A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent
April 2, 2017
(Ezekiel 37:1-14; Ps 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45)
Is it not the most remarkable vision?
Ezekiel the prophet sees from Israel’s desolate present into the nation’s Spirit-enlivened future. God commands Ezekiel: speak to these dry bones. God’s promise: to act. ‘Ruach’ (Spirit, wind, breath) will bring life even to death. Sinews. Flesh. Skin. Breath. By the word of God these bones will live.
And they will ‘know the LORD’.
‘So I prophesied as I was commanded’. Ezekiel speaks. Bones ‘rattle’ and reassemble. Sinews form over joints. Muscle and organs appear. Skin covers and protects.
Then for a dreadful moment there lies a dead army. A perfectly-formed lifeless multitude. God speaks again: ‘Prophesy to the breath…Come from the four winds, and breathe on these slain, that they might live’.
‘So I prophesied as he commanded me…’ . Breath. Life. A standing army.
This dramatic and memorable vision, Ezekiel is told, concerns the nation of Israel. They are discouraged, hopeless. The word of God, however, will open long-forgotten graves; raise the dead; enliven with the Spirit; place them in their own land. And those who were dead will ‘…know that I am the LORD.’
Is it any wonder Psalm 130 unapologetically urges God’s people to ‘…wait for the LORD’. From where else will they find such body-enlivening ‘hope’, ‘love’, and ‘redemption’?
John tells us that there is purpose in Jesus apparent complacency. The message regarding Lazarus arrived with plenty of time. Jesus’ favourite is ill. Yet with confidence he declares, ‘This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God…’
John is nudging our expectation.
As the story unfolds, however, we realise that, while this illness does not lead to Lazarus’ death, it does – uncomfortably – pass through it. Even here – as the multitude of mourners attest – death leaves discouragement and hopelessness.
Two days delay brings about nothing to comment on – except the passing of Jesus’ ill friend: Lazarus is dead.
And as Jesus turns with such purpose and timing toward Judea his disciples fear the same for him. There was a recent attempt to stone him. Thomas – at least – follows with the expectation that they will ‘die with him’.
In so many ways their concerns are well placed. Heading for Judea to raise Lazarus puts Jesus on the path to Jerusalem. His turning both opens Lazarus’ tomb and seals – temporarily – his own.
Jesus – this embodied heart-of-God – is not unmoved by death. He weeps with the mourners. He is ‘greatly troubled’ and ‘deeply moved’ as he approaches the tomb. Jesus joins those gathered to console; graciously hears Martha’s criticism of his lateness; listens to the crowd’s speculation as to what this sight-giving saviour might have done. Within it all he gently pointed to the promised resurrection.
This ‘last day’ resurrection is not, however, the whole story. In the very context of mourning for a loved one Jesus not only makes the audacious claim that the resurrection will one day happen. He takes it further. Resurrection lies in his trustworthy hands: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.’
So, despite the stark realty of death – the stone and the stench; the linen wrappings and the face cloth – Jesus calls forth the dead: ‘Lazarus, come out’. All that remains is for those nearby to unwrap this once-again living man.
A momentary glimpse of what God is doing.
As promised, the crowd is seeing the ‘the glory of God’. Jesus was right all along: Lazarus’ illness did ‘not lead to death’ but through death to life. It is the invitation of our faith: trust God even with the reality of your mortality.
After all, what Irenaeus may have said of Lazarus is also true of you – ‘The glory of God is a human being fully alive’.
And so we turn to the Apostle’s letter to the church in Rome. There Paul sets up a contrast that he ultimately – and importantly – resolves. As we focus on the ‘flesh’, as opposed to the ‘Spirit’, we become ‘hostile to God’. If, however, ‘Christ is in you’ the ‘Spirit of life’ is also within you – enlivening even your – very human – ‘flesh’.
Is it any wonder Romans 8:11 is so widely memorised and quoted? It pulls everything together: the Spirit; Jesus’ resurrection body; Christ in you; the Spirit’s life to our ‘mortal bodies’.
Hear it again – and, please, take it with you into your celebration this Easter:
If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
Friends, never let anyone tell you that the Spirit of God dwells in some separate, anti-flesh, or ‘spiritual’ realm. No, God’s Spirit dwells in you giving life even to these presently – and temporarily – faltering bodies.
Ezekiel’s soldier-filled valley is a glimpse of God’s hope for Israel. Lazarus’ raising is a glimpse of God’s power over death. The resurrection of Jesus, however, is a glimpse of God’s ultimate – and unapologetically embodied – plan for you.
And once again, all God asks – and hopes – is that you ‘believe’ and trust the one who offers – even here and before the stark and unsettling reality of death – Spirit-filled ‘life to your mortal bodies’.