37), but Jesus refuses. He clearly intends to be their Lord by being absent from them.
What this means is that Jesus will be obedient to God’s will and not theirs. Jesus will accomplish the saving work of God and not their small and local understanding of who He should be. They want Him to be the leader of their little band, but Jesus is the light of the entire world. They want Jesus to teach them, guide them, heal them, protect them, save them; Jesus needs them to understand the He teaches, guides, heals, protects, and saves all humanity. They want Him to respond to their immediate concerns, but His mission isn’t captive to their sense of what’s urgent. Jesus is their Lord because He transcends their little world; He is their Lord because He is Lord of all.
On Sunday morning, July 17, 1966, arguably the most newsworthy worship service in the world that day, was held in St. Peter’s Cathedral in Geneva. A great congregation had gathered, including Christian leaders from all over the globe. Reporters from around the world were present to cover this event. The service had been planned as a part of the World Council of Churches Conference on Church and Society, and there was an exceptional air of expectation that day, since the sermon for the morning was to be delivered by the world famous civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But Dr. King didn’t show up for the service.
The hymns were sung, the prayers were prayed, and the ecumenical affirmations were spoken, but the pulpit was empty. Dr. King was absent. He had canceled his trip to Geneva because racial rioting had erupted in the city of Chicago, and his presence was needed there as a mediator. He sent a video tape of an excellent sermon to Geneva, and it was played over television monitors at the appropriate time, but, as one of the worshippers pointed out, “Even more powerful than his sermon that day was the simple fact of the preacher’s absence.”
“Even more powerful … was the preacher’s absence.” In other words, Dr. King chose to be absent in a place where he was expected to be present, because of his larger sense of mission. If he had been a politician looking for a photo opportunity, he would no doubt have shown up in the Geneva pulpit, smiling for the cameras, rather than risking his life and reputation amid the chaos of Chicago’s violent streets. But given the wider scope of Dr. King’s ministry, what appeared on the surface to be the most important place for him to be, St. Peter’s Cathedral, was not, in fact, where his vocation took him.
In a much deeper sense, Jesus’ mission transcends our tiny definitions of urgency. A man was dying. More than that, it was Jesus’ friend Lazarus who was dying. Lazarus’ body grew weak, hot with fever. Mary and Martha were wringing their hands with worry. The whole village of Bethany was troubled. Naturally, from Bethany’s perspective, this was the most urgent, important, life or death crisis in all of creation, and Jesus should have dropped everything in the world to be there. But Jesus will not drop the world; He will save it, all of it. Jesus isn’t controlled by illness and death, even His friend Lazarus’ illness and death; to the contrary, Jesus is the one in control. Jesus doesn’t jump when illness and death say “jump,” He conquered illness and death for the entire human race. And not only will Jesus not allow illness and death to set His agenda, He won’t allow death to be the ruler of time.
In this world as we know it, death is in charge of time. When the hospital’s intercom sounds with the message “Code Blue,” it’s a signal that a patient has suddenly gone into cardiac arrest, all normal time ceases. Physicians and nurses abruptly interrupt their customary duties and rush with emergency equipment to the afflicted patient. Routines are halted; all other activities must wait. Death has sounded the alarm and pushed the stem on the stop watch, and all must urgently obey death’s timetable. But not Jesus.
When Jesus hears the “Code Blue” on Lazarus, He receives word that the old clockwatching slave driver death has punched in “911” and His immediate presence is demanded. But Jesus doesn’t respond to death’s timetable. Jesus is Lord over death and Lord of all time. No longer will death set the times and seasons, but only God. So, Jesus takes His time, because it is, after all, His time. He is the Lord of the Sabbath, and He’s the Lord over Monday, and Saturday, and all the ticking minutes in between as well as all the desperate seasons of life. He is Lord over all time. He was there in the beginning, before all time, and through Him all creation, including time, came into being.
There’s a couple in Arkansas who gave their six-year-old son strict instructions to come home from playing every afternoon no later than 5 p.m. He’s allowed to play with his friends, but his parents are quite serious about his curfew. If he’s not home by 5 p.m., they begin to worry and call around the neighborhood to find out where he is. The boy knows this and is careful to arrive every day on time. One April Monday, however, the day after Daylight Saving Time went into effect, the boy was late coming home. When he finally arrived, a few minutes before 6 p.m., his mother scolded him for being late. “You know you’re to be home by five,” she said, “and here it is nearly six.”
Puzzled, the little boy pointed out the window. “But the light,” he protested, “the light; it’s the light that tells me when to come home.” Realizing what had happened, his mother smiled and gently explained that the day before, the time had been changed. Everyone had reset their clocks and, now, the daylight lasted longer. Looking suspiciously at his mother, the boy’s eyes narrowed. “Does God know about this” he asked?
In a childlike way, this little boy shared John’s theological vision. Time doesn’t belong to human beings. It doesn’t belong to the corruption of illness and death; time belongs to God. We know what time it is not by death’s clock, but by Jesus’ light. Jesus arrived in Bethany on His schedule, not death’s. When He got to the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus, the Lord of the past, present, and future, reached into the future of His resurrection victory and reversed the past of Lazarus’ death, thereby displaying the glory of God in the present.
“For God so loved the world,” John writes, “that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him” can change their clocks. Instead of watching the clock, wondering when death will finally come, calling to stop the hour hand from moving, those who believe recognize that Jesus came calling with life eternal. When Jesus at last came calling on the little village of Bethany, it was the common verdict that He was woefully late. But, when Lazarus came out of the tomb of death, with the light of eternal life in his eyes, the whole world could see that Jesus was right on time.

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