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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Lent 03/29/2020

As Lutherans, I don’t think we’ve ever done the fasting part of Lent very well. It probably goes back to Martin Luther’s aversion to such things being thought of as “earning your way” and thus detracting from what Christ, by grace through faith, has done for you. We’re not so bad at prayer and almsgiving, the other two traditional disciplines of Lent, but fasting, not so good or maybe I’m just thinking about my own pathetic efforts at “giving something up” for Lent. Two things I remember are beer and chocolate. I did better with beer than chocolate which I wound up reducing to chocolate candy which meant things like brownies or cookies were OK. Even when I’ve been successful with my meagre fasts, I fear that it hasn’t resulted much in the way of spiritual growth. Maybe you can relate or maybe you’ve done better than I have.

This year though, maybe we’re all learning something about fasting as all of us have had to “give up” significant portions of what we think of as ordinary life. In some ways this could turn out to be a good thing as part of the reason for fasting is to reduce our dependence on things that are wants rather than needs and to better understand our dependence on God as the source of all that we have. So, an enforced fast from things like going out to eat or having a game to watch on TV every night might turn out to be a good thing. The trouble is, there are other things we’ve had to give up; an enforced fast from your job or from school or even just from being around other people, is not so good. It might be nice for a while, but it takes its toll.

One of the things we’ve had to give up is gathering as a worshiping community. For some people that might not be a big deal but I know for many of you it is. It’s an important part of your life especially with Holy Week and Easter coming up. From biblical times onward, church has been about community; the gathering is important, but for a while it’s going to have to be a virtual gathering and we’ll do the best we can with that.

Today’s gospel is the story of the raising of Lazarus, the first reading is Ezekiel’s valley of the dry bones, both great texts, but I find myself drawn first to the psalm. The psalms are a great resource for us, expressing as they do all that it is to be a human being in relationship with God wherever we find ourselves on the journey, good times and bad. Over the years I’ve tried to emphasize the importance of paying attention to the words of the appointed psalm each week, recognizing that it’s not just a throw away lesson but that it connects with the other readings, especially the first reading which is usually from the Old Testament. While I don’t preach on the psalm all that often, it does frequently inform what I have to say.

Today though, when we’re still most likely in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic and response, Psalm 130 seems especially appropriate with its theme of waiting. It’s classified as one of the seven penitential psalms meaning that it’s a prayer of repentance and a plea for forgiveness, so the nature of the context in which we find ourselves isn’t the same as the context of the psalmist. However, it’s also a psalm generally understood to have to do with a life crisis, and it’s seen as a prayer offered in the midst of trouble. Our context is different, but we can check off both of those boxes, life crisis and prayer offered in the midst of trouble.

The psalm starts with “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” That’s another box we can check off as we experience the sense of being held in the depths of something that we can’t control. In the psalms, the depths have to do with the sea which in turn is an image of chaos, chaos often connected with drowning and death. That’s an image which also seems appropriate in the current situation especially as the 24-hour televised cycle of bad news and fear never stops; it can feel like we’re drowning in bad news. As an aside to that, I would encourage you to stay informed, but don’t leave the television or computer on all day, at least not on the news. Instead find ways to use those things as a distraction. Watch whatever it is that will take your mind off things for a while.

Back to Psalm 130 though. Verses 5 and 6 are what really got my attention: “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.” The image of course is a watchman who works through the night and in the wee hours begins to long for morning sunlight, not just because it means his shift is over, but because light itself is a gift, no more worry about what lurks in the shadows and darkness.

Worth noting here is that the verb translated as wait, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,” can also be translated as hope. That makes the psalm as much about hoping as waiting and it’s not tentative, wishful thinking hope; it’s confident, expectant hope. In the original context of the psalm being about sin and confession, it’s confident, expectant hope regarding forgiveness. That’s a very Lenten theme but such hope concerning forgiveness is always appropriate regardless of what season of the church year we’re in or of what’s going on in the world. In our current situation though, I would suggest that confident, expectant hope for us has to do with light at the end of the tunnel of this pandemic.

It’s light that tells us that this will in fact end and, as people of faith, it’s light that tells us that not only will it end, but that somehow God is able to bring good out of it. Our Christian faith is about new life out of brokenness. To be sure, it’s times like this that test that faith, the waiting is hard, but it’s also times like this that remind us that we can’t lose hope. We are like the watchman waiting for the light of dawn.

That brings up another thing that we can learn from the psalms. While there are many psalms of praise for those times when all is right with the world, there are also many that do come out of the depths. The ancient Hebrew people could be mad at God, they could question God, recognition of sin could make them feel unworthy, but they still turned to God; they waited in hope because they believed that God could change things, that God could bring them back to the point where they could again offer praise. In Psalm 130, the reason for that kind of hope is given at the end: “O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem.”

“For with the Lord there is steadfast love;” the Hebrew word translated as steadfast love is hesed which is one of the defining words for the Lord in the Old Testament: gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, hesed. It’s a word about the Lord’s commitment to the people, even when, maybe especially when, they fail to walk in the way of the Lord. There may be consequences for that failure, but the steadfast love of the Lord doesn’t go away. For us, the best equivalent term is grace, which is also about God’s commitment to us, grace being the reason for our waiting in hope.

Last week I talked about preaching the images of Jesus as the light of the world and of us as children of light. Light and darkness are also part of the psalm today but Ezekiel gives us another memorable image, that of the valley of dry bones. It’s a different take on the depths of the psalm but the feeling expressed is similar with the words, “Our bones are dried up and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” In this case their feeling of hopelessness is the result of being in exile, displaced from their homeland and from the temple which was the center of their religious life.

So they say, “Our bones are dried up,” and in response to that Ezekiel shows them a vision of…dry bones. Within that vision though, is a message of deliverance in the face of their hopelessness, culminating with the words, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil.”

There is one Hebrew word that dominates these fourteen verses from Ezekiel and that word is ruach. It appears ten time and is translated most frequently here as breath but also as wind and also as spirit. Ezekiel reminds the people that in the midst of their dry bones feeling of hopelessness, the wind, the breath, the spirit of the Lord is still active and will provide new life. The question posed is “Can these bones live?” and the answer, based on the steadfast love of the Lord, is a definitive yes.

It feels like there is an evil spirit in the form of coronavirus out there, but we too want to remember that somehow, the spirit of the Lord is active amid this crisis, the breath of the Lord still fills us, the wind of the Lord is still blowing. Like the psalmist, we wait for the Lord, and we wait in expectant hope.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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