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Sermon for March 29, 2020, the 5th Sunday in Lent

Text: John 11

Our lessons today turn our minds toward death. We feel Mary and Martha's pain at the death of their brother. We know what that's like; we've felt the same kind of pain at the loss of our own loved ones. We can remember the blankness, the ache. We've caught ourselves listening for a footstep that never comes. We've moved through life as one in a dream, unable to take pleasure in simple joys that a few days before would have lifted our spirit and put a smile on our faces. We know what it's like to think that life will never be the same and we'll never be happy again. As Sir Walter Scott wrote when his wife died: "A kind of cloud of stupidity hangs about me, as if all were unreal what people seem to be doing and saying–a terrible picture taken straight from life." And maybe even more unsettling, as we look at the death of others, we can’t help but be reminded that we, too, will have to face death; we are mortal. And how frightening that realization can be sometimes, perhaps even more so now in this time when we’re sheltering at home because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. We're even letting non-perishable groceries stay in the garage for a few days, and washing and wiping down everything.

But what an example in the face of death we have in Martha: her strong character, quietness, and self-restraint. Her strength of mind and faith awaken a respect for her that deepens almost into reverence. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” What did she mean by that? Probably she herself hardly knew. And yet her attitude was very natural, and is often reproduced in other troubled, confused souls. For those connected to God, Christ is very near in times of trouble and sorrow. They know that they can trust him even when they don't understand the "why" of things. They do not know what to ask of him, yet they know that whatever he does, it will be the right thing. They are entirely sure of his interest in and compassion toward them. They've experienced his power and know that he will carry them through even this terrible sad time, comforting them as no one else could. And they leave it at that...with quiet, contented minds. Is it not an extraordinary tribute that we pay Christ when we leave our dead loved ones so confidently in his keeping? They are so dear to us and we know so little about the other world. Peer as we might, our eyes can make out next to nothing of Eternity. We don't really know for sure what the place we call heaven is like. And yet we watch our loved ones go into that dim unknown without a qualm for them. Why? Because Jesus is there and he has promised that where he is, his children will be also.

“Your brother will rise again,” said Jesus. Martha said bravely, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Faith can transform these human lives of ours, giving them new sense and meaning and richness.

To be assured that we are not mere blips on the screen, seen for a moment and then forgotten, to know that we and our loved ones are loved by our heavenly Father and that one day we shall meet our beloved again is a blessed thing. Christ speaks the same words of reassurance to us as he did to Martha two-thousand years ago, "I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, though they die, yet shall they live. And whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”

What a passage, so majestic that it has the quality of music rather than of mere words. It expresses truths deep and profound: In Christ there is life in the midst of death! The readings today are more about life than about death... life after death, eternal life in the resurrection; and, especially, life in the present moment. Christ is the resurrection and the life this side of heaven and beyond.

Our lessons point out is that there are many kinds of death that we must deal with. Yes, the physical separation we call death is one of them. But there are also the many deaths humans suffer every day—loss of hope, hate, self-pity, fear, revenge, being ignored, being ghosted by a friend, being unloved, being put down—these are kinds of deaths. How many times have I heard someone disparage those who work in our supermarkets or restaurants, especially fast food restaurants, or who deliver food, who stock grocery shelves, etc., as being ignorant and inept? “They don’t deserve $15 and hour and benefits!” Yet, they’re keeping us going now, aren’t they? They’re worth their weight in gold; they’re certainly worth as much as the corporations some of our representatives cozy up to at the expense of the U. S. tax payers, aren't they? And the people who experience these things - and in one way or another, that's all of us - need to be brought back to life as much as Lazarus did. “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me shall never die.”

Explain it how you will, this has happened time without number. And the one possible solution, the only key to the mystery, is Christ. When people believe in and trust him, life happens! It is Lent. A time to renew our trust in Christ and his promise of life after death; and even more, to be born again now—to come back to life now and to share that life with a dying world.

For Christ calls us, as he called Lazarus, from the depths of isolation and from the grave of depression, “Lazarus, come forth!” Like Lazarus, we have been called by name. When? At our Baptism! We were each beckoned to come forth by love, called by name into the joy and challenge of this life. Lent is a time to think about our Baptism, when in our swaddling clothes, like Lazarus in his grave clothes, we were dead in sinfulness. And then with a splash of water on our heads the word of God came to each one of us: “Come alive!” And it happened because it was done by the power of the same Spirit who raised Lazarus from the dead; the same Spirit that raised our Lord Jesus himself from the dead.

Lent is a time to think about our Baptism, and how that same Spirit dwells in our spirit. For like the Romans to whom Paul wrote, we live in the Spirit. We believe in Jesus whom God raised from the dead. His Spirit is the first gift to those who are baptized and believe in him. So Lent is a time for coming back to life, for consciously living in fresh ways, for coming back to our friends and neighbors to live more fully and share life more completely with them.

This is what we celebrate during these six weeks of Lent, especially every time we come here to read the Scriptures, sing hymns, pray, to reaffirm our faith, and to feed one another on the Bread of life and the cup of salvation that forgives the sins and mistakes of our old lives and builds us up in our new lives.

Lazarus died; but Jesus raised him. Lazarus died again; but he went before us in faith to the life that Jesus promised. We have died often; but we are always forgiven and given newness of life. We will die, but we have the promise of resurrection in our Lord.

For Jesus died, but the Father raised him up again, and he now lives with us. Christ is here. His presence gives us joy and strength on our journey through life. We are here today to acknowledge and touch that presence and rejoice in the life that he promises us.

Let us celebrate that life granted to us by the power of God!