Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard

March 22, 2015

John 1-2, 14-27, and 32-36

“Jesus Weeps”

“Hear now these holy words of scripture from the gospel according to John, chapter 11, verses 1-2, 14-27, and 32-36.”

1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill.

14 Then Jesus told them (the disciples) plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” 17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles e away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

“May God bless our understanding of these ancient words.”

 

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What are we to do when life appears dry and hopeless?  When faced with a discouraging situation, what do we do?  How do we get past that impossible state of affairs?  You have been planning a special vacation for the past year.  The plans have been carefully laid out.  The reservations are all made.  Then something happens.  You are suddenly forced to cancel your plans.  Your dreams of lying on a ‘tropical beach’ with your spouse are shattered.  Your dream of finally seeing ‘Glacier National Park’ is taken away.

Sometimes hopelessness is more serious than a lost vacation.  We get a call from our doctor.  That last test showed a problem.  You are told to come in for more tests.  You are scared.  You are afraid to even talk about it.  The doctor sits you down.  The news is not good.  You feel hopeless.  Life as you knew it has been altered, your plans for retirement now seen meaningless.  You wonder how you will make it through the next hour let alone the next few days.  The despair is over powering.

You have been working really hard for a promotion.  You have put your heart and your back into it.  You can see yourself in that new office.

But, you were not factoring in the corporations downsizing policy.  Rather than moving up the ladder you are kicked off it.  Your position is eliminated.  You are forced to take an early retirement.  Or worst still you are simply let go with a small severance package.  You have a big mortgage.  The car is unpaid for.  You wanted your son to go to the best college.  You had hoped to finally buy your wife that dining room set, but now you can’t do any of these things.

I am reminded of a reading from the book of Genesis, chapter two verse seven. It reads like a two act play! First, we read of how God formed humankind from the dust of the ground. Then we read of how God breathed into our nostrils the breath of life. Only then do we become living beings. /Genesis 2:7/

As the process of life moves forward and evolves we hear the words of the Prophet Ezekiel. In chapter 37, verses 1-14, we are taken to the valley of dry bones; here we witness God’s creative power at work. What God does there in that valley is exactly the same as what God did on the last day of Creation when God made humankind. In fact, the people in their despair identify themselves with the dry bones. They said to one another: “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off;” /Ezekiel 37:1-14/ they felt like skeletons picked clean to the bone.

That whole scene of course is about disappointment, grief and hopelessness. What is needed is the breath of life, some faith and hope, the kind of breath and hope that only can come from God! Here we are in this current world, this society, this social structure that we live within, and all too often, we look around us and we see too many dry bones! Before we can breathe life into this lifelessness we must clearly see it for what it is!

Much of the Church, the Universal Church, is like a sleeping giant; much like the lifeless dry bones in the desert from Ezekiel. Among these churches, throughout Christianity and within the ranks of its members, there is the answer to the stagnation, the apathy and the lifelessness. All of the needed talent, the needed resources, of all types, including treasure and time, it is all there. Let us recognize that they are all currently within the church body. This, our church which we are a part of here, is not exempt from this critique. And as we look to the Universal Church, much like the dry bones in the book of Ezekiel, there are many examples of lifelessness. Sadly, we could say the same for some that are within and surrounding our own community. There are Christians that no longer even bother to come to church and some who come only now and then.

In contrast, when our parents were bringing up many of us from the Baby-Boomer generation, a large majority of families (say 80 percent) went to church. Now, here in the Twenty-First Century we are lucky if 20 percent of the population even bother to affiliate with a church. Some are so discouraged that they say, “What’s the use of trying? No one cares any longer.” Has faith diminished this much? Has the life of the church, as our parents knew it, died?

Everyone is eventually presented with a situation that seems hopeless.  Dreams are shattered and hope is destroyed.  Now what?  Just like the people of Judah and Jerusalem, it’s destroyed.  Our temple has been destroyed.  What are we to do?  We will feel like the dry bones in that desert.  When we have dismal and painful days, we should especially look to God for help.  Our Creator has the power to do something for us when no one else can.   We hear from the prophet Ezekiel that God’s Spirit gives Life, and from the Spirit comes the breath of life.  We become well and begin our life of wholeness entirely at the initiative of God.  The action is all God’s.  “God pitches.  We catch.  God pours.  We receive.  We are the vessels, the containers that lie open, ready and receptive to God’s filling.” /Author Unknown/  We hear the message of God’s Promise of New Life.  God is telling a despairing people about new life, a renewal of life, an awesome life that is coming their way.  Listen to the words of God as they come to you again and again.

In the gospel of John we heard how Lazarus had died.  Even Jesus was moved to tears.  Why did Jesus cry when he knew the end of the story?  Why would Jesus weep if he knew that as the Son of God, he could restore Lazarus to life?  In the following verses, beyond what was read for us this morning, that is exactly what happens.  Even as Jesus enters into our pain, our despair and hopelessness; Jesus also embraces the full power and magnitude of the Messiah, the Son of God. Listen to the voice that comes to us from our scripture lesson today, “Jesus calls Lazarus from the tomb”, thus conquering even the sting of death. “Jesus breathes life into Lazarus’ lifeless body”. {41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”} /John 11: 41-44/ Our God take’s the first step in the process of life.  Without the breath, which comes from the Spirit there is no life.  It is OK to grieve; yet, we must not lose our faith. We need to remind ourselves of the miracles that we do see and we do hear about.  We need to be reminded that life comes from God.

The power of God is clearly demonstrated.  Over and over again we hear of the steps God takes to restore hope, restore dreams and restores us to new life.  No, God does not promise that life will be as you and I have envisioned it.  Perhaps that career you chose for yourself is not the one God intended.  So when you pray to have it restored it feels as if God does not hear you.  But, if you stay open to the will of God, something new will emerge; something that will move you into the path God has called you to walk upon.  The doctor doesn’t know why, but now and then a person recovers from a fatal illness.  A new pathway opens us to renewed hope.

Like the dry bones, /Ezekiel 37:1-14/ we must “hear the word of the Lord” in order to live.  God does call upon the ordained clergy of this era to preach to smaller congregations.  Yes, pastors have been called upon to preach to empty chairs and lifelessness.  Every servant of God is forced to acknowledge that their power comes from God, not from themselves.
It is no less so for me or any other preacher in Palm Bay.   Pastors, preachers and congregations must acknowledge and be reminded that their hope, their essence and strength come only when they follow the will and guidance of God.  Preachers are only the messengers.  In like manner, the work of church leadership and committees are only the acts of discipleship whereby God takes the initiative.  Ezekiel was told to call to the winds to bring forth the breath of life to those dead bones, /Ezekiel 37:1-14/ the response came from God.  Ezekiel only did as he was told and he did so because his faith was strong.  The breath and voice of God is strong.  Listen for God’s breath and voice in your life!

The first step in faith comes from God.  The first breath of life comes from God.  God takes the initiative.  When we look to the Universal Church and say that it is adrift and lifeless, we must then look to the living words of God, the breath of the Spirit, to awaken it.  How many times has The Riviera United Church of Christ, gone through significant changes and yes, difficult times?  Yet it lives.  One hundred and twenty-five years after it was formed, it still lives.  Can any one man or woman take credit for this?  God created humankind and breathed life into lifelessness.  God’s breath is upon this church right now today!  The Spirit of God has poured the breath of life back into the very soul of this church; you can feel it and you can see it. Why, it is even evident in the freshly decorated and painted walls of our nursery, our Sunday school and youth rooms!  That life comes only from God!

Just as Jesus wept for Lazarus, so also does our Living God weep for the dead churches throughout our country.  What has been dead or faltering can be restored to life, if we preach the living words of God to it, just as Ezekiel preached to the dry bones in his vision.  The voice of God, comes to us through the Spirit, seen so clearly in the works of Jesus and in the voice of Ezekiel, whom says to us: “This is what the Lord says to his people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back.  Then you my people will know that I am Lord.  I will put my Spirit in you and you will live.” /Ezekiel 37:12-13/

When dreams are shattered and hope is lost and all seems lifeless, turn toward the ‘breath of life’ that comes from the East, the West, the North and the South.  Allow God to take the first step in your life.  Realize that without the breath that comes from God: that you, we, all of us, are like the dry bones on the desert, without life.  Yes, many are as dead as Lazarus was when Jesus approached the tomb that day.  Yet, there is still hope, a lot of hope!  Call upon the incarnate word of God.  Tell those that are dead or dried up and breathless to hear the teachings of Christ!  There is hope.  Have faith that God’s Spirit will fill you, will fill them, with the breath of life.

Amen.

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