God Brings Life Out Of Death
Many writers today suggest that the established church is in a state of decline and possible extinction. Some who look around congregations and see only grey heads, feel a hopelessness about the future. Others who know the biblical story of the Exile approach the challenge from a different perspective.
When the first wave of people were taken into exile in Babylon, about 500 BCE the people were saddened and humiliated. Five years later, following a failed uprising, Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the whole city of Jerusalem including the temple, and the people were completely devastated. It was into this devastation that Ezekiel prophesied the coming of a fresh breeze - the breath of God's Spirit. Little did the exiles know that this 50 year period without the temple structure, would later be described as the most formative of their history next to the exodus.
When the people, with the help of the prophet, accepted the exile as a call to repentance, it became a time to reflect and reorient (a fifty year Lent) and the beginning of a new era. During this time between 500 400 years before Jesus much of the scripture's oral tradition was written down and gathered together so that it could be pass on to later generation and eventually to us.
A Similar Opportunity Is Open To The Church Today.
The 1950s and 1960's were the period of our monarchy, like the golden years of David and Solomon. Some wish we could go back, and they lament its loss. Others are excited by the new breath that God can breathe into the church, if we are willing to acknowledge our need to live in exile for a while, we do not need to fear the destruction of the church, as it has been, because we are people of the resurrection. Under the guidance of God's spirit, the people in exile, discovered new way of worshipping and passing on their faith, we may well be at this point in our history and journey with God. Is it time once again for us to heed God's words? "behold I make all things new."
Last week we were reminded that Gods way of thinking is not always our way of thinking. If we are to work with God we must always be open to the possibility of something new. To hold onto what is familiar and comfortable may well mean we will miss journeying with God.
This doesn't mean that we should seek change for the sake of change. The people of Israel didn't throw out the stories of how God had worked with them throughout their history, but they looked again at that history, to see what God was calling them to be in the future.
In the reading from Romans it is important for us to see that Paul is talking about to different ways of living. In one we can focus upon ourselves, where needs and pleasures are the centre of our life's values.
Or we can acknowledge God's Spirit which guides us and directs us in ways that look beyond ourselves; just as Jesus looked beyond himself to the needs of others.
If we will follow the leading of God's Spirit, Paul tells us,
we will be freed from the things of the past that would hold us captive; from the mistakes we have made, in our relationships with one another, that stop us from becoming truly loving people and a community that supports and include all people.
Paul asks us," are we willing to open our selves fully to this Spirit of God, so that we can become more like Jesus; the one who reveals what it is like to be totally guided by the Spirit.
In today's story from the gospel of John.
We are given a picture of this one who is filled with the Spirit of God. Mary and Martha initiate the action by sending to Jesus a message that Lazarus their brother is seriously ill. Surprisingly, Jesus stays where he is for two more days and suggests to the disciples that the events are part of God's timing. Lazarus dies! When Jesus says that they should now go to Lazarus, the disciples remind him that only a short while ago the Jews wanted to stone him. But Jesus tells them that he must go an awaken Lazarus.
John tells us that Thomas says to the other disciples "Let us all go along with the teacher, that we may die with him". Martha meets Jesus and states that she believes, that if Jesus had been there Lazarus would not have died. Jesus tells Martha "Your brother will rise to life". Martha needs to be clear about what Jesus means and states that she believes that he will rise with all God's faithful people at the last day.
Jesus asks her if she believe resurrection and new life are also available now.
She replies "I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God."
There has not been a faith statement as complete as this, up to this point in the gospel of John. Jesus then turns to Mary, sees that she and the people are weeping.
Jesus also weeps. The people say "See how much he loved him" and others said, "He gave sight to the blind, could he not have kept Lazarus from dying"
Jesus asks the people to unseal the burial cave. He calls Lazarus "Come out." Lazarus comes out wrapped in grave clothes. Jesus tells the people to untie him and let him go.
John next records in verses 45-57 that the Jewish authorities now plan to have Jesus killed.
John sees this miracle as a sign which points to a truth about life.
Jesus knows that to go to Bethany where Lazarus has died will mean that he has to deal not only with Lazarus' death, but also with his own. John is telling us that new life is only possible when death is faced squarely.
Next Sunday we will celebrate Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We see that Jesus weeps over the city just as here at Bethany he weeps for the people. In both cases Jesus weeps because the people can't or won't see what God wants of them; that God is present in Jesus' words and actions. The people are not willing to face up to what Jesus life says about their own lives and so they seek to destroy Jesus and miss out on the life which God offers.
When the people of the exile, listened to the Spirit of God and let go of their old ideas of where God was to be found they discovered a new vision of God and found a new freedom to worship and a new strength to live as God's people. The writers of the new testament tell us that when the people of there day were willing to listen to the Spirit of God, they saw that God was present in the life of Jesus and this gave them a clearer vision of the life God called them to live and a new freedom and strength to live it.
Let us remember that it is only when the seed falls into the ground and dies that it is able to bear much fruit.
I discovered a prayer which sums up the cost of dying to self so that I might find the new life God offers.
Its called '"You ask so much, you give so much" by Kate Compston from a book called Women of Prayer, page 60.
O my Lord, you ask too much
All, is a little word to say
but it has roots at many points, like brambles.
When I think, Ive dug up everything and handed it over,
I find another shoot that Ive held back- my Lord.
O my Lord you ask too much.
To ask of Christ was one thing:
He was a part of you,
and had his mind fixed so unwaveringly upon you
To ask of me is quite another,
Torn as I am and hesitant
O my Lord, you give me so much.
If I could find the faith to offer back all that I am to you,
youd fill the void of my
with more than I have asked or known
O my Lord you give so much.
Help me to trust you for the wealth your holding out to me,
the light you offer for my darkness,
crown for cross
Give me the mind of Christ
that I may offer all at last
My Lord, my God, my life. Amen.