Opening music: When I Survey the Wondrous Cross harp hymn by Anne Crosby Gaudet
Call to worship from Psalm 130
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
O Israel, hope in the Lord
for with the Lord there is steadfast love and with him there is great power to save.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
and trust in his holy name.
1 Jesus — the name high over all,
in hell, or earth, or sky!
Angels revere, and nations fall,
and devils fear and fly.
2 Jesus — the name to sinners dear,
the name to sinners given!
It scatters all their guilty fear,
it turns their hell to heaven.
3 Jesus — the prisoner’s fetters breaks,
and bruises Satan’s head;
power into strengthless souls it speaks,
and life into the dead.
4 O that the world might taste and see
the riches of his grace!
The arms of love that compass me
would all the earth embrace.
5 His only righteousness I show,
his saving grace proclaim;
’tis all my business here below
to cry: ‘Behold the Lamb!’
6 Happy if with my latest breath
I might but gasp his name;
preach him to all, and cry in death:
‘Behold, behold the Lamb!’
Charles Wesley (1707–1788)
Reproduced from Singing the Faith Electronic Words Edition, number 357.
Prayer of approach (Companion to the lectionary vol 10)
We come to you, eternal God and offer you our praise. Unsurpassed in majesty, matchless in your holiness, you have shown to us in Jesus unconquerable love. As we contemplate his Passion, may your Spirit guide our prayers that we may worship you sincerely and in truth. Amen.
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!
In the stillness and the silence we recall our sins and seek forgiveness
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.
Here then the good news our sins are forgiven.
Thanks be to God. Amen
Collect for the day
Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
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.
Reflection part 1
It doesn’t take long when you read John’s Gospel to realise that he both includes stories and events that the other writers don’t and when it suits his needs changes the order of events.
Where the other writers have the cleansing of the temple, John has this strange story of the raising of Lazarus. In his commentary, Barnabas Lindars suggests that we have the second edition of the Gospel with the original writer’s editorial changes and redrafts. That having decided to include the story of the raising of Lazarus at this point in the narrative John then had to relocate the cleansing of the temple which originally, as in the other Gospels, proves the straw that breaks the camel’s back and accelerates the plots to remove Jesus from the scene before he can do any more damage.
As none of the other writers include our story, we don’t know what John’s sources are and whether he received the story in this form or heavily edited it for his own purposes. Certainly, there are stories in the other Gospels of Jesus apparently bringing back people from the dead – the stories of Jairus’ daughter and the widow of Nain. But not it must be admitted after so many days sealed in a tomb.
John in placing this story immediately before the passion narratives wants us to see the similarities and differences. A man will die and be buried, his friends will weep and be distraught thinking that all is ended. He presents us with an exchange between Jesus and Martha (see she was listening as well as doing the cooking) on the meaning of life beyond this and of resurrection, allowing him to include another of the I AM sayings: I am the Resurrection and the Life. Lazarus is brought out of the tomb and there is great rejoicing and also concern that this has occurred leading to the plot to get rid of Jesus. And Thomas is around to offer a real dose of realism. Themes and ideas we will see repeated in the events of Holy Week, Good Friday and finally on Easter Day and beyond. John is attempting to set the scene.
The following are what strikes me about the story.
Jesus is presented as being a close friend of a household of three siblings – none of which are presented as being married. So close is the friendship that they would expect Jesus to drop everything, risk the return to Judah and do anything necessary to save one of them. That he didn’t immediately go seems to us to be callous – even if you are certain that some will not die there is such a thing as pastoral care for their family and friends who may not be able to see that truth. Even if we accept that Jesus knew his friend would not die, the sisters and their wider friendship group did not. Is John reading back into this story his own idea that Jesus knew all things at all times, rather than working with a more human Jesus who could perhaps be wrong?
Jesus arrives at the outskirts of the village and is met by Martha. Does their conversation and the teaching that Jesus offers read more like that of the early Church i.e. post resurrection teaching than during Jesus’ lifetime?
We may, like Mary believe in a life beyond death – what one friend called something like the next great adventure – but we still weep and cry. When we attend a funeral we hear those familiar words intoned by the minister “I am the resurrection and the life says the Lord….”. But it is still right to mourn, we still hurt because we have loved. Like Mary and Martha, we need to be allowed to weep and be spared bland platitudes.
The other thing that stuck me is that Jesus is reported as weeping, even though John presents him as knowing that Lazarus is not dead. Is it just out of pity for those who do not believe or does the story preserve a different view of Jesus? Altogether more human, who doesn’t know everything that is going to happen and is facing the same grief as us? Is that cry “Come out, Lazarus” an order or a cry of desperation for a beloved friend? Was Jesus as amazed as the onlookers when Lazarus did come out?
Well you would think a man back from the dead would be all the proof anyone would need. But it wasn’t for everyone and to those in power it was too much of a challenge.
And so, we enter the final dramatic movement – the Passion story.
1 When listening prophets dare to speak,
love thunders like an ocean wave,
old wineskins burst, stone columns quake,
and dry bones rise up from the grave.
2 When prophets feel their strength is gone,
as Churches add to people’s pain,
a prophet’s question lingers on,
‘Can dry bones ever live again?’
3 True prophets challenge us to change,
to wake and wonder, risk and grow,
and when the way ahead seems strange,
to name the fear and let it go.
4 God bids us rise to speak and move
like prophets on a lighted stage,
unmasking fear, revealing love,
and making peace from age to age.
Daniel Charles Damon (b. 1955). Reproduced from Singing the Faith Electronic Words Edition, number 163
Words and Music: © 2002 Abingdon Press. Administered by Coltman International, 8 Marshfoot Lane, Hailsham, East Sussex BN27 2RA. Used by permission.
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.’
Reflection part 2
It would be tempting to think that as this reading from Ezekiel has been paired with the one from John in the lectionary that it too is about the resurrection of the dead.
However, in reality Ezekiel, is speaking to a people who have been forced into exile. They need to hear God’s promise of new life and salvation in response to their despairing laments. God will breath God’s Spirit into them and renew their lives. They may be far from Jerusalem, but God is not far from them. Here is a message of hope to people who feel that there is no life in them, that they are mere dried up bones.
One of the contributors on the UK Methodist Facebook group always posts a daily thought through Lent, often lost on me, either by content, style or culture. This year he’s gone overboard with “Lent Alarm”. Adopting what comes across as a shouty style berating the church which he sees as being unfaithful and dried up. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed that when you are struggling to do something or to cope with life, having someone shouting at you telling you to get a move on, do it better or don’t do it like that etc is to say the very least somewhat unhelpful. Yes, there are times for a firm hand, a clear guide, but all stick and no carrot?
Some things to think about, the idea of the breath of God bringing life.
Life is small and fragile. Instead of stomping around and peering down from a great height, we sometimes need to get down on our hands and knees to see it. A bit like God coming as Jesus to see things close up. A bit like needing to see the good things going on in churches, seeing the depth of faith, the quality of the prayer life rather than the absence of other things – like Sunday school.
Life can be a burden. We can feel the weight of responsibility, of duty or others expectations and that we cannot go on. We need to be able to say NO and please help. Mental health is as important as physical health, and we need to be able to be honest with ourselves about both. As the Church we need to care about the whole person and not add to their problems.
Ceasing worship in a particular building is not defeat and neither does it mean the end. Many years ago in the time of the old Manchester and Salford Mission I was sent to Salam Church in Higher Broughton. It was a grime grey brick and breezeblock 1960’s building festooned in razor wire to keep vandals off the flat roofs. Inside were orange curtains past their use by date. It leaked so much that the chaplaincy appeared water tight in comparison. But the people were absolutely wonderful, up for anything the preachers throw at them and ready to worship God. I took the students to help the next time. They moved out of that building finally settling in the community room of an old folks home. With a renewed life and energy that went well beyond what would have been had they stayed put. Letting go of the things that are pulling us down makes space for God’s Spirit to lead us into new things.
We are creatures of habit and tend to stay where we are. Security and familiarity may give us a strong base. But they can also stifle new life and new beginings. I moved from St Peter’s after 23 years of worshipping there to Manley Park, thanks in part to the conversations with then Superintendent. I changed jobs last November after over thirty years, mainly because of the change in ownership in the firm, but also because the new job looked interesting. Speaking to a former colleague, I know I did the right thing. So thanks to Bernard who sent me the link to the job advert. Sometimes to respond to the Spirit we need a little bit of help from others, so we can hear God calling. Fortunately, God often says things more than once and in different ways. You’ve just got to listen.
If we want people to come to church, to come to faith, then we need to ensure that the church is a place and an institution people want to be associated with, where they can feel the movement of God’s Spirit. We were described the other week as a place as a community that loves and welcomes. Not a bad reputation to have. And I want to extend that to say that in the response to the published “Illegal Migration Bill” that JPIT (Joint Public Issues Team) has made on our behalf and which the President and Vice President of the Methodist Conference have signed, we are showing that love in action. (see below for the full text).
Speaking out on the issues of the day, being places of welcome and acceptance, sharing God’s love enable us to speak of our faith, beginning the work of evangelism and showing that there is so much more life in the bones of the Church which is full of God’s life giving Spirit. Amen.
1 O breath of life, come sweeping through us,
revive your Church with life and power;
O breath of life, come, cleanse, renew us,
and fit your Church to meet this hour.
2 O wind of God, come, bend us, break us,
till humbly we confess our need;
then in your tenderness remake us,
revive, restore; for this we plead.
3 O breath of love, come, breathe within us,
renewing thought and will and heart;
come, love of Christ, afresh to win us,
revive your Church in every part.
Elizabeth Ann Head, (Bessie Porter Head) (1850–1936)
Reproduced from Singing the Faith Electronic Words Edition, number 391.
Prayer of thanksgiving
Let us pray
For the birth and life of Christ
We give you thanks and praise
For Christ’s passion, death and resurrection
We give you thanks and praise
For the gift of the Spirit
We give you thanks and praise
For the riches of creation and our neighbours far and wide
We give you thanks and praise. Amen
Prayers of intercession (Companion to the lectionary vol1 adpt)
They said to Jesus: !Sir, you should know that your friend lies ill”.
Let us pray
Creator God, your world lies ill:
Wounded by warfare; sickened by injustice; poisoned by pollution; dying from lack of food.
Creator God, we pray for new life for the world
We thank you for hearing us
Saviour God, humankind lies ill: wounded by sorrow; sickened by sin and fear; poisoned by illness.
Saviour God, we pray for new life for humankind
We thank you for hearing us.
Life-giving God, your people, the church lies ill; wounded by division; sickened by apathy; poisoned by fundamentalism; dying ?
Life-giving God, we pray for new life for the church
We thank you for hearing us. Amen
The Lord’s Prayer
Prayer of dedication (URC worship notes)
Thank you for gift of life and the promise of new life.
We bring our gifts in many ways – in time, money, and skills –
and offer them as a sign of our gratitude.
Bless those who are unable to give, and use us all to serve you. Amen.
1 When I survey the wondrous cross,
on which the Prince of Glory died,
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.
2 Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
save in the death of Christ my God;
all the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.
3 See from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down;
did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown?
4 Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were an offering far too small;
love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.
Isaac Watts (1674–1748) Reproduced from Singing the Faith Electronic Words Edition, number 287.
Blessing from URC worship notes
May the Spirit of God breathe into your life,
bringing renewed strength and hope,
and may the blessing of God,
Creator, Redeemer and Spirit,
be with you all, today and always. Amen
Closing music Jesu, joy of man’s desiring
Premiered on 16 Mar 2023 – Olena Udras – organ (Odesa)
Jesu, joy of man’s desiring,
Holy wisdom, love most bright;
Drawn by Thee, our souls aspiring
Soar to uncreated light.
Word of God, our flesh that fashioned,
With the fire of life impassioned,
Striving still to truth unknown,
Soaring, dying round Thy throne.
Through the way where hope is guiding,
Hark, what peaceful music rings;
Where the flock, in Thee confiding,
Drink of joy from deathless springs.
Theirs is beauty’s fairest pleasure;
Theirs is wisdom’s holiest treasure.
Thou dost ever lead Thine own
In the love of joys unknown