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Sunday’s sermon: Breathe

Audio

Grace, hope and peace to the gathered community as we meet, not in person, but in the person of Christ Jesus who binds us together beyond boundaries of time and space and solid lines on manmade maps ….

I love this Sunday in Lent which marks the beginning of Passiontide. It is a time of prophecy and of promise as we get ready for the old, old story of Jesus’s joyful entry into Jerusalem, his final meal with the disciples in the upper room, his anguished prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, his trial before Pontius Pilate who chooses to wash his hands of him, his slow death on Calvary’s cross between two thieves, and – ultimately – his resurrection. Our Scriptures on this fifth Sunday in the wilderness journey give us something to hold onto us we face the darkness that lies ahead. 

As we lead into a time of prayer this morning, I invite you to take a moment to light a candle or open a curtain and be reminded that we are a people of promise, prophets in this time who kindle a flame to lighten the dark and take our fear away. 

You may want to listen to the chant below as you do so, or to simply repeat the following words three or four times:

Kindle a flame
to lighten the dark,
and take our fears away.

Let us pray (based on Psalm 130):

Lord, we cry out to You
from the very depths of our despair.
Hear our voice. 
Listen to our plea for mercy
and answer our prayers.
You do not measure us 
and find us unworthy.
You do not mark our sins 
and find us unclean.
You welcome us with Your forgiving love –
so we love and worship You.

We wait for Your word of hope;
We expect Your breakthrough;
We long for the morning’s light.

Keep us hoping,
keep us trusting,
keep us waiting 
on Your tender heart 
and Your liberation. 

In Jesus’ name.
Amen.


So we hear the words of the prophet Ezekiel 

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”

Ezekiel 37:1-14, NRSV

Our Gospel reading (which you are welcome to take a moment to read in John 11) paints, for me, one of the most intimate pictures of Jesus that we find in Scripture. 

It is a story of relationship, of friendship, of deeply human connection which we know because it begins by fleshing out for us the characters who make it so real and relatable. 

We know Mary and Martha from the Gospel of Luke and remember how one – Mary – chose to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to his teaching while the other – Martha – did not have too much of a choice in taking responsibility for extending the hospitality of their household to Jesus and his followers. We are told that Mary was the one so moved by love for the Christ that she anointed his feet with an expensive perfume and wiped them with her hair. We hear quite plainly in verses 4 and 5 that Jesus, in turn, loved each of them: Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, the brother who lived with them in the village of Bethany.

Yet, Lazarus is ill. It is obviously a serious sickness for Mary and Martha write to Jesus with the expectation that he, their beloved friend, will come immediately and help – even though the Jews in Judea have recently tried to stone him. 

That’s friendship. The reaching out for the comforting presence of another in a time of need and knowing that they will show up because that it the nature of the love between you, because the give and take and mutual self-offering is how it has been consistently over time ….

But Mary and Martha wait. They wait and they worry. They take turns looking out the door or the window for a sign that the one they have sent for is coming. They wait and they worry and they watch. They watch helplessly as the day turns to night and Lazarus slowly slips away. 

Hope turns to grief. Without breath, Lazarus’ body is buried – to return again once skin and flesh and sinew have decomposed to dry bones, to the ashes of the earth.

It is only four days later that Jesus shows up and, in an interesting turn, it is Martha who goes first to greet him. In the bleakest of circumstances she professes, “Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” 

We can move quickly now to the end of the story where the stone is taken away and Jesus calls his friend out of the tomb and all who see Lazarus breathe again believe that Jesus is not just some healer but the Promised Messiah, the Resurrection and the Life.

Yet I would have us wait for that moment between Martha’s professed faith and the miracle, to sit with the heavy accusation that falls from Mary’s mouth when she sees him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” to open ourselves up to the anguished weeping that moves Jesus himself to weep – even though he knows that this story will end with restoration and resurrection. 

In the quiet, I invite you to breathe. 

To breathe in deeply the breath of God, the gift of Spirit. To breathe out slowly the grief, the pain, the disappointment, the loneliness, the fear, the questions, the heartache that has settled deep within our bones. 

Breathe in the promise of restoration and resurrection, and breathe out the years of longing, watching, waiting, weeping, praying with little sign of the newness coming, of the vision taking shape. 

Breathe in the love and friendship and intimacy of the Christ who weeps with us in the darkest night, and breathe out that love, that friendship, that intimacy as though you are filling the whole world with it. 

Just breathe … and in your breathing in and out, I invite you to hold all who are struggling to breathe in this time through sickness or sorrow or suffocating life circumstances before God. 

Lord, we cry out to You
from the very depths of our despair.
Hear our voice.
Listen to our plea for mercy
and answer our prayers.

Amen.

May you know the friendship of God
who draws near to us in the darkest of days,
who weeps with us when we are weeping,
and who leads us to resurrection life.

And can it be that I should gain
An int’rest in the Saviour’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain –
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

’Tis mystery all! The Immortal dies!
Who can explore this strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love Divine!
’Tis mercy all! let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.
’Tis mercy all! let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.

He left His Father’s throne above,
So free, so infinite His grace;
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race:
’Tis mercy all, immense and free;
For, O my God, it found out me.
’Tis mercy all, immense and free;
For, O my God, it found out me.

Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine!
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness Divine,
Bold I approach the eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Bold I approach the eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

Charles Wesley, Together in Song 209