Our Hope despite the Lingering Vapors
The Church of the Good Shepherd
The Fifth Sunday of Lent, March 18, 2018
Text: John 11:1-6, 17-27, 38-44
Old Testament lesson: Isaiah 53:1-10
1 Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2 For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering[a] and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.
4 Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
8 By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.
9 They made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb[c] with the rich,[d]
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.
When you make his life an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.
Psalm lesson: Psalm 30
1 I will exalt you, LORD, for you lifted me out of the depths and did not let my enemies gloat over me.
2 LORD my God, I called to you for help, and you healed me.
3 You, LORD, brought me up from the realm of the dead; you spared me from going down to the pit.
4 Sing the praises of the LORD, you his faithful people; praise his holy name.
5 For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.
6 When I felt secure, I said, “I will never be shaken.”
7 LORD, when you favored me, you made my royal mountain[c] stand firm; but when you hid your face, I was dismayed.
8 To you, LORD, I called; to the Lord I cried for mercy:
9 “What is gained if I am silenced, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it proclaim your faithfulness?
10 Hear, LORD, and be merciful to me; LORD, be my help.”
11 You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
12 that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent. LORD my God, I will praise you forever.
Epistle lesson: I Peter 1:22-25
22 Seeing ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit unto unfeigned love of the brethren, see that ye love one another with a pure heart fervently:
23 Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.
24 For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away:
25 But the word of the Lord endureth for ever. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you.
Gospel lesson: John 11:1-6, 17-27, 38-44
11 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 12 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 13 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus,] “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 14 But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 15 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 16 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
There is a geography to the church year. The quick ascent of Advent as we approach Christ’s birth. The gradual descent through Lent until we kneel with penitent hearts before the scandal of the Cross. The seemingly endless plains of Ordinary Time that stretch across 33 weeks following Pentecost before we begin to ascend again in another Advent season.
Interspersed throughout the year, of course, are glorious peaks – times when we view the wonderous landmarks of God’s redemptive plan at Christmas time, Epiphany, Easter and Pentecost.
Nowhere, though, is the landscape of church time more challenging – more precipitous – in its shifts of altitude and attitude than in the week on our immediate horizon – the week between Palm Sunday and Easter. Betwixt and between these twin peaks – the spiritual highs of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem with palms waving and the astounding miracle of a risen Christ’s empty tomb – lies a chasm. That chasm is known to the Psalmist as the “Valley of the Shadow of Death.”
The story of Lazarus’ resurrection from the dead – our text for this morning – is perhaps an antidote for any queasiness that we might be experiencing as we anticipate riding the emotional roller coaster of Holy Week once again.
Folded within the lines of this well-known tale resides a parable for every disciple standing betwixt and between our current earthly lot and the kingdom of God still aborning.
When Jesus arrived to find Lazarus dead and buried now four days hence, he encountered Martha. Martha had run ahead to meet Jesus. But her first words to the man from Nazareth were less of a greeting than a reproach for his delay. “Lord, if you had been here,” she cried, “my brother would not have died.”
How many disciples in mourning have thought those words as they stood before the coffin of one for whom they have prayed desperately for healing?
Jesus then said to Martha, “Your brother shall rise again.” Martha clearly believed that Jesus was referring to the last days of the world because she replied, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
But Jesus declared to her: “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, Martha?”
It was then that Martha spoke a confession of faith in Jesus that has no parallel elsewhere in the gospels, except that given by Peter when Jesus asked him: “Who do you say that I am?” Much like Peter, Martha declared: “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
But then, did you notice? Even though Martha, like Peter, recognized Jesus as the Messiah, her faith faltered much as Peter’s would later in the gospels. When Jesus ordered the stone to be taken away, Martha responded not with expectation but with caution.
“Lord,” she said, “already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”
The stench of death stopped Martha short! It separated her from the confession of faith that she had just uttered. Betwixt and between the living, breathing Messiah and the all too real evidence of death’s foul vapors emanating from her brother’s grave, Martha’s faith wavered.
Are we really much different?
Even though Holy Week begins with the joyous, parading proclamation of Palm Sunday, the approaching stench of Jesus’ own death permeates the days that follow. The path to the resurrection may have begun with a parade. But betwixt and between those palms of adulation that we will wave vigorously next Sunday and the hope of the resurrection that we will recall joyously on Easter Sunday lies Jesus’ “via delorosa” – a walk through the loathsome Valley of the Shadow of Death.
Jesus’ walk through that valley may have been the Son of God’s most human season. For in that week as no other, he experienced not only the sting of death but the equally fearsome stench of death’s approach – an odor that makes every mother’s child quake and has made the faith of many a disciple flounder as it did with both Martha and Peter.
We latter day disciples are indeed much like Peter and Martha. We too tremble before the stench of death. We too would much rather avoid the disheartening threat of death’s approach that pervade the days betwixt and between the joyous celebrations of Palm Sunday and Easter. In your heart of hearts, would you not prefer to just skip altogether Maundy Thursday and Good Friday? Let’s just jump straight to the promising victory of Christ risen?
After all, it is Christ Risen who has turned our mourning into dancing and removed our sackcloth in order to cloth us with joy for he has conquered death not only for himself but for us.
Consequently, as the Psalmist has put it,
though we will walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
We will fear no evil,
Because of Easter, not only the Good Shepherd’s rod and staff are with us, but the Shepherd himself (and Him Risen) stands beside us.
He comforts us.
There is a problem, though, with celebrating Easter without inhaling the foul smells of the events during the week that precedes it.
Several weeks ago, while Ross was preaching on the Hebrews’ trek through the wilderness, he made the observation that it was not by accident that the path to the land promised to the Hebrews ran straight through a wilderness. The path of discipleship includes trials as well as triumphs.
Something very similar might be said of the path through Holy Week to the Risen Christ of Easter.
Jesus’ own journey to the empty tomb ran straight through the Valley of the Shadow of Death that we know as Holy Week.
You see, you can’t fully appreciate the sweet fragrance of life eternal without first inhaling the foul stench of death’s final, though futile, attempt to extinguish on the cross the Hope found in Jesus of Nazareth.
My Friends, as we approach Holy Week, we would do well to breath in deeply the odors of death to be found there. True, they reek of menace. So much so that they have paralyzed the steps of many a poor wayfarer as they have traversed the shadowy valley of death. It certainly made the faith of both Martha and Peter waver.
But for Christ’s disciples on this side of the Resurrection, we are comforted by the sure and certain knowledge that the noxious odors of death permeating the upcoming events of Holy Week signal not the end of Our Hope. Instead, they are only the lingering vapors of a wrenching struggle with death that has already been hard won once and for all time by the Pioneer and Perfecter of our faith.
Who is this pioneer and perfecter of our faith? It is Jesus of Nazareth – the Suffering Servant, Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace, the Son of the Living God, the Messiah, the Christ, the ultimate Victor over death in all its forms, and without a doubt the undying Hope of the World.
Will you pray with me?:
Dear and Loving God, as we stand this side of the Valley of the Shadow of Death that we all must travel, we give thanks for your Son who made that daunting trek before us so that we might know that life – and that eternal – awaits us on the other side.
Help our all too feeble faith as we face the passage through that shadowy valley so that we may fear no evil.
Keep the vision of His empty tomb ever before us as a comfort in every trial that might befall us.
This we ask in the name of your Son – our Christ and the undying Hope of the world throughout this life and the next. Amen.
[Preached at The Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Richmond, Virginia by Joe Coalter]