Saturday, 12 April 2014

Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday

Luke 22: 39-46   Philippians 2: 5-11 - I have cheated and am using Luke rather than Matthew's account of Jesus' prayer at Gethsemane (part of the passion readings), in order to bring out the comparison with the Lord's prayer.

Today is Palm Sunday – we remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, on a donkey, surrounded by cheering crowds: and we know that this is the start of Holy Week. We know that the crowd which shouted ‘Hosanna’ on Palm Sunday shouted ‘crucify him’ just 5 days’ later – on Good Friday.
So as we wave or wear our Palm crosses our celebration is tinged with a sense of awe – that the Jesus who was greeted as ‘the one who comes in the name of the Lord’ was prepared to go through suffering and death.
And so today is not only Palm Sunday for us, but also Passion Sunday – and this has led to the choice of readings.

Luke’s account of Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane on the night of his arrest tells us that Jesus went ‘as usual’ or ‘as was his custom’ to pray.
On the last night of his earthly life Jesus does something which is completely consistent with his whole life. He prays. This time of prayer in the garden was extraordinary, and yet is also just a part of the whole direction of Jesus’ life. Jesus prays because that’s what he always does.

And what Luke tells us about the way that Jesus prays has strong associations with what we know as the Lord’s prayer – the model for ‘how to pray’ that Jesus has already given his disciples.
Earlier in Luke’s gospel (chapter 11) his disciples said to him ‘Lord, teach us to pray’, and Jesus replied:
When you pray say
Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone endebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.
I think we can learn a lot from comparing the Lord’s prayer and the garden of Gethsemane prayer.
Luke tells us in chapter 22 that as they come now, after the Last Supper, to the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus begins by telling his disciples to pray ‘that you may not come into the time of trial’.

This is where the Lord’s prayer ends ‘do not bring us to the time of trial’.. (we usually add ‘but deliver us from evil’ and the part ‘for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory for ever and ever’.)

Jesus is facing the ultimate time of trial – the time of betrayal and arrest, crucifixion and death. He tells his disciples to pray that they may not come into the time of trial – to pray for strength to face what must be faced and to continue to be faithful followers of Jesus.

Then Jesus goes a little way to begin his own prayer: and as always he comes into God’s presence in the knowledge of the relationship between them as he starts his prayer
he has taught his disciples to pray ‘Our Father’ – Abba, Daddy – and it is to his Daddy that he now turns.
‘if you are willing, remove this cup from me: yet, not my will but yours be done’.

Just as the Lord’s prayer, after hallowing God’s name, turns to God’s will rather than our own needs, with the words
‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done’ – so here Jesus is acutely aware that whatever the situation (and now it is dire), it is God’s will that must prevail.

Even in the agony of this moment when it seems that his ministry has failed and his life is over, Jesus can trust that God’s will is for good and that somehow God’s purpose of love for the world will be expressed in what Jesus has to face.

In the Lord’s prayer, we next pray for our daily bread. Jesus does not pray for that – he will not eat again in his earthly life. In place of daily bread, Jesus is facing the cup of suffering. But even that cup of suffering he will take, if it is God’s will.

In his daily prayer, Jesus also taught us to pray for forgiveness – for ourselves and for others. He does not pray for forgiveness here in the Garden but of course, later from the cross he will pray ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing’.

Finally in this time of prayer in the garden, Jesus returns to his disciples, and again tells them to pray that they might not come into the time of trial.

While Jesus is still speaking, Judas appears at the head of a crowd to betray Jesus. In this final time of peace and quiet before the onslaught, Jesus has turned to God the Father in prayer.
In his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus dedicated what is about to happen to God just as each day before it has been dedicated to God. What an amazing prayer of trust and obedience this is from Jesus, using so much of the language of his everyday prayer.

And where does all this leave us, who claim to follow Jesus? Our reading from Paul to the Philippians reminds us of our relationship to Jesus:
“let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”.

Following Jesus is not like supporting a sports team, from the touchline, or through TV reports – something we do from a distance, perhaps half-heartedly.
We are to be as Jesus was, to pray as Jesus did, to be prepared to trust God the Father as Jesus did.
The same mind needs to be in us as was in Christ – humble and obedient even to death.

So as we wear our palm crosses today we wear a symbol of our discipleship. A symbol of the cross we are prepared to take up daily. A symbol of all the ways in which we are prepared to follow Jesus. This act of discipleship will be based in prayer, as Jesus’ time in the garden of Gethsemane was. And like Jesus’ prayer in the garden our discipleship and our faithfulness to God will be an extraordinary act and yet will also mark the direction of our whole life.

So pray, follow and like Jesus be ready to be obedient so that God can take your through all that life throws at you – through each time of trial, and be ready as Easter Sunday dawns to receive resurrection and new life, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

God's power to bring life - Lent 5

Ezekiel 37: 1-14
John 11: 1-45

Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones has to be one of the weirdest stories in the Bible, I think. It always reminds me of Sunday afternoons in front of the TV. One of my favourites was Jason & the Argonauts, with stop frame animation by Ray Harryhausen in it. One of his most famous scenes was the skeleton fight. I’ve forgotten what Jason and his crew were trying to do, but somehow they end up in a battle with a vast army made up of skeletons that just leap up from the dust & start moving towards them.

That’s the sort of image I get when I hear of Ezekiel seeing a vast army, raised up by God, in the valley.
A strange story to spark the imagination.
But I think it’s got a lot to offer us, today.

I don’t know about you, but perhaps it’s because Easter is late this year and it feels like a long time since the last holiday, I’ve been feeling tired, and in need of refreshment.
Or maybe it’s because the bad news  - of war in Syria, and shootings in Afghanistan and the loss of the Malaysian plane seems relentless.
Or maybe it’s because Lent forces us to face up to our mortality and fear and we know we can’t pretend before God.. but I can really relate to those dry bones – scattered, useless, dessicated. Dry as dust, without the spark of life, best left in peace.

But Ezekiel is shown these bones not to make him shrug and say ‘yes, I feel like that’.
Ezekiel is shown this because the Lord wants his people to know that even though they feel scattered and worthless now, they will be brought back to their land & God will not abandon them.
God breathes new life into the bones, just as he will breathe new life into the people of Israel.

And not just walking bones, but bodies with sinews and muscles and the very breath of God which is life and hope and resurrection. God promises “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live”.

So if you’re feeling a bit fraught – or even a bit desperate this morning, hear the prophecy of Ezekiel.

We also heard the amazing story of the raising of Lazarus, another story of hope for new life. Actually we had to wait nearly to the end of the chapter to get to the raising of Lazarus. So what else do we hear?
Mary is introduced as the one “who later anointed the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair”. Lazarus, her brother, is sick and Jesus is sent a message telling him this. Jesus reassures "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."  - but much as he loves Mary & Lazarus & their sister Martha, he does not rush to prevent the natural course of events. So by the time Jesus gets to Bethany, Lazarus has been dead for 3 days.
Even though the laws of nature might bring us pain and suffering, Jesus shows that we are not abandoned by his love, he can change our ultimate destiny. So he arrives to change things.

First he meets Martha – because she has come out to meet him “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”. She can’t wait for Jesus to arrive – she has to rush out to meet him –
but she does so with trust in her heart, and Jesus promises ‘I am the resurrection and the life’. When we come to the Lord in a panic, full of what troubles us, the great pain of our heart, he promises us his peace and his healing. However breathless our request, whatever doubts assails us, his promise is sure – resurrection and life.

I must have heard that phrase hundreds if not thousands of times in my life – but only this week have I stopped to wonder why Jesus says ‘I am the resurrection and the life’. He could have just said ‘I am the resurrection’ – Lazarus will be resurrected – or ‘I am the life’ Lazarus will be brought back to life.

But Jesus wants Martha to trust that he will not only bring Lazarus back to life – only to later die again, but that through his grace Lazarus will live for ever. And that promise is for us – we can be resurrected – we can be picked up, given new energy, but more importantly we can receive life in Jesus – eternal life – a quality of life that is for now, but is also a promise of life forever, life that death cannot extinguish.

Then Jesus gets to the house and Mary, who sat at Jesus’ feet to listen while Martha was so busy, falls to Jesus’ feet again – this time asking for help, confident that Jesus is the one who could make a difference “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

And because we know the whole story, we know that Mary is right to believe in Jesus as the one who can help and heal. Jesus goes to the tomb, orders the stone to be rolled away, and commands Lazarus to rise from his grave.

Because we know the whole story, we know that Jesus himself will rise after 3 days, but no human hand will need to roll away the stone for him, and no human voice will call him back to life.

Mary shows us that we can trust Jesus to hear our prayers and to answer them, because he is the Lord of Life and Death.

Resurrection is God’s gift to those who need it most. New life, new power, new hope.
We know that this is what Ezekiel saw, we know it is what Jesus promised when he raised Lazarus, and we now it is how the Lent and Easter story ends.
When we look at our world and feel helpless, we need to turn to God, whose power can fill us with new life and new resolve.

So hear the word of the Lord – and receive strength for life.
Hear the word of the Lord – and get ready to celebrate the Easter joy of death overcome by new life.
Hear the word of the Lord – and rise up to eternal life, in Jesus’ name. Amen.