Resurrection Life (Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45)
It seems that we’ve been getting our April showers a little early this year, but at least it isn’t snow (for now)! As I was walking into the mall the other day, I was delighted to see some daffodils coming up. The landscapers aerated our lawn the other day. We took a drive up the Mississippi river yesterday and saw hints of buds on some trees. Even this “winter-lover’s” heart was warmed by these signs and they put a bit of “spring in my step,” so to speak. Does it do good things to you to think about Spring and flowers and budding trees, and warmer temperatures? New life! Well, in a way, our passages speak about that; about liveliness where there hasn’t been any.
To begin, Ezekiel saw a vision, and in it there was a valley. And as far as the eye could see it was full of dead bones, kind of like winter. And, like most dead bones, they didn’t do much. Even God asked the question, “Can these dry bones live?” Ezekiel, in apparent humility, deferred to the Almighty, and said, “Lord, you know,” which, being interpreted (as the Bible says), I think meant, “Not as far as I’m concerned, but maybe you’ve got something up your sleeve.”
And, in fact, God did, but it all started out rather oddly. God commanded the prophet to do something interesting: preach to these dead bones. Now, to be quite honest, I’ve sat through a fair number of sermons in which I felt pretty much like dead, dry bones before, during and after. I daresay, I’ve also preached a few of those clinkers, and apologize for them. I wonder if Ezekiel felt fairly silly preaching to bones, or if he noticed a difference from his normal congregation? Anyway, he did it, and, pretty soon the bones began to come together, and then sinews came, and flesh closed up over the bones, and a covering of skin stretched over the outside. And they looked just like people, but they were still dead. But God wasn’t letting Ezekiel off the hook, and said, “Preach hard that breath (or spirit, it’s the same Hebrew word) might come into them.” And Ezekiel did. And it did. The text says, “and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.” From corpse to congregation after one sermon. Wow! As Hamlet said in a much different context: “Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.”
But, no wonder it worked out so well, it was a vision after all. In real life it doesn’t happen that quickly or easily, if at all, does it? Resurrection is hard. At the end of the vision, God told Ezekiel and us that those bones really weren’t physically dead, but were God’s People who were in the “death” of exile in Babylon and were as good as dead because they had very little hope. They couldn’t see a way out, and so might as well have been dead. But God promised to put them back in their home, with the new breath, the new spirit, the new hope of God.
John also told a good story. Jesus’ friend Lazarus, Mary and Martha’s brother, took sick. The sisters called Jesus to come and help, but he delayed a couple of days, and Lazarus died. By the time Jesus got to his friend, he’d been buried four days (with no embalming mind you, in a hot place). After some discussion with Martha about why he’d delayed and what was possible, Jesus asked to be taken to the tomb. We’re told that the tomb was, like many in its day, a cave. Shelves or niches would be have been cut into the rock walls where dead bodies could be, as we might say, laid to rest, but really to decompose. The body was wrapped and anointed with spices and other things that would, it was hoped, cover up the smell of decomposition. The tomb was then covered with a large stone, either dragged or cut to roll in a groove dug in front of the door. When the next family burial was held, or in about a year or so, hopefully, the job was done, and the bones would either be buried in a second burial in an ossuary or bone box, or, perhaps taken off to another room full of loose bones from other family members and just dumped in there, which less than glamorous project was called by the solemn-sounding phrase, “being gathered to one’s ancestors.”
In any case, it had been four days, and, when Jesus asked for the stone to be taken away from the door of the tomb Martha said to him “Sir, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” He wasn’t just sort of dead, he was stinking dead quite literally. In addition to that obvious physical meaning, a wide-spread folk belief in Israel was that it took three days for one’s spirit to separate from one’s body. There’s no evidence for the truth of this belief, but folk beliefs are powerful. They’re the things that “everyone knows.” They’re what we usually call “Just common sense.” They’re not nearly always right, logical, or anything else, but they are powerful and hard to escape. So Lazarus was dead in every way. And Jesus, as you know, brought new life to him. Now, that, like the first one, is a good story from long, long ago, and far, far away. I don’t know of anybody that’s experienced that kind of thing in the present, and, to my way of thinking John’s story isn’t about the resuscitation of a corpse, but about new life for people who might as well be dead and need new life, like Ezekiel’s exiles.
Now, there’s no doubt in my mind that John was pointing to Jesus’ own resurrection with this story, kind of a preview of coming attractions. But I don’t think that’s the main point here either, in spite of hearing and preaching some sermons that might suggest that it is. In fact, the way John tells his Gospel story, Jesus often says and does things that are intended to point to spiritual realities in the present world by means of ambiguous language, and his disciples almost always misunderstand him to be talking about something mundane and ordinary and physical instead. He said, I am the bread of life, and they thought he was talking about lunch rather than spiritual sustenance. He said, I am living water, and the woman by the well thought he was talking about something that could be drawn up in a bucket. John wants readers, like us, to look more deeply into things. So here, John’s Jesus calls Lazarus, by name, out of the tomb – an act in the physical world, but John doesn’t want readers or hearers to mistake what Jesus did here as simply a physical act that he did once as an act to prove how powerful he was then some three generations before John’s community, and hundreds before ours. It does that, but John wants us to understand that those who read or hear this story don’t have to be physically dead before this story applies to them. It applies when they are, rather, like Ezekiel’s dry bones – as good as dead, for many reasons. John calls this act of Jesus a “sign” and this sign points to the reality of what Jesus said about himself, which was that he was “the resurrection and the life” or maybe better, “resurrection-life.” It isn’t about being resurrected at the last day (which is what Martha thought), but is about Jesus bringing new and exciting life through his life and teachings, demonstrated by his death and resurrection. The point for John’s community, and this one, is that Jesus brings new life to old bones, who were as good as dead for many reasons and he still does it today.
To go back to Jesus’ famous words to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who have faith in me, even though they die (as we all do, in little ways, all the time, and one great big way at the end)…they will live. And those who live and have faith in me will never die.” I suggest to you this morning that whatever Jesus meant as far as the future is concerned, he does intend the stress here to be on the present for he begins with the words “I am” (present tense).
What Jesus meant here for you and me, here and now, present tense, was that in communion with his life, his teachings, his person we have contact with the very life of God that brings new life to the world. Ezekiel pictured the same thing by “breath” or “spirit” entering into dead bodies that looked alive but weren’t. John pictured it by a physically dead man being called from the tomb. But John is inviting us not to do what his disciples always did and be tricked into thinking it was always or just about something physical. I think what John is saying is that there is no need to wait until the end of the age for a miracle of resurrection (that’s a whole different issue). The new life that God in Jesus brings is a quality of life that is available now. And this union with God in Christ is not the kind of thing that can be undone easily by those “death-experiences” we all have.
Now all this is put into operation by what I have translated as “having faith.” Even though he was writing in Greek, John was thinking in Hebrew and for Hebrew having faith is an action, not a repetition of words that we believe something is true. “Faith” is deciding that a bridge will hold me up, and walking across it to prove it. To have faith one must act, one must decide that what Jesus says makes enough sense to live our lives on the basis of it. Faith is not nodding our heads, it’s betting our lives.
We read our Epistle Lesson from Romans 8. It is a chapter that begins that “There is now no condemnation for those who are in (fellowship with) Christ.” Old ordinary life, that dry bones existence, (Paul calls it life of the flesh) is dependent simply on ourselves, and what we want. But new life, resurrection life (Paul calls it life of the Spirit) depends on God in Christ. Going on in Romans 8, Paul wrote:
If the Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, that same One who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through this Spirit that dwells in you…(11) so that…We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose…(28)…And we become confident in this life of God, and can say: Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…(35) No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through God in Christ who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (37-39)
And please don’t misunderstand that this having faith business will make us so pious that we’ll just want to sit around and pray and sing praise songs all day. You may do some of that, but you’ll also not be able to escape acting in love and grace and mercy for justice and for the well-being of those with whom we live in this world, whether we know them or not, whether they share our convictions or not. Having faith in God through Jesus makes us long to act for others’ wholeness in this world.
May the God who raises the lifeless to resurrection life to put Spring in our step, help us to depend upon God to have faith in what God says – here and now, present tense, and may it impel us outward to deeds of love and mercy.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.