St Andrew's, Carbondale--John 11:1-44, Ezekiel 37:1-14
These are tough times we live in, right?
I suspect that nobody here this morning wants to disagree with that statement. But I also suspect that no two of us would understand it in quite the same way. We may disagree about exactly what makes the times tough, but we agree about the basic facts of the human condition: We are surrounded by uncertainty and anxiety in every dimension. We’re told that we’re nearing the end of a long stretch of economic recovery from the last recession, but I know plenty of people who would say, “What recovery?” Global political instability is threatening us at every turn: ISIS taking credit for a deadly attack in London week before last, North Korea testing ballistic missiles, Russia involved in all sorts of international skullduggery. We read doomsday scenarios of environmental degradation—unbreathable air in Chinese cities, misbehaving ocean currents creating havoc in Peru, drought causing severe famine in Tanzania; my friends, I’ve just mentioned two places where our diocese has companion relationships, where people we actually know have been affected by these events. The list could go on: human trafficking, epidemic opioid addition, etc. etc.
The Jews of the time of the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel had ample reason for these same feelings. After centuries of armed conflict and political instability, they are now in exile in a strange land, several hundred miles from the territory they call home. They are in collective grief over what they have lost: they have lost their freedom, they have lost their dignity and self-respect as a nation, as a people. They are consumed with hopelessness about their future.
Grief and loss on a collective scale is one thing, and certainly bad enough, but when it becomes personal—and collective grief is always personal for a great many people—the pain becomes all the more pointed. This is the position of Mary and Martha, the two sisters who, along with their brother Lazarus, were close personal friends of Jesus, and it becomes Jesus’ position as well, when Lazarus takes ill and fairly quickly dies. It’s very personal, and there is grief all around. The shortest verse in the Bible, John 11:35, occurs in this narrative: Jesus wept. And not only is Jesus said to have wept in both personal and compassionate grief over the death of his friend, but there are two others occasions in this passage when the Evangelist uses Greek words that denote intense emotion—deep sighs and groans.
But in his dialogue with Martha, Jesus introduces a game-changing element. At first, she mistakes it for the sort of shallow platitudinous comfort that we so often hear when someone is trying to express condolences but doesn’t know how—stuff like, “God needed another angel in heaven,” or “It was just her time to go” (by the way, don’t ever say those things; it’s terrible theology). But when Jesus tells Martha, “Your brother will rise again,” he wasn’t just perpetuating a cliché. He was introducing a new ingredient into the recipe. It’s not a matter of anything that Jesus does, or, by extension, anything that God does. It’s not a matter of doing at all; rather, it’s a matter of being. It’s a matter of who Jesus—and, by extension, God—is: “I am the resurrection and the life…” Yes, it would be true to say that Jesus gives resurrection and life, but only because he first is resurrection and life.
In this moment of offering comfort to Martha, Jesus reveals the heart of God as one of love-fueled life. He is clearly operating out of love for Lazarus and for Lazarus’ sisters, and that love fuels his action of restoring Lazarus to life. Life is bound up in God’s very identity. God bestows life not merely as something he chooses to do, but from the heart of his essential being, from the heart of who he is.
Now, don’t think that I’m getting all Christian Science on you and suggesting that suffering and grief are not real, all in our minds. Remember, the one who is in his own self “resurrection and life,” Jesus himself, wept. And sighed and groaned with grief. Our loss, our pain, our grief—it’s all real. But where the game gets changed by Jesus is right here: suffering and loss are real, but they are not the last word. Suffering and loss are real, but they are not the end of the story. The God of life still reigns, and will have the last word.
The Jews in exile in Babylon were feeling the pointed end of the spear of grief and loss as they tried to navigate their way around their new and unfamiliar surroundings. It was in that context that Ezekiel, who was one of these exiled Jews—it was in this context that Ezekiel had his magnificent vision of the Valley of the Dry Bones. He sees what seems literally to be an above-ground graveyard. It’s a scene of utter hopelessness. But, before his watchful eyes, the bones assemble themselves into skeletons. Then, muscle tissue and skin attach themselves to the bones. The Lord commands Ezekiel to prophesy, and, when he does so, the breath of life comes into the innumerable lifeless bodies, and they stand upright. The Lord tells Ezekiel,
Son of Man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, “Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live.
Ezekiel’s vision was God’s word of hope to the people of Israel. It’s a powerful image of a love-fueled God of life, even as Jesus’ raising of Lazarus was God’s word of hope to his people in that time and place. And both of them are God’s word of hope to us in the loss and grief that we experience, both collective and personal.
We stand now on the brink of our annual plunge into the depths of the Paschal Mystery. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, and then we’re into Holy Week and the sacred Triduum—one liturgy in three segments: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter. The God of love-fueled life, the God who breathed life into the dry bones of Ezekiel’s vision, the God who raised Lazarus from the dead in the face of his family’s grief—this God will be waiting for you right here as you come together to observe with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection. I know you will be richly blessed in your remembrance. Amen.