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Ezekiel 37:1-14, John 11: 1-7, 17-45
37 The hand of the Lord was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones,
2 And caused me to pass by them round about: and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and, lo, they were very dry.
3 And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord God, thou knowest.
4 Again he said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.
5 Thus saith the Lord God unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live:
6 And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the Lord.
7 So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone.
8 And when I beheld, lo, the sinews and the flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them above: but there was no breath in them.
9 Then said he unto me, Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord God; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.
10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army.
11 Then he said unto me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say, Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off for our parts.
12 Therefore prophesy and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel.
13 And ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O my people, and brought you up out of your graves,
14 And shall put my spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I shall place you in your own land: then shall ye know that I the Lord have spoken it, and performed it, saith the Lord.
11 Now a certain man was sick, named Lazarus, of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha.
2 (It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.)
3 Therefore his sisters sent unto him, saying, Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest is sick.
4 When Jesus heard that, he said, This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.
5 Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus.
6 When he had heard therefore that he was sick, he abode two days still in the same place where he was.
7 Then after that saith he to his disciples, Let us go into Judaea again.
If we are watching drama on television we don't normally spend the hour thinking about the production techniques: the camera angles, the lighting and so on, nor do we bother about the technology that brings it to our screens. All that lies behind what we see, but we focus on the story unfolding before us and let ourselves be drawn into it. If it is good drama it may prompt us to think about life and relationships in the everyday world, long after we have switched off.
We have listened this morning to two readings from Scripture that raise difficult questions, Ezekiel's valley of dry bones and the raising of Lazarus from the dead. What really happened, we might be asking? The Ezekiel story sounds like something out of Harry Potter, magic, the prophet transported to another place, bones reassembling themselves, the flesh growing back. Was it real? Was it a vision? A dream? And Lazarus walking out of the tomb, still bound in the gravecloths, after four days. Did it really happen? Could it have happened? All fair questions, but impossible to answer after two thousand years and more. And they are not the important questions for us this morning. Instead we are invited to surrender ourselves to these dramatic stories and let them speak to us. And as far as John's gospel is concerned, those who are familiar with it will know that he never presents the actions of Jesus just as miracles for us to gawp at. He calls them signs, dramatic actions that point us to what Jesus is about and what he offers to us. So this morning let us surrender ourselves to these narratives and let them speak to us.
First, briefly, Ezekiel. There is a valley full of bones, the site of an old battlefield, the dead unburied, the bones scattered and bleached in the sun. Then the wind from God blows. The bones are reassembled into the bodies they once were. The wind blows again and becomes the breath in them. 'Wind', 'breath' and 'spirit' are the same word in the Hebrew language, so it is God's Spirit that is at work. The story is a dramatic statement of the dynamic power of God to bring back to life what was dead and gone.
Ezekiel's message was for the people of Israel, defeated, exiled in a foreign land, their homeland ravaged. They had believed themselves to be God's special people, called to represent him in the world, but Jerusalem was in ruins and they had been transported five hundred miles away to a foreign land, robbed of their identity; they are nobodies. They have no hope in themselves. But God will restore them; it will be like rising from the dead.
It is the backdrop to the raising of Lazarus and prepares us for what it says. And we begin with those words which have been repeated in English funeral services for over four hundred and fifty years: 'I am the resurrection and the life; he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.' [vv. 25-6] Death is real. The body stops functioning and decay sets in. The brain too, that mysteriously houses all our thoughts and feelings, our memories and our knowledge, that too dies. There is no talk here of immortality - no talk of an indestructible soul that survives in its own right, like a conker after the husk has rotted away. Lazarus is not still alive, imprisoned in the tomb and waiting to break out. He comes out because Jesus in a creative act calls the corpse back to life. That is the point of Martha's protest, 'Lord, he has been dead four days'. There was a popular belief that the soul might survive and hover around the body for two or three days after death - like those little lights on electronic gadgets that don't go off immediately after we have switched off the power but take their time to fade. Two or three days and Lazarus might survive death, but four days is too long. Lazarus is truly dead. Jesus brings him back, gives him life again - life and identity. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. It is his gift.
The next sentence seems at first to contradict all that: 'whosoever lives and believes in me shall never die.' If that's meant literally then the bones under this church and the graves in the churchyard - and two thousand years of Christian funerals - disprove it. Of course there is a play on the words 'living' and 'dying'. Because Jesus is the resurrection and the giver of life the bond he forges with those who put their trust in him is not terminated at bodily death; he keeps it alive.
So today we give thanks and celebrate, as we do every week, that with those who put their trust in Jesus and commit themselves to him he forges a bond that even death cannot break. When everything that is us comes to an end he ensures that the bond is unbroken. He calls us into new life. Eternal life is his eternal gift.
But what of those who do not believe, we may ask? We all know and remember, many - friends, colleagues, family - who do not share that faith. Are they beyond the reach of the promise? Mediaeval visions of heaven and hell rise up and haunt us, visions based often on the notions of reward and punishment, not on Jesus' offer of life. Preachers and teachers have often claimed greater certainty about the answer to those questions than they are entitled to. I am not going to pronounce on them this morning. We cannot out-guess the wisdom of God. But I draw your attention to a feature of our gospel reading that is easily overlooked. Right at the beginning we hear the message the sisters send to Jesus: 'Lord, the one you love is ill', and later on Jesus bursts into tears and the bystanders remark, 'Look how he loved him'. [vv. 3, 35-6] That love is the key. That is why Jesus is there in the first place. Earlier in John's gospel we have heard, 'God so loved the world that he gave his only Son'. [3:16] The bond that exists between Jesus and Lazarus and his sisters was created by Jesus' coming to them. So too it is for each of us. God in Jesus has loved us since the moment we were conceived - indeed in God's infinite foreknowledge even before that. So too it is for every person on the planet, young and old, good and bad. We can safely entrust our loved ones to his wisdom and love.
There is one other feature of this morning's gospel that we have to notice. It comes in Thomas's pessimistic remark as they begin their journey to Bethany: 'Let us also go that we may die with him.' [v.16] And if we read beyond the end of the Lazarus episode we find the authorities looking for a way to get rid of Jesus, with Caiaphas' cynical remark, 'It is expedient that one man should die for the people' [v.50]. The cost to Jesus of giving life to Lazarus, life indeed to the world, is the loss of his own. In his own person he undergoes death and resurrection.
So today we gather, as we do every Sunday, to celebrate Good Friday and Easter morning, when Jesus embodied his own words, 'though he die, yet shall he live'. With the countless numbers of the hosts of heaven we celebrate that love that gave Jesus to the world, the love that did not shrink from the cross, the love that broke the bonds of death. The love that embraces every human being - and you and me. Thanks be to God.