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Sunday 29th March 2020 - Lent 5: Passiontide Begins

God of our days and years,
we set this time apart for you,
Form us in the likeness of Christ
so that our lives may glorify you.

Most merciful God,
who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ
delivered and saved the world:
grant that by faith in him who suffered on the cross
we may triumph in the power of his victory;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Psalm: 130 - Waiting for Divine Redemption
1.  Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
2.  Lord, hear my voice!
     Let your ears be attentive
     to the voice of my supplications!
3.  If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
     Lord, who could stand?
4.  But there is forgiveness with you,
     so that you may be revered.
5.  I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
     and in his word I hope;
6.  my soul waits for the Lord
     more than those who watch for the morning,
     more than those who watch for the morning.
7.  O Israel, hope in the Lord!
     For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
     and with him is great power to redeem.
8.  It is he who will redeem Israel
     from all its iniquities.

Old Testament:
Ezekiel 37:1-14
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’
So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
Then he said to me, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.’

Romans 8:6-11
To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

The Gospel:
John 11-1-45
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘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.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘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.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘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. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 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 for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 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.’
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

God of new life, 
God of risen hope,
as we reflect upon your word today 
may we know your resurrection power in our lives
May our spirits be renewed
May our bodies be restored.

“Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord.”

These are words that may echo the thoughts in our hearts at the moment as we watch the news and see the way that the coronavirus is ravaging the world as we know it.  In New Ash Green, at least, there has been a stark contrast between the quiet roads and paths and the chaos we see every day on our television screens, but we don’t necessarily know what worries exist behind the closed doors.

All three of today’s readings open with someone in living in difficult circumstances:

The psalmist seems overwhelmed – by fear, by guilt?  We don’t know.
Ezekiel, a temple priest, is living in exile in Babylon, hundreds of miles from the spiritual centre of Judaism.  Called to be a prophet to his exiled people, God gives him a vision of a valley full of dry bones, possibly the unburied bones of the soldiers who attempted to save Jerusalem.
Mary and Martha are at first anxious about their brother Lazarus who is ill, and then grief-stricken when he dies.  Why hadn’t Jesus come in time to heal his friend?

“Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord.”

We find ourselves in what the Mayor of New York in his speech to the National Guard on Friday called a life-changing situation.  At the very least normal social contact must be avoided and much of the structure of day-to-day life has been pulled apart.  Many of us are cut off from family and friends even if they are ill or dying.

“Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord.”

Does the bible still speak into our current circumstances, into a global crisis, the cause and scale of which none of the writers could ever have imagined?  I believe that it does, and over the past week I have been struck time and again by the relevance of the words I have read and prayed each morning.  Even the notes which accompany my daily bible readings, which would have been written last year, well before the news of the virus broke, have spoken directly into my experiences, my thoughts, my feelings at this moment.  In the words of the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, “The word of God is alive and active” (Hebrews 4.12).
So, what might these three passages say to us today?  They may begin with despair and exile and grief, but each one ends with anticipation, with the conviction that God both hears and responds.  In two weeks’ time we shall celebrate Easter, the ultimate proof that the God of love is stronger than death, unable to be physically together, yet still united as members of Christ’s body in this area.  The experts tell us that we will have reached a darker time by then, so it is even more important that we find new ways to allow the light of the risen Christ to shine in our hearts. 
In our gospel reading, Jesus summons the decomposing body of his friend Lazarus out of the tomb:  he staggers out into the daylight and in the next chapter is enjoying a meal with Jesus and the disciples.  Only a matter of days later Jesus will be arrested, crucified and buried.  But his pulling back of Lazarus from the dead was the most powerful of all his signs and miracles:  an announcement that he himself would not remain dead but would awake to a totally new kind of life. 
In his vision, Ezekiel sees the dry bones, representing the defeated people of Israel, brought back to life by the word of God and the wind or breath of his Spirit (the same word is used for all three in both Hebrew and Greek).
Yet for me, this year – and every year is different – it is the short psalm that speaks to me most directly.  It acknowledges the reality of suffering (physical/mental/spiritual) but doesn’t seek to explain it or to explain it away.  It tells me that hitting rock bottom doesn’t put us beyond God’s reach and that the heights of mercy and redemption to which he can carry us are boundless.  It calls me to watch for the morning, in the sure hope that the night will end and the sun of healing and blessing will rise upon us.

“Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord. … Wait for the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy; with him there is plenteous redemption.”

As we wait on you, Lord God,
renew our strength, our hope and our vision
to be your arms in this world,
reaching out and enfolding with love
all those with whom we have contact this week.

Intercessions: (Taken from For Such a Time as This by Nick Fawcett)
Let us pray to the Father through his Son who suffered on the cross 
for the worlds redemption.

Lord of all, hear our prayer for those wrestling with coronavirus
enduring all the fear, confusion, tragedy and loss associated with that. 

Hear our prayer for those in places where the disease is spreading, 
the death toll daily rising, and where measures to quarantine those infected, 
and control the epidemic, seem to be a losing battle.

Hear our prayer for those in hospital receiving treatment, 
those with underlying health issues for whom treatment may not be enough, 
those already mourning the loss of loved ones, 
those virtually imprisoned in their homes or town, 
those stuck in a foreign land finding it difficult, if not impossible, to get home. 

Hear our prayer for those battling against the disease
for doctors, nurses and care staff putting their own lives at risk to do so, 
governments searching for the best way to respond,
scientists striving to find vaccines and a cure for the disease. 

Lord of all, give reassurance to those terrified they may have contracted the illness, 
strength to those who have done so, comfort to those it has left bereaved, 
support to those in hospitals at the front line in combating it, 
and wisdom to those entrusted with not only limiting its worst effects, 
but finally, somehow, defeating it. 
Reach out, we pray, in love and mercy, to help and heal, sustain and deliver. 

Holy God, holy and strong,
holy and immortal,
have mercy upon us. 

Lord’s Prayer:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us.
Lead us not into temptation
but deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power,
and the glory are yours
now and for ever.

The Lord bless you and keep you;
The Lord make His face shine upon you,
And be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up His countenance upon you,
And give you peace.

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