Saturday, March 28, 2020

Lent 5 : Helpless Yet Hopeful

Readings: Psalm 130, Ezekiel 37:1-14, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, March 29, 2020

Three place holders for today's message, titled “Helpless yet Hopeful.”
  • A Hopeless Situation
  • A Heavy Hearted Savior
  • A Hope for Resurrection
A Hopeless Situation

In our passages from both Ezekiel and John we are given a picture of a hopeless situation where many of the characters are expressing a deep sense of helplessness.

For Ezekiel his whole nation is in exile with little hope of recovery. All he sees around him are dead bones. His reply to God's question, “Can these bones live?” is, at the very least dismissive, but also rather sarcastic, “Verse 3 “Oh, Lord God, You know!” His answer seems to be coming from a place of “After everything that has happened, how do I know anything?” A contemporary translation might record Ezekiel saying “O.K. Lord, Whatever!”

When we move to John's account of the raising of Lazarus there are deep feelings of disillusion at play. People are broken. They are looking for answers. There is fear. People are saying, (John 11:37) “Could not He who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Mary, one of the greatest supporters of Jesus is so frustrated. “Lord, if only You had been here, my brother would not have died.” (v32) Everything is falling apart.

Any of those emotions familiar to us right now? I think so. Today was going to be the Sunday we honored the retirement of our church administrator, Judith Daffer, who has faithfully served at this church for over 19 years. We were planning a pot-luck and Fellowship Time.

Today was the day our choir director Charles Corson had been rehearsing and planning a special Cantata. Today was when we were going to be reminding you to be here next week and wave palms for Palm Sunday, to make sure to get your orders in for Easter Lillies. Today was going to be a Minute for Mission for the One Great Hour of Sharing. Today was going to be the day we were back in church after canceling for a couple of weeks.

Frustrated? A little disillusioned? A little fearful? With the dried bones of “What might have been” all around us how can we feel any other way? Weddings being canceled. Events postponed indefinitely. People losing work. Our financial future looking so uncertain. Those able to work stretched to their limits in our hospitals and food stores.

This coronavirus situation has left many of us feeling helpless. The challenge seems overwhelming. We don't know how long this is going to last. We don't know if an kind of normality will return any time soon. The 'if only” phrase is being bandied about … “If only they had taken this more seriously from the start, if only people hadn't gone into panic buying mode, if only people had started practicing social distancing earlier.” We are starting to sound like Mary, “Lord, if only you had been here....”

And it is a religious question, a theological dilemma every person of faith eventually has to wrestle with. “God, can't you just make this thing go away? Can't You grant some exceptional healing miracle? Do You know how it feels to travel through days like these?” How do we find any assurance, Lord, that you have any sense what we are going through?” It's a hopeless situation. Observe, a second thing these passages reveal.

A Heavy Hearted Savior

This is a side to Jesus we rarely see portrayed in Scripture. Jesus as Vulnerable. Emotional. Conflicted. A key verse is John 11:38; “Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb.”

If you take a look at that verse in different translations you will observe how translators have struggled to accurately picture the meaning behind “greatly disturbed.” Among the different options you will find are Jesus “Still Angry”, “Anger again welling up within Him”, “Greatly distressed in spirit”, “Deeply moved”, “Groaning in Himself”, “Sighing again”, “Very Sad”, “Inwardly Moved”.

Right before we get to this verse where He is headed to the tomb, we have been offered the poignant words that form the bible's shortest verse, John 11:35 “Jesus wept.” “Jesus began to cry” “Jesus sobbed”. Jesus loved those people. Mary and Martha were some of His closest friends. He loved Lazarus like a brother.

Ezekiel, the prophet, had a heart for his nation. Though he struggled to believe it could happen, he had a deep desire to see his people restored. This was no small crisis. They were overwhelmed. Ezekiel 37:1-2 “The spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.

There are tears right now. There is great distress. There is sadness, sighing and anger. This passage in John's gospel seeks to reassure us that Jesus is no stranger to our fears and frustrations. It suggests that God does not stand against us, but along with us in this difficult time.

Wherever love is being expressed and compassion being poured out, then there we see a reflection of the Kingdom teaching Jesus gave to us. In our hospitals, in the determination of those not giving in to this mess, in those applying their minds to find solutions, those lifting up and caring for neighbors and those unable to help themselves.

Now that's not to say that the current situation can be minimized by expressing pious statements and offering cliches. Fact is … it stinks. And Martha in our passage from John would agree with us. Did you catch v.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.”

Look, it's O.K. To tell God that you think this situation stinks right now. Read the Psalms! They don't hold back. Take all your frustrations and anger to God. God knows what's in our hearts, even if we are reticent to voice it in public. As we sing in one of our hymns;

Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged, Take it to the Lord in prayer
Can we find a friend so faithful, Who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness, Take it to the Lord in prayer

We are in a pretty hopeless situation. Scripture suggests that Jesus is a heavy hearted Savior with a deep concern for us. The third thing we see in this passage...

A Hope for Resurrection

We can be helpless yet hopeful. Both our passages speak about the hope of resurrection. As we draw near to Easter, Christian people always have a hope of resurrection in mind. What I would point out to you relevant to these days we are traveling through, is that the resurrection spoken of in these passages is a resurrection that is yet to come.

The rattling bones of Ezekiel are a vision to prefigure the restoration of Israel. The resurrection of Lazarus (though very significant to him and his family) is a sign given to the people to prefigure the resurrection of Jesus Himself and to encourage us to place our future hopes into His hands, the One who describes Himself as being “The Resurrection and the Life.”

The resolution of the crisis we are traveling through is not yet. There are difficult days ahead. Before the resurrection, came the cross. There are trials to travel through, losses to be experienced and darkness to be faced. That's how the pattern has evolved in other places and we have no reason to believe it will not be the same for ourselves.

But we believe this will pass. We believe that there are lessons to be learned, deep lessons about our interconnection and interdependence. Lessons about our frailty and the need for taking care of the least fortunate among us. Lessons about there being no easy answers.

Let us continue to lift up in prayer and, where possible, with practical support those who are at the forefront of this battle. The medical profession. The emergency Services. The suppliers and shops, The delivery folk, the ones who keep the power on, the care givers and crisis intervenes, our leaders at international, national and state level, who like us, do not have a blueprint for this particular situation.

Insights from these passages;,

We are in a Hopeless Situation... and it is OK. to feel helpless.
We have a Heavy Hearted Savior...a God who knows our every frustration
We carry a Hope for Resurrection... We are hopeful for restoration, not just yet, but it will come.

Not without effort. Not without diligence on our part. Not without sacrifice. Not without listening and taking the advice that is offered. In away that is what the whole Easter drama is all about. But we never dreamed we would live through it in the way we are today.

Our readings leave us with a positive note.

In Ezekiel we read about the dry bones: (verse 10)
The breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

In John's gospel we read: verse 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.

We can be helpless but hopeful.
Let us go forward in faith that God still has the whole world in God's hands.


A Prayer for a Time of Pandemic

When I use the phrase “Lord of grace and mercy”:
Please respond - “Hear our prayer”

Let us turn to the Lord in repentance for our sins.

Lord we confess that we have put profit before people. We have lived selfish lives which have been unsustainable ecologically, socially and morally. Even now we act selfishly, depleting the shops with our panic buying, too often thinking only of ourselves and not others. Have mercy on us all Lord, You who sent Your Son Jesus to take away our sins and to bring us into a right relationship with Yourself. In His name we pray.

Lord of grace and mercy: Hear our prayer

Let us pray for all who are overwhelmed with anxiety at this time:
Lord of grace and mercy: Hear our prayer

Those who are worried about their own health or the health of their nearest and dearest.
Lord of grace and mercy: Hear our prayer

Those who are worried about their livelihood and do not know how they are going to pay their bills.
Lord of grace and mercy: Hear our prayer

Let us pray for parents who have children off school for an extended period and don't know how they will cope.
Lord of grace and mercy: Hear our prayer

Let us pray for all, especially the elderly, who have had to self-isolate and now face the prospect of months without the touch of another human being.
Lord of grace and mercy: Hear our prayer

Let us pray for all who are feeling lonely and afraid.
Lord of grace and mercy: Hear our prayer

Let us pray for people with mental health issues who need a secure and unchanging environment, and who now have to face drastic changes. Let us pray for others who have difficulty accepting change because of learning difficulties, autism or dementia. And let us pray for those who care for them.
Lord of grace and mercy: Hear our prayer

Let us pray for all who have been bereaved by the coronavirus, in this nation and throughout the world.
Lord of grace and mercy: Hear our prayer

Let us pray for the people in the countries most affected by the virus, and for the under developed parts of the world where healthcare is already inadequate and overstretched.
Lord of grace and mercy: Hear our prayer

Let us pray for national and international leaders, that they may act with courage, wisdom and compassion in this time of crisis.
Lord of grace and mercy: Hear our prayer

Let us pray for medical researchers who are working on treatments and cures for coronavirus
Lord of grace and mercy: Hear our prayer

Let us pray for healthcare workers who are in the front-line of the battle. Overwhelmed. Exhausted. Aware of their helplesness, yet offering hope and healing. Strengthen them and support them through Your Holy Spirit,
Lord of grace and mercy: Hear our prayer

Let us pray for those keeping us supplied with essential services, delivery drivers, shop-workers, pharmacists.
Lord of grace and mercy: Hear our prayer

Let us pray that all people will take the necessary precautions to prevent the spread of the virus.
Lord of grace and mercy: Hear our prayer

Let us pray to God that this pandemic may come to an end.
Lord of grace and mercy: Hear our prayer

Let us offer before the Lord those prayers we carry in the silence, personal concerns and joys.
Lord of grace and mercy: Hear our prayer

Let us join together in the prayer Jesus has taught us, 

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the Kingdom, the power and the glory for ever. AMEN.”

Saturday, March 21, 2020