Since our church must remain scattered, many will face a sting like the lonely, deadly desert. Like Ezekiel, some of us might feel, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ And like Mary and Martha whose brother was gravely ill, we may call out in hope. Even so, our God is alive, faithfully with us, creating new life from death.
Gathering song: Christ, whose glory fills the skies (HWB #216)
Call to Worship
Lenten Sundays are intended to help believers anticipate death, and life, and resurrection. As we worship today, we acknowledge the power of the living God over death. God promised through Ezekiel (chapter 37): “You, my people, will know that I am the Lord when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you ... Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it”.
God, into a silent void you spoke, creating life - matter from nothing, flesh from dust, life from lifelessness. Jesus, as we wait for new life, give us hope. Spirit, show us your holy power that we may fully believe. We wait, believing that you can bring life out of nothing. Amen.
Song: When in the hour of deepest need (HWB #131)
Prayer of Confession (from Psalm 130)
In the dry of the desert, I know my sin. When I am alone, my fears are strong, and I forget the suffering of others too easily.
[Quietly pray for others who are suffering at this time]
When you keep a record of my sin, I cannot stand.
[Quietly pray about an area of your life where you need forgiveness and new life]
I wait for you, Lord; my whole being waits for you more than night watchers wait for the morning. In God’s word I put my hope. Forgive my sin, give me faith. I believe that with you there is forgiveness, so that I can, with reverence, serve you.
[Quietly pray your thanks and worship]
Lord, I believe. Out of the depths I cry to you; hear my voice and be attentive to my cry for mercy . . . I understand trouble, and I understand trust and hope. I need your presence, your comfort, and your action.
Words of Assurance
Believers, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love, and with God is full redemption. God will redeem us from all our sin.
God promised, “I will put new breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord”.
God, we trust and hope that you will bring new life. Give us a spirit of true gratitude and generosity. We express our praise with compassionate gifts of prayer, time, and resources. Amen.
As you listen, you might also share your offering with the church.
Scripture reading: John 11:1-45
It was about this time of year, 22 years ago, that I was interviewing for what became my first pastoral position. Most of the questions in the interview were predictable. The search committee wanted to know about things like my faith story, my education and theology, and how I thought I’d connect with the young people of the congregation. The committee was friendly. The interview was going smoothly. But just when I thought things were wrapping up, it was the oldest member of the committee who threw me a curve ball.
He made reference to recent Canadian surveys that provided statistics for what everyone already knew anecdotally. By just the attendance numbers alone, the church in Canada appeared to be dying. And given that I was pursuing a vocation in the church, this gentleman wanted to know how I felt about climbing on board a sinking ship. Those were the exact words he used. A sinking ship.
Given that candidates and churches try to put their best and most optimistic foot forward in the hiring process, the question came as a sobering surprise. As much as I loved the church, did I really want to make this kind of commitment? Did I want to tie my livelihood to numbers that were trending in the wrong direction? Did I want to step onto a sinking ship?
In verse 16 of this morning’s scripture reading, the disciple Thomas would have been asking very similar questions. Just one chapter earlier, in John 10, the story had Jesus and his disciples at a festival in Jerusalem where they encountered hostility. The religious establishment didn’t like the way Jesus was describing his relationship with God. The situation got so heated that people were ready to stone Jesus, but he and his disciples managed to escape.
It’s from there that John 11 continues the story – with Jesus and the disciples far outside of Jerusalem, still fully engaged in ministry, but keeping a safe distance from those who were ready to kill Jesus. That’s where the call to come and help Lazarus reached Him. Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, had sent word that there brother was ill and needed Jesus’ healing touch.
But given where Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived, this request wasn’t just for a simple house call over a health concern . . . because this family was from Bethany, just a few miles outside of Jerusalem, which was where those hostile people were waiting with their stones.
That threat of stoning didn’t seem to worry Jesus, though. Just like in the rest of John’s Gospel, Jesus took the invitation in stride because he was in total control of the situation. Even though the request he received was urgent and potentially dangerous, Jesus’ response was laid back, and he decided to take his time.
When he was finally ready to leave the safety of the Jordan River and make the trek to Bethany, the danger that awaited still didn’t seem to register with Jesus. But it absolutely did register with His friends! In fact it was Thomas, usually mocked for being really slow on the up-take, who was completely in tune with the potential consequences of this invitation.
Realizing they were going to visit to Lazarus in the Jerusalem suburb of Bethany, it was Thomas, who was called the Twin, that said to his fellow disciples, “let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Given how often the gospels portray the disciples as not getting it, as missing the boat, we could easily imagine Thomas’ comment to be snarky or sarcastic. “Sure, let’s all go to Jerusalem to see if we can’t all get ourselves killed!” It’s not hard to imagine that as the delivery.
But if we take the story at face value, Thomas’s words are definitely not sarcasm, and definitely do not miss the boat. In fact, this time, Thomas is totally on the boat, even though it seems like there’s a good chance the boat will be going down.
While Thomas is usually dubbed the doubter, in this scene he was the one who fully appreciated what Jesus needed to do, and fully appreciated what he had to be willing to do . . . if he wanted to count himself as a friend and follower of Jesus.
“Let us all go, that we may die with him.”
Even though today’s scripture story is meant to teach us about Jesus, and is meant to move us one big step closer towards Holy Week and Jesus’ passion, tucked away inside of the story is this inspiring example of discipleship – a willingness to go where Jesus goes even when we can see the journey might get really rough – and a willingness to compassionately suffer for Jesus’ sake.
Also hidden within this story is another different, but equally powerful expression of discipleship. Where Thomas’ expression was one of resolve to accompany Jesus even when the going got rough, Mary and Martha’s expression was that of a plea for Jesus to accompany them. In their fear of losing their brother, the two sisters called out for Jesus to show up – and they did it even though they knew how dangerous it would be for Jesus to again get that close to Jerusalem.
Like the disciples, Mary and Martha would have been well aware that Jesus’ last visit to Jerusalem nearly ended with a stoning. Like Thomas, they knew about the possible consequences. And yet, in spite of knowing the dangers of their invitation, Mary and Martha did what followers of Jesus do. They called for Jesus, hoping he could help with Lazarus, and because they wanted Jesus close by when life was hard for them.
By the time Jesus arrived in Bethany Lazarus was already dead – and not just a little bit dead. By the fourth day, even ancient people would have been convinced that Lazarus wasn’t going to mysteriously wake up, as though he had been sleeping.
So as far as Mary and Martha would have been concerned, Jesus had missed the opportunity for a healing. But still, even without a healing, Jesus was there to share in there tears and grieving. With or without a healing miracle, Jesus was present to offer comfort. And in that painful space, without an inkling that a miracle was still on the way, Martha’s faith was not only alive and well. It was growing.
"Jesus said to [Martha], “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world."
Again, we have to remember that the story is really about Jesus and who he is. But tucked inside this part of the story, before we get any sign of Lazarus coming back to life, is the reminder that Jesus’ presence in our difficult times is enough. Right in the very middle of her grief Jesus asks Martha if she still believes. And, right in the middle of her grief the gospel writer holds up Martha’s faith as a beacon – “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the One anointed and sent by God.”
I’m sure your minds have already connected the dots – between the grief and confusion Mary and Martha would have been experiencing, and the current state of confusion we all find ourselves in. Like Mary and Martha’s experience of their brother’s death, we are all being swept along in a scenario that leaves us feeling confused, bewildered, and for the most part like things are definitely not in our control. Very much like the feelings people experience when grieving, most of us are feeling off-balance. We feel like we need to reach out and hold on to something solid.
So, like we do in the faith community when people have experienced loss and are grieving, and like Mary and Martha did, we call on Jesus to come closer and be a friend on the journey. Whether or not a miracle happens at the end of the story isn’t even the point, and certainly isn’t an expectation. We just want the Author of Love to be with us, to join us in our fears and tears, and to provide the stability we long for. So that is where we place our hopes and our prayers and our trust in these strange days and uncertain times.
And as we do that, we also remember that we are part of the something much, much bigger than these days and these times. As Christians we are part of something that has guided the lives and faith and worship of believers for two thousand years. As Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb, and as that ignites theestablishment’s anger against Jesus, we who are followers of Jesus know where we are headed.
Given how much we are talking these days about “flattening the curve,” and given how we are all trying to steady our emotional ups and downs, it’s a bit ironic that the church’s annual rhythm of worship will take us on a roller coaster for the next two weeks.
But as we anticipate and join in the high of Palm Sunday, and the intimacy of the Last Supper, and the pain of the Cross, and the grieving of the Saturday that follows, may all of you also anticipate the life-giving, life-altering thrill of Easter, and the confidence of knowing that even death is overcome by love. Amen.
Closing song: I am the bread of life (HWB #472)
“Come out!” Jesus called to Lazarus. Do not fear death, or life.
“Go out!” Jesus calls us, to live as God’s resurrected people.