St Francis, Terriers - Lent 5 (02.04.2017)

Tony Dickinson

This morning in Genoa, nine people are being confirmed by Bishop David Hamid, the Suffragan Bishop in Europe. Given the time difference between Wycombe and Genoa it may even be happening at this moment. Of those nine, for whom we shall pray later in this service, eight are drawn from the Nigerian migrant community which worships at the Church of the Holy Ghost. Bishop David will lay his hands on them and pray, in those familiar words, “Confirm, O Lord, your servant… with your Holy Spirit”.

It doesn’t sound quite as spectacular as the prophet’s words which we heard in our first reading: “Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live” – and eight is hardly “a vast multitude” – but those candidates have in many ways been among the dead in the valley of dry bones. Some, if not all, of them will have stories to tell like the stories that Ed Hanson shared with us when he came to Terriers three weeks ago. Some will have seen family and friends die, and maybe come close to death themselves, at the hands of fanatics, or on the journey across the Sahara, or in strife-torn Libya, or in that perilous sea crossing to Lampedusa. Some will be able to say of their past life what the dry bones said: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”

Today they begin a dramatically new stage of life, claiming, through their confirmation, a place among the living people of God. For them the words of the confirmation prayer will resonate with the word of the Lord which came to Ezekiel: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.” In a foreign land, which is, for the time being, their land, they have responded to God’s promise, “I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.”

That’s the promise in which we, too, are putting our trust today. As we pray for healing, for ourselves, for others, for our deeply divided nation, for our even more deeply divided world, we are putting our trust in those words: “I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.” But how God will act we cannot predict – any more than the disciples could predict what would happen in Bethany.

John’s account of the raising of Lazarus raises many, many questions – not least about Lazarus and his sisters. Why were an adult male and his two sisters of (presumably) marriageable age still living as one household? Normally in first-century Palestine, a man would be married when he could support a family, and women would leave their family home as soon as they were married off, probably in their late teens. Some have suggested that Lazarus was physically disabled or that he had learning difficulties, so that his sisters had become what we would call his principal carers. That might explain why the three of them lived together. It might also explain why John goes out of his way to emphasise that Jesus loved them. Disabled people, and people with learning difficulties, have low status in Middle Eastern culture, even today – which is why so much of the work of Embrace the Middle East and its partner agencies is focused on people with physical or mental disabilities.

It isn’t just the situation of the family which is strange. Why doesn’t Jesus leave for Bethany as soon as he receives the message “He whom you love is ill”? In the story, perhaps, it’s a reminder the Jesus was not necessarily able to move about freely. The Jewish authorities, after all, had tried to stone him after one recent encounter. But for John there may be (there usually is) a deeper meaning – and maybe more than one. At one level, it may be a reminder that God does not always act “just like that”, that sometimes a crisis has to be endured to the end before healing can take place. At another level, it may be a restatement of John’s conviction that Jesus is always in control of the circumstances in which he finds himself, even, as we shall be reminded on Good Friday, when he is on trial for his life – even on the cross.

Either way, we are invited, like Lazarus’s sisters, to put our trust in the One who comes to us when we are at the deepest point of our distress, when our hearts are beyond desolate and all our thoughts begin with the words, “if only…”. It is then, in the depths of our misery, that we can encounter him as resurrection and life and see through our tears the glory of the Lord. To him, Father, Son and Holy Spirit…