| Ezekiel 37:1-14
|Sun, March 21, 1999
Rev. Ed Searcy
|Lazarus. What are we to make of the story of Lazarus? Sick and dying Lazarus ... left to die by his friend Jesus "so that the Son of Man should be glorified through it". What kind of pastoral care is this ... Jesus lingering for two days so that Lazarus is sure to die before he makes it to the bedside? Lazarus. Imagine the funeral costs that his family must cover ... not one, but two funerals, two burials ... two bereavements to endure. The raising of Lazarus is a strange tale. One, to be frank, that folk in our circle of Christianity rarely speak of. After all, in this day and age how is one to make sense of the resuscitation of a corpse four days after its burial? We are much more comfortable spreading Jesus’ teachings of neighbour love than we are resting our faith in the dead returning to life. Yet this is the heart of John’s gospel. It is here that the story reaches its pivotal climax. The raising of Lazarus is the final straw. It leads inexorably to Jesus being sentenced to die on a cruciform gallows. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday. So is the next chapter in John’s gospel. To get to Palm Sunday we have no choice but to tell the story of this dead man ... walking.
The text is very clear. The story of Lazarus is a ‘sign story’. There are seven such ‘sign’ stories in John’s gospel. Remember? Turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana. Feeding the five thousand. Healing the man born blind. These are not so much acts of mercy as they are signs pointing to something that would otherwise remain hidden. Think of how it is when you are watching for signs of what is really going on ... below the surface. Think of watching for the first signs of spring. Recall your inner delight at hearing the bird songs that signal the end of winter’s grip. Or think of falling in love ... and of your alertness for a sign - any sign - that the one you love shares your passion. Even the smallest thing ... a touch, a look, a note ... can be a sign of something deeper and more profound than the act itself. And the signs ... if there are enough of them and they are convincing enough ...can lead you to believe that spring is nearly here or that your love is returned. As John’s Gospel puts it: "Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:30-31).
That you may have life. This is the crux of John’s gospel. And it is what the story of Lazarus is meant to signify. On the surface this is apparently a story about a family crisis in Bethany. But the text is clear. This is not so much about resuscitating a corpse as it is about giving life to the world. It is not so much about Lazarus and Mary and Martha as it is about a world caught up in death and sin. To this world Jesus announces "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." Here we stand, two weeks before Easter, already immersed in the mystery of the overcoming of death. And notice ... the hour of Jesus’ death is set in motion the moment that he raises Lazarus from his tomb. Jesus’ own death is the direct result of his gift of life. Jesus dies in order that Lazarus might live. Such life giving power is too dangerous to the status quo. He must be stopped. Yet in trying to stop him, those in control enable the very thing they wish to rub out ... life that is beyond their control.
Such paradox is the stuff of the season of Lent. A newcomer to Christian faith asked me at the door of the church last Sunday: "Can you tell me what ‘lent’ is". What to say in a brief, passing moment? "It is the season of forty days before Holy Week". "It is a time when many Christians live simply, denying themselves of excess". "It is the season when we face the ways in which we are tempted to wander from lives of faithfulness to God and neighbour". Lent is all that and more, surely. But perhaps it is in the offense taken at Jesus’ gift of life that we find the heart of this year’s lenten journey. Jesus has offered new birth to Nicodemus, living water to a Samaritan woman, new sight to a man born blind and finally life to dead Lazarus. And not just to them alone ... but to all who trust in him. Yet in each case there is doubt ... concern ... offense. The leaders of the community are suspicious of new life springing up, without their permission and authorization. In the recent novel "The Poisonwood Bible" Barbara Kingsolver tells the story of Nathan Price, a Baptist missionary, who takes his wife and four daughters to the Congo in 1959 to bring souls to Christ. Price is convinced that it is "a mistake to bend his will, in any way, to Africa". He will not - cannot - see any native worth in the culture which he meets in the Congo. "Tata Jesus is Bangala", he proclaims. He means to say that "Jesus is eternal life", but his contempt for and ignorance of the language are such that he actually says "Jesus is poisonwood", the sap of which acts like poison ivy. And so he spends his entire ministry believing that he is proclaiming ‘eternal life’ when, in fact, all that the people hear him say is ‘Jesus is poison wood’. And I wonder how many are not here because that is precisely what they have heard emanating from the church? The church intends to say ‘new life’ but pays so little attention to the signs of Christ resurrecting power beyond its authorized limits that its proclamation is often more akin to poison ivy. How often is the lived message of the church more oppressive than redemptive? The church dreams of offering a healing balm. Instead it is too often a poisonous plant to be avoided. Once again, we crucify the giver of life on a poisonwood cross. In spite of our best intentions death, not life, too often predominates.
This is what Ezekiel sees. He looks out at his people and sees death in every direction. It is as if he is in a valley full of bones. Ankle bones. Shin bones. Thigh bones. Hip bones. Everywhere bones. Not a sign of life anywhere to be seen. They are without hope, cut off from the source of all life (Ezekiel 27:11). And the voice of God asks Ezekiel "Can these bones live?". Looking at a community in despair ... listening to the cynicism that is rampant among the youngest and the eldest ... wondering at the bleak future on the horizon ... Ezekiel answers as best he can. "God only knows", he says. Then the Mysterious Voice says "Preach to these bones, and say to them: ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause ruah to enter you, and you shall live." Ruah. That wonderful Hebrew word that means ‘wind’ ... and that also means ‘spirit’ ... and that also means ‘breath’. Ruah ... the invisible wind which is itself the spirit of God, inspiring us with life with each breath that we take. Ruah ... the reminder that our physical and spiritual lives are inexorably entwined ... breathing in both oxygen and divine spirit at the same time. Ruah ... the breath of God that gives life to Adam in the garden ... and gives life to us now. Ezekiel is not instructed to bring the bones to life. There is no program for ‘reviving’ the church. God does not teach him techniques for congregational mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Ezekiel is simply told to tell the bones what is about to happen: "Prophesy to these bones", says the voice, "tell them to expect the breath of new life".
When Ezekiel does as he has been told he hears"a noise, a rattling" and the bones come together ... The ankle bone connected to the shin bone, the shin bone connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone connected to the hip bone ... the worship life connected to the outreach, the outreach connected to the hospitality, the hospitality connected to the community, the community connected to the discipleship, the discipleship connected to the campus ... well, you know how the song goes. This is the mystery at the heart of our existence. We are given new life. Life is not a product which we can manufacture ... or market. It comes as a gift from beyond the categories that we use to package and confine it. The gift of new life transforms in ways that cannot be predicted or controlled. I often long to be able to reach out across the pulpit and hand such a gift to those who I know are longing for breath ... ruah. Simply preaching about new life in Christ hardly seems enough. Surely there is something more that I must have to do. The doctor, at least, can prescribe a course of treatment. But all that the preacher can do is to point to the future ... to name the signs that point to the advent of Life with a capital "L" on the horizon. And, like Ezekiel, the preacher is amazed to discover that in the very act of announcing the life that is surely coming she begins to hear "a noise, a rattling" ... the sounds of life emerging from certain death ... the very sounds that have been heard around this congregation throughout this past decade.
I used to think it strange that in the early church it was common baptismal practice for the priest to breath upon those who emerged from water in the font. Imagine. Breathing on each newly baptised person. Yes, imagine. Baptism not simply as a washing clean, a purification rite. Instead, baptism as the sacrament of coming alive. Baptism as the moment when one takes the first breath of a new life. Baptism as the ongoing re-enactment of the raising of Lazarus. Gathered here at the river ... standing around the font ... we remember our baptism. For those who have not yet been baptised it is a remembering ahead ... a looking forward rather than a looking back. Will Willimon has said that all preaching is baptismal preaching ... it is either addressed to people who, having been baptized, spend the rest of their lives trying to figure out what it means to be baptised ... or it is spoken to those who have not yet been baptized and who wonder what it would mean to be submerged in the water. In a moment you will hear the answer given each time one gathered here is marked with water from the font: "Remember your baptism. Walk with Christ in newness of life.". Walk with Christ as one who has been dead ... dead to hope, dead to faith, dead to love. Walk as one who has come back from the dead to discover a world now filled with hope, faith and love. Let your walk be a living doxology, a lifelong song of praise to the One who gives new life with every breath you take. And let the sign of the cross on your forehead be a living reminder that to walk with Christ is to be led to the poisonwood of suffering ... for it is there that God continues to breathe new life into the dry bones of the earth that have been given up for dead. Like the raising of Lazarus, the sign of the cross is given "so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name."