Fifth Sunday in Lent, April 6, 2014, Year A
Ezekiel 37.1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8.6-11; John 11.1-45
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace and peace to you from the One who is the resurrection and the life, Jesus Christ Our Lord, Amen.
Our two readings today are two of my favorite stories in all of Scripture. I know them by heart and I never tire of hearing them. In Ezekiel God asks him in verse 3, “Mortal, can these bones live?” What a question! If I could rephrase it, it would be more like God asking Ezekiel” “You, one whose bones will eventually look like the ones in this valley after you die too… you know you are going to die…you, what do you think?…is it possible that these very dry bones who had names, faces, and breath in their lungs, could have life again…could raise from death?”
I imagine Ezekiel swallowing hard, taking a deep breath and giving God, in my opinion, the smartest answer in all of Scripture: “Oh Lord God, you know.” In this world Ezekiel knew that bones that were already becoming dust did not live again, but he was not going to be limited to his own understanding of what was possible. He opened himself up to the prospect of seeing life come from death, knowing that it was only conceivable if God made it happen. “Oh Lord God, you know.”
I hear echoes of this in our Gospel reading when Jesus says to a grief-stricken Martha, whose beloved brother just died: “Your brother will rise again…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?”
At this point Martha could have said, “Well, Jesus, my brother Lazarus, whom you love, has been dead now for four days. He loved you and believed in you and now he is decaying in a tomb with no breath within him.” With her dead brother already buried, her belief of resurrection on the last day, and Jesus standing in front of her, Martha responds in faith to his question: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
In her response Martha leaves room for the possibility of life in the face of death, remaining hopeful and refusing to give into despair. What Jesus means by the dead will live is unclear to her at the point of her confession of faith, but nonetheless, she goes to Jesus in her raw grief and with profound trust says, “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.”
Our Gospel reading is not just a story about Jesus’ power to raise Lazarus from death. It is story about people Jesus deeply cares for; it is about faith and not giving in to despair; it is about the whole community’s involvement in participating in bringing forth life; and ultimately, it is pointing us towards Jesus’ own death and resurrection as we approach Holy week.
Perhaps all of us can identify with Mary and Martha’s grief over the death of their brother. Most of all of us know the sting of death of a loved one and comprehend the finality of it in this life. This story is full of emotion from Mary falling and weeping at the feet of Jesus to even Jesus himself weeping. The question gets asked by a bystander, maybe even a question we ourselves have asked before in grief, “Jesus, could you not have kept this one from dying?”
I wonder what the people, especially Mary and Martha, expected of Jesus when he went to Lazarus’ tomb with tears streaming down his face. Even knowing Jesus had the power and would raise Lazarus from his grave, Jesus still weeps with those he loves. He stands before the stone of the tomb and orders others to roll it away. He is met by Martha’s protests: “Lord, already there is a stench.” After four days someone is really dead. It would be almost as miraculous as dry bones coming back to life. Yet Jesus still calls Martha to have faith, to believe, and to trust in him and his power to give life.
So Jesus prays to his Father and cries out in a loud, demanding voice, “Lazarus, come out!” Without pause, Scripture tells us that “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.” Can you hear the words of promise we read in Ezekiel: “I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves…I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live…”
It is not enough for Jesus to call Lazarus from his sleep of death, but he takes it a step further and tells the community to participate in giving life to Lazarus by unwrapping his grave cloths. To unwrap him they need to get up close to smell the stench of death, touch his skin, and see his chest rise and fall with breath. The dead man, called by name by the One who is the resurrection and the life, lives again in the presence of his sisters and community. In hearing Jesus call out Lazarus’ name, we too are to anticipate hearing our names being called out by Jesus to come out of our graves, not just after we are 6 feet under or ashes scattered on the prairie hills, but even now.
I love these stories so much because they remind me and all of us that anything is possible with God and because of God, and that new and renewed life is given even in the most hopeless of circumstances.
How many of you have ever felt alone in your life? Abandoned? Hopeless? Think about the dry bones story. The people in the story felt as good as dead even while they were still alive because of losing their homes and their loved ones, and being exiled to a foreign land. In despair they said, “Our bones are dried up. Our hope is lost. We are cut off completely.”
Even with their lack of faith God says to them, “I am going to bring you up for your graves of despair and depression and loss, the graves that bring death while you still live, and I will breathe the breath of new and renewed life within you.” What God is saying to them and to us today is, “I am as near to you as your own breath, even when you feel lost, alone, afraid, or hopeless.”
These stories are not just about death and resurrection, they are about not giving in to despair, trusting that God is indeed with you every step of the way through life, through death, and then through life on the other side of death. No matter what has happened in your life or what will happen, God makes all things new.
What I mean by this is that there is never a point in this life in which God will abandon you and there is never a situation that God cannot work in to create good out of something that is awful and evil. What I also mean and I want you to hear clearly is that no one should count themselves out of God’s redeeming love and what God has prepared for you after you die. I know many of you are afraid of where you may end up after death, but hear the words of God spoken in Ezekiel for you: “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…” Without God we are forever wrapped in our grave cloths. The beauty about resurrection and the new life God gives to all is there is nothing we can do about it except let God give us life…kind of like how we were helplessly born into this world. And when I talk about resurrection, Scripture is clear that it is bodily, although we don’t quite understand what that means.
When Christians were killed for their beliefs, their murders would scattered their body parts all around, or burn them, or have them eaten by lions in order that God could not raise up their bodies after death. But the text in Ezekiel is to remind us that God creates out of nothing and nothing is too far gone to be made whole and new again.
In two weeks we will have Good Friday worship in which we hear intimately about the suffering and death of Jesus. Our two readings today are to help us get ready for Good Friday and Easter and strengthen our faith. These stories say that death is not the end…Life is. And it is for you and for me whether we are still breathing here today, or whether we hear our names called out by Christ on the other side of death.