Sunday, 23 April 2017

Easter 2: What kind of seed are you?

Easter 2 17

Last week, on Easter Sunday, I preached about Jesus being mistaken for a gardener by Mary Magdalene, and about how that might not be such a mistake after all. Jesus really is a gardener, a gardener of souls, one who plants and waters and nurtures us, hoping for a harvest of the fruit of the spirit. I gave everyone a runner bean seed, and my guess is that at least some of them are starting to send out roots in a pot of compost in people’s homes. I hope so, anyway. Runner bean seeds are pretty reliable to germinate, and fairly quick at this time of year, given a bit of heat. So long as the slugs don’t get them, they should be up and away in no time.
But this week I wanted to continue the horticultural theme, because runner beans aren’t all that’s growing at the vicarage. I’d like to show you this...

It’s a pot of seedlings – they look a bit like grass, but they aren’t. Last summer I noticed that the Regal Lilies I have in the border had set seed. Normally I snap the old flower heads off when they have finished flowering so their energy goes into building up the bulbs, but I’d forgotten, and they formed big, fat seed heads. I let them ripen, and eventually they split open. They were full of seeds. Now, that’s red rag to a bull if you like growing things. I didn’t know whether they were likely to be viable, but what did I have to lose? I did a bit of research, which told me that lily seeds didn’t need any special cossetting or heat, so I sowed them in this shallow tray of compost, and I left them outside. And there the tray sat. It sat there through the autumn. Nothing happened. The seeds were rained on, snowed on, frozen solid from time to time.  The early spring came. Still nothing happened, and I was about to give up when I noticed a green shoot poking up through the compost, and then another and another. Now I have a whole tray full of lily seedlings, which I will eventually pot on. I don’t expect they’ll flower for years, but here they are.

 The thing about lily seeds, you see, is that they are seeds which need what is called “vernalisation”. Lilies might seem exotic, but their seeds need to be exposed to the cold of winter before they will germinate. It’s a trick some plants have evolved to help make sure that their seeds don’t germinate in the autumn, because then the fragile seedlings would risk being crushed by snow, or blasted by cold winds. Far safer to overwinter as a seed and start growing in the spring. If you don’t want to wait all winter, you have to cheat by putting them in the freezer for a few weeks.

Now, you may be starting to wonder whether this is a sermon or an episode of Gardeners’ Question Time?  But it was the story of Thomas, which we heard in the Gospel reading which reminded me of them. He was the disciple who wasn’t prepared to believe in the resurrection instantly, just because everyone else told him it had happened. He features just a couple of times in the Gospels, and when he does, he often seems to be asking questions. Jesus tells his disciples on the night before he dies that he is going away, but that they know the way to follow him. It’s Thomas who says what they are all thinking. “No, we don’t, Lord! We don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”  And now, after the resurrection, he wants proof. He wants to put his hands in the nail marks and spear mark. Then he’ll believe. So Jesus comes to him, and beckons him to do just that. Jesus is happy to appear to Thomas and give him the evidence he felt he needed, so that he could believe and “believing, have life in his name.”

Whatever else this story tells us, it tells us that it’s ok to be different from one another when it comes to faith, just as it is in every other part of our lives. Some people here may have had an intense religious experience, and never had a doubt in their lives afterwards. They may never have felt the need to ask questions, and are rather baffled by those who do. For others, faith has always been tentative and questioning, but maybe all the stronger for it. For some faith is an instant thing. For others it may have taken years of tiptoeing around the edges before they start to trust God. Some have come to faith through the ministry of friends, or something that happens in church. For others it has come out of the blue through something quite unrelated. Some come to faith in hard times. Others lose their faith in those times. Faith may change over the years. In fact, it would be odd if it didn’t. It may be lost and found and lost and found again, and again, and again. It may need nurturing in different ways at different times in our lives.

That’s why these seedlings seemed to have a message to share this week.  Every sort of plant is different. We might be runner beans, needing a bit of warmth to germinate, or we might be lilies, who need to go through a hard winter before our seed coat breaks open. We may be something else completely. Whichever we are is fine. What’s important is that we realise that we are all seeds of some sort, full of life and potential. It’s just that we all need different conditions to grow as we should. God knows those needs, just as he knew Thomas’ needs. He takes us seriously, just as he took Thomas seriously. What we need to do is take ourselves seriously and seek out the nourishment he offers, putting our roots down into the soil in which he plants us.

Thomas, once he’d made his commitment, didn’t look back. There was no stopping him once he’d got started. “My Lord and my God!” he said. Legend has it that he went eastward with the message of the gospel, and ended up in India, where he was eventually martyred, but not before he had started a church there, a church which continues to this day. The Mar Thoma Church of India, a Syrian Orthodox church, traces its origin back to Thomas – it’s there in their name. Mar Thoma – St Thomas. I haven’t counted how many lily seedlings I’ve got here but it’s a lot, but they all came from one flower on one plant. One man, Thomas, nurtured into life a church which has sustained the faith of countless millions of Christians through the ages.

Each one of us can have an effect on the lives of others if we allow God to do his work through us. It may not be as dramatic as Thomas’, but it can be very significant nonetheless.  We don’t have to go to India to have that effect either. It can be as simple as helping a neighbour, getting involved in a campaign for justice, offering to pray for someone who is going through a hard time, inviting them along to something here that you think they’d enjoy – whatever will help them to find the life which they need at that moment.

God calls us as we are, because he needs us as we are. In Thomas, he called someone who would question, because he wanted and needed someone who would question to be part of that team of people who first heard the message of Jesus. He calls us too. Noisy people, quiet people, extraverts and introverts, traditionalists and radicals, people with Ph.D.’s and people who left school with no qualifications at all, people whose faith journey has been straightforward and people who have to wrestle with doubts every day, and who’ll never feel sure of their faith, but keep turning up anyway. You, as you are, can do things for God that no one else can do, because of who you are and where you are. And if you don’t do them, perhaps no one ever will.

God calls us as we are, because he needs us as we are. He nourishes us with what we need, so that we can grow into people who are full of life, and that life can seed itself in others too.

So, what kind of seed are you? What do you need in order to grow? What are you going to do today to put down your roots into God and draw up the nourishment you need?

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Easter Sunday: The Gardener God

“Supposing him to be the gardener, Mary said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away , tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away…”

“Supposing him to be the gardener…”
It just seems like a throwaway line in the Gospel reading today. Mary’s first thought when she encounters the risen Christ is that he’s the gardener. It’s an odd little detail, and it’s easy to think it’s really not important.

But John’s a careful and meditative writer. He always chooses his words very deliberately, so if he tells us that Mary thought Jesus was the gardener – not just a passing stranger or a general labourer - it probably means something beyond the obvious statement of fact.

Israhel van Meckenem (German, ca. 1445–1503),
Noli me tangere, 1460–1500.
Engraving. British Museum, London.
Of course, it’s quite understandable that Mary might expect to see a gardener in a garden, and she certainly didn’t expect to see Jesus, but it’s such a specific description that commentators have been convinced from the earliest times that it was significant, and I’m inclined to agree with them. Artists have often picked up on this detail too. They’ve often painted Jesus with a spade – as the picture in the service sheet shows -  or even in full gardening gear, floppy hat and all. It can look a bit daft, frankly. Why would the risen Christ need a spade? Was he planning on getting a few cabbages in the ground before he went to see the disciples? No, surely not.

John puts in this detail because he wants us to have the image of a gardener in our minds as we listen to what unfolds. He wants to trigger a whole set of associations which, if we know what they are, will bring deeper resonances to this story.

Gardening and gardens are a recurrent and very significant theme in the Bible. It all starts in a garden, after all. Genesis chapter 2 tells us that “The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed.”  God planted it. It was a deliberate act. He was the very first and best gardener, and his was the first and best garden.

In the ancient Middle East gardens were highly prized. The ancient Persian word for a garden gives us our word “paradise”, and it’s no accident that heaven was described as a paradise too. The word literally meant an enclosed space, somewhere that could be cultivated and protected, unlike the wilderness outside its walls. It was a place to produce food, but also to relax and to socialise, just as our gardens are now. To plant a garden you needed to learn how to control your environment, how to irrigate, how to sow seeds and nurture what you’d planted. It was a mark of civilisation and status to have a garden, and the skills of the gardener were highly prized too.

The story from Genesis tells us that God, the master gardener, came walking in that first garden, the garden of Eden, in the cool of the evening breeze, just like any earthly gardener might have done. He wanted to enjoy what he’d made, with the people he had made it for. But he couldn’t find them. They were hiding from him, ashamed. It had all gone wrong, and they were driven out of the garden as a result.

You don’t have to believe in a literal Eden in order to understand the sorrow in that story. The people who wrote it weren’t writing science or history. They were writing the story of their own hearts and lives, which were shot through, as all our lives are, with regrets and failures and with an awareness that things weren’t as they ought to be. 

But God, like all good gardeners, wasn’t about to give up on them. Gardening, it seems to me, is an activity that demands hopefulness from us. Every year those of us who like to “grow our own”, sow thousands of seeds. Some never germinate. Those that do are decimated by disease, slugs, rabbits, greenfly, whitefly and a thousand other threats.  If we’re lucky a few make it through to the harvest but there are always a lot of disappointments. Yet each spring we start again, hoping to do better this year.

But our patience and hopefulness is nothing compared to God’s, according to the Bible. He sticks with his people through thick and thin. he rescues them from slavery in Egypt. He goes with them into exile in Babylon. The prophet Isaiah described Israel as a vine, one which God has carefully planted and tended, but which only bears wild grapes, small and sour.  (Isaiah 5) Yet God doesn’t give up on them. Isaiah goes on to say that God “will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord;” (Isaiah 51.3).

In the New Testament too, there’s a lot of gardening going on. Jesus often uses gardening imagery to talk about the kingdom of God. It’s like a sower sowing his seed indiscriminately on both good and bad ground, trusting that some of it, at least, will grow. It is like a tiny seed which grows into a tree big enough to shelter all the birds of the air. Jesus describes himself as a vine. His Father is the vine-dresser who grafts us onto him, so that we can share his life. He says too, just before his crucifixion, that he’s like a grain of wheat that has to fall into the ground and die, so that it can produce an abundant harvest.
And later on, the first Christians describe the Holy Spirit as something that produced fruit in them of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control.  Gardens and gardening is everywhere in the Bible when you start to look for it.

So when John wrote that Mary mistook Jesus for a gardener, I am sure he expected his readers to pick up on some of these associations. Mistaking Jesus for the gardener wasn’t an incidental detail, and, in a sense, it wasn’t really a mistake either. Jesus really is a gardener. He might not grow turnips or tomatoes, but he does grow souls. In his life and death and resurrection, the kingdom of God sprouts up into the world. That’s what this detail in the story is there to remind us of.

Hope pushes its way up through the cold clay of despair. Love finds a crack in the concrete of our hearts.  Joy lodges itself in a cranny in a high wall and breaks it apart by the power of its roots. One Galilean carpenter, dying on a cross because he wouldn’t go back on the message of love and welcome he had preached, started it, but we are given the privilege of continuing it. It only takes a seed or two to get this kingdom started, a small decision on our part, a single act of kindness, a word of welcome, and everything changes. And from those small beginnings, those single seeds, God can change the world.

Resurrection, when it comes on that first Easter morning, isn’t a grand event. The heavens aren’t torn open. There are no trumpets, no golden letters written on the sky. Resurrection is a green shoot of hope for a grief-struck woman who hears a voice call her name, and realises that her dead heart has unfurled into life again. It is a germinating seed of joy for two tired disciples on the road to Emmaus, who discover that the stranger who has walked beside them all the way is the Lord they thought they’d lost. Resurrection becomes real in the lives of those who encounter the risen Christ because their own lives burst into growth again through meeting him. And one by one, seedling by fragile seedling, they in their turn bring new life to the world, and the garden of God’s kingdom grows.

That’s why, today, I wanted to give you a seed to take home. It’s a runner bean seed. You can do what you like with it – just don’t eat it raw, because runner bean seeds are mildly toxic till they are cooked! You can keep it, hold it as you think or pray, or even sow it if you like and see what happens – there are no guarantees that you’ll be eating a crop come the summer, but you’ll never know if you don’t try.  Whatever you do, use it to help you think about your own life.  

Perhaps it will remind you of the seeds you need to sow – the new beginnings you need to make, the dreams you’ve never dared express, the things you always meant to do, but somehow haven’t got round to.

Perhaps it will remind you of the things that are already growing in you, that need feeding and watering, pruning and training, the relationships that need caring for, the bridges that need repairing.

Perhaps it will remind you of the fruits God wants you to share with the world, the gifts you have to give which could nourish and enrich others, but which you have never felt confident enough to offer.

I don’t know what God needs to do in the garden of your life. But what I do know - and I am utterly confident of this - is that we can trust his gardening skills. This Easter morning, the gardener of souls calls our name, as he called Mary’s.  He calls us to life. He calls us to growth. He calls us to abundant fruitfulness.  And nothing can make him give up on us.


Friday, 14 April 2017

Good Friday Afternoon: Home for Easter

I don’t suppose you can have missed the picture here at the front. It’s Rembrandt’s
“Return of the Prodigal Son”. It’s a famous image, of an even more famous story, one which most people know, even if they aren't churchgoers.
The Return of the Prodigal, by Rembrandt c.1667

I’ve used it to accompany a display that’s all about home – the children and adults at Messy Church this morning made some junk-model houses to accompany it -  because it seems to me, that’s what the story is about.   It’s about home – leaving home, returning home, but also about the more subtle sense in which we can feel “at home”, or not, as the case may be.

The younger son’s journey away from home and back is obvious. He asks for his inheritance, which his father gives without comment or judgement, and leaves for a distant country. When the money runs out – and so do the friends and the fun – eventually, in desperation, he comes back, only daring to hope that his father might take him back as a servant.

His father has other ideas, though, and the picture captures the moment when he embraces his son, having run to meet him. He doesn’t just take him back into the heart of the family. He throws a lavish party to celebrate.

But the story isn’t just about the younger son. There’s an older brother, too, who has been dutifully, if rather resentfully, working on the family farm throughout all this. When he hears the noise of the party, he’s furious.  He’s never even been given a goat to feast with his friends, he says to his father, never mind had a fatted calf killed for him. But his father answers, rather bemused, “You are always with me, and all that I have is yours.”  He only had to ask, and he could have had whatever he wanted. He has been at home all the time, but somehow never seems to have felt “at home” able to trust that his father loves him, that he can, in the best sense, take this love for granted and relax into it. The younger son has wasted his inheritance on “loose living” as some translations put it, but the older son wastes it on tight living, because he never dares to call on it at all.

But what, you might be asking, has all this got to do with Good Friday, this day when we remember Christ dying on the cross?

Well, it seems to me that the death and resurrection of Christ also have profound things to say to us about our sense of home. On the cross, Jesus comes to a place where no one would want to find themselves. He comes to a place of suffering and death - the killing fields of Calvary – where he is literally pinned down by hatred. He comes to a place where people are looking for someone to scapegoat, someone to mock and belittle. He comes into the midst of the power struggles and political turmoil of his time and allows himself to become the whipping boy on whom the Roman and Jewish authorities take out their jealousies and fears. He comes into a situation where he is helpless, just as so many were in his day, and still are in ours.

He comes, in other words, to places where we all find ourselves at some point, and which some have to inhabit all the time. He comes to places where we find ourselves estranged from one another, estranged from goodness, estranged from hope, estranged from God.  We may not know not quite know how we got into there, when we are in these places. But what we do know, deep down, is that we are a long way from home, a long way from where we should be, a long way from where we need to be.

“Father of all,” we pray in the Communion service, “we give you thanks and praise that when we were still far off, you met us in your Son and  brought us home.”  Christ comes to these places in which no one wants to be, and brings us home.  Or perhaps, more accurately, he comes to these places and, simply by being there, turns them into home, transforming them – and us - with his love. “Father forgive them” he prays for the soldiers who nail him to the cross. “Today you will be with me in paradise,” he says to the thief who hangs beside him, as if he’s the king of the universe, not just another crucified man – and of course, he is right. He is the king of the universe, and the cross becomes the gateway to his kingdom.

“Be at home in God,” says one anonymous proverb, “and the whole world will be your home.”  Or, as Jesus put it, “The Kingdom of God is among you… within you… close at hand.”  If that is true at all, if the Kingdom really can be right here and right now, it means that God isn’t just at home in the good things of life, in the glorious sunset, or the unfolding bluebells. He’s also at home in the squalor of a refugee camp, or the hopelessness of a prison cell, or the agony of grief. In fact, if God can’t be in these places, can he be anywhere at all?

For Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus is the proof of God’s presence in the worst of human experience, and the darkest of places, transforming them by his presence. Where God is, there is home, a place where we are loved and ultimately safe.

The hymn we are going to sing later in the service reminds us powerfully of this, and even more so when we know the rather convoluted story behind it. If you followed our daily reflections on hymns this Lent you may remember some of that story. The first couple of verses were originally a Swedish poem, written in the late 19th century, which was then translated into German and set to what is probably a Russian tune. The German hymn was in turn translated into Russian, and was discovered in that form in the 1930s by a British missionary, Stuart Hine, when he was working in the Carpathian mountains, on the border between Poland and Ukraine. He translated it into English. But that wasn’t the end of the tale.

When war broke out, Hine and his wife had to come home to England where during and after the war they worked with some of the many thousands of European refugees. The question those refugees often asked  them was “will we ever go home?”
It was this question which prompted Hine to write the fourth verse , the verse which ends the hymn now, as a reminder  to them that wherever they were, their true home was in Christ, and nothing could keep them from it. That’s why I wanted us to sing it today, because that’s just as true for us, not just after death or at the end of time, but here and now, every day, as we discover God’s presence with us.  
 We might feel like the younger son in Jesus’ parable. We might be aware that we have walked away from God, or just drifted away, till he is out of sight, off our radar. One day we wake up and realise we are home-sick. We need to come back. And when we do, God is right there, by our side, welcoming us back to the home we’ve longed for.
Or we might feel like the older son. We have doggedly, perhaps unadventurously, stuck close to God all along, tried to do the right thing, played by the rules, or at least our understanding of them, and insisted others do the same. But we’ve never really felt “at home” with God as he would want us to. We’ve never really felt sure of our place, secure in his love. And as a result our faith has become smaller and smaller, more and more exclusive, more and more fearful and judgemental. We need to find out what it means truly to be “at home” with God, relaxed in his presence, knowing we are infinitely loved, just as we are, not for what we do. And when we do, God is right there, delighted that we have finally decided to trust him. We have come home.

Wherever we are, in Christ, God comes to us and calls us to discover what home really is. It’s not a beautiful building with all the latest gadgets and elegant furniture. It’s not the advertiser’s dream of a happy family, mum and dad and 2.4 children, all smiles and sweet agreement.   It is anywhere where we are in the presence of God, where we know we are loved and secure, precious and treasured, noticed and valued, and anywhere that we make others feel those things too.

Preaching that message – that everyone can be at home with God - cost Jesus his life, but in his death, even death itself was transformed into the home of God, not an end, but a beginning, not a failure, but a triumph, opening the gates of glory to let the love of God flood into the world.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Maundy Thursday: It was night

“And it was night.”

Those words from tonight’s Gospel reading aren’t just an indication of the time of day it took place. They aren’t just a comment on the fact that it had got dark by the time Judas slipped out to betray Jesus. John is telling us something far more profound than that.

Light and darkness are always significant in John’s Gospel. John is the one who starts by telling us that in Jesus, light came into the world which “shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” It is the one who calls Jesus “the light of the world” when he heals a man who has been blind from birth, and challenges those around him who criticise him for doing it on the Sabbath. Who was really in the darkness, he asks, the blind man or those who couldn’t just rejoice at his healing? Light and darkness in John’s Gospel are always about more than physical illumination, and in the reading we heard tonight the darkness is a sign that we have reached a point of no return.

“And it was night.” From this moment, for a while at least, it will look as if the darkness has won. Judas goes out to fetch the soldiers who will arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He goes out to set in motion a chain of events which will lead inexorably to Jesus’ death. Some of the Gospels say that he felt remorse afterwards, and killed himself as a result, flinging back the thirty pieces of silver the High Priests paid him to betray Jesus, but nothing can undo what has been done. This moment, when he slipped out of the room, is the turning point.

We don’t know what he thought would happen. We don’t know why he did what he did. Maybe he was disappointed in Jesus. Maybe he thought he’d be some other kind of Messiah than the one he turned out to be. Maybe he hoped for power and glory for himself and realised he wouldn’t be getting it. Maybe he just thought Jesus was heading for failure and wanted to leave the sinking ship, scuttling it as he did so. We don’t know, but the future was sealed at this point, and there was no going back, even if he had second thoughts.

Judas wasn’t the only one, though, whose actions on this night would reverberate in ways they didn’t anticipate. At this same supper, Peter pledged his support for Jesus – he would never leave him, he said – and yet before the cock had crowed three times in the morning, he had denied knowing him. And if it seems unfair that the focus should be so much on Peter, let’s not forget that the rest of the disciples ran away completely. At least Peter followed Jesus to the High Priest’s house and was there on the fringes. The rest of them were nowhere to be seen at all.

We can only imagine the sense of desolation and failure they must have felt at the time, and maybe crushing doubt too. How could they have thought Jesus was the Messiah? How stupid had they been to hope that the world could be different, that the kingdom of God could be coming, through the life of this carpenter, an ordinary man like them?

In time, after the resurrection, they learned to look again, to think again, but they still had their guilt to deal with, their own failure as friends and disciples.

They would have had every reason to want to suppress their part in the story of this night, and yet they don’t, and the reason for this has to be that they discovered  lessons so precious in their failure, that they needed to pass them on to those who came after them. This devastating experience, and their own, lamentable part in it, shaped their faith in ways they could never have anticipated, and because of that, it shapes our faith too.  

They learned, the hard way, but maybe the only way,  that  you could screw things up completely, fail utterly, and still be forgiven and used by God.

This night was a night which had all sorts of consequences, whether people had foreseen them or not. It was a night which would change the lives of all who were part of it. Whether it destroyed them, as it did Judas, or saved them, as it did the rest of the disciples, really depended on what they did as a result of it. But at the time, all that they could see was the darkness. It was night. They couldn’t see what lay ahead.
Gauguin : The Agony in the Garden
I guess we can all sympathise with that to some extent. We’ve all found ourselves in the dark at some point or other, and if we haven’t then we will. There comes a time in all of our lives when the wheels come off, the rug is pulled out from under our feet, the walls collapse on us, or whatever other image we want to use. We find ourselves in situations we have no control over. It might be our fault or the fault of others, or caused by something completely unknown, but we go, in the blink of an eye, from being capable people who knew where we were going, to being powerless even to help ourselves.

How can we live in those dark times? We may look for easy answers, but the truth is that there are none. People may try to cheer us up, or tell us that if only we did this or that, or prayed more or believed more, it would surely all come right, but we know better. What’s happened has happened. It is out of our hands.

But these our readings, I think, give us some hope, something to cling to, because on this night, as we retell the story of the events that led to Jesus’ death, we are reminded that, however alone we feel in our dark place, actually God has gone into the darkness with us. Christ doesn’t just enter his own darkness as he heads towards the shadows of Gethsemane and the cross. He also enters all our darknesses too.

He isn’t the light at the end of the tunnel – that’s no use to you when you are stuck in the middle of the tunnel and can’t move. He is the one who sits beside us in the inky blackness, who holds out a hand for us to cling to when we stumble, who waits with us in our stone cold tombs as we long for the dawn.

How do we know he is there? Well, sometimes we don’t – we just have to take it on trust. But Jesus also, on this night, told his followers to build up some things we can do which we might call “holy habits”, things which open our eyes to see his presence. Washing one another’s feet is important, he tells us – not necessarily literally, but in practical acts of service which make us look beyond ourselves. As we give – and receive – love we often find ourselves opening up to the possibility of goodness in the midst of evil. Sharing the bread and wine of the Eucharist matters too, the symbol of love which draws us closer to each other and closer to him.  

These things have the advantage of needing no  words, which is great when you find yourself speechless with grief or worry.  You don’t need to explain acts of love and care  - you just have to do them, or receive them. You don’t need to understand bread and wine – you just have to eat and to drink them.  

I called them “holy habits” because they are things which we need to practice doing in the light, so that when we need them most, they are second nature to us.

“And it was night.”

Night falls not just when the sun goes down, but when the things which normally light up our lives are taken away. But God goes into the darkness with us, on this Maundy Thursday night and on every night. And there in the darkness, if we’ll reach out for him, he holds onto us until the morning dawns and the sun rises on a new day.  


Sunday, 2 April 2017

Lent 5: Words of Life

Audio version here

Ezekiel 37.1-14, John 11.1-45

So what do you think of today’s Gospel reading? Does it make it easier or harder for you to be a Christian?
For many people today, in my experience, this story of Jesus raising Lazarus raises more questions than it answers. We know all too well the finality of death, especially if we have lost someone we love.

It raised questions in the minds of those who first told this story too. That’s obvious from the reading itself. Those who saw this happen, it says, were amazed and confounded.  But the questions in their minds wouldn’t have been the same as ours.

We ask “how could this happen?” When people stop breathing, when there is no brain activity, we know that’s it. The end of physical life. The people of Jesus’ time, though, wouldn’t have been thinking like that at all.  They didn’t expect people to rise from the dead, or at least not until the end of time, but they didn’t think it was impossible. Life was a gift of God, after all. He gave it in the first place, so he could give it back again if he chose to. Their concern was whether he would choose to raise people from death, and who he would choose, and through whom this would happen. So their question wouldn’t be “how could this happen?” It would be “why did it happen?”  If we’re going to make any sense of an extraordinary story like this, we have to try to put aside our 21st Century rationalism, and climb back into their minds to see if we can understand what they would be thinking.  

The think that would have astonished them about this story wasn’t just that Lazarus had been raised from death, but that he had been raised as a result of Jesus’ prayers.

For them this wasn’t just an amazing miracle. It was evidence that God was at work in Jesus, evidence that he had been chosen, blessed and used by God. God was the only one who could give life, so how else could Jesus have done this?

Raising Lazarus validated the claim that Jesus was the Messiah, God’s chosen one. Despite the fact that he wasn’t a member of the religious establishment, despite the fact that he hadn’t had the religious training of a scribe or Pharisee, despite the fact that he seemed so often to act unconventionally, keeping company with people who the respectable elites would have shunned, this was the one through whom God was acting.

And if it validated his status as Messiah, it also validated the message he was preaching and living, and the priorities he’d set out. It validated his commitment to the poor and outcast. It validated his criticism of those in power who used that power to oppress others. If God was honouring his prayers, then the other things he said and did were “of God” too.

We’ve had 2000 years to get used to the idea that Jesus was, at the very least, one of the good guys, someone who was obviously holy. But he didn’t actually have a halo. He didn’t glow in the dark. He was a carpenter from Nazareth, nothing outwardly special at all. We shouldn’t be surprised that his contemporaries didn’t all instantly fall at his feet – why should they? The surprise is that any of them did.

By the accepted religious standards of his time, Jesus was, at best, problematic – a troublesome loose cannon from a backwater town in Galilee. At worst, he was a blasphemous heretic. He was teaching and advocating things which respectable society thought were completely wrong. This was the man who called the scribes and Pharisees “whited sepulchres” (Matthew 23.27) – tombs full of decay, just whitewashed on the outside. This was the man who’d declared that prostitutes and tax collectors would get into the kingdom of heaven before the religious professionals (Matthew 21.31). It was hardly likely to endear him to them. We can surely understand why they might have had trouble imagining him as Messiah material.

But the raising of Lazarus challenged them to think again, to look again. God, the giver of life, seemed to be on the side of this strange rebel, using him, listening to him, speaking through him.

This is a story not just about life and death – important though they are - but also, perhaps more importantly, about how God speaks to us, and who he speaks through.  It’s a story about the word of God, God’s message, embodied in Jesus, the Word made flesh, and about the words of God which we hear and speak today. It’s a story that reminds us of how powerful God’s word is. It can bring life out of death. But it also reminds us that it can be difficult sometimes to hear that word and to recognise it as God’s amidst all the other words that crowd in on us.

Today’s Old Testament reading reminds us of that too. The prophet Ezekiel is in exile in Babylon, along with most of the rest of the population of Jerusalem and its surrounding countryside. Jerusalem has been overrun and destroyed by the Babylonians. It’s people think they’ll never go home again, and even if they do, what kind of home will there be to go to? They’ve lost hope, just as, I am sure, many refugees and exiles do today. It’s easy when you are far from home and frightened, to find that the only words that echo in your head are words of despair. “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”

But Ezekiel has a vision, a vision of those dry bones, a valley full of them, perhaps the aftermath of a battle that happened long ago, so long ago that no one could doubt their deadness.  They aren’t even formed into bodies anymore. They’ve been scattered around by animals and the wind. It’s obvious that there’s no future for them. Again and again, though, Ezekiel is told by God to “prophesy to the bones” – to speak to them, to tell them what God is saying to them, to give them his words in place of their own. And Ezekiel does. And the bones come rattling together, and sinews and flesh form on them. And finally they’re filled once again with the life-giving breath of God, and they stand up, “a vast multitude”. Ezekiel’s vision is just that, a vision – not an actual event - but the hope it brought to his exiled people was very real. It kept them going through those tough times until they were indeed able to go home. The words God gave Ezekiel, words of life, words of hope, gave a future to people who thought they had none.  This story tells us that God’s words – if they are God’s words – have an awesome power.

We’re surrounded by words. All around us people are talking, texting, tweeting, facebooking.  We’re bombarded with opinions. Even when we’re alone, with all the electronic devices switched off our minds are full of thoughts, chattering away like demented monkeys. How do we know whether any of what we hear is God’s word? How can we detect, amid the babble of the world the “still, small voice” that is God’s word to us, the voice we really need to listen to? These stories give us a powerful clue.

God’s word, they say, is a word that calls us to life, not just the physical life that Lazarus was given back, but life “in all its fullness,” as Jesus put it just a chapter before this (John 10 .10). What does that kind of life look like? It’s life which has purpose and meaning, life which is marked by the ability to love and to be loved, to wonder and to care.

The word of God is a word that, when we hear it, enables us to get up, to come out of the darkness of the tomb, to face the world, to find a new direction.

But that’s not the end of it. God’s life-giving word isn’t  just for us. It is for everyone. So another test that helps us to decide whether the words we are hearing and speaking are God’s words is the effect they have on others.

The words of God won’t ever call us to live selfishly, to impoverish others so that we can heap up goods or cling to status for ourselves. They won’t ever call us to condemn others or act vengefully towards them. They won’t ever call us to deny others the freedom to love and be loved, to live joyfully in the world, to take the path that brings them fullness of life. That might sound obvious, but Christians have a woeful track record of oppressing others in the name of God, and we are all capable of using words to shut life down for people rather than opening it up.

When Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, he was speaking God’s word, a word of life, and those watching him knew it. When we speak words that bring people to life, generous words, gracious words, words that give hope, those around us will recognise that something holy is happening in us too, that God is at work, and the effect can be just as life-changing.

We may find it hard to get our heads around these ancient tales of resurrection, but our hearts can still respond to them as joyfully, finding in them new life and hope. Strange though they are, we need these stories just as much as the people who first told them did.

As Lent draws to its end, we prepare to walk with Jesus through the darkness of death and despair to the life and hope of Easter Day. As we do so, let’s make time amidst the clamour of the world to really listen, so that we can “hear the word of the Lord” that makes our dry bones live again.