A Sermon For Passion Sunday, 29th March 2020
Hope. I want us to keep talking about, focusing on hope. Not a hope which is an unsubstantiated, baseless, speculative. Not a hope which ignores the reality of the crisis we are all coming to terms with. Not a hope, in short, that is naïve. I want us to fix on a hope which is a truly authentic hope. A sincere hope which should be the most important feeling we have at the moment.
We’ve just heard two wonderful readings. The passage from the prophet Ezekiel about the valley of dry bones being dragged back into life. And the passage from John’s Gospel – Jesus’s raising of his dead friend Lazarus back into life. They are two incredibly visually dramatic passages. You can imagine the rattling of the bones as they come together. As life comes back, bone on bone, sinew on sinew, flesh on flesh, skin on skin. You can imagine the stone of Lazarus’ stinking tomb being rolled away and the once dead man walking out of the darkness into the light, still in his grave clothes. They are both, in their own ways, phenomenally powerful readings about life coming back from impossibly bleak situations.
It is no coincidence that we have these readings today on the fifth Sunday of Lent, two weeks before our celebration of Easter. Known as Passion Sunday, it is a day when we distinctly move our focus towards the cross. Lent is moving towards its bleak endgame of Good Friday. An endgame ultimately shockingly transformed on Easter morning. These readings from Ezekiel and John in a sense prefigure, they look forward to what is going to happen. They are both the bleakest of situations which are radically transformed. There can be nothing as lifeless, as desolate, as a valley of dry bones. There can be nothing as despairing, as despondent, as the untimely death of someone to whom you are close. Yet in God, and through God, life is extraordinarily brought back.
Let’s look at each of these readings in just a little bit more detail. Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones dates back to the Exile. Around the turn of the 6th century before Christ, the Babylonians invaded Judah and Jerusalem. In doing so, the Jerusalem Temple – the epicentre of Hebrew faith – was destroyed. Many people were taken captive and forcibly moved to Babylon. Amongst the deported was none other than Ezekiel, whose prophecy responds to this experience. The Exile was one of the most profound crises to face the Hebrew people. It was a calamity for their faith and their identity. We hear the lament in this reading, the crying out in deep distress: ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely’. Their bones, the symbol of their life, are dried up and lifeless. Yet into this vision, God steps in. As the bones come together again, Ezekiel implores God to breathe on them and bring them to life. Just as God’s breath brings life to the world in the creation story, so here God’s breath brings back life to those bones. God’s spirit, God’s word is an unstoppable, determined, creative force.
We are in a valley of dry bones. But life was brought back for the Hebrew people, although things were never quite the same again. Many continued to practice their faith in Babylon, retaining their identity. In due course, they returned to Jerusalem, rebuilding the Temple of their faith. In fact, the story of the Hebrew people is a recurring story of crisis and restoration. The same can be said for all of us. Humanity has seen so many crises, but so many times it has been restored. We have to believe, we have to hold on to the hope that God’s breath will breathe on us once again. That our lives will be restored, that we will learn from this experience, that we will ultimately grow as human society.
Then, there’s the reading from John – the raising of Lazarus. Another story that is about the restoration of life. It is, though, a very long and very complex passage. Here I want to concentrate on Jesus’ emotions. Seeing others crying in their grief, Jesus himself begins to weep. Much ink has been used in trying to understand Jesus’ display of emotion here. Is it from his love for Lazarus? Is it his deep empathy for his mourning friends? Is it from summoning up the power within him to restore Lazarus to life? Is it his knowledge that in doing this, it would be witnessed, and this would seal his fate on the cross? Is it because he despairs at the lack of faith and trust in him as the one who brings resurrection and life? There are lots of possibilities.
Let’s look at this in view of our current situation. This idea that Jesus is weeping with his friends out of empathy is key. This is Jesus’ humanity speaking to us. Jesus stands with us, feeling what we feel. In Jesus, God does not stand apart from us. In Jesus, God is truly with us as one of us – suffering with us, grieving with us, sharing in our anxiety, our fear, our isolation, our anger. This story of the raising of Lazarus tells us that all is not lost. No, Jesus isn’t going to stand by every victim of this pandemic and miraculously bring them back to life. Don’t forget, Lazarus was brought back to a mortal life, destined to die once again at some point in his future. But there is a real sense in which we are all currently entombed in our own homes. Life as we have known it has, for a time, come to an end – indeed it may well never be quite the same ever again. When, though, we come towards the end of this crisis, I am firm in the belief that Jesus’ message to us all will be like his command to Lazarus in front of the tomb: A firm command to ‘COME OUT!’ We will walk out into a real sense of new life.
On the one hand, a new life tinged with tragedy. On the other hand, a new life full of desire to transform the world around us through the lenses of our shared experiences.
The valley of dry bones was magnificently brought back to life. The exiled Hebrew people were restored to their life and faith in Jerusalem. Jesus shared in the grief and emotion of his friends and brought Lazarus out of his tomb alive. As we on this Passion Sunday turn towards Jesus’ journey to the cross, we do so in the knowledge that this will be transformed on Easter morning. The same can be said for us in these dark days. At present, we are in a valley of dry bones. We are in exile; we are in mourning; we are journeying to the cross. But there will be restoration. At some point, God’s breath will come and life will return from our exile. At some point, Jesus will stand before us, commanding us to come out into new life. Our faith leads us to a true hope that it will indeed be so.