Forth Sunday of Lent: “Human Reality”
Readings: Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:30-44
Here’s a question that I hope you’ve thought about at least once in your Christian life. If you could possess just one of Jesus’ miraculous powers, which one would you chose? This was the opening question presented to us at a minister’s retreat I attended last January. The answers were as diverse as the churches we represented. Some, no doubt, wished to change water into wine. To my friends dismay I never perfected this one in seminary. Some wished for the ability to cast out demons. And many wanted to heal the blind and to make the lame walk again so they could help their spouse or a child with special needs. One minister admitted he really wished to have true Christlike compassion towards all people. Not much of a miracle. But if you're raising a teenager you'll take as much as you can get.
I simply wanted to seek the lost sheep; to possess the power, the words, and the compassion to seek all those who have been pushed out to the fringes and return them back into society, back into a loving community where we all belong together. This is what Jesus' miracles were all about returning people back to the fold. Jesus healed lepers so they could once again worship. The blind, so they could see the world through God's righteous eyes. And of course He brings us back too back into God’s ever living righteousness and grace.
As we shared our answers, I was surprised that no one chose resurrecting the dead. I couldn’t help but wonder why that was. Were we are afraid we might initiate a zombie apocalypse? Or did we just assume God owns this power outright? As Christians, we hold on to the hope of being resurrected through death; to live forever in the glory of God. Which takes us to our message this morning.
If you are keeping track, this is the fourth week of Lent and our series on Hope and Resurrection. I have selected two particular bible stories that point us towards God’s power over life…and death. There are three reports in the Gospels that speak of Jesus raising people from the dead. But I would bet Lazarus is the most famous one, because it reminds us of Jesus’ own resurrection. But since Easter is not for another few weeks lets turn our attention to a different kind of hope that comes from a different kind of resurrection story.
A story from long ago when God’s hand leads Ezekiel into a vast, desert wasteland, and walks him around piles of dried up tibias and fibulas, rib cages, skulls, and vertebras. Bones are stacked upon bones I always envision this place to look like a land where giants feed on human beings; tossing the bones to the ground like a bucket of chewed up hot wings from Mr. T’s.
God tells Ezekiel to prophesize to the bones, command them to rise up and receive the breath of the life. Given all the zombie movies I have seen in my life I am not sure I would feel comfortable raising a massive army of undead. But Ezekiel doesn't have Netflix...so he does what God asks him to do.
He begins to preach and the bones began to rattle and lock together; their muscle and flesh and skin returned to what they once were. God then tells Ezekiel to prophesize about the breath; the Hebrew word here is ‘ru-ah’ which means breath, spirit, wind. We first read this word in the lush Garden of Eden when God breathed life into humanity. Now here it is used again where all of life's pain and suffering stand mute to the violence of human reality. Again Ezekiel does what God asks, and the ruah of God regenerates and resuscitates an entire valley of naked zombies.
Now the author of this story lets us know this is a metaphorical tale. A story of how God will breathe life back into the people of Israel who have been held captive in Babylon. Living in a foreign land God’s people were spiritually dried up and parched like a desert wasteland. They felt as lifeless as dead bones.
God hears their cries and sends the Spirit to take them home. In one grace filled breath God returns their hope. God restore them from both a physical and spiritual death. By the life giving power of God...Jerusalem will be resurrected, and the breath of God will fill the holy Temple once more. Just as God restores and renews the life of his people, so too does God restore, renew and resurrect our lives. By grace alone, God saves us from death. But it will take a human life to do it.
As we progress through Lent, we might consider what dry bones mean to us as a church and as people? Do they represent dry times in our spiritual journey? Are they reminders of how living in a lonely and parched reality can separate us from who we really are? How many of us can point to periods of time when doubt, hopelessness, depression, fear and anxiety were prominent in your daily living? Perhaps they still are.
It's easy for us to relate to Israel’s feeling of hopelessness and despair during our own wilderness journey of Lent. If you have ever been taken from your home or placed in captivity you know the lost and helpless feeling that comes over you. If you’ve been to jail, or sent to war, if you suffer under the chains of addiction, or had to move away from your friends because your parents split up, or a job demanded it of you, you know how easy it is to feel as disconnected and brittle as these bones.
Most of us have had our faith put to the test. And many of us have had our spirit wither. But ask yourself the question that God asks Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?” How would you answer this question? Do you really believe these bones can be put back together? Let me put it another way, "Son and daughter of mankind, can the dead really rise from the tomb?"
Life’s journey takes us through dry times and dry places. And when our faith is tested, we often question our beliefs. Lost and alone, we might feel that we are parched or separated from whom we’d like to be.
There have been many times in my own life that I have felt like I am dying both physically and spiritually. Many times I have been dried up, not in the desert sun of California, but in the darkness of my fears and anxieties. I have to remind myself that while the daylight might hide the stars, the stars are still out there. Likewise, my darkness could never hide God’s true light shining throughout the world.
God is always and everywhere, breathing the breath of life into us wherever we fall. This breath is the same breath of life blown into Lazarus’ tomb. This is the same breath of life breathed into a crucified Jesus, lifting him up to a resurrection life. This is the same ruah, the same breath, the same Spirit, that came upon us in our baptism. This is the breath of God that moves through the world, raising people from the dead awakening us from being spiritual zombies giving us new life when the odds are stacked against it. Both Ezekiel’s vision and Israel’s salvation reminds us that God hears our cries; especially when we feel like we are gasping for breath and struggling to stay alive.
As we walk and live amid the painful and death-dealing realities that plague human reality, we must hold faithfully to the hope that God calls us out from the grave, like Jesus called Lazarus, freeing us from the ties that bind us. Through the grace of God in Christ Jesus our life is restored and resurrected. We are given new flesh and new blood. Death no longer has the final word.
Wherever our spiritual journey is taking us, our resurrection hope must never lose sight of the fact that through Jesus Christ we are regenerated by the Spirit and breath of God that is poured into our hearts.
Ezekiel stood among the dry bones. The disciples stood looking in an empty tomb. Come Easter morning, we too will stand here and have to answer God’s question “Do you believe these bones will live again?” What will be your answer?
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An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”