Readings: Hebrews 10:16-25; Matthew 5:17-24
Well this is the last sermon in our Lenten series, Hope and Resurrection. I hope that you have enjoyed it so far, and I hope you have been able to see your faith in a new way. Before we begin with today’s H & R word, let’s look at where our Lenten journey has taken us so far.
In Week One we talked about Christ is our renewal of life. Through him we are healed and renewed. Our golden scars that we bear become a testimony of God at work within us.
In Week Two we discovered Christ is our new covenant with God. We talked about how God has a hunger for righteousness. And Christ's is the living example who illuminates the way to nurturing and strengthening our faith that feeds it.
In Week Three, we learned that Christ is our new temple. He is the heavenly home. And he renovated it by tearing down the barriers that keep people away from being with God.
And then in Week Four we talked about Christ is our way to resurrection life. For Christians...he is our human reality of God's grace. Through our faith in Jesus Christ, we receive new flesh and new blood.
Now, give or take a few jokes, that pretty much sums it all up. Which takes us to today where we conclude our series by looking at how Christ is our New High Priest, the very one who takes our sins upon himself and offers them to God for our forgiveness. Thus our final H & R words...Holiness and Reconciliation.
To begin, let's return to the gospel of Matthew, where during his passionate discourse on the Mount, Jesus says, “You have heard it said that murder makes you liable for judgment. But I say, so does holding a grudge and being angry with someone close to you." Jesus warns us not to bring that anger into church, instead leave church and reconcile with that person, then come back and offer your clean heart to God.
Each of the Gospels teach us how forgiveness and reconciliation is key to both Jesus’ ministry and our understanding of our own holiness. Think about all the healing miracles that Jesus performed that were tied to the forgiveness of a person's sin. And of course, on the cross, Jesus famously asked God to forgive us for our ignorance. All throughout the Bible, God’s justice reigns supreme through the act of forgiveness. Not just for Israel, but God offered forgiveness to Gentile nations...like Nineveh who were willing to repent.
Quoting from the prophet Jeremiah, the author of Hebrews reminds us...God will “remember our sins no more.” He says we can be sure of this because 1) God is righteous...and 2) God gave us a new high priest, whose own sacrificial blood was shed for the forgiveness of all sin. By his sacrifice on the cross, Christ reconciles us back to God. Our sins therefore are forgiven so we may enter into the heavenly realm, ready and worthy, to worship God.
Our Lenten journey, therefore, always moves towards the cross. And so it is good for us to be reminded that we cannot hold on to the hope of the resurrection without holding on to the suffering of the cross. As brutal as any killing machine can be, God transformed the cross from promoting death to producing everlasting life; from spreading injustice to offering justice for all; from honoring the ways of violence and anger to upholding the way of peace and reconciliation.
By picking up our cross and following Jesus, we are forgiven of our debts, AND empowered to forgive our debtors. This is the way of the Christ this is the way of the cross that transforms both the individual and community. Through Christ we all become one body, one blood, and one in the forgiveness of sin.
But the question we have to face is this: Are we living up to this gift that has been given to us? Are we paying it forward by forgiving others? Or are we still harboring a few unhealthy grudges? You heard me say that reconciliation is necessary for our holiness but it is also necessary for our wholeness. Yet for some reason, it is one of those things that is still so difficult to do. Why is that? Why is all the good stuff so hard to attain?
God is in the business of forgiveness, but we humans…well we need time, courage, strength, and sometimes protection. We always need find the right words, or have the right heart, or be in the right moment before we can begin to forgive...or ask for forgiveness. And if we are ready to seek it, we have to hope that the one we have offended is ready to hear it. If my past relationships have taught me anything it’s this, the one who is unable to forgive or seek forgiveness is the one most likely to suffer.
Recently the medical world has begun to embrace the idea that holding onto anger and resentment is detrimental to our health. When we push negative emotions down into some dark hole within us it eventually begins to eat away at us like cancer. And before we know it, it spreads into our interactions and relationships with others. Prolonged anger and bitterness can also block possibilities for resolution and opportunities for reconciliation. Negotiations between Israel and Palestine is a perfect example.
Jesus seems to understand that an unforgiving heart creates barriers that keep people out. He knows how it divides communities, and make lasting covenants impossible to uphold. But Christ is the new Covenant. Christ is the new Temple, where there are no barriers or walls dividing us. And Christ is the new High Priest in that temple. He alone is the new and final sacrifice made on our behalf. Through Christ and in Christ forgiveness is and always will be possible.
So as difficult as it might seem, admitting our wrongs and asking forgiveness (or accepting forgiveness) can go a long way to building a better, more lasting relationship. Therefore such actions need to come from our heart, the very place where our faith and hope reside. A thin apology often reflects a thin faith. It’s one thing to say “Sorry,” but it something else to say, “I was wrong, will you please forgive me?” More than just an apology, true heartfelt forgiveness acknowledges both the action and the hurt that they have caused. Just as one action can hurt a heart, so too can another action heal the heart.
Let me show how this is working today. In 2003, driven by overcrowded prisons, the Rwandan government released 52,000 genocide criminals back into society. People who had already confessed to killing their neighbors were sent back to their homes, back to neighborhoods literally destroyed at their own hands to live beside the few surviving relatives of the very men, women, and children they killed. Fr. Steven Gahigi, is an Anglican priest who lost 142 members of his family during the Rwandan genocide. The government’s decision to release these murders forced Fr. Gahigi to face the question: How does one move towards reconciliation with such evil, much less love as Jesus taught?
Fr. Gahigi believed this tragedy made him lose his ability to forgive. In spite of this...he prayed and prayed until one night he saw an image of Jesus Christ on the cross, the ultimate weapon of forgiveness. Inspired by this vision, he found the words again and begin preaching forgiveness. From jail cells to neighborhoods, his love and understanding of the sacrifice of Christ brought healing to his own heart, and to the hearts of those still suffering from the deep wounds of anger and resentment.
Lent takes us to the cross were we too must look at Christ who extends to the world the possibility of reconciliation by simply embodying it. His suffering, and willingness to be broken by the very people with whom he is trying to reconcile, is the very road to our healing and wholeness and holiness.
As we walk towards the cross we must faithfully hold fast to the promise of the Lord who said, “I will remember their sins no more.” Let us “hold fast to our hope without wavering. Let's put our faith to work and encourage one another to love and inspire to do good deeds. With a clean heart and faithful spirit, we can approach God with confidence, faithfully believing God loves us and accepts us. With faith in the righteousness of God, we can accept others as they are, and accept ourselves as imperfect as we are.
With faith in God, then we can risk forgiving and being forgiven. We can prod each other to be compassionate. We can egg each other on to reconcile...and show acts of mercy and healing. We can be healed and renewed to gather as one people, under one covenant, in one holy Temple, with Christ as our one and only high priest. We can move into the very presence of an all-loving and forgiving God.
So let us pick up our cross, and follow Jesus to the death of our old self. Let us pick up our cross...and move through our own death, into a new and resurrected life. After all, this is the very foundation upon which our Christian hope is built. And this is also my hope for you, this church, and for our world. Amen.
Resources: "Where Forgiveness Is Suffering," Jill Carattini, ed. A Slice of Infinity. Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, Atlanta. March 2015.
Readings: Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:30-44
Here’s a question that I hope you’ve thought about at least once in your Christian life. If you could possess just one of Jesus’ miraculous powers, which one would you chose? This was the opening question presented to us at a minister’s retreat I attended last January. The answers were as diverse as the churches we represented. Some, no doubt, wished to change water into wine. To my friends dismay I never perfected this one in seminary. Some wished for the ability to cast out demons. And many wanted to heal the blind and to make the lame walk again so they could help their spouse or a child with special needs. One minister admitted he really wished to have true Christlike compassion towards all people. Not much of a miracle. But if you're raising a teenager you'll take as much as you can get.
I simply wanted to seek the lost sheep; to possess the power, the words, and the compassion to seek all those who have been pushed out to the fringes and return them back into society, back into a loving community where we all belong together. This is what Jesus' miracles were all about returning people back to the fold. Jesus healed lepers so they could once again worship. The blind, so they could see the world through God's righteous eyes. And of course He brings us back too back into God’s ever living righteousness and grace.
As we shared our answers, I was surprised that no one chose resurrecting the dead. I couldn’t help but wonder why that was. Were we are afraid we might initiate a zombie apocalypse? Or did we just assume God owns this power outright? As Christians, we hold on to the hope of being resurrected through death; to live forever in the glory of God. Which takes us to our message this morning.
If you are keeping track, this is the fourth week of Lent and our series on Hope and Resurrection. I have selected two particular bible stories that point us towards God’s power over life…and death. There are three reports in the Gospels that speak of Jesus raising people from the dead. But I would bet Lazarus is the most famous one, because it reminds us of Jesus’ own resurrection. But since Easter is not for another few weeks lets turn our attention to a different kind of hope that comes from a different kind of resurrection story.
A story from long ago when God’s hand leads Ezekiel into a vast, desert wasteland, and walks him around piles of dried up tibias and fibulas, rib cages, skulls, and vertebras. Bones are stacked upon bones I always envision this place to look like a land where giants feed on human beings; tossing the bones to the ground like a bucket of chewed up hot wings from Mr. T’s.
God tells Ezekiel to prophesize to the bones, command them to rise up and receive the breath of the life. Given all the zombie movies I have seen in my life I am not sure I would feel comfortable raising a massive army of undead. But Ezekiel doesn't have Netflix...so he does what God asks him to do.
He begins to preach and the bones began to rattle and lock together; their muscle and flesh and skin returned to what they once were. God then tells Ezekiel to prophesize about the breath; the Hebrew word here is ‘ru-ah’ which means breath, spirit, wind. We first read this word in the lush Garden of Eden when God breathed life into humanity. Now here it is used again where all of life's pain and suffering stand mute to the violence of human reality. Again Ezekiel does what God asks, and the ruah of God regenerates and resuscitates an entire valley of naked zombies.
Now the author of this story lets us know this is a metaphorical tale. A story of how God will breathe life back into the people of Israel who have been held captive in Babylon. Living in a foreign land God’s people were spiritually dried up and parched like a desert wasteland. They felt as lifeless as dead bones.
God hears their cries and sends the Spirit to take them home. In one grace filled breath God returns their hope. God restore them from both a physical and spiritual death. By the life giving power of God...Jerusalem will be resurrected, and the breath of God will fill the holy Temple once more. Just as God restores and renews the life of his people, so too does God restore, renew and resurrect our lives. By grace alone, God saves us from death. But it will take a human life to do it.
As we progress through Lent, we might consider what dry bones mean to us as a church and as people? Do they represent dry times in our spiritual journey? Are they reminders of how living in a lonely and parched reality can separate us from who we really are? How many of us can point to periods of time when doubt, hopelessness, depression, fear and anxiety were prominent in your daily living? Perhaps they still are.
It's easy for us to relate to Israel’s feeling of hopelessness and despair during our own wilderness journey of Lent. If you have ever been taken from your home or placed in captivity you know the lost and helpless feeling that comes over you. If you’ve been to jail, or sent to war, if you suffer under the chains of addiction, or had to move away from your friends because your parents split up, or a job demanded it of you, you know how easy it is to feel as disconnected and brittle as these bones.
Most of us have had our faith put to the test. And many of us have had our spirit wither. But ask yourself the question that God asks Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?” How would you answer this question? Do you really believe these bones can be put back together? Let me put it another way, "Son and daughter of mankind, can the dead really rise from the tomb?"
Life’s journey takes us through dry times and dry places. And when our faith is tested, we often question our beliefs. Lost and alone, we might feel that we are parched or separated from whom we’d like to be.
There have been many times in my own life that I have felt like I am dying both physically and spiritually. Many times I have been dried up, not in the desert sun of California, but in the darkness of my fears and anxieties. I have to remind myself that while the daylight might hide the stars, the stars are still out there. Likewise, my darkness could never hide God’s true light shining throughout the world.
God is always and everywhere, breathing the breath of life into us wherever we fall. This breath is the same breath of life blown into Lazarus’ tomb. This is the same breath of life breathed into a crucified Jesus, lifting him up to a resurrection life. This is the same ruah, the same breath, the same Spirit, that came upon us in our baptism. This is the breath of God that moves through the world, raising people from the dead awakening us from being spiritual zombies giving us new life when the odds are stacked against it. Both Ezekiel’s vision and Israel’s salvation reminds us that God hears our cries; especially when we feel like we are gasping for breath and struggling to stay alive.
As we walk and live amid the painful and death-dealing realities that plague human reality, we must hold faithfully to the hope that God calls us out from the grave, like Jesus called Lazarus, freeing us from the ties that bind us. Through the grace of God in Christ Jesus our life is restored and resurrected. We are given new flesh and new blood. Death no longer has the final word.
Wherever our spiritual journey is taking us, our resurrection hope must never lose sight of the fact that through Jesus Christ we are regenerated by the Spirit and breath of God that is poured into our hearts.
Ezekiel stood among the dry bones. The disciples stood looking in an empty tomb. Come Easter morning, we too will stand here and have to answer God’s question “Do you believe these bones will live again?” What will be your answer?
Who says pizza isn't good for you?
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”