A sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 26, 2023
The Rev. Mark Nabors, Vicar
Readings: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130: John 11:1-45
“A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.” All the former Lutherans will know those words well. A text and tune composed by Martin Luther, this hymn evoques the image of Christus Victor, Christ the Victorious, even in the face of sin, death, and the evil one. Christ Jesus is the right man on our side, the man of God’s own choosing, in whose victory we share.
Throughout Lent we have been talking about the cross and how the cross accomplishes our redemption and atonement, or our at-one-ment with God. Today we are talking about the cross through the lens of Christus Victor, Christ the Victorious, the Christ of Luther’s hymn. The cross is the place where Christ defeats the powers of sin, death, hell, and the grave, and opens up avenues of grace, mercy, forgiveness, and life. This action of God in Christ does not depend on us; it is accomplished by God and God alone as pure grace, pure gift, pure love.
We certainly see that in today’s readings. Ezekiel is set down by God in the middle of a mass grave. Dry bones are scattered about, a defeated army, the signature of death. “Can these bones live?” God asks the prophet. The prophet wisely responds, “O Lord God, you know.” God says he will make those bones live again; God will bring forth a new creation from this field of nothingness; God will cause life where death was thought to reign supreme. The bones come together; the muscles and sinews and connective tissue are laid over; skin and flesh cover the new beings; the breath of life is breathed into them.
In John we see the final sign of Jesus’s ministry before his passion and death. Lazarus, Jesus’s friend, is sick and dies. We know the story; Jesus raises him from death. Jesus says to Martha, “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?” This very question is posed to us today; it is posed to us when we come to the tomb and there is already a stench; it is posed to us when we step foot in those valleys of dry bones in our lives.
In both readings, God brings forth life because God desires to bring forth new life. God inaugurates something new because God desires to do so. God shakes the tombs and raises the dead because God says death and sin will not have the final word over creation. God gets the final word. However, both the valley of dry bones and the raising of Lazarus are signs pointing to something greater. They are not the thing in and of themselves. They both point to the ultimate victory of Christ over the powers of sin, death, hell, and the grave, a victory wrought through the cross and resurrection. On the cross, Jesus goes to the front line against sin and death, and accomplishes what we cannot. As I’ve said, something is wrong and must be put right. We cannot do it. Only God can do it, and God in Christ does do it from the cross.
Through the cross, God has made something new. When God in Christ descends to that valley of dry bones, when God in Christ descends into a sealed tomb like Lazarus, he does so to break it open. God in Christ does so to break it all apart from the inside out. As one theologian said, “The victory of Christ [on the cross] creates a new situation, bringing the rule [of sin and death] to an end, and setting [us] free from their dominion.”
And yet, if this is true, how come there is sin and death still? How come evil still seems to reign supreme? How come the status quo continues on, seemingly unabated? How come children suffer, and wars rage, and hunger is everywhere, and disease breaks down, and lives fall apart, and brokenness abounds? Is Christ really the victor? And if he is, then why does the psalmist today–why do we so often–cry to God out of the depths of anguish and despair, grief and death, shame and sin, brokenness and pain?
While Christ’s victory on the cross has won an objective victory over sin, death, hell, and the grave, these powers are still allowed to rule in the present age. It will not be until the coming again of Christ at the end of the age that the fullness of God’s kingdom will come. So we must take Christ’s victory on faith–not an intellectual faith alone, but a faith that makes us live differently in this present age, a faith that sustains us even in suffering, a faith that compels us to live in the victory of our God even as we are called to carry a cross, a faith unafraid to look evil in the face because we know it will not win.
Martin Luther’s hymn would go on to say: “And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us; we will not fear for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us; the prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo! his doom is sure, one little Word shall fell him.” The little Word Luther is talking about there is the Word of God, the Word made flesh, Christ Jesus the Victorious. When Luther wrote that hymn, he wrote the tune to sound like a dance. Through that little Word, through Christ and his cross, we can dance, Luther was saying. We can dare to dance a jig, even in the face of evil, sin, and death–even on the head of the devil himself.
It reminds me of a story about the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu during the height of Apartheid South Africa. As he got up to preach his sermon one day, the doors at the back of the cathedral burst open, and troops, armed, filed down each side of the church. They had been sent to intimidate, to threaten, to remind Tutu and the congregation of the power of fear and death.
The late archbishop was not a big man. He was rather small, with a funny voice and an even funnier sounding laugh. But what he lacked in physical appearance, he certainly had in spiritual fortitude. He could stand there unafraid, because he knew that because of what Christ had done on the cross, God, in the end, will conquer over sin, over death, over fear, over every power that seeks to destroy the creatures of God–and even over oppressive Apartheid. Armed with that conviction and that conviction alone, he looked those soldiers in the eyes and he said, “Why don’t you join the winning side!” Then, with a laugh, he started dancing down the center aisle of the church. He danced and danced, and the congregation got up and danced and danced, and they all poured out into the streets dancing and laughing and singing and stomping on the ole devil.
We have seen the power of sin and death and evil in our world and in our lives. There is brokenness in us and around us, and sometimes it looks like a valley of dry bones, like a tomb with a corpse covered in bands of cloth. But hear me now: sin, and death, and evil, and fear, and every power that corrupts the creatures of God–they have all been put on notice by the death and resurrection of Christ. Their end is coming; the strife is over; the battle is won; new life has already begun. We are not seeing these powers in force–no, we are seeing the last gasps of their dying empire. So with faith, with the cross in view, firm in our conviction, even when those powers do their worst, we join the winning side. We cast our lot in with Christ the Victorious. And like Luther, like Tutu, with all the saints and angels, we even dare to do a jig on the head of that old serpent.
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