Fifth Sunday of LentA
April 10, 2011
Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-45
It is a dire situation: The nation of Israel, once a strong economic, military, political force, had fallen apart. Faithlessness, greed, oppression, and power struggles had ripped the one nation into two. Weakened and squabbling among themselves, Judah (in the South) and Israel (in the North) became easy targets for other nations. And sure enough, the Babylonians had swept into Judah, pillaging the countrysides and decimating the city of Jerusalem.
Many of Judah’s people–especially the wealthy, the influential, were rounded up by the Babylonians and forced into exile. Leaving behind all that they owned, the landscape they knew, the exiled people traveled by caravan along the winding route from Jerusalem to Babylon–a journey that was likely about 1000 miles.
And so here they are, Ezekiel and the others. Cut off from their homeland. Seemingly cut off from their God, who had resided in the temple in Jerusalem, the temple that now lay in ruins. Forced to live in the countryside, to interact with a foreign culture, to wonder what was happening at home . . .
Then God shows the prophet Ezekiel a vision. God’s spirit whisks Ezekiel away and plops him down in the middle of a valley. As Ezekiel looks around, trying to get his bearings, the white splotches that dot the landscape begin to take shape. This valley is not rocky–no. It is filled, littered, with bones. Dry, brittle bones. Bleached by the sun. Disconnected and scattered as far as the eye can see.
As Ezekiel is led by the Lord through the valley, stepping over and around the bones, their grey-white hardness glaring atop the swirling brown sand–as Ezekiel surveys this vast devastation, he knows: this valley is the dire situation of his people.
It was a dire situation for many people. Anger against Jesus is mounting–he knows it and his disciples know it. Jesus had narrowly escaped being stoned to death in Jerusalem, and now he and his followers are trying to keep a low profile in the wilderness by the Jordan river.
Jesus’ friend, Lazarus, is sick. Sick unto death. No strength for anything but to lay on his mat, tended by his sisters. Mary, holding his hand, telling him jokes and stories. Martha, cooking, washing his soiled linens. Both sisters desperate, watching the life drain from their brother. Not knowing what else to do, the women send a note to Jesus: “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
When he receives the note, Jesus assures those around him, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Jesus stays where he is for two days.
In the meantime, Mary and Martha’s hearts grow weary with disappointment when Jesus does not come. And their hearts break when Lazarus finally breathes his last. In a weepy haze they prepare the body, seal the tomb, and enter a time of deep mourning.
In the midst of this dire situation, God steps in.
Gazing across the desolate valley, Ezekiel startles at the question from God: “Mortal, can these bones live?” Such a question. What a question. These bones. Disconnected. Scattered. Utterly dry. Can these bones live?
“O Lord God, only you know.”
God does, indeed, know. And God says to Ezekiel: “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 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.”
And what could Ezekiel do but prophesy? “Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord!” And as Ezekiel proclaims God’s message to the bones, his voice grows louder and louder so that he can be heard over that . . . over that strong wind . . . over that violent rattling. That rattling that is coming from–coming from bone connecting to bone. A swarm of brittle bone swirling and smashing together. Connecting. Forming skeletons. Complete skeletons. Ezekiel cowers, covers his head, peers out to see the sinews materializing out of nothing, joining bone to bone. And then muscle and organs emerging into existence; taking their places in each body. All through the valley a grotesque horde of skeletons filled in with guts; dripping and oozing . . . until finally . . . mercifully . . . the skin . . . wrapping each creature into a human. One, two, three . . . hundreds, hundreds of human forms filling this valley that was once littered with dry bones.
Human forms. But not living. Not breathing.
In the midst of this dire situation, God steps in.
Though Jesus does not immediately go to see Lazarus, his love for Mary and Martha and Lazarus weighs heavily on his heart. Two days after getting the message about Lazarus’ illness, Jesus says to his disciples, “Come on. It’s time to go to Judea again.”
“Ummm . . . Jesus,” says one of them, “we were just in Judea. Remember all of those angry people trying to kill you with big stones? Why would you want to go back? It can’t be safe.”
Jesus replies, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”
The disciples, afraid for their lives, are not especially reassured by Jesus’ commentary on daylight. But Jesus goes on, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”
A sign of relief sweeps through his disciples. “Good. Sleep is good. Surely if Lazarus is sleeping he will get better.” They’re thinking–if not saying–“No need for us to put our lives on the line by going back to Judea.”
Jesus is tired. Tired from healing so many people. Tired with anxiety about his future. Tired with worry over those he loves. And tired of having to explain everything to these disciples as if they were in Kindergarten: “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. Now let’s go.”
The disciples look at each other, wondering just how far to take the commitments they have made to follow Jesus. Finally, Thomas says, “Come on. Let’s all go so that we can die with him.”
As soon as they get to the town of Bethany, they hear the news: Lazarus has already been in the tomb four days. They walk on toward the home of Mary and Martha, and here comes Martha running up the road, tears streaming down her face. She falls at Jesus’ feet saying “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
Touched, Jesus says to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
“I know,” says Martha, “that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Jesus looks into her eyes, red and raw from tears. He speaks gently: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Lord,” she replies, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
After this brief conversation, Martha runs back down the road to her house. She pulls her sister into a corner where their guests will not overhear: “The Teacher is here and is asking for you.”
So Mary gets up and hurries down the road to the outskirts of the village where she finds Jesus. She goes with such determination that her friends, who had come to mourn with her, get up as well and follow her. When Mary sees Jesus, she falls at his feet and says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Jesus gazes at Mary’s form, slumped on the ground in front of him, convulsed with sobs. He glances around and sees her friends who had followed her out of the village. They are also crying. Jesus’ heart breaks. His confidence fades. He reaches out, takes Mary’s hand, and raises her up, looking in her eyes. “Where have you laid him?”
And they show him the place. Jesus sees the stone, the huge, heavy stone, holding the body of Lazarus in the tomb. And now it is Jesus who weeps.
And some people are sympathetic, saying, “See how he loved him!” But others are angry: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
But God’s involvement doesn’t end with the mere suggestion of life. God is not content to have assembled these human forms from a valley full of dry bones. He says to Ezekiel, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, O mortal, 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.’”
And what could Ezekiel do but prophesy? “Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.”
And again the rushing noise, the wind. But this was not the hot, harsh wind of the desert. Ezekiel felt the rushing wind of God’s spirit blowing through his hair, the wind gentle against his cheek, the wind, the breath, the spirit entering the bones-turned-bodies. Ezekiel looked out at a vast multitude of living, breathing people.
Ezekiel looked, and he understood God’s message: “These bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’
Ezekiel looked, and he understood that his task was to prophesy: “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. Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 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.”
Ezekiel knew that, in time, God would bring life–true, vibrant life–to the people, just as God had brought life to those dry bones that had littered the valley.
And God’s involvement in the story of Lazarus does not end with Jesus compassion for his friend. Through tears, Jesus walks toward the tomb. A cave, it’s entrance–it’s exit–blocked by a massive stone. He pushes and pushes, but the cold rock won’t budge. “Take it away,” he says. “Take away the stone!”
Martha finally breaks the deafening silence. “Lord, really, there will be such a stench. He’s been dead four days.”
Stepping back from the tomb, Jesus turns to Martha and says, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
So Martha nods to some men, fellow mourners, standing nearby. Not knowing what else to do, they walk over to the tomb and push the boulder away from the entrance. Then Jesus looks up and says, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 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.”
This muttered prayer, followed by a command: “Lazarus, come out!”
And then the figure of Lazarus staggers out of the tomb. His body wrapped in strips of linen; his face covered by a cloth. The dead man comes out of his tomb.
Jesus says, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
Our world is in a dire situation; Our country is in a dire situation; Some of us are in dire situations
We worship a God who does not watch tragedy from afar, but comes to us in the midst of the pain.
And God’s involvement in our lives does not stop with compassion, but is manifest in the power of the Holy Spirit breathing new life into bleached out bones, into buried bodies. Watch for it!