Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year A)
St Paul’s Church, Byron Bay
St Oswald’s Church, Ewingsdale
Today we enter the holiest period of the Christian year.
In a week’s time we begin Holy Week, but today—a week out from Palm Sunday—we turn ourselves towards the cross. As Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51), so the church invites us to turn our hearts towards the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus.
In traditional church terms, we are entering Passiontide. More about that shortly.
Three High & Holy Festivals
We have many holy days and festivals in the life of the church, but there are three that tower above all the others. They stand out from the pack, as it were.
This is the first of the three, and it retains a strong grip on public consciousness as well. Even people with a minimal connection to the life of the church are aware that we are celebrating the incarnation, the coming of God among us in the person of Jesus.
At the very heart of the Christmas celebrations is the sense of Emmanuel, God-with-us. Not just with us humans, but with all creation; since to become a human is also to become a child of the earth, and be part of the universal web of life.
Not only are we formed from the star dust created at the Big Bang, but so was Jesus.
God, Emmanuel, chooses to be immersed in the stuff of creation.
Christmas not only invites us to see God in the Christ Child, but also to discern God all around us, between us, within us. This is an insight at the heart of Celtic Christianity, and we see it expressed so clearly in the great Celtic hymn, St Patrick’s Breastplate:
Christ be with me,
Christ within me,
Christ behind me,
Christ before me,
Christ beside me,
Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort
and restore me.
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ in quiet,
Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of
all that love me,
Christ in mouth of
friend and stranger.
We are not alone in a universe with neither centre nor perimeter.
Indeed, we are learning to appreciate the universe as in some sense the body of God, and God herself to be the beating, passionate heart at the centre of all that is. Emmanuel. God with us.
This is one of the great theological insights of the Christian tradition.
This is the second of the three great Christian festivals, and it lasts several days.
If Christmas offers us meaning, as children of a universe shaped and permeated by Emmanuel, then Easter offers us hope. More on that later, and throughout our Easter services.
In brief, as Paul would say near the end of Romans 8: Nothing can separate us from God’s love …
The third of the three great Christian celebrations is Pentecost, or Whitsunday in traditional English language. We shall celebrate that festival around the time that my role here concludes, so let me just suggest at this stage that Pentecost celebrates the powerful presence of God’s Spirit in the world, in the church, and in our own lives.
From today onwards we can sense the approach of Easter.
Our readings begin to focus on themes relating to death and new life.
In many churches purple cloths will cover ornamentation considered too upbeat for such a solemn period of the year.
Palms are cut and crosses are woven in preparation for Palm Sunday.
We prepare to walk deeply into the mystery of our Lord’s passion, death and resurrection.
This is not just an idea, it is something we do—and do together—as a community of faith.
For clergy and lay ministers it includes the Chrism Eucharist in the Cathedral as we renew our commitment to ministry in service of the Christ, his people, and the world.
From Palm Sunday to Easter Day we mark the journey with special opportunities to gather for prayer and reflection. We do not just want to think about those final days before Jesus was killed, but—to the extent that we can—we want to enter deeply into the great story that lies at the heart of our faith (and our identity) as Christians.
Palm Sunday – a celebration rich with colour and story
Weekdays in Holy Week – daily Eucharists to engage deeply with the Gospel traditions
Maundy Thursday – recalling the Last Supper, the feet washing, the lonely vigil, the arrest, the flight of the disciples
Good Friday – choosing to stand at the foot of the cross
Holy Saturday – gathering at Broken Head to light the holy fire and make the Easter Proclamation, Christ is risen!
Easter Day – joining our worship with Christians around the world in this year when Eastern and Western Christians share the same date for Easter.
The Valley of Dry Bones
Our first reading from Ezekiel is the prophetic vision of a valley littered with dry bones.
Such a scene suggests disaster, total disaster. In a culture where the dead are buried as soon as possible after death, a scene such as this suggests either a catastrophic military defeat or a major natural disaster. There have been no survivors. No-one remains to bury the dead.
God asks Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?”
It is a hopeless case. The obvious answer is, “No.”
But God commands Ezekiel to speak to the bones, and a miracle occurs. It is a vision, not a description of an actual event. But it offered hope to the people of ancient Israel and Judah, that their nation would recover from the disasters that had befallen them.
As we enter Passiontide, these ancient words invite us to see that even the Cross will not be the end of the story.
Of course, coming at the end of a week when a cyclone has brought destruction and flooding in vast areas of our own country, this ancient vision rings with a sense of hope ass people begin to rebuild their lives.
The story of Jesus raising Lazarus back to life after he had been dead for 4 days is unique to the Gospel of John. Matthew. Mark and Luke all seem unaware of this episode, which is remarkable in itself.
In the local church at Jerusalem, this story begins the celebration of Holy Week and Easter.
For people of faith, the death and raising of Lazarus points to the death and rising of Jesus.
The great Palm Sunday processions begins from the village of Bethany, which in Arabic is known as al-Eizariyya (the place of Lazarus). For Muslims and Christians alike, the name of this village is forever changed by the story of what happened there.
Pray this week for the people of Bethany, al-Eizariyya.
Their village is now cut off from Jerusalem by a 10m concrete wall, erected by Israel to impose its definition of Jerusalem as a Jewish city on their Palestinian neighbours. As has happened now for several years, the ecumenical Palm Sunday procession next Sunday will not be able to start at Bethany, but will begin instead from Bethphage, which happens to be inside the Israeli wall of fear.
Pray for a raising of people oppressed by military occupation for 50 years.
Pray for the liberation of the occupiers whose hearts are turned to stone by fear.
It has been too long. What can possibly change now?
This too will pass. The dry bones will rise again, and a nation will find a fresh lease on life.
People of Hope
Today, and during the next two weeks, we are going to be reminded repeatedly that we are people of hope.
We are sustained by hope even in the darkest days, because we believe that God turns death into life, reconciles those who are estranged, and vindicates the little people who seem to have little influence over the world in which we live.
Further north we have watched in shock as Cyclone Debbie tore up communities and disrupted the lives of thousands of people.
Closer to home we have seen homes, fields, roads and workplaces swallowed by raging flood waters during the past week as the remnants of that cyclone have brought massive rains to our own region.
So this morning we pray for a blend of hope, courage and strength as people deal with continuing floods, clean up the mess, pick up the pieces of their lives, and rebuild.
May the worst of times bring out the best from people, and may we discover yet again the power of God to sustain and revive us. That is, after all, our hope.