THE OLD TESTAMENT LESSON Ezekiel 37:1-14
The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”
4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath[a] enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”
7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.
9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.
11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”
THE GOSPEL LESSON John 11:1-45
11 Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) 3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” 4 When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” 5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, 7 and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”
8 “But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. 10 It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.” 11 After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”
12 His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” 13 Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. 14 So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, 15 and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”16 Then Thomas (also known as Didymus[a]) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was less than two miles[b] from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” 28 After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” 29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there. 32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied. 35 Jesus wept. 36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39 “Take away the stone,” he said. “But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.” 40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, com
out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
45 Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
SERMON Life from Death
I’m not sure there could be any more appropriate Scripture readings for the times in which we are living today than the passages we have read together for this fifth Sunday of Lent.
First, we walk with the prophet Ezekiel through this third prophetic vision, the valley of dry bones, that famous passage where the prophet is carried by the Spirit to deliver the Word of the Lord in the midst of death. For most of us, we cannot hear this passage without humming the old spiritual that is based on this Scripture, made famous by the Delta Rhythm Boys ….we all know how it goes…the toe bone’s connected to the foot bone, the foot bone’s connected to the heel bone…the heel bone’s connected to the ankle bone….now hear the Word of the Lord.
According to the story, the prophet Ezekiel is given a vision from God where he visits this valley of dry bones. The bones represent the current situation of God’s people living in exile, the hopelessness of Israel, and the destruction of temple in Jerusalem. Miraculously, by the power and breath of God, these dead and dried bones are given new life! Ezekiel delivers the Word of God to the bones as commanded by God, saying, “Hear the word of the Lord! I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live. You will live and you will know that I am the Lord.” And that is exactly what happened. In other words, “Dem bones” were resurrected, infused with the power and breath of the living God and began, miraculously, to walk around. Ezekiel’s message was a powerful word to God’s people, that even in the midst of the death, destruction and hopelessness that was all around them, God has not forgotten them, that they would one day be restored to life by the power of God.
I recall a few years back how intrigued I was when ABC advertised the launch of a new TV mini-series called Resurrection which was scheduled to begin on the first Sunday of Lent that year. I’m not sure the producers made that particular connection, but the title got my attention. Curiosity got the best of me and I had to tune in…
The premiere episode begins with young Jacob, an average, all-American eight year old boy, who wakes up to find himself in a field in somewhere in China. He wanders through the village, not knowing where he is or how he got there. As the story unfolds, the FBI becomes involved and Jacob eventually recalls that his hometown is Arcadia, Missouri. He is escorted back there by Agent Bellamy and finds himself in the driveway of his home. When the middle-aged couple living in the home is questioned, they reveal that their only son, Jacob, died 32 years earlier.
The episode reaches a dramatic climax (just before a commercial break of course!) when Jacob cries out, “Daddy!” and runs up to hug this shocked, older man that Jacob recognizes as his father. The boy looks like Jacob, acts like Jacob and knows things only Jacob could know. How can this be possible? Jacob is dead. The parents, even though they are terrified and dumbfounded all at the same time, they so desperately want to believe that this is true; they are almost afraid to ask too many questions; the townspeople, however, are full of questions, and become agitated and suspicious.
As the series continues, more people from the town of Arcadia, who were long dead, begin to return from the grave. We are beginning to get the sense that something sinister and evil is afoot as these mysterious and frightening “back-from-the-dead” awakenings continue to happen. The series is advertised as Science Fiction, of course, because we all know that stuff like this doesn’t happen in real life…..right?
So we come to our gospel passage for today, the incredible story of the raising of Lazarus, recorded for us only in the Gospel of John, a story of sadness and tragedy, of desperation and grief, of loss and of pain; but also a miraculous story of hope, life and resurrection.
Jesus gets word that Lazarus is ill; Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, were beloved friends of Jesus. Their home in Bethany was a place of rest and refreshment for our Lord during his years of ministry, a place where Jesus was always welcomed and could fellowship among friends. Upon hearing the news about how sick Lazarus was, we would expect Jesus to rush in and remedy the situation, to rush to the bedside of the one he loved….to do what he and only he could do in this desperate circumstance.
But he didn’t. Jesus’ delayed response here seems curious to us, even cruel, especially given his relationship with the family. But before we even have a chance to wonder why he waits, Jesus gives us the explanation…so that God’s glory and power can be revealed!
Jesus waited long enough so that there would be no question that Lazarus was actually dead. Jewish tradition believed that for three days after death the soul of the deceased would linger near the body, so by waiting the four days, it was clear to everyone that Lazarus was truly dead. No one present would be able to deny the miracle.
John places this story very near the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, so at this point in Jesus’ own life, he is walking closer and closer toward the cross, toward the fulfillment of his own destiny on the earth, the fulfillment of God’s redemptive plan for the world. There was danger everywhere for him, there were already those around that were plotting to kill him. Jesus and the disciples knew this. They knew that for him to make this journey to Bethany to see Lazarus at this time would mean risking his own life to get there. And yet, Jesus goes…
When he arrives, Martha runs out to meet him….and in her words we can hear her anger and grief as she asks her Lord, “Jesus” she says, “Where have you been! We sent word! Why didn’t you come when we called? Why were you not here? If you had come when we asked our brother would still be alive!” Mary in essence says the same thing and the reaction of these sisters to the loss of their brother whom they loved dearly is certainly one that we can understand, for if any one of us has ever lost someone we love, and we knew for a fact that there was a way to prevent it from happening, or we knew that something could have been done to stop it, we would have desperately wanted that! They can’t understand why Jesus didn’t come sooner.
It is not until they get to the tomb that they understand. For it is there that God’s power and glory is revealed—just as Jesus promised.
When they arrive at the tomb, Jesus proclaims those unbelievable words, “Lazarus, come forth!” Scholars have often speculated that if in that moment Jesus had not named Lazarus, or had not called Lazarus by name but had simply declared, “come forth,” that by the resurrection power of God, all the dead for all time would have risen in that moment.
To the amazement of all those watching, Lazarus emerges from the tomb, still wrapped in strips of burial cloth, almost like a scene from one of those mummy horror movies, a dead man….walking! He’s alive? Impossible!…..Unbelievable!….Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead! The passage ends by saying that many of those who were there that day and saw what Jesus had done, including some of the Jews, believed in Jesus as the Son of God as a result of all they had seen and witnessed that day.
Jesus knew that day what all those standing around, and even his closest friends, did not fully realize, that it would not be long before he would face his own death. It would not be long before his friends would be standing at his own tomb … and witnessing another miracle. And so it makes sense that at this point in his ministry that Jesus would choose to use this occasion to give the world a foretaste of what was to come. He had been dropping hints to his friends all along the way, foreshadowing his own death and resurrection, but they simply did not understand. Jesus knew how difficult it would be for them to believe in the whole miracle of the resurrection of the body, to believe in that promise, not just for Jesus himself as the very Son of God, but that this resurrection promise was for them as well, and for all people, for all time. So he gives them a trememdous gift in the raising of Lazarus, an opportunity to believe in the impossible, to embrace the miracle.
Our Lord knows the human heart and mind so well, both then and now. God knows how very difficult it would be to believe in the eternal promise of the resurrection of the body if we did not have the story of Lazarus, that this miracle and promise was real not only for Jesus….for the Son of God….but also, by God’s resurrection power, it is real for us as well.
As Christ followers, we believe not only in the promise of the physical resurrection of the body at some point in the future, but also in the hope of spiritual resurrection and new life here and now. Lazarus helps us remember that the idea of spiritual resurrection is not some far off promise for another time or for another place…it is for us now, in the lives that we live and the issues we face day in and day out, even in these challenging days in which we are living now.
Jesus came to the aid of his friends in their time of deepest need, in a way that was unbelievable and unexpected. And the power he demonstrated then to bring life from death is the same promised power that Christ offers to each of us as well. We can remember Lazarus when we are faced with difficult and seemingly hopeless situations, like many are facing today in the midst of this pandemic…Not only the fear of the virus itself, but also the economic and emotional impact of the “shelter in place” and social distancing guidelines that so many people are living with right now, and the impact this is having on our country and on the world. We cannot help but wonder what post-pandemic life will really be like when all this is finally over. What will survive? Will we find ourselves with nothing more than a valley of dry bones?
But like the Psalmist, out of these depths we cry to the Lord, we watch, we wait, we pray, believing that our Lord hears our cries and has not abandoned us, but is walking beside us, holding us in the palm of His hand. Within our tombs of social distancing and self-isolation, God calls out our names…calls our souls forth to believe that death does not and will not have the last word.
As Easter people, we are called to hold on to the hope that is ours in the resurrection power of Jesus Christ our Lord, even with all that is happening right how globally, and even in the midst the difficult and dead situations that often trouble our lives personally: people and circumstances that we have given up on and left for dead, where it seems God is absent; problems that seem to us to be nothing more than a pile of dry bones or a sealed, dark tomb. Maybe it is a burden that you have carried for someone else for many years….maybe it is a dream you once had that seems long dead….maybe it is a hope that you once cherished that seems to be buried. Maybe like Martha and Mary, we may even want to blame God for it, after all, we prayed and nothing happened. God seems to be absent in the situation. We’ve asked for God to come and help, but it seems that He has been detained, or has forgotten altogether. As far as we are concerned, the last breath has been taken. It’s too late.
But maybe, just maybe, God is at work in ways that we can’t understand, in miraculous ways that we cannot see. After all, that is the very DEFINITION of faith, right? Believing in things that are HOPED for…confidence in those things that we cannot yet see!
The miracle of Lazarus invites us to hold on to hope and believe that ultimately, God’s power revealed to us and for us in Jesus can conquer death…not only physically, but spiritually as well.
As individuals and as a body of believers, Christ calls us not only to believe, but also to participate in resurrection miracles….to unbind those that are wrapped in spiritual death and darkness….to remove the stones from our own lives and the lives of others so that the presence of power of God can be revealed in the midst of pain and so that God’s glory may be seen and God’s will may come to pass. Believing in resurrection power means that we believe that ultimately, death and darkness do not have the final word, that in Christ we have hope and power, both for this life and in the life to come. Our hope is in a God who gives life to dry bones, who opens and shines light into the sealed tomb, who brings life out of death. Thanks be to God. Amen.