26 March 2023

26 March 2023

The challenge of not knowing becomes the challenge to seek truth.  These two ideas sit together, live together like identical twins.  At times, they sing from the same hymn sheet, in perfect harmony.  At other times, strained, uncomfortable, as they travel, as we travel different paths.  To not know is to seek to understand.  It is in the understanding that we search here and there, we talk with others, we listen, we create, in our own mind, a story.  We share this story with others.  We discuss, share information, and through our minds eye, we now know.  So, what is it we know?  Is it truth or is it our truth.  Did we set out to discover the truth, or have we settled for our own truth?

Let us pray.  Father God, as we pause to think about stories shared with us during Lent, we recognise there are many stories and understandings we each bring to this place.  May we be gentle with each other, respect our differences, as we together worship the one called Jesus, the living, breathing image of our father in heaven.  Amen

I want you to look for and pick up a piece of the jigsaw puzzle.  If you do not have one, then put up your hand and someone will give you one.  I want you to have a look at what you see on your piece of jigsaw.   What does the picture say to you.  If you had to write a story about your piece of the jigsaw, what would it be.  If you put a few pieces together, would your story change.  Would it be a different story if you were to see the whole picture created by the jigsaw.

The Old Testament reading read to us today is from Ezekiel 37 verses 1 to 14.  As a young man, seeking to understand scripture, I struggled with the Old Testament.   So, I buried myself in the Gospels and Pauls letters, mostly.  My God was different to all that stuff in the Old Testament.  I prayed, for a simple faith.  A faith that I could put in a box, with a label on it.   The Gospels and Pauls letters, andat times, the Acts of the Apostles.  But there was a problem.  They sort of slipped in and out of favour.  I had placed a boundary around where I would spend my time learning about God through the life of Jesus.  I justified my position, as the Gospels were a neat fit to support my simple faith.

Then, one day, I was confronted by an Old Testament passage in Ezekiel.  “The hand of the Lord came upon me and bought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley.  It was full of bones” V1.  Dry bones.  The words jumped out at me.  A wasted land.  A place of brokenness.  “Thus says the Lord God to those bones: I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live.” V5As I pondered on this passage, I was moved by its imagery. “I shall 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.” V14.  This passage speaks about a physical death, but it also speaks about a spiritual death, a people, Israel, cut off from their sacred places.

As I read this passage, I was amazed.  This passage was in the wrong place.  This is New Testament speak.  Dry bones were breathed on by God.  Surely this is a story about resurrection.  In this barren place, there was no life, no water, no shelter no Hope.  And the Lord said, “I have spoken, and I will act.”  And the Lords breath flowed through dry bones.  Life and Hope emerges from brokenness.  I have thought a lot about these words, simple, expressive, alive with Gods promise to his people.  This passage did not fit my simple faith.  It was in the wrong section of the bible.  And so, the challenge of not knowing becomes the challenge to seek truth.

Reluctantly, I dug up my box, dusted off the cobwebs.  I wanted to include the book of Ezekiel in with the four Gospels and Pauls letters.  I compromised.  I elevate the verses from Chapter 37 concerning dry bones into my select box of New Testament reading.  I reasoned it was more like New Testament than Old.  My boundaries were still in place, with one small exception.   My understanding of my God had shifted. I had discovered another piece of the puzzle.

Many years ago, as a young man, I spent time in Arnhem Land east of Darwin.  I had been out with a group of young aboriginal men.  Of course, I was all of 23 years old. We had crossed from an island, Millingimbi, to the mainland.  One of these young men asked, “Do you want to see my birthplace Wawa?”  Unsure, I agreed, and followed my friend.  

We walked through open wooded country, skirting around patches of dense tropical undergrowth.  Emerging out of tall grass, we came to a circular freshwater lake.  It sat in a shallow depression, maybe 150 metres across and perhaps 200 metres long.  We walked through a small clearing, to sit on a fallen tree slowly decomposing near the waters edge.  It was quiet, a peaceful place, very still. A bird flew by, the steady flap of its wings distinct.  “This is my birthplace,” said my friend.  “This is our totem, our clan, this is where we come for ceremonies with other family groups.  This is where my clan’s creation spirit lives.”  

My friend, eyes darted around, never still, checking out this place.  Silent memories floating back to other times spent with family.  After a time, we left this place, walked through small tropical rainforest near the lake before turning onto a walking track.  After a short distance, I could hear the rhythm of the sea slapping down on a sandy beach.  Shortly after, we came to a sheltered glade, set back from the beach.  Standing tall were large Tamarisk trees shading three large circular mounds each about four metres high, separated by a gap of a few metres. They were overgrown by native grass and vines.  Nearby the scattered remains of bush huts left to the elements.  The sound of the sea nearby but unseen.  

“What are the mounds?” I asked.  “This is where my people have rested. Where we have ceremonies, dance and share shellfish in the dry season.  The mounds are where my people have thrown their shellfish shells from the beginning of time. Shellfish good tucker.” he said.  “Long time ago we sit here.  A special place for my family.  This is where we gather, tell stories, celebrate, eat, and remember our ancestors.” 

Another sacred place.  Not mine, but my friend’s.  There was a time when I was unsure about this sacred place.  It created a tension between what I had been taught, and what I now experienced as faith.  As I listen, watch, and remember my friends who cared for me, I am drawn back to that place at this time.  As a missionary, I was tasked to “Bring the good news” of salvation to the aboriginal people.  When out in the bush, it was they who cared for me, who were hospitable, relational, who took risks to keep me safe.   But were they Christ centred?  And so, The challenge of not knowing becomes the challenge to seek truth.   My understanding of my God had shifted. I had discovered another piece of the puzzle.

The second reading   John 11: 17 to 26.  This is a passage in John’s gospel that I have struggled with.  The background: close family friends of Jesus: Mary, her sister Martha and their brother Lazarus lived in the town of Bethany not far from Jerusalem.  Lazarus was ill, the sisters desperate to get a message to Jesus.  Eventually, Jesus received their message and after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. V6

Why did Jesus delay two days.   We are not told; it is not part of the story.  So, we can create our own story.  For these actions of Jesus are not the actions of a close friend.  Many of us will remember the enormous difficulties we faced through covid.   Family members were sick, dying, we were shut out.   Families were separated from each other.  The disciples were not keen to return to Bethany. The last time they were there, crowds had thrown stones at them.  So, we create our own story.  We share our story with others.  Until the challenge of not knowing becomes the challenge to seek truth. 

The disciples were restless.  Why go back to be attacked and stoned by the crowds?  It was an unhappy group that set back down the road to an uncertain future.  As they walk, Jesus was quiet, deep in thought, the disciples, unsure, uninterested.  After a while, they engage Jesus in conversation.  Then, Jesus told them “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” V11  

When Jesus and the disciples arrive, they found Lazarus had been dead for four days.  So much for being asleep.  Martha and then Mary are mildly critical of Jesus their friend.  “What are friendships about if they cannot support each other” they ask. They know Jesus could have saved their brother from his death.  Then Jesus reassures Martha he will raise Lazarus from the dead.  Then Martha said “I know that Lazarus will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”  Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life, those who believe in me even though they die, will live.” V25

Jesus is clear.  This passage in John’s gospel is about resurrection, about life.  So even the one who’s body is buried, if he is a believer, will live, even if he is dead.  This will happen sometime in the future.  Then the writer of Johns Gospel repeats a similar comment, except, there is this play on words.  Then, Jesus said to Martha  “And everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” V26.  Do you pick up the subtlety of this statement.    Here, the word “lives” is referring to eternal life. Johns’ gospel is clear, eternal life is not something that we will receive at some time in the future; it is God’s gift to his people now.  

Then, this question, Jesus asked of Martha.  “Do you believe this?”   Is the question being asked of us today.  And what is our response.  Martha’s response was “Yes Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the son of God, the one coming into the world.”  V27  

The challenge of not knowing becomes the challenge to seek truth.  It isanother part of the jigsaw puzzle.

At this time, I want to ask myself a question.   So, what is it that I now know.  Let me list down three knowns for you.   

1 .Without the Old Testament, the New Testament is incomplete.  The New Testament came from the Old.  It grew out of the experiences of Gods people, who lived and breathed life into the promise made by God to people just like you and I because the Lord said to Ezekiel  “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, has spoken and will act.” says the Lord.  V14. I now know that to be truth.  But is it Truth, or is it my truth?

2 .We all have a sacred place.  It is where, we are drawn back to a place.  Mine is my grandparents dry land farm in the Mallee 30 minutes west of Swan Hill.  It’s the memories that make that place sacred.  You can smell the onion weed on a frosty night.  Pause by the dam, a source of life.   Its not a church or a building, it’s a place, a sacred place.  My aboriginal friend shared with me his sacred place.  I now want to sit with him again and share with him my sacred place.  It is this sense of a shared spirit that I yearn for.   For it is then in the sharing of the sacred.  I now know that to be truth.  But is it Truth, or is it my truth?

3. I used to think the key part of the story of the raising of Lazarus was the story.  A man had died, and Jesus had restored him to life.   I was a bit ho-hum about all that.   I thought I understand resurrection.  The empty cross, the risen Lord.  It was the conversation Jesus had with Martha when he asked her the question “Do you believe this?” It was the invitation to live with resurrection today not sometime in the distant future that sat easy with me.  To be the living breathing version of Jesus, to be Christ centred is to live in a state of resurrection.  My cross is empty.   I now know that to be truth.  But is it Truth, or is it my truth?

And so, I pause, to reflect. As I pick up my piece of the puzzle, we each have a different piece, a different story .  And that is what must be.  Because each of us are unique yet created in Gods image.  We can each see our own piece of the puzzle, yet there is another piece, many other pieces unseen by us.   I do not know what your piece is, or what it has on it, where it fits, what its colour is.  It can only be when all the pieces are brought together that we can complete the picture.   Each piece of the puzzle fits perfectly together.  However, each piece is different.  Just as we are different, but loved by God   Amen

19 March 2023