April 2014 Sermons:
Ezekiel 37: 1-14
There’s a theme that runs through both our Old Testament and gospel lessons today. That theme is death! Both stories are spooky, with dry bones rattling in a valley and a wrapped-up mummy coming out of a tomb. But both stories testify to God’s power to lift us from death into life. In the story of the dry bones, and the story of the raising of Lazarus, God is saying to us, “Here is my Spirit, here is my breath. I am all around you. You are never alone.” These stories are wonderful words of life for us.
Let’s look first at the reading from Ezekiel. The prophet dreamed he stood in the valley of dry bones. Israel was in exile. The Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, had captured Judah, destroyed Jerusalem, and captured its king and his people to work as slaves in Babylonia. The temple was in ruins. Jerusalem was a ghost town. Ezekiel’s people had lost everything.
The people of Bethany, in the gospel lesson, were feeling defeated and hopeless, but for a different reason. Where had God been when Jesus’ friend, Lazarus, had breathed his last and was carried to the tomb? For four days, Lazarus lay dead. For Martha and Mary, those were days of despair. Where had Jesus been, when He was needed to save their brother? Where was Jesus, their friend, who preached resurrection? Jesus, who had been known to raise the dead? Jesus, who could have done something? Jesus arrived too late to save his friend…..or so it seemed.
The vision of the dry bones was a promise of life for Israel. Ezekiel was the one who saw it first. He dared to believe that God could bring life out of death. In the ancient prophet’s dream, God came to that desert graveyard where he stood. The bones came together and got new tendons and muscles and skin. But they didn’t actually come alive again, until God told Ezekiel to speak the word of the Lord to them. That’s how God empowered the prophet to revive that entire army.
The raising of Lazarus is one of the seven miracle stories in the Gospel of John. Remember Martha, Mary’s sister, the whiny one who slaved in the kitchen while her sister sat at Jesus’ feet? She was angry then. And Martha became even more angry when Jesus let her brother die by showing up late. But she didn’t close her mind to Jesus, even then. She was able to recognize that Jesus was far more than a friend, teacher, and prophet. She called Jesus, and after He told her, “I am the resurrection and the life,” He raised her brother, Lazarus, to life.
At some time or another, most of us have wished that someone we know, who has died, could be brought back to life, the way Lazarus was. We know what it is like to wish with all our heart that God would give our loved ones back. It’s not going to happen, at least not in the way Lazarus was brought back to life.
I firmly believe that God could raise the dead if God wants to, but I also believe that most of the time God doesn’t intervene in the natural order of life in that way. Where God is most involved, is in the spiritual order of things.
We live with death all around us— the physical losses of aging, the sluggish economy, loss of jobs, the ruined family relationships, natural disasters, wartime losses and the decline of churches. The Lenten season is important because it compels us, as Christians, to confront all that darkness. Who redeems your life? For most of us, even raising the question of our own redemption makes us feel uneasy. And there are two possible reasons for that. The first of the reasons connects with the sin of pride. We have put ourselves in place of God, and we’ve come to think somehow that we are at the center of the universe. We aren’t, of course. Christ is the one who saves us. But the way we live makes it clear that we really believe that we can, and should, be saving ourselves.
That was the Pharisees’ main problem. They get bad press in the New Testament, but they weren’t really bad. It’s just that they believed their strict obedience to the Jewish law and good works would redeem them. That’s a trap we have to watch out for, too. Self-help book displays in Barnes and Noble, that take up an entire wall, give people the impression that they can be totally in charge of everything. We can’t redeem ourselves, any more than the Pharisees could. Does that sound like bad news? It’s not. God tells us, in these ancient stories, that we don’t have to restore our planet, or our church, or our society, or our families, alone. God lends us the spirit to make a difference.
There’s another reason that some of us have trouble with the question, "Who redeems your life?" Some folks feel there’s no hope for them because, in their early lives, they were told that they were bad people. We often find that belief persists in the minds of people who were abused as children. Folks who are weighed down by guilt, come to believe that even God doesn’t love them.
We say that God loves us and cares for us. We say that Christ redeems us. But deep inside, we don’t believe either of those statements. Sometimes we think we’re good enough not to need redemption. And other times, we feel awful about ourselves, but we’re afraid that we’re beyond help. So it’s not so easy to answer the question, "Who redeems your life?" What we know, in our heads, to be the right answer, might not agree with the answer in our hearts. Good Friday will be here in less than two weeks. We’ve been thinking about our redemption and its connection with Christ’s death.
We know that without God, the world would be a graveyard. Ezekiel and Martha were open to the Holy Spirit. They figured out the real answer to the question: Who gives hope to the world? Is it us? Or is it God?
Sometimes we find ourselves trapped in tombs that are brought about by grief or illness or troubles. We aren’t sure Jesus can do anything for us. But even our weak faith doesn’t stop Him. God says, in these stories, “ I will give you life, and restore you to life, and fill you with life, and you will live.” There is no person alive, who can’t be touched by Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. As we lie there in our tombs, figuring that there is no hope, Jesus speaks to us. He says: “Come out. Come out! Come out of that tomb and live.”
Every year on Palm Sunday I wonder if I would have missed the parade, because I do not go to many parades. Most of us do not often line the street, wave branches, and cheer. We have too much to do to go to parades. Besides, lots of parades are disappointing—a few Shriners in funny hats, a middle school band playing "Louie, Louie," and a Junior Miss in a convertible. Parades can be silly and noisy. It is easier to stick with our routine. Yet, the road to the temple is lined with people who know how wonderful a good parade can be, and know that this is going to be the best parade ever.
Five hundred years earlier, the prophet Zechariah had said that one day there would be a parade like Palm Sunday. That ancient promise was etched indelibly in the mind of a glory-starved nation. For half a millennium, they kept an eye open watching for King David’s successor to gallop into town and assume the throne. For five hundred years these people have been hoping, wishing, and waiting to line the road. For five centuries everyone who thought it was time for the big parade has been wrong, and yet they keep dreaming. The orchestra has been rehearsing, "Happy days are here again" for five hundred years.
When Jesus decides it is finally time for the world’s most anticipated parade, they are ready. It is Passover—Israel’s Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas all rolled into one. Jerusalem is packed like Times Square on New Year’s Eve. As Jesus rides like a conquering king into his capital city, the people wave and cheer wildly. The owner of the dry cleaners suggests that everyone lay their coats before Jesus’ borrowed donkey. The holdouts with expensive jackets find palm branches and spread them like a royal carpet. Vendors are hawking refreshments, bags of confetti, and those obnoxious, long, skinny horns.
"Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest," they cheer until they are hoarse. Trumpets sound. Ticker tape flies. They laugh, dance and sing. The disciples think that it is the best day they have ever known and they are not far from the truth.
You would think Jesus would be smiling from ear to ear. Who would not love this kind of welcome? You might imagine that the next thing to happen would be that Jesus would go to a microphone and say, "Thank you, Jerusalem. What a fantastic parade. What a wonderful welcome. What a great crowd. I cannot tell you how happy the disciples and I are to be here. I appreciate your support. Together we can make this the biggest, best Passover ever. Give your selves a big hand."
That is not what happened. Instead, Jesus kept going straight to the Temple, right into the middle of the crowd in the narthex. Livestock salesmen are peddling animals for sacrifices. Sunday school teachers working on a fundraising project are making change. The sellers and moneychangers offer needed services, but the doves cooing and coins rattling make this a hard place for genuine worship.
Jesus sees a crowd gathered for less than sacred reasons. He smolders like a cooling volcano and then shouts: "Stop making God’s house a marketplace." Jesus brandishing a whip, overturning tables, driving oxen down the carpeted aisles of First Church on Palm Sunday should make us uncomfortable.
The problem is not that Jesus is angry, but that he is angry at church people. The ones selling animals and cashing checks are not bad guys who do not go to church. They are more like ushers—and we like ushers. They are good guys doing what the church has asked them to do. Jesus is furious with nice, normal churchgoers, because they have come to church and have not really given themselves to God. Their commitment is a mile wide and an inch deep, more like applause than commitment. They are fans, but they are not followers.
Five days later the grand marshal of the parade will be carried out of town in a casket. The parade turns out to be a death march. The new marshal does not get a badge, but a crown of thorns. The nameplate they nail over his head is a cartoon caption: "King of the Jews." The crowds now shout, "You were supposed to be king. What happened?" The path Jesus chose is revealed not only at the parade, but also at the temple, and most clearly at Calvary. The king’s followers are not following Him any more. It has become clear what it means to follow Jesus. It is not what we have been hoping for.
It is still tempting to praise Jesus without following Jesus. Like the Palm Sunday crowd, we want to see what we want to see. We would like a Messiah who makes our lives easier. I have in my mind the Messiah I think I would most enjoy following. You do, too. But in order to really follow, we have to give up our ideas about the path Jesus should choose, and admit that his way leads to the cross.
Some try to live as Palm Sunday Christians, keeping a safe distance from the one they are following. It is easy to attend services on Sunday and then give ourselves to making as much money as we can Monday through Friday. It is easy to pray for God to be with us and then to act as if we are on our own. It is easy to say that we are trying to love needy people and then find a dozen ways to ignore the hurting every day. We tend to serve unless the people we want to impress will not be impressed, unless others may disapprove, unless it will cost us, unless it is hard. It is easy to have a gaping chasm between what we applaud and what we actually do.
Jesus was courageous; we are careful. Jesus trusted the unworthy; we trust those with good collateral. Jesus forgave the unforgivable; we forgive those who do not really hurt us that much. Jesus was righteous and laughed at respectability; we are respectable and smile at genuine righteousness. Jesus had no place to lay his head and did not worry about it; we fret when we do not have the latest convenience. Jesus did what he believed to be right regardless of consequences; we determine what is right by how it will affect us. Jesus feared God but not the world; we fear public opinion more than we fear God’s judgment. Jesus risked everything for God; we try to make religion safe.
It is simple to set our own agenda and follow where our ambitions lead. That is why churches often reflect the popular idea of what it means to be a religious success. Christians are tempted to skip the struggles, and be cautious, discrete, and reasonable. The church is lured by comfort and security, tempted to line the road on Palm Sunday, but turn away when Jesus cleanses the temple and continues to the cross.
This is from the New Zealand Prayer Book, "Jesus, when you rode into Jerusalem the people waved palms with shouts of acclamation. Grant that when the shouting dies we may still walk beside you even to a cross." Christians are on a journey that goes all the way to the cross. Disciples take their place with Jesus, give their lives away, go to hard places and do difficult things. Meister Eckhart said, "There are plenty to follow our Lord halfway, but not the other half." Christ is forever asking, "Do you really believe that love is superior to success, comfort, an easy path? Do you really want to follow?"
What does it mean for people like us to be followers and not just admirers? We have to help our families take care of those who have no family. We have to give money away that we would rather keep, talk about what faith means when we would rather be silent, and do good for people who will not do good to us in return.
We follow Jesus in a thousand different ways: spending time with people who seem to have nothing to offer us, standing with the people who are losing, caring for those who’ve made terrible mistakes, doing good that will receive no applause, treating discarded children as God’s children, listening to a victim of Alzheimer’s who will not remember that you have listened. Following Christ means forgiving those who do not deserve forgiveness, treating success as an impostor, and praying not for an easier life but for strength.
If we follow Jesus, we will find that the journey offers only one guarantee: we will gain far more than we lose. Jesus changes all the definitions. Power, success, and even happiness, as the world knows them, belong to those who take them for themselves. Peace, love, and joy are gifts from God given to those who give themselves.
Palm Sunday, even with all the joy it represents, is not nearly enough. We need to lay down our tiny aspirations and take up the hope of following Jesus.
May the God of early mornings, be with you. (Pause) It was early in the morning, on that first day, when a voice told Mary that death had been defeated, and that Jesus was alive.
The Easter story in John’s gospel gets our attention, right from the start, with people running in a dark cemetery, just before dawn. First, Mary Magdalene rushed to Jesus’ tomb before sunrise. She carried no perfume to anoint the body. In John’s version of the story, the embalming of Jesus had already been completed. She went to the grave before anyone else was awake. Mary had a private reason for being there. She went to say a sorrowful good-bye to her faith and her dreams. Jesus was gone for good.
When hope dies, we have to put it to rest and get on with our lives. After we graduate, they won’t let us park in the student parking lot any more. We can’t keep going back to the office after the retirement dinner. If we return to the old neighborhood, we find a family we’ve never met, living in “our” house. Endings are part of life, but they aren’t easy.
This quiet cemetery was the place where her hopes had ended and her dreams had died. Why was she alone? Not everyone wants to go with Mary to the tomb of Jesus. No one wanted to go with her then, either. Before making such a trip, we need to ask ourselves, "Is there sadness in my life? Am I afraid of anything?" If the answer is, "No, everything is fine," then we don’t need to trouble ourselves with the tomb. We need not look back at all. If we’ve never thought about our own death, then we won’t feel any need for Easter. If we’ve never worried about the suffering in the world, ours or anybody else’s, then Easter holds no meaning for us. We go on, from day to day, finding what we need. The things we don’t need, we leave alone. Even if they are right in front of us, we don’t notice the things we have no use for. We don’t get out the lawn mower in December or the snow blower in June—or, at least, I hope we won’t have to!
The path to the tomb is for those who have dreams that have ended and hopes that have died. You need to make your way to the tomb if you feel unappreciated. You need to grieve if you have lost a job, or if you weren’t promoted when you should have been. The tomb is there for any of us whose friendships or marriages have failed, for those who have been deeply disappointed. It’s there for those of us who have dreams that will never come true. We bring our sorrows with us to the tomb, to say “Good-bye.”
But the tomb was empty. Mary was horrified. She felt robbed of her final good-bye to Jesus. She was too shocked to understand. She thought someone had stolen His body. She hadn’t even considered the possibility that He’d been resurrected. Jesus was dead and buried—or so she thought!
If Mary had never believed, it would have been easier. Some people come to terms with unbelief, early on. They end up trusting only in themselves—or they trust in the answers that make sense to them. Leaving the door open a crack, to consider the possibility of believing in the resurrection, can disturb all those solid and comfortable conclusions that help us get on from day to day.
Mary was there at the tomb because, for her, the door of belief had been opened for a time, and it was a wonderful thing. That had happened when she had followed the disciples on their hundred-mile walk from Galilee to Jerusalem. The men and women who served Jesus were brave and courageous. Robbers were hiding in the bushes along the way. There wasn’t enough water or food, and there was too much dust and too much heat. Their faith pushed them on.
Now, this dark morning after His crucifixion, seemed like the time to shut the door of Mary’s belief. But Jesus’ body wasn’t there. The sudden crack in the door of belief unsettled her. Mary wept and looked into the empty tomb for clues to what had happened. She saw two angels dressed in white. They didn’t frighten her. When you’re in shock, you don’t fear anything. She spoke to them as if they were nurses stripping an empty hospital bed. She cried, "They’ve taken him, and I don’t know where." The angels told her not to weep, but she didn’t hear a word they said.
Mary turned to leave and saw a man standing nearby. “Who is this man?” She wondered. Not Peter. Maybe it was the gardener? She treated Him like she treated the angels, not looking for miracles from Him either. "Sir, if you’ve carried Him away, tell me where, and I’ll take him," she offered.
Then she heard her name, "Mary." What would it be like to hear your name spoken, by someone you know to be dead? Someone you had loved? The voice of Jesus, the voice she heard in the cemetery, was the same voice which had inspired Mary in the first place. Without a doubt, it was the same voice which taught the multitudes, the voice which comforted the disciples on the stormy sea. It was the same deep voice that had spoken peace into Mary’s soul, when they had walked on the dusty path from Galilee. It was the voice of her Lord Jesus. The stone had rolled away from Mary’s unbelieving heart. The door to belief was opening, again, for her. Alleluia!
What Mary had thought was the end, was really the beginning. However large our vision of reality is, it’s not big enough to contain the reality of God in this world. Our sorrows are never the end of the story in the eyes of God. Far more important than the scientific and historical facts is the question we all ask, “So what?” What difference does resurrection make? The loving God who restores Jesus’ life wants to restore our lives. His Spirit gives life to all that has died within us.
God has given Mary a big job to do. She’s the first witness to the resurrection. “I have seen the Lord!” is her first sermon. Are you ready to take this good news out in the world, where people work and live? No angels are holding you back. There are no Roman soldiers telling you to go away. Go! Run from the darkness! Proclaim that Christ is risen indeed!
I’ve always felt sorry for the apostle Thomas. His nickname, "Doubting Thomas," has stuck with him for centuries. It’s too bad, because Thomas has an important message for us. The Sunday after Easter is one of those times when our own doubts about life after death start surfacing again.
On Easter, it’s not so hard to believe in the resurrection of Jesus. We had a full church on Sunday at ten last week. We can believe in a miracle when we’re surrounded by people who also believe. On Easter we sang those wonderful hymns we grew up singing. We knew that all over the world, other Christians were celebrating. We can always set aside our doubts on Easter Sunday. But last Monday and Tuesday were filled with all the work we had put off during Holy Week. Life didn’t seem different from the way it was the week before Palm Sunday—maybe just busier. It overwhelmed us, and our doubts set in again.
Jesus gave Thomas exactly what he needed for faith. He was in the right place at the right time. We aren’t as lucky as Thomas. We don’t have the opportunity to meet the resurrected Jesus and assure ourselves that He’s real. We see Him reflected in other people. We feel His presence in our lives, but it’s not the same as actually seeing Him, walking with Him, or reaching over and touching Him.?
Of course we experience doubts. We have to walk by faith and not by sight. We doubt our ability to discover God’s will for our lives, and to follow it. Even the most faithful people have doubts. In fact, I would venture to say that anyone who claims they never have doubts about their faith is either a saint, or a liar.
Some of the greatest preachers in history have had doubts. In his autobiography, Just As I Am, Billy Graham wrote of an incident that occurred just before his famous 1949 Los Angeles Crusade. His mind was heavily burdened with doubts about the Bible. Graham had his own version of Christ’s forty days in the desert when he went into the San Bernardino Mountains, knelt before a tree stump and opened his Bible. He wrote:
“The exact wording of my prayer is beyond recall, but it must have echoed my thoughts: ‘O God! There are many things in this book I do not understand. There are problems with it, for which I have no solution. There are contradictions. There are areas that don’t seem to correlate with modern science. I can’t answer some of the questions that others are asking me.’”
“I was trying to be on the level with God, but something remained unspoken. At last the Holy Spirit freed me to say it. ‘Father, I am going to accept this as Thy Word—by faith! I’m going to allow faith to go beyond my doubts, and I will believe this to be your inspired Word.’
Graham went on to write, “When I got up from my knees that night, my eyes stung with tears. I sensed the presence and power of God as I had not sensed it in months. Not all my questions were answered, but a major bridge had been crossed.” Graham wrote. “In my heart and mind, I knew a spiritual battle in my soul had been… won.”
Nowhere does it say that we must condemn ourselves for having doubts. Even Bill Graham had them. Jesus doesn’t condemn Thomas for being skeptical, though He does tease him a little about it: "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe." Have you ever thought of yourself as more blessed than the disciples, because you are someone who has not seen, and yet who believes?
Jesus does what he can to help Thomas get past his doubts, so that he can get on with the important task of being a disciple. Billy Graham got past his doubts. We can do it, too. We need to understand our doubts as areas for further growth. For example, most of us learn as children that "God is good" and "God is powerful." But as we become adults, we start to wonder. I do the most questioning of my faith and of God, when I’m reading or listening to the news. I wonder why God lets people do the things they do---if God really does love the world.
As we get older, and we suffer losses, we reshape our faith to make sense of our experiences. You can’t say "God is good" to a parent who has just lost a child and expect that person to accept what you are saying. You have to hear their doubts about God’s goodness, and even about God’s existence, and let God use those doubts to carry you to an even deeper faith.?
Doubting faith is still faith. It is all right to have doubts! God will help our unbelief, when we’re ready to do something about it. It’s also important for us to remember that the first words Jesus said to His disciples when He appeared to them on that first Easter evening were, "Peace be with you." He knew these men were troubled. He knew they were fearful. They had barricaded themselves off from the world. Jesus had to go through a locked door to get to them! He knew their faith had been shaken. And yet, He told them to be at peace. A week later, He said it again, this time with Thomas in the room. And He tells us the same thing, all us Thomases of the twenty-first century. "Peace be with you. I know you have doubts. But I am with you always, even though you cannot see me."?
We can have confidence in the presence of Christ among us. The risen Christ overcame the power of sin and death. Our doubts don’t hurt God, they only hurt us. That’s why we must work past them. We can’t complete that journey till we make it to the life beyond this one.
The story of Jesus and Thomas isn’t really a story about doubt versus belief. It’s about the living Lord. Jesus doesn’t scorn or mock Thomas for doubting. He shows Thomas the physical proof he asks for. Jesus meets us more than halfway if we offer Him our open minds. So the message today, for all us doubting believers is: Blessed are we, for listening to the words for scripture and experiencing their power and truth, and blessed are we for opening our hearts even though our minds are full of questions. Billy Graham did that, and He has brought thousands to Christ since 1949. Blessed are we for being here, in this gathered community, where our Lord has promised to be. Blessed are we who have not seen, and yet are coming to believe.
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
3005 S. Front Street, Whitehall, PA 18052 | 610-264-9693 | email@example.com
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