Saturday, April 9, 2011

Come and see God’s power

Ezekiel 37; John 11
April 10, 2011

     Today’s story leads us to come and see God’s power. God has control over life and death. It’s clear from both Ezekiel and John that God gives life in surprising and mysterious ways.
Ezekiel sees this vision of dry bones while the Israelites are living in exile in Babylon, almost 600 years before Jesus. Ezekiel has gone with the first batch of deportees from Judah, the Southern Kingdom, which we now call Israel. Ten years after the first deportation, the Babylonians will destroy all of Judah, including the city of Jerusalem and the beautiful temple built by Solomon. Most of the inhabitants, especially the leaders, will be force-marched 1,000 miles from their home to Babylon.
The people have no hope of ever returning; this vision shows that God has not abandoned the people and they should remain hopeful. Since God has the power to give life even to dried-out old bones, God has the power to help the people get back to Jerusalem. Visions and messages such as these fill Ezekiel’s prophecy, first as warning, and then as reasons to hope. After over 40 years in exile, Cyrus the Persian conquers Babylon and sends the Jews back home. God’s power is seen in both Ezekiel’s ministry and in the return of the people to Jerusalem and Judah.
... In this very familiar Gospel story, Jesus intentionally lingers in Jordan while Lazarus dies and is buried. Even with two days of travel time, Jesus could have made it back to Bethany and healed Lazarus before he died, if he had left right away. But he stays – the Greek word also means “abides” – where he is. We get the sense that Jesus is biding his time, waiting for the right moment.
As the time for his own arrest and crucifixion comes near, Jesus performs this last sign, this last miracle. When Jesus gets to Bethany and asks where Lazarus’ body is, and calls him to come out after four days in the grave, he is pointing to God and demonstrating God’s power even over life and death.
Miracles are called signs in John’s gospel. There are seven signs, water to wine, three healings, walking on water, feeding the multitude, and this one, the raising of Lazarus. An eighth, occurs after the resurrection. These signs all point to God and God’s power; everything Jesus does points to God, so that all may come to believe that God is in Jesus and Jesus is in God. Jesus has been sent by God to be the sign pointing to resurrection and eternal life for all people, for all of creation.
This power of God is not limited to wondrous signs. It is also seen in the humanness of Jesus. Many people try to explain away Jesus’ emotions in this chapter, but it’s also good to take them at face value. Who among us has not wept at the death of a relative or close friend? Who among us has not wept with others as they grieve a person we have not even met?
Whether Jesus was weeping because Lazarus had died and he felt the pain of that loss, or he was weeping because he felt the emotions that Martha and Mary were feeling doesn’t matter. Jesus wept. Jesus, God incarnate!, was so human he wept human tears!
Martha’s faith and willingness to believe in Jesus, even when he led her to a new way of thinking about resurrection is also a sign of God’s power. The Holy Spirit plants faith in us and helps it grow. We believe in God, not because of something we do, some confession we make, or prayer we pray, but because the Holy Spirit is working within us to help us believe.
God’s power is also seen in human action. When Jesus calls, “Come out!” to Lazarus, he emerges from the tomb, but he is still wrapped in a shroud. A shroud is a long linen cloth which wraps the body lengthwise, front and back. You’ve probably heard about the Shroud of Turin. A shroud is held in place with narrow strips of cloth placed crosswise around the body. Jesus instructs the sisters and others, “Unbind him and let him go.” God works through us to give life to those who have lost their sense of life and hope.
            ... At one time, not so long ago, those who were diagnosed with AIDS felt lost and without hope. In the US, we haven’t felt the pain of this disease nearly as much as our sisters and brothers in Africa. Today is being celebrated all over the world as Lazarus Sunday, with a focus on HIV/AIDS and its effect on the people of Africa. Here are some statistics from a 2009 report.
·         33.2 million people are living with HIV and AIDS worldwide.
·         2.1 million people died from AIDS in 2007; 72 percent of these AIDS-related deaths occurred in sub-Saharan Africa, where AIDS is the leading cause of death.
·         2.7 million people became HIV-positive in 2007.
·         12 million children under the age of 18 in sub-Saharan Africa have lost one or both parents to AIDS.
It used to be that a diagnosis of HIV, or worse, AIDS, was a death sentence. With the discovery of anti-retroviral medications, education, better nutrition, and health care, AIDS deaths have been reduced, and the rate of new cases has decreased. Those afflicted with the disease, and the communities that surround them feel like Lazarus – resurrected from a death sentence.
I’m sure that John, who is visiting us from Uganda, could tell us lots and lots of stories. Here’s a story from the ELCA website: Lucy is a frail 22-year-old woman who had both AIDS and malaria. She was lying on a small mat outside her family’s home in Munene, a village in Mozambique. Each day Lucy was visited by church caregivers, who sometimes were able to bring food to her very poor family.
Gaunt and weak, Lucy was helped to sit up, and the visitors inquired how she was doing. “I am hungry,” she said. Her body was wracked by two deadly diseases, but what she felt most acutely — and what was making her fight against these diseases so difficult — was the lack of food.
Lucy’s words give voice to the tragic interweaving of poverty and AIDS that is a fact of daily life for so many throughout the world. When we give our offerings to Lutheran World Relief and the ELCA World Hunger Appeal, we help people like Lucy with both medication and nutrition, delivered by people like the church caregivers who visited Lucy.
...We have seen signs of God’s power over AIDS in several ways, as God worked through humans to unbind the victims and let them go.
·         Science discovered medications to manage the disease; God helped do that.
·         We understand the connection between oppression, hunger and disease; since the beginning God’s people have been urged to care for the poor, the widow, and the orphan.
·         Those who produced the drugs thought they could earn back their research money by charging big dollars for the medications. After a global outcry, the medications became much less costly. The power of God, seen in those who protested, forced the human powers to retreat.
There are other situations which could seem like a Lazarus effect as well: recovery from cancer; the rebirth of the city of New Orleans; a job in this economy after being out of work for a long time; a home after being homeless; the non-violent revolution in Egypt.
... As we ponder the lessons we can learn from this Lazarus text, we can have the faith of Martha and trust in God to do what seems impossible – raise us from the dead to a new life with God. We can remember that God knows how we feel, physically and emotionally. And we can look for ways to unbind those who are bound by oppression, poverty, illness, despair, and so forth.
            Please pray with me: Merciful God, you give us hope in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, your Son. Keep our faith in you strong, even when our future seems hopeless. Help us to give hope to those who are hopeless, in whatever small way we can. Amen