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A WORD FOR TODAY, March 22, 2023
Lectionary Scriptures for March 26, 2023, Fifth Sunday in Lent: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:1-11; John 11:1-45 (46-53)
“I wait for Yahweh. My soul waits. I hope in his word.” Psalm 130, WEB
I have only experienced on earthquake in my life, and that was the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. We lived in California, though far enough from San Francisco that we weren’t in any danger. The only reason I know that it shook the earth at our house is that a plant we had hanging in our living room began to sway. I happened to be watching the five o’clock news when it hit just after five. The anchor in Sacramento freaked out because he could feel the building sway under him and could see the overhead lights swaying. That’s when I looked around our house and saw the plant. I was later told by a friend that water splashed out of her pool. It might not have been a problem for us, but the damage in and around San Francisco was serious.
I thought about this experience when I read through today’s Old Testament lesson. Ezekiel had a spiritual experience in which God’s Spirit set him in a valley full of bones. God asked, “Can these bones live?” The human answer is, “of course not,” but the faith answer is that God knows. Then God told Ezekiel to prophesy over the bones. As he spoke there was an earthquake. We all know that earthquakes destroy things. In San Francisco, the Loma Prieta earthquake took down a bridge. It killed sixty-three people and caused six billion dollars in damage in that area. Earthquakes certainly don’t put skeletons back together or return the flesh to those bodies.
God, however, is able to do anything, even the impossible. He often does what is opposite what is natural or expected.
I worked as a mobile disc jockey for a few years. I was an employee of a large company on the east coast that had disc jockeys in multiple states. The equipment I carried belonged to the company, but I had crates full of vinyl albums and forty-fives that I carried with me. The company gave me my contracts and I had to ensure I had everything I needed to satisfy their expectations. I could take extra equipment, and they had a collection of records I could borrow if I needed something unusual. My parties were usually assigned based on my age and personality, so I tended to get school dances and weddings. I never got the bar mitzvahs or punk party. My best party was a pool party that lasted nearly twelve hours. I also loved the group that repeated requested for me to work their New Year’s Eve party.
It was important that I have the right kind of music for each party and it was sometimes difficult to judge what the group might want. We were required to keep our collection up to date but it was good that they had the library where we could find the hard to find records. Brides often presented long lists of songs that they wanted played, and they usually made it clear which special songs they wanted for specific moments in the party. On one occasion, the bride gave me a list of dozens of songs but when I told her it might be hard to find all of them, she didn’t have any particular favorites. I managed to find several of the records before the party, but not all of them. Early in the party my “bridezilla” insisted that I play her favorites. Unfortunately, I did not have the “absolutely most important song” on the list. It was buried in the middle of the list along with dozens of other “absolutely most important songs.” Luckily, I was able to find someone who had a copy of the song who could deliver it to me at the venue. The party was saved.
The same can’t be said about other parties. There are just some groups of people that are impossible to entertain. I had one party with a bride and a mother-of-the-bride that spent the whole evening in competition for my attention. The bride would request a song. As that song began, the mother would complain that her guests did not want to listen to that type of music and insisted that I change my format. When I did play a song for the older generation, the bride complained that I was playing “old fogey” music. The bride said it was her wedding so I should obey her commands. The mother said she was paying for the wedding and so I should obey hers. In the end, their selfish insistence that I play what they wanted to hear meant that I was unable to do the job I had been hired to do and the party died.
It was my job to discern the atmosphere of the group and make the party of success. Sometimes that meant playing a lot of dance music. I had other resources, like prizes for fun party games and novelty music. Sometimes the guests had no interest in dancing but wanted to listen and sing to good music. Sometimes the music served as background noise while they had conversations. I had to adapt my show to fit the crowd. A successful party did not necessarily mean that everyone was dancing; a successful party was the one at which everyone was enjoying themselves.
Sometimes it was difficult. Like the party with the bride and her mother, sometimes it was impossible to find the right format to make the party a success. I always had guests that complained the music was too loud while others thought it was too soft. Sometimes the mixed crowds competed with each other as some wanted oldies while others wanted top forty hits. Most of the time I could bring life to the party, but sometimes I failed and the party died.
You can’t get any more dead than those old dry bones that Ezekiel saw in that valley. They were old and dry. The story of Ezekiel’s vision is odd, but amazing at the same time. The imagery is something out of a horror film, and yet miraculous in the way God can take something that is so far beyond restoration and give it life. Those bones were dry; they were probably lying in the wilderness for a very long time. There was no hope for life. God did the work, but Ezekiel became part of the process by preaching to those dry bones.
This is what God does every day with His Word. Those who do not look to God or to Jesus as Savior are living dead men, dead in their sin because they refuse to hear the saving words of forgiveness from Jesus. God’s Word can bring them to life again; it shakes their world and makes them whole by putting His Spirit into their hearts so that they will have faith and hope in His promises.
God can bring life to those who do not yet know Him, but in this story from Ezekiel, God was bringing new life to His own people who were exiles in Babylon. They said “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost. We are completely cut off.” But God answered that He would open their graves and take them home. He promised, and He is faithful.
I’ve heard it said that there are dead churches, places that seem to have no life. Perhaps this is true; there are many Christians who are like the walking dead, they don’t really believe the message of the cross and the forgiveness of sins. Yet, if God can bring life to the valley of dry bones, then He can bring life to the deadest of congregations. If He can restore His people to Jerusalem after the exile, He can make us whole again. He calls us, like Ezekiel, to speak hope into those who have given up.
It has been said that the Gospel lessons during Lent become progressively longer to train the readers for the crucial but very long readings during Holy Week. The Palm Sunday reading is nearly two chapters of Matthew. On Good Friday we hear two chapters of John. They also help train the people in the pews to hear the texts. We easily get lost in our thoughts when we have to sit or stand and listen for so long, especially since these are stories are so familiar. We believe we know every word, that we’ve heard it all before. So, we stop listening. After the first verse or two, we think, “I know what this passage says,” then zone out for a few minutes.
The problem for a writer like me and all the pastors prayerfully planning their sermons for this week is that this text is filled with so many important lessons. This is a crucial moment for Jesus. It is a catalyst for what is to come. For the teaching pastor, there are a dozen details that could be expounded upon to help us better understand the time during which this happened and the people to whom it was happening. John writes well beyond the physical particulars of the story, so we could spend pages or hours discussing the spiritual dimensions. We could look at the people and the relationships to try to identify with their experiences and see God in our own pain and suffering. How do you take forty-five verses of text and write a few hundred words or speak for a few minutes?
Though we take these texts for granted, they have incredible depth and are still invaluable to our Christian growth and maturity. They also have something new and unique to tell us today. We hear and respond to the texts according to our current circumstances, but if we won’t hear what God has to say if we don’t listen. The story of Lazarus talks about death. Which of us is not dealing with death from one point of view or another most of our lives? We might identify with any of the characters. Has someone you love recently died? Perhaps you can hear some words of comfort. Do you have a friend who lost someone recently? The mourners can teach us what to do, and what not to do, to help our friend. In the disciples we see fear about facing the danger that is building around them. Jesus shows us strength in sorrow and concern for others.
We can even identify with Lazarus. There are times in our lives when we are as good as dead, wrapped up in those grave clothes and buried in a tomb. We might be suffering from loneliness or depression. Our burden might be an addiction or obsession. Whatever it is, this text may help us to hear Jesus calling out to us by name, commanding us to come out of the tomb. Through this text, we might even see that Jesus is calling us to be like Him (and Ezekiel), speaking God’s word to call people out of their tombs to a new life of faith.
Whatever it is we face today, we can find some comfort or strength through the words of our scripture lessons. That’s why we should never take these beloved and well-known stories for granted. We stop listening because we think we’ve heard it all before but this time it might not be just a story, it might hold for you the answer to your prayers.
Lazarus, Mary, and Martha were friends of Jesus. I can imagine that they spent many hours hosting Jesus in between His journeys. They offered a home, a place to rest, the comforts of family and friendships. Those times were surely filled with good food and laughter. Lazarus became sick, but Jesus was far away, traveling near where John had baptized in the Jordan. The sisters sent a messenger to give Jesus the news; they wanted Him to come to heal their brother. Jesus did not leave immediately, saying that the illness would not end in death.
A few days later, Jesus told the disciples that they had to hurry to Lazarus’ house. They didn’t get it when He said, “Lazarus has fallen asleep.” After all, He’d said just a few days before that Lazarus would not die. They were concerned for His safety. He told them bluntly, “Lazarus is dead.” For their sake, He was glad that they did not go to Lazarus immediately.
This is the part of the story that does not make sense to us. Why would Jesus want Lazarus to die? Why would He allow His good friends to suffer the pain of grief for even a few days? By the time Jesus arrived, Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days, well beyond the hope of physical resurrection. The Jews believed that the soul departed the body on the third day. There was no Lazarus left to resurrect. The sisters said to Jesus, “If only you had been here!” They still had hope in the eternal promises of God, but they wanted their brother in flesh and blood.
In this story we see two sides of Jesus. We see the caring friend who mourns with those who have lost a loved one. We wonder why Jesus might have waited. Wouldn’t He have at least wanted to visit Lazarus when he was sick? Most of us have had to rush off to the hospital to be with someone we love who is suffering. It is hard for us to understand why Jesus would wait. Yet, in this story we also see the Divine. Jesus knew there was more to the illness. He knew the illness would not END in death. Lazarus did indeed die, but so that they - and we - might believe, it ended in physical, not just spiritual, resurrection.
We are reminded that Jesus is indeed our friend, there for us in our times of need. However, He is also the Divine, the Son of God, and He knows the end of the story. We might think we need Him to be here at this moment, to heal at this time, to finish His work right now, but He sees beyond our immediacy. He knows the right time and He will be there. We will probably react like the sisters, complaining that if only He were there when we thought we needed Him, things would be different. We learn in this story, however, that God might have something even greater planned for us on the other side of our suffering. Trust Him. He is faithful. He turns things upside down, like the earthquake in Ezekiel that made things whole.
It was disheartening to have one of those parties that would just not come to life. It seemed hopeless, a waste of time. Have you ever felt like you are in a hopeless situation? Perhaps you feel that way much too often. You know there is something you should do, but you are also sure that it won’t do any good. For instance, parents know that it is impossible to reason with a toddler who is having a tantrum or a teenager who has decided to rebel. I’m still trying to figure out how we managed to survive those years!
Sadly, many Christians think that it is pointless to share the Gospel. I suppose some of it is the fear of being rejected, but we also worry that we will be deemed judgmental and intolerant if we share the Gospel. We’d rather just live our faith quietly; after all we have been repeatedly told that faith is a private matter anyway. There are those who do not even think it is their place to raise their children as Christians. “They can decide when they are grown.”
How will they know if we don’t tell them?
God commanded Ezekiel to do something absolutely pointless. What good would it do to prophesy over a field full of dried bones? The people that were once those bones had been long dead. There was no chance that they would ever come back to life. There was no skin, muscle or organs. Some of the bones were probably carried off by wild animals. How could one man’s voice change anything about that field?
Ezekiel knew that only God had the answer, so when He commanded Ezekiel to speak to the bones, Ezekiel did so. Immediately the bones were brought back to life, with skin, muscle, and organs. When the flesh was restored, God commanded Ezekiel to speak again and to command the wind to breathe upon those He had resurrected. Ezekiel spoke and they were filled with life. God was able to restore flesh and soul into dry bones.
Our Gospel lesson for today was the straw that broke the camel’s back, the final sign of Jesus that caused the leaders to decide that it was necessary for Jesus to die. Life for one man meant death for another. However, the Jews were concerned that Jesus was going to incite riots and upset the Romans. Though they were watching and waiting for the promised Messiah, the power Jesus demonstrated was beyond their control. They expected the Messiah to be one of them, but Jesus upset the status quo. Though the raising of Lazarus should have convinced them that He was the one for whom they were waiting, they knew that Jesus would not do their bidding. They were willing to ignore and reject Jesus for the sake of their future. They were comfortable in their positions, and they would not accept a Messiah unless they could be assured of their own status in his kingdom. Jesus would not convince them otherwise; His actions from now on may have seemed pointless to those watching.
Thankfully, Jesus didn’t think it was pointless.
Jesus waited because God would be glorified by doing that which would seem pointless to the rest of us. The man born blind in last week’s story wasn’t blind because he or his parents sinned. He was blind so that God would be glorified. The same is true with this week’s story. Lazarus died so that God would be glorified. There is hope even when it seems hopeless, even in a pile of dry bones. Ezekiel didn’t say that it was impossible for the bones to live; he confessed that only God knew. While he might have thought the situation was hopeless, he trusted God, and it is there we exhibit our hope. We don’t have hope because we think we know what is going to happen or because we think we can make something happen. We have hope when we trust that God will make something happen.
Sometimes God calls us to do what seems to be pointless things. We discover that when we are obedient, the command was not so pointless. We see that He is faithful. He is glorified by our faith and our willingness to speak to the dry bones. It is in this that we hope.
Just like the Israelites in Babylon and the sisters of Lazarus, God comes to us with a vision of what life will be like under His rule. He shows us new life brought by His Word and His Spirit. The dead bones in the valley can dance and sing His praises. By God’s power, Lazarus could walk out of his tomb to live another day. So, too, in faith we can live in hope and glorify God with our lives.
The only thing we have to get us through is faith. Jesus says if we believe we will see the power of God. That power will bring life out of death. It is a matter of trusting the Lord to be faithful to His promises, because there we find our salvation. It is this trust to which the psalmist is referring in today’s Psalm.
Our hope is found in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Without Him we are nothing more than dead bones in a valley or dead men in the tomb. Without Him we have no hope. All too often, however, we don’t recognize our own death. We don’t see how we are being like the Pharisees by our attitudes toward others. We do not see that we are relying on our own righteousness. We don’t live as God has called us to live, full of mercy and compassion for those who are suffering, boldly speaking the Gospel message to those He will raise to new life.
Paul reminds us that we are dead when we live in this attitude, but when we live in the Spirit we will know real life and peace. In Christ we are given new life. We are going to mess up. Even after Martha confessed her faith in Jesus, she still doubted. It is that way with us every day. We second guess God’s work. We question His mercy; we doubt His promises. As Martin Luther put it, we are “simul justus et peccator” which means that we are simultaneously saints and sinners. However, in Christ we have been given the gift of His Spirit, which dwells in our hearts. As we are sanctified, daily growing in faith and in knowledge of the work God is doing in our lives as well as in the lives of others.
It took something extra to put life into a dead party. I had to work to bring people to the dance floor who did not wish to dance. It took something special to bring happiness to the celebration. While we may think someone is beyond hope today, God calls us to the work of His kingdom, prophesying to them so that we would see God glorified as they are raised to new life in Christ.
We have hope, and there is hope for others. It isn’t pointless to speak God’s Word to the world because God can, and does, bring life out of death. Looking to Jesus means looking at hope, trusting in God’s promises to bring us through. He will bring life out of death according to His good and perfect Word. And though our bodies are riddled with sin and death, Christ gives us life to live for His glory by taking His mercy and grace to the entire world.
They may not listen when we proclaim God’s Word, but they can’t hear if we don’t even try. We speak, not expecting our words will bring life, but knowing that God’s Word can raise the dead. We don’t always know exactly what will happen, but God knows. He can restore the flesh on dry bones and raise the dead out of their tombs. So, when it seems hopeless, we are called to trust in God. God can do the impossible and He will be glorified by our obedience. Are we willing to shine hope in a world that seems hopeless? Are we willing to share the Gospel even when it seems pointless?
There is always hope when we trust in God. He can bring life to dry bones. He can raise the dead out of their tombs. When it seems hopeless, we are called to trust in God. We are encouraged to join the psalmist in a cry of faith. We are invited to speak God’s grace to the dry bones and to call people out of their tombs. Will we ignore the opportunities or will we join as His partners in His life-giving work?
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