By Dan Carew, Lay Preacher
Thank you God for the faith of Saint Andrew and through his actions we can see a way.
When I read these scripture passages together I see a number of references to commandments, decrees and edicts. It gets me thinking, what commandments are we talking about, why are they important and how are we to respond with our lives?
Since humanity’s awareness of God, it seems we have sought and heard from God about what it is we are to do, how we are to live, and what is required of us - in essence how do we obtain righteousness before God. Some of that history is referenced in today’s readings, and while I see this as a bit of an evolution, I don’t believe that God has changed their nature or character one bit, but rather we, as humans, throughout time, have missed the point, poorly understood the guidance we have been given, or let our personal thoughts and biases about the world around us get in the way.
In the passage from Deuteronomy, we hear Moses referencing a commandment in his words to the people of Israel. However, from today’s selection we do not have an indication of what it is. To know the context better we need to go back to the beginning of Deuteronomy 30, where Moses tells the people that when they “return to the Lord your God, and you and your children obey him with all of your heart and all of your soul” then God will do a number of things such as “restore fortunes”, “have compassion”, “gather the people” and bring them to “the land of their ancestors”. Verse 10 specifically states:
Obey his commandments and statutes written in the Book of the Law, … because you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all of your soul.
The people of Israel have heard similar words from Moses before in Deuteronomy Chapter 6, where nearly the same thing is stated to them. “Keep all his decrees and his commandments” (6:2) and “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might”(6:9). For the Israelites, turning to God with your whole being, meant that one would also adhere to the decrees and commandments in the “Book of the Law” - their right standing before God was directly related to their rule following.
So here in today’s lesson, Moses is petitioning the people to follow God with their whole being, heart and soul, and now knowing some of the previous context we can understand more of Moses' angle.
This thing that Moses is asking the people to do, surely it “is not too hard”, “too far way”, or requires one to “cross to the other side of the sea”. I imagine Moses taking on one of two roles in this instance. The first is that of a coach during the halftime of a sporting match, he’s giving the people of Israel a pep talk. The other role is that of a sarcastic, and perhaps cynical, sage who in anticipation and understanding knows how humans respond when they are asked to take action toward something they know that they should do – they create excuses to avoid doing that thing.
The commandment that he is speaking to the people is “very near” to them. It is in their mouths. It is in their hearts. It's right there. They’ve observed it before. They’ve followed the commandment before. They’ve had right standing with God previously through the Law.
Moving to the selection from the psalms, we see language referencing statues, commands and decrees and the benefits of adhering to them.
What has brought on these phrases? The psalmist is describing the natural world around them and it invokes an awareness of and actions towards something bigger than they are - the LORD, God. Much like Moses pleading with the people of Israel, the psalmist lays out a case for following and keeping the commandments of God. They are proclaiming something marvelous and powerfully life changing. They conclude with petitions for their purity (“cleanse me”), protection(“let them not get dominion over me”), restoration(“then shall I be whole and sound”) and their righteousness (“let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight”). They find their right-standing with God, through their adherence to God’s commandments.
In the selection from the Letter to the Romans, we hear of a new way. To understand this better we need to be aware of the verses that precede today’s reading. In this section of Paul’s letter, and what I mean is Chapter 10, he talks of Moses’ writings about righteousness based on the Law, and juxtaposes it with Christ, who Paul states “is the end of the law so there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.”(verse 4). He continues and speaks of “the righteousness that comes from faith” (verse 6). Then we arrive at the beginning of today’s selection “the word is near you, on your lips and in your heart”, a direct reference to our reading from Deuteronomy. In the reading from Deuteronomy, the word was referencing the Law; here, as Paul clarifies, it is “the word of faith”. Paul goes on, “For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.” There is an internal and external representation to the faith - heart and mouth.
In verse 12, Paul continues with ageless words for the folks of all time - past, present and future - “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” The “Jew” and “Gentile” indication should not leave us thinking all about Jewish people; we have two distinct people groups with their own history in the Bible - the Jewish people, chosen people of Yahweh, and everyone else. The promise that Paul is talking about is that while for many years God seemed to only favor one people group, Jesus’ incarnation has revealed that God's salvation is available to all people “Jews and Gentiles”. Elizabeth Shivley, summarizes this new revelation nicely in a commentary on Romans Chapter 8. She states, “The ease of God’s redemption is that people are justified (made righteous, given right standing) not by keeping the law, but by faith. The extent of God’s redemption is that this expression of faith apart from the law makes salvation accessible to both Jew and Gentile”
The Romans selection this morning ends with Paul posing some hypothetical questions for his Jewish audience to consider in regards to those that may be outside of Jewish understanding of God. Paul responds to his questions and assures his audience that the good news is being proclaimed and that it is how those who don’t know God become aware of God. It, the opportunity of faith, comes to us “through the word of Christ” because we have heard. In the last verse of the selection today, “Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world”, you’ll notice that these are the words of the psalmist from verse 4 of today’s psalm selection. The generosity and graciousness of God has been proclaimed, is being proclaimed and will be proclaimed.
Lastly, in our Gospel reading today we see a call and a response; an opportunity to have faith and an action expressing faith. We read of one of our namesake saints and his brother being given an opportunity to follow Jesus the Christ, and their immediate action of following. Now, here is something interesting to consider: Andrew could have been Greek. He has a Greek name. Born in Bethsaida, in Galilee where the Greek language and culture were very present at that point in history. However, it is more likely that he is Hellenized, coming from a family that adopted Greek culture, hence the two brothers, one with a Greek name, the other with an Aramaic name. In either case, Jesus’ actions, not just here in Matthew but throughout the Gospels, foreshadow Paul’s statement of salvation for all - “Jew and Gentile”, thus cracking open the door of enlightenment that God is the God of all people, not just a selected group of people group.
At the beginning of this sermon, I mentioned an evolution of how we obtain right standing before God. If we think about this in chronological order, we start with the Old Testament and the adherence to the Mosaic Law as a form of obtaining right standing with God. We then get a glimpse through the life and ministry of Jesus - his words and actions towards people of various backgrounds - that access to God is beginning to change. Lastly, we have Paul making the proclamation that there is “no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.” Right standing before God is accessible to all people. If we confess with our mouth and believe in our hearts, salvation is ours.
May we all take advantage of God’s generosity and grace by proclaiming our belief in Jesus Christ. Amen.
Nearly a week ago Spring officially started here in the Northern Hemisphere signaling the time of year where new life and new growth begin for the created world around us. Flowers begin to bloom, trees bud and many of the living creatures are participating in new life. When we look at this morning’s lessons and Gospel we can see that God is very Springlike, and Spring mimic’s the Creator’s nature in bringing about new life.
In the passage from Ezekiel, the prophet’s vision is ultimately of God’s renewal. Ezekiel receives a vision of a valley full of dry bones, which symbolizes Israel’s disconnect from God(verse 11). Israel has “died” and is without God’s spirit. Israel is in a dark place, in death, in the grave(verse 12). However, despite the disconnect from God, as symbolized in the vision - the bones separated from the sinew, sinew from the flesh, and the flesh ultimately from the breath - the Spirit will be put within them. God will restore Israel, bringing a newness to their state(verses 13,14).
In Psalm 130, we see again a renewal take place, in this case a change in mindset. The psalmist is in the depths and looking for deliverance. The psalmist is in “darkness” and waiting for the light, specifically the morning light, a light at the end of a time of darkness. The psalmist seems to reflect on God’s nature and while waiting is reminded that there is redemption. The psalmist knows that this redemption, this newness is not just on an individual level but also collective and corporate as they call on Israel to acknowledge God’s mercy and “plenteous” redemption.
In the lesson from Romans, we see a juxtaposition of flesh and spirit. This has similar imagery to the passage from Ezekiel, but Paul brings slightly different connotations. For Paul the flesh, while metaphorically connected to the body in this case, equates to living selfishly in sin and apart from God, not focused on Godly things. We might liken this to Israel’s condition in Ezekiel and the separation the Psalmist feels at the beginning of Psalm 130. Whereas the spirit in Paul’s description indicates living righteously, focused on God and Godly things, with God’s Spirit dwelling inside of us. God brings new life to our fleshly state
through the Spirit. We have access to newness because the Spirit of God raised Christ from the dead.
In following the order of the lectionary today, we are brought to the passage from the Gospel of John. I would like to take a moment or two in order to acknowledge some of the complexities with this passage. I do not wish to cheapen or simplify it by nonchalantly connecting it to the theme that I see present today.
At this current moment in time, here today March 26th, 2023, we are one
Sunday away from celebrating Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and approximately two weeks away from the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
In the chronological context of John’s gospel, which is different from the synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, this account with Lazarus, which also does not appear in the Synoptics, is a week before Passover and the crucifixion of Christ.
In the literary construct, this passage is smack dab in the middle of John’s Gospel. 10 chapters before, 10 chapters after. Within the first half of John’s Gospel, the author highlights 7 “signs” of Jesus, one of which was part of the lectionary last week, and a few of the others appear in other lectionary calendars.
This account is the last of the seven “signs'' recorded in John’s Gospel. It is the sign that broke the camel’s back; pushed the religious leaders over the edge; it is the breaking point. Today’s Gospel selection stops a few verses short of the religious leaders escalating their plot to kill Jesus. (Uh, didn’t Jesus just raise Lazarus from the dead and now the leaders want Jesus dead?!?)
So now the raising of Lazarus.
On first take, Lazarus is sick, Jesus is sent for, Jesus comes (cough “late”), gets an earful from Martha and Mary, and then raises Lazarus. New Life!
This depiction of God, in Christ, bringing new life has some further implications for us as we dig deeper.
First, the sisters’ pleas. If Jesus had just come quicker he could have healed Lazarus of the sickness and he wouldn’t have died, yet they express faith that Jesus could do something. Jesus is met on the road to Bethany first by Martha and a discussion ensues about Lazarus’ resurrection. Martha assumes it is a delayed event saved for the day of the resurrection, but Jesus, in His cryptic way, seems to imply that it will not occur as Martha envisions. Jesus is the resurrection and the life, as He was on that day with Martha and as He is today with us. God’s resurrection is accessible in this life.
Second, this event gave God glory, and Jesus, who was and is one with the Father, knew this to be the case. He stated to the disciples when they received word from the messenger, when they were running “late” and He reminded Martha right before calling Lazarus out of the tomb. Furthermore, according to Jewish belief the spirit leaves the body three days after death, so here on the fourth day when Jesus showed up, Lazarus was dead, like dead dead. To those that traveled from Jerusalem to mourn and pay their respects, many if not all, would’ve counted Lazarus a lost cause. God is the giver of new life, which, for human expectations may seem delayed but right on time for bringing glory and leading people to an encounter with God.
Lastly, we see that Jesus is affected emotionally by this situation, as it is
described that “Jesus wept.” The emotions of Jesus are minimally represented in the Gospels. In the garden at Gethsemane found in the Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke; the clearing of the temple found in all of the Gospels, and now here in John chapter 11. We don’t know exactly why Jesus is weeping. Perhaps he is an empathetic crier. He sees the sisters and others grieving and mourning, he feels the weight of the situation, and in empathy, in solidarity, he too weeps. Or perhaps, as it is stated in the Gospel, Lazarus is one whom Jesus loved and Jesus is heartbroken and wrecked at this momentary loss, and I say
momentary because Jesus has already indicated that Lazarus has “fallen asleep”. Or perhaps, Jesus knows that what he is about to do will set in motion his betrayal, execution and resurrection. Whatever the reason, the image of Christ, God’s son, incarnate deity, embracing the emotional state of humanity is powerful, reassuring and hope inducing. God the giver of new life has experienced our life.
So what might all of this mean for us, here today?
For some of us here today, we are looking for and want to encounter the
newness that God can give. We may be waiting like the Psalmist for the morning light. We may be like the dry bones of Ezekiel, needing the components of life to be regenerated so the breath of God can inhabit our being. Or perhaps we are feeling more like Lazarus - dead dead and need God to resurrect us. Whatever it might be, may Jesus’ words to Martha bring us comfort,
“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.”
For others of us here, we have experienced God’s newness. God’s Spirit dwells in us. We are sharing that newness of life because we have encountered God at some point in our lives. We are like the psalmist calling others to “wait for the LORD”, to find that “there is mercy” and “plenteous redemption”.
And there are some of us that are in between. Neither dead, nor feeling full of
God’s newness. However, if in faith we send for Jesus’ healing touch like the sisters did, or go to meet Jesus on His way to us, we will find “the resurrection and the life”.
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