On 2 April, the fifth Sunday of Lent, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 130, Ezekiel 37:1-14, John 11:1-45.
Those of you who know Charlie12string, who leads Morning Prayer here on Epiphany Island, will know that he has a somewhat irreverent sense of humour. He often follows up one of his comments with “One flash and I’m ash”. Every year, as Lent approaches, Charlie tells me that he’s “giving up Lent for Lent”. It’s quite an amusing idea and, to a certain extent, I can see his point.
Lent is a time for self-examination, for taking stock of our lives and being honest about our weaknesses and faults. I suppose most of us would rather accept that we are basically good people who have not done anything terribly wrong. It’s not a comfortable idea to consider purposefully looking for those things in our lives that are not as they should be. However, if we have the courage to look it can be helpful and even hopeful. Taking time to reflect on our lives can help us to see where we can make changes that may benefit us as well as others around us.
At this point in Lent, things become even less enticing. Death features strongly and that’s not a topic that most of us like to dwell on, but perhaps it’s not all bad news.
When the prophet Ezekiel had his vision of the valley of dry bones, it was a time of despair for the people of Israel. As a result of their disloyalty and disobedience, God had finally brought about the outcome that the prophets had spoken about. The Babylonians had overrun the country and many of the people had been taken into captivity. It would be possible to say that Israel deserved what she got. However, it’s also possible to imagine how lost and forlorn the people felt, living far from the Promised Land and the wonderful city of Jerusalem.
What Ezekiel saw in his vision was something like the aftermath of a huge battle. The ground was strewn with the victims. In some ways it reminds me of the terrible loss of life during the First World War, when so many people of many nations died in that ‘war to end all wars’. The difference is that the bodies of those who were found on those battle fields were buried with honour. In the valley that Ezekiel saw the dead were just left for the animals to pick over and for the sun to bleach the bones white. No one had been able to honour the dead as they should have done. It was a very sad, desolate scene.
God asked Ezekiel an important question: “Mortal, can these bones live?” I have some sympathy with Ezekiel as he chose not to give a straight answer to God. The evidence of his senses would have told him there was no chance of life for these bones of those long fallen. However, he was dealing with God who has incredible power. From personal experience, I would say that good advice is never to say “Never” when God is involved. Also, along with the people of Israel, Ezekiel must have had a longing for some hope in a desperate situation. And so he turned the question back to God, to let him answer.
Despite any doubts, Ezekiel did as God told him and prophesied to the bones as he had commanded. Amazingly the bones came together with a loud rattle and were covered by sinews, flesh and skin, though the bodies were not alive. Once again God commanded and Ezekiel obeyed. He called the Spirit of God, which is the same as the breath, life was breathed into the bodies and there before Ezekiel was a great multitude of living people!
God then made a promise through Ezekiel that the whole house of Israel would experience resurrection, what is called the General Resurrection. They would return to their own land and would live, as a result of being filled with God’s Spirit. In this way, they would know that God is God, the Lord, one who does as he promises. In the midst of despair, God gave Ezekiel hope.
The situation when Lazarus died has echoes of this story in Ezekiel. The family was in despair, but Martha and Mary knew that had Jesus come when they sent him news of Lazarus’ illness, Lazarus would not have died. Perhaps they felt abandoned by Jesus in their hour of need, rather like the people of Israel long ago felt abandoned by God in their dark time.
Jesus however knew that Lazarus’ death was an opportunity to bring glory to God, to let the people know that God is God, the Lord. To be sure that those who witnessed the miracle would be convinced and give glory where it was due, Jesus waited to arrive four days after Lazarus had died. The Jews believed that the spirit of the person only stayed for three days after death. Beyond that the person was truly dead, just as dead, in fact, as the dry bones had been.
When Jesus arrived to meet Lazarus’ grieving family, he took the opportunity to help Martha express her faith. From what she said, she obviously expected the General Resurrection when everyone would rise again. Jesus knew there was a greater hope than that. He expressed it in that wonderful well-known passage which is read at funerals to comfort families in their loss: “I am the resurrection and the life. 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?”
God asked Ezekiel a question and challenged him to have faith despite what his eyes could see and his intellect could tell him. Jesus did the same for Martha.
Ezekiel prophesied using God’s word and the dry bones came to life. Jesus, the Word of God, shouted a command and Lazarus was restored to life.
Before they went to Bethany, Jesus had told his disciples that Lazarus’ death was for the purpose of glorifying the Son of God. It was intended to demonstrate who Jesus was. It’s not pleasant to dwell on death, but what happened to Lazarus pointed forward to what would happen to Jesus and that is something very positive and full of hope.
Jesus too was resurrected but his resurrection was of a different quality from that of Lazarus. The stone had to be moved to let Lazarus out of the tomb but no one needed to move the stone for Jesus. Lazarus hobbled out of the tomb still clad in the grave clothes; one day he would die again and be wrapped in grave clothes once more. Jesus left his grave clothes behind as he would never need them again.
Knowing that Jesus rose again gives us hope in the dark times of life. There is more to life than we can detect with our senses. When our senses say ‘Impossible’ our faith can say with Ezekiel: “O Lord God, you know”. When faced with the death of people or dreams or health, despite disappointment and despair we can turn to Jesus and remember he is the resurrection and the life. Ultimately, whoever believes in him will never die.
Perhaps on balance it’s not such a good idea to “give up Lent for Lent”. Despite the uncomfortable issues our attention is directed to, it’s also an excellent opportunity to be filled with hope.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor