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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Lent 04/10/2011

Many of you probably remember the days of school clothes, play clothes and church clothes.  That’s how it was when I was growing up; I had several sets of school clothes that were relatively new and which fit properly.  When they showed sufficient wear or didn’t fit so good anymore they became play clothes, but you didn’t play in school clothes and you didn’t go to school in play clothes and as I recall that was true for most everybody.  In addition to that though I had a Sunday suit; those were my church clothes and that was also true for most everybody.  I think in the summer me and my brother could ditch the tie and suit jacket sometimes but that’s about it.  There was the expectation that you dressed appropriately for church.  For women remember when everyone wore hats to church and for women and girls it would be a dress or skirt but certainly not pants; there were expectations. 

The fashion lines are a little less clear these days; from what I can tell for kids there is little or no distinction between school clothes and play clothes, but for many, adults and kids, there is still something of a Sunday dress code although for the most part it’s self imposed coming out of one’s desire to show respect.  There’s a little more leeway now but the idea that you should look decent and respectful when you go to church is still common (although I have to say from my perspective I’m just happy when you’re here; I can’t be bothered with being the fashion police).

There are more important things to worry about but nonetheless, the discussion about proper attire does get at a question that underlies some of the psalms as well as other parts of the Bible, that question being, from where and how should God be addressed?  Just what is appropriate?  Often there is something of an assumption that there are requirements, for example the requirement that there ought to be a posture of respect and obedience so as not to offend, that one should be suitably dressed and properly reverent when addressing God.

That has been the assumption, and in many of the psalms that has been the case as the psalmists are respectful and reverent as they offer praise for the blessing and order of life and creation…but then there are exceptions.  Psalm 130, today’s psalm is one of them. It’s the miserable cry of a nowhere man, a nobody from nowhere.  He has no credentials, but instead speaks from out of the depths, with biblical depths being a reference to chaotic forces, whatever they might be, that challenge life.  From out of the depths there’s no time to worry about proper attire.  There’s no time to worry about whether or not it’s appropriate to address God.  From out of the depths, you do what you have to do so we do have the witness of psalms like this one today as well as other penitential psalms and psalms of lament.

What the Bible in general and the Psalms in particular make known  to us is that God is tuned in to the cries that come from the depths.  The prayer of this psalm penetrates the realm of heaven; it is heard, even though the psalmist is not wearing church clothes.  The Lord is available and attentive even to prayer that comes out of the depths and from the depths a remarkable insight is perceived by the psalmist, an insight that in many ways is the defining insight of Lent.  “If you were to keep watch over sins, O Lord, who could stand?  Yet with you is forgiveness so that you may be feared.”  That pretty much says it all.  We’re moving into the final days of the journey we call Lent, and these words place us just where we want to be at this point

There is the honest recognition of sin, recognition of how we are unqualified to address God from out of the depths or while wearing our Sunday best; it doesn’t matter.  No one can stand before God and expect anything but negative judgment.  That’s the reality; but just as real is forgiveness and the remarkable thing about the forgiveness is that it is simply understood to be part of God, the act of God, the nature of God especially as God is revealed in Jesus Christ.  In other words, it’s not grounded in or dependent upon anything we do, it just is.  Forgiveness is a fact of life, a fact of new life, eternal life.  In God’s very being, forgiveness trumps any tendency we may think God has to keep score.  That means that while we are other than God, separated from God, we are defined by God’s forgiveness, not by our own inclination to sin.  Our identity is determined by who God is. 

That is the best news that any of us can ever hear, it really is; but it may be that we can only really hear it from out of the depths.  That’s one of the reasons for Lent, to in a way bring us to a place from which we can know this truth.  Some of us I think worry about whether or not we’re doing Lent right or having a good Lent.  One way to measure that would be to ask if the honesty of your Lenten repentance has brought you face to face with your need for God’s forgiveness and has brought you face to face with the reality of that forgiveness.  That is the point of any Lenten practices or disciplines that are undertaken.  As I’ve said, Lenten repentance is not so we can feel lousy, at least that lousy feeling is not the intended end point.  Instead it is to help us know God’s forgiveness, forgiveness which is rooted in God’s love.

This truth of God’s love and forgiveness is best revealed to us through the stories in the Bible.  Next Sunday we get the full reading of the Passion narrative, one of the most powerful, maybe the most powerful story we hear all year and one that moves people in unique emotional ways regardless of how many times they’ve heard it and I think part of what happens as it is heard is that emotionally we are taken to the depths that the psalmist knew, depths from where truth can be seen.

That’s next week though; today’s story of Lazarus however is another one that is tense with emotion, one of the most emotional stories we have about Jesus.  It’s a story that can be analyzed on many levels as is the case with most of the stories in John, but the emotions, especially the emotions of Jesus may be the real story here.  Emotionally he is taken to the depths and from those depths we find out about his love. 

The word love is so overused these days that it’s pretty generic; it often doesn’t convey much emotion or meaning; I love you can be little more than a throwaway line.  I think that can also be the case when we talk about God’s love; it’s sounds nice but you wonder how real it is.  In this story though, you get more than generic love; you get the passion of Jesus’ personal love, which is God’s love.  You get a glimpse inside Jesus if you will which can only be done through story.

The story doesn’t start that way though.  At first Jesus seems pretty detached from what is going on.  He’s told that his friend Lazarus is ill, but he doesn’t seem too interested, in fact he suggests going someplace else.  Even when he finally arrives at the home of Mary and Martha and finds out that Lazarus is dead he doesn’t exactly enter into their grief.  Instead he just offers Mary and Martha somewhat bland theological niceties which don’t amount to much more than saying, “He’s in a better place.”  There’s truth in such theological niceties and there are good intentions on the part of those who say them, but for those closest to the grief, a better place would be back with them.  In any case, at this point, Jesus seems pretty dis-passionate.

But then it shifts…it’s almost as if Jesus had been avoiding the issue but seeing Mary and the others weeping it finally catches him and he recognizes that this reality of grief and death is what he has come to confront and transform.  At first he’s angry; the text says “He was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” but that doesn’t convey the anger of the Greek verb used here and the anger is important because it’s the anger of “It’s not fair” and that’s anger every one of us knows in some way.  Well, Jesus knows it too and that anger brings him to grief and that grief moves him to act.  “Lazarus, come out!” he shouts.  Lazarus, come out, and as Lazarus emerges from the tomb I then picture Jesus emotionally drained, emotionally spent, from the depths saying “Unbind him and let him go,” emotionally spent but the powers of evil and death and grief that he has come to take on are diminished.

This is not generic, dis-passionate love.  This is the passion of the love of God revealed in Jesus.  It is out of that love that we are forgiven.  Jesus’ work wasn’t finished when he raised Lazarus.  There’s another story to tell and we do begin to tell it next Sunday, but in this story the emotion and commitment of divine love is seen in a unique and graphic way.  It’s the love that responds to us and forgives us when we cry out from the depths.  It’s love that gave hope to the psalmist and which gives hope to us. 

We can only be in awe of a God who loves us to that extent, or in fear as it gets translated in the Old Testament, but for us it’s awe.  We are in awe that the God revealed in Jesus loves and forgives us as we are.  We are in awe that we are not nobodies from nowhere.  As the psalmist said, “With the Lord there is steadfast love; with the Lord there is plenteous redemption”… for all of us.

Rev. Warren Geier

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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