Pastoral Prayer: Lord God, we are grieved. Safer at home or shelter in place or quarantine all mean some level of limitation, restrictions on our movement. Some of us are angry, others in denial, and still others are depressed. It feels like death. Remind us that Jesus too was angered by the death dealing powers that bring harm to people. We thank you for another Sunday to remember the Resurrection of Jesus, that He is risen and we have life even when everything around us reminds of death. And all God’s people say . . . Amen.
Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-41; Romans 8:6-11
My friend Frank’s wife, Suzie, died this past week. It was Thursday. The cancer she had battled returned. Say it with me, “I hate cancer.”
Fourteen years ago this month my friend, Lyle, died. It was a sudden heart attack. Surprised by heart disease in the worst way. Say it with me, “I hate heart disease.”
Around the world more than 670,000 people have been infected with the novel coronavirus. More than 31,000 have died, from an infant to the aged. Say it with me, “I hate Covid-19.”
If there is anything we are re-awakening to it is this, we are mere mortals no matter from what Country we hail. Nothing like an indiscriminate virus to remind us,
For you are dust, and you will return to dust.
We are mere mortals, defenseless in the face of death. Upon death’s arrival we grieve. Whether you experience all the stages of grief or not, we cannot escape the reality of our own mortality when faced with the death of another.
The reality of our mortality runs across our texts for today. Take Ezekiel’s vision. Sitting down in the middle of a valley full of bones, Ezekiel is asked,
Mortal can these bones live?
Bones. Lots of bones. A valley full of bones. Scattered, lying around. Bones. Imagine! If the reality of mortality does not strike us, then surely the question posed to Ezekiel does. What Ezekiel does know, what is clear to him, he has no power to make the bones live. Do we hear hints of Psalm 23 in our own experience? All over the world we may be feeling this is a valley of the shadow of death.
If Ezekiel is challenged by the thought of very dead bones living, then think about how Mary and Martha, and the mourners thought upon hearing Jesus tell them Lazarus would rise again. Though Jesus did not ask whether or not they believed if Lazarus would live again, it really is the same question. If Ezekiel has no idea if the valley of bones could be filled with living human beings, Mary and Martha could only think that Jesus was spiritualizing when he told her,
You brother will rise again.
For them both the idea that their brother would live again was as confounding to them as Ezekiel being quizzed as to wether dry bones could be covered with flesh again.
Our own mortality blunts our field of vision. We find it hard to see beyond what we may verify. And that is my first point.
If our mortality blunts our field of vision, then signs found in the Gospel of John aim to bring light so that we may see what we otherwise miss. Yes, we will get to the end of the story, one with which you may be familiar. But let’s stop along the way.
Racing to get to the resurrection of Lazarus may cause us to run right past the bit that points out that Jesus found himself troubled by the death dealing powers that robbed those of seeing what he had been saying to them all along.
To this point in John’s Gospel Jesus has revealed God to those at the wedding feast at Cana, Nicodemus by night, the Samaritan in broad daylight, the 5000 fed by a few loaves and fish, and a blind man who receives his sight. Word had spread then and as John writes his gospel story, we get the impression along the way that if we are not careful we too might miss what is right before us. That is, that God in Christ is troubled by the powers that harm us, the Powers of Sin and Death.
Jesus nears where Lazarus is entombed and twice in five verses we read that Jesus was troubled in himself. Witnessing the weeping sister and those with her, he was filled with indignation. Surely Jesus was not indignant at the sight of the grieving. It would be more fitting for us to consider it was not the grieving that troubled Jesus, that made him angry. It was death. Death made him angry. Seeing the effect of the Power of death over those made in God’s image stirred Jesus deeply.
Too often we hear that God is angry at us; that God’s anger at human beings is the trouble that prompts the Good News. However, it is not God’s anger at us that we see stirring Jesus. It is that our Enemies seem to be having their way. And that is my second point.
Death dealing powers – Sin and Death – often lead human beings to make decisions they would otherwise avoid. Jesus leads us in pointing up the value of life over these powers. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus chose the life of the man oppressed by evil rather than be concerned about the economics of a herd of pigs. When today we hear the call to choose economics over people we cannot but help hear Jesus,
No one can serve two masters since either he will hate one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.
Jesus’ faithfulness to serve the will of the Father sets him at odds with the choice when economics is preferred to people. This illustrates the death dealing Power of sin when human beings choose against their own lives.
The story of the early church found in the Acts of the Apostles contains an event where the Good News, Jesus is Lord, puts a dent in the economics of idol making. It is preferred that people remain oppressed by the Powers of Sin and Death than live in the freedom from condemnation found in Christ.
Just a few years ago, nearing 90 years of age, Christian philosopher, theologian, son of missionaries, John Cobb described the world religion that alters the way people treat each other and the earth, economism. Maybe this has always been the most prominent world religion. Jesus seems to have been well aware in his own day. Is it really that we have progressed to the degree that we choose the death of others to preserve our way of life?
Those most impacted by the virus are those on the front lines, those providing care to the infected. Many that face the fall out from the measures to halt the advance of the virus are always the people that suffer most. Millions are now out of work. One mother we met this past week noted her gratefulness for help as she described her hours cut from 48 to 15. We read of others who have been told their things will be brought to them, their job ended without severance.
We belabor the point – God is not angry with us. God is angry with our enemies. Everywhere we look it appears that those enemies are winning. The stranglehold our Enemies seem to have on all people then and today grieved and grieves Jesus, troubles him deeply and stirs an indignation that will ultimately bring him face to face with our Enemies – Sin and Death.
If mortality blunts our field of vision, and we confuse God’s anger with our Enemies as an anger toward us, it is Jesus who clears it up giving us a glimpse of his power over death. And that is my final point. Jesus takes up our mortality with its inability to facedown our Enemies and does so for us with the power of His words.
Look back. Ezekiel sat with the question about living bones only to be told to speak for the Lord to the bones,
O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live: and you shall know that I am the LORD.
What did Ezekiel hear? He heard the response of the bones to the word of the LORD. His vision was given so that he might know those dead to the reality of their own mortality, those who think they have life in hand but are really a valley full of bones will experience life as they have not. It is a message of hope that though it appears the Enemies of humanity are winning, God will be their hope.
If Ezekiel’s vision strikes you as fanciful, lay it over the story of Lazarus here. Rotting flesh and bones, dead four days laying behind the rock that entombs Lazarus’ lifeless body. What do we hear?
Jesus tells Martha,
I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lies and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?
Jesus does not ask Martha if she thinks Lazarus will rise again. He asks her if she believes He is the resurrection and the life. Her reply reminds us of Peter’s confession in response to Jesus’ question, Who do you say that I am? Here, Martha, in hope confesses,
Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God the one coming into the world.
Nearing the tomb he hears in the voices of those asking questions, making comments, their conviction that the Enemy is too much for Jesus. Maybe he can make a blind man to see but he did not cure the sick man and he surely cannot overcome human being’s great Enemy, Death.
Reminiscent of Ezekiel bearing the word of the Lord God to the dry bones, Jesus looks toward heaven, prays in a way that he is overheard so none miss the connection he makes. Then he shouts the words,
Lazarus, come out!
It is as if the full force of his inner trouble and rising indignation over the forces that keep people from seeing are unleashed in those three words, Lazarus, come out!
Many are concerned that we might be kept home this Easter. The fear is that somehow a virus would obstruct celebrating that Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life. It was the earliest followers of Jesus that set aside Sundays for worship. They did not wait until the day set by a calendar to consider the defeat of our Enemies Sin and Death annually. No, they met on Sundays as it was the day on which Jesus was raised from the dead. Every Sunday is a celebration that He is risen.
In his life, death and resurrection, Jesus clears our field of vision, he reminds us of our common Enemies and gives his life for ours so with confidence we can say, “We are risen with Christ.”
Yes, even these dead bones live.
I generally take a manuscript with me to preach each week. However, the preached message is often a bit different than what you will find here. You may listen to and/or watch here.