Monday, March 30, 2020

Sermon March 29, 2020 - The Fifth Sunday in Lent

I’m sure if I start, you can finish with me:

‘Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.’

It’s one of the oldest nursery rhymes in the English language. It’s also incredibly versatile – so versatile that it’s been used to illustrate the second law of thermodynamics, which states that the total entropy of an isolated system can never decrease over time, and is constant if and only if all processes are reversible. Or, as I understand it, that you can’t put Humpty together again. Lower entropy is order, solidity, and stability. Maximum entropy is chaos, dissolution, destruction. I’m pretty sure I’m right, but if I’m not, someone will correct me.

But it doesn’t take a theoretical physicist to understand that once the logs have been reduced to ash, you can’t burn them again;, and that you can’t unspill milk, so you shouldn’t cry over it, and that when Humpty Dumpty has a great fall, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men will be of no help at all.

This is why Ezekiel’s words are so arresting, that the valley is full of bones. It’s not just that the dead are in the field – it’s that the flesh has decomposed and the sun has bleached the scattered bones. Entropy has done its worst, and there’s no putting Humpty back together again.

This is why John’s words are so arresting, that not only is Lazarus dead, he’s been dead four days – four days is enough for the process of entropy to be irreversible. The body has begun to decompose, so that there is a stench, and there is no recomposition possible. The second law of thermodynamics has begun to do its worst.

‘All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.’ We think of the physicians, scientists, the armies, and the governors of the world. They are trying desperately to fight the coronavirus, to put back together a system that is threatening to come out of joint, to contain the virus and to treat the virus and in the meantime to make sure that other forms of dissolution do not wreck the society in the meantime, the overwhelming of the health system, economic collapse, breakdown in public order, and the like.

And that is within their power! The spread of the virus can be retarded, and the strain on our systems can be reduced, and society can be restored, or at least preserved. Each of us have our own parts to play. Those with essential tasks are called to do them with willingness and skill and love. The rest of us stay home, do our essential tasks, and share what we have for the common good - our knowledge and our art and our creativity, our financial resources and our encouragement, our good humor and our prayers. And though stupidity and incompetence and ego and simple human frailty will mean that things could have been done better, and we will argue about who could have done things better for a good long while, it is indeed within our power to preserve society. And that is what humanity is doing, with God’s help.

But there are things beyond our power to do. And that is why the details of these stories are so important. Humpty Dumpty fell off a wall and there’s no putting him back together. A child of four can see it. The bones are scattered and jumbled and dry, and Ezekiel can’t deny it. Lazarus is dead four days, and Mary and Martha know it – they can smell the stench of death even though the stone is firmly lodged against the entrance to the cave.  

As regards the pandemic, though it seems like the world is coming apart, we are not helpless. There are things we can do, and ideas we can share, and beauty we can find. But here, at Humpty Dumpty’s resting place and at Ezekiel’s valley and at Lazarus’s tomb, we are helpless. Our determination to wash our hands and not to touch our face cannot aid us here. Nor can our resolution to lead a cleaner spiritual life. When confronted by the reality of our sin that separates us from God and others, the evil which has overrun the world and the death that awaits each of our bodies, we are helpless. We come to the place where God shows us our destiny, our end state of being, and then God says, ‘Can these bones live?’

Vincent Van Gogh, 'The Raising of Lazarus'
If it is anyone but God speaking, the answer has to be ‘no.’ We cannot say ‘yes,’ for we know it is beyond our power to change the situation. But Ezekiel’s answer to God is not ‘yes,’ or ‘no,’ it is ‘O Lord GOD, you know.’ Ezekiel says that ultimately it is within God’s power to decide. And Martha’s answer to Jesus is even more clear: ‘Yes, Lord, I know that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’

We can deal with the pandemic. But we can’t deal with sin, death and evil. If there is to be help, it is to be from God. And the raising of Lazarus from the tomb is the penultimate sign of the restoration God brings. The ultimate sign is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

When we say ‘restoration,’ it’s that God restores us to the state of the Garden of Eden, where humans live in perfect community with God and each other. In this Garden, the serpent is not listened to and the way to the Tree of Life is not barred by the angel. We believe that God has done this through Jesus Christ, and that he has put his Spirit of faith within us, the Spirit that believes God’s promises.

Though we do not see it fully in this life – though sin continues to plague us, evil to stalk us, and death waits for us, we believe with Ezekiel at the valley and with Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and their neighbors at the tomb that in Jesus God has heard our call. We live in confidence that sin is forgiven, evil cannot separate us from God and that death is no longer an end but a way – a way to the fulness of new life.

So let us set our hope not in the things of the flesh. Even the restoration of our society and the recovery of our way of life cannot ultimately help us. We do not desire simply to ‘go back to normal,’ but to live toward the future of peace, joy and life that only God can give us. And we can do so knowing that our Lord has heard us and that our hope in his future is not in vain. The one who spoke the first word has the last word. Amen.