Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, 2011
Lent is a time for stripping down. A time to unbind and be set free. A time to be stripped down to bare, dry bone, thirsting for the breath of God.
The stripping down begins with the temptations. Jesus has been in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights. He is hungry. He thinks of the world’s hunger. He is tempted by a devil to turn stones into bread to feed the world. But he knows the world’s real thirst: the word of God.
He is tempted to test God, to throw himself from the top of the temple to see if the angels will save him. But Jesus knows that even if someone comes back from the dead they won’t be believed to be the Son of God. All he will be is dead.
He is tempted to become emperor of the universe so he can bring God’s reign instantly. But he knows this will not work; the world needs to learn to worship God, first, before the coming of the kingdom can be a blessing to them.
So, after this testing and stripping away, Jesus is ready – free to be God’s word in the world, to bring God’s message of peace, reconciliation and mercy where it is not wanted but is desperately needed. Free to live as God’s beloved child and to die for the sake of God’s love.
For the most part, he will not be appreciated for who he was and what he did, until the worldly powers, represented by the Emperor Constantine, declare him legitimate and make his faith the law of the land, as though the temptations were run in reverse. Satan’s words come back to haunt us: “I will give you all the power of the world if you will fall down and worship me.”
Meanwhile, in John’s gospel, our unbinding, our stripping down to dry bone begins.
Nichodemus comes in the dark to ask questions. He is hungry for something but he doesn’t know what. Jesus has said things that make him think, things that churn in his mind. And so he comes, but at night, in case he should be seen to be a fool.
Nichodemus sees and hears the Light but he is still blind. He does not get it. But Jesus doesn’t give up on him. He knows it is always worthwhile to sow seed. You never know when it will sprout. At the beginning of Lent, we are like Nichodemus: seeds are sown but what will come of them?
Then Jesus spends time with a Samaritan woman. She is at the village well at the time of day respectable women are at home. So we know she is a Samaritan, she is a woman, and she is a disreputable woman at that. But she thirsts, and so she is at the well. Then we learn she has had five husbands and is not even married to her current man. Her thirst may be for more than water.
Jesus speaks with her and her spirit is set free from the chains of social convention, of prejudice and ignorance. A man, not her relative, has spoken to her in public and conversed with her on deep things of the soul, like an equal, like one who can be taught. Shackles fall from her and she runs and spreads the word of Jesus.
Maybe by now, we are beginning to realize that for which we thirst, and maybe we are getting an idea what it will take to satisfy that thirst.
Next, Jesus sees a man born blind. His disciples, like us, are concerned with externals and convention: the law says that disease and disability are caused by sin. Therefore there must be sin present in the man or his family for him to be born blind. But before their very eyes Jesus shows the old way of seeing things to be true blindness.
In receiving his sight, the man goes through a transformation, as people question if it’s really him, and he starts to speak the truth of his life and comes, finally, to recognize that it is not the vision of his eyes he has received, but the unbinding of his spirit from inner blindness. He recognizes Jesus for who he is and he worships him.
Finally, today, we reach the tomb of Lazarus. The end of hope. The grave. There is no life here. Is this where our Lent is to end? In tears?
Here at the grave of Lazarus, Jesus, who would not be tempted by Satan to throw himself from the temple to see if the angels will uphold him, now hears God’s own voice clearly and speaks God’s words, “Lazarus! Come Forth!”
From where is Lazarus being called, and to what? The Jewish tradition was that the soul is still with the body for three days. But it is now day four. Lazarus is truly dead. The corpse is decaying. It smells. Any body that comes forth will be full of rot.
And yet, Lazarus comes forth, from the dark, bound, blind, and helpless.
“Unbind him,” Jesus commands. “Unbind him and set him free.” The people remove the funeral shroud and the body wrappings. Under it all, Lazarus stands, alive.
But is he still Lazarus? The same Lazarus?
Those bones on the valley floor, over which Ezekiel spoke God’s words of resurrection, were once human beings. As God reclothes them in sinew and flesh and blood, and as God breathes the breath of new life into them, they will look the same as they did before they died, just as Lazarus looks the same as he did four days ago. But will they be the same?
How could they be? How could Lazarus be, the same? They have been brought back from the fullness of life with God, to this place of blindness, thirst, hunger, fear, prejudice, war, pestilence and death. They will die again one day. Are they angry?
Or do they now live without fear, the fear that binds us in our fears and anxieties, our selfishness and greed, our prejudices, our blindness and the shackles of a tame religion?
After the desert, Jesus lived without fear. He embraced the outcast and the sinners without fear; he faced his detractors without fear; he taught us to love our enemies without fear; and in the end he went to his death without fear, the kind of fear that paralyzes the man or woman into doing what is expected or polite or acceptable, the fear of what people will think or do if we think and say and do what Jesus did.
Lent is an invitation to unbinding. An invitation to be stripped down to bare, dry bone. An invitation to ask, “What can my spiritually dry bones teach me? What can they tell me about myself? What can they tell me about God’s intentions toward me?”
The desert of temptation, the valley of dry bones, the dark night of the soul, the searing thirst of desire, the blindness of not knowing where we are going, the fear of death and annihilation, none of these places are unknown to Jesus, or to God. There is no place God cannot redeem and transform.
It is true that if we allow ourselves to be stripped and unbound, we do not know what we will be like once we are transformed by the voice of Jesus and the life-giving breath of God. Yet Lent holds before us this truth: Those who would be unbound, will be reborn free.
The people of this world are dry bones. Our nations are dry bones. Our churches are dry bones. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” And yet, God can and will open our graves and bring us out into a place of refreshment, and will live in us and make us free. All that is left is for us – our nation, this church, ourselves – to allow ourselves to be unbound and set free, without knowing what that future will look like or what it will bring.