Introduction to the Preparation at the beginning of the service

The pandemic rages on, all we can hope for is to survive and keep in prayer all who self sacrificially battle for the lives of the afflicted. There are many good news stories about people of all faiths and none expressing good will and concern for others, responding to the suffering & isolation experienced by many. I’m struck by stories of people who, knowing they are infected work themselves to death treating others, or praying and reading scripture to comfort the dying. 

Life cannot ever be the same again for us, or for God’s church. In this crisis, many lessons are being learned about what it means for us to be Christ’s disciples.

We’ve had to discard what we rely on for everyday social and spiritual life in the last few weeks. Thank God for the internet. Separated we may be, but still in touch and sharing, as we would do normally, not driven in on ourselves. Surviving this world crisis will force us to rethink priorities and values in life. 

Words from the end of the Epistle to the Hebrews come to mind, echoing in today’s world from an era of upheaval two millennia ago: ‘At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, "Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens."’

After the reading of Ezekiel 37:1-14

Six hundred years before Christ, in Ezekiel’s day, God’s people are fragmented, broken, exiled from their land, with no future to look forward to.

Ezekiel, you may recall, has a strong visual imagination, expressed in striking poetic prophecies. Today he’d be seen as ‘someone with mental health issues’.

Annoyingly mad he may have seemed to Jews around Babylon, in the way he criticised God’s people for their infidelities, but he also had visions charged with hope. We heard about his vision of the valley of dry bones. He challenged those in despair who thought their Hebrew inheritance was as dead as it could be, with a message of unimaginable hope.

Not just for a revival of the old order but a resurrection, a new society.

Ezekeil could foresee an end to exile. Some Jews may have already sneaked back re-occupied family land unofficially, if Babylon had no use for their labour, joining poor peasants who weren’t deported 70 years earlier, working the land. But what would happen if corrupt unbelieving establishment folk were allowed to return to restore Jewish society in their homeland?

There were honourable decent Civil servants and clergy, like Nehemiah and Ezra. What would they achieve? How would they set about the massive project of social restoration? Would they rebuild everything just as it used to look? As happened after World War Two in Dresden. Or be adventurous, and innovate? Like Coventry. Both are needed, but how to decide what to keep, what to discard?

The point of the vision is that only God through his Spirit can bring new life to any mortally stricken society. No matter what expertise and investment get poured into the project, it’s all wasted unless tragedy and adversity lead to broken hearts cleansed and renewed in relation to God and each other.

We’re called to live no longer for ourselves, but for him, and for each other whom Jesus died and rose again to save. How soon post Christian Europe forgot this until lately. But thank God, the Spirit moves nevertheless, maybe even despite us, reminding many in mortal danger and under great pressure what is at the heart of the Gospel message and Christian way of life.

After the Gospel according to St John 11:1-44

After four days, in Jewish tradition, a dead person’s soul leaves home and those mourning their loss. Jesus too, has done his share of mourning, weeping with the family of Lazarus. But what happens next, astonishes the people gathered to commiserate with Mary and Martha. He confronts the grim reality of death, with its anti-social stench. He breaks the sanitary and ritual cordon, ordering the tomb to be opened and calls Lazarus to come out. It seems like a crazy stunt. Why ?

We can’t open a grave without a legal exhumation order from the coroners’ office these days. Was it any different back then when religious authorities determined what should be done around the disposal of dead bodies?

Jesus asks no permission. What he does, disregards social custom. It confronts the local authorities too. He calls life breath back into Lazarus’ decomposing body. Remember what Job said when his family was wiped out early in his sad tale? “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.

Moments before acting Jesus uttered one of those unique ‘I am’ sayings which reveal his divinity. The one we use at funerals “I am the resurrection and the life. Whosoever believes in me shall not die, but shall live.” God alone is the Lord and Master of life. God who calls us into being and sustains us from start to finish.

Here and now, the divine Messiah is momentarily taking back the power he gave to human beings to order their own affairs, power we have in so many ways misused, Reminding us who really is in charge of our existence.      

Is it any wonder the powerful people of Jewusalem were scandalised and conspire to put Jesus to death? They fear losing everything.

It seems to me that right now we’re put in the same position. The world misuses all its know-how and power and gets into a terrible mess, ending up in a struggle with natural forces we fail to understand totally. Only God knows how everything works and works together for good when used aright by us. He doesn’t begrudge us finding out, knowing and learning how to put things right. But without his inspiration, without the hope and courage his Word offers, we will fail. Arrogance and vanity are our worst enemy.

The world has pushed God away from the heart of life to the periphery, and lost the ability to see the whole and live as one with the planet and each other. Our prayer, and the inspired actions people take in faith and trust. It returns God to the place he needs to be invited to occupy, at the centre of all things in our existence. We must acknowledge that, as in Jesus’ day, the weaknesses and failures of those who hold power, political, economic, religious are now being exposed & judged by His Word. We cannot put him to death again.

Christ is risen from the dead. Death has no more dominion over him.

We can but surrender to Him let HIm have his way with us - the way that leads to life, a world renewed both now and for the life to come.