In the midst of death, God gives us life
A sermon preached at St. Peter & St. Paul, Marietta, GA
by The Rev. Tom Pumphrey, March 29, 2020
The Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A
Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45
Ezekiel 37:1-14 The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.
John 11:1-45 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.”
Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So, the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So, they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
This is another week of long readings, and indeed another week of breathtakingly powerful readings! We hear from Ezekiel the vision of the dry bones. We hear the psalmist cry out to God from out of the depths. We hear from Paul about the promise of the resurrection. And we hear of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Of course, we are in Lent, and all these texts help to prepare us for Easter. All these texts show us in the midst of death, God promises life.
The Psalmist cries out “out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord! Lord, hear my voice!” He cries out to God like Mary and Martha who cry out to Jesus in their grief at their brother’s death “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” And when The Lord shows Ezekiel the valley of dry bones, this valley of death, he asks Ezekiel, Son of man, can these bones live? In the midst of death and exile, all Ezekiel can say is “Oh, Lord GOD, you know.”
Ezekiel was a prophet, and the people to whom he was sent to bring the word of the Lord were the Jewish exiles in Babylon. You might remember the history of Israel. When Israel’s descendants in the north turned away from God again and again, the Empire of Assyria destroyed the north kingdom. Then when Babylon conquered Assyria, Babylon came after Judah, the remnants of Israel in the south who had also turned away from God. Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and its people, destroying even the great temple of the Lord, where God’s presence could be found. They took the survivors to Babylon to live as exiles.
God sent Ezekiel to prophecy to the exiles. How could they even know the Lord when they couldn’t go to his temple? Now, the Lord had some hard words to say to the exiles, to call them back to him. But he also had a message of hope and promise. So he showed Ezekiel this vision of dry bones—not just dead bones, but really dead bones, with the marrow all gone from them. These bones are the whole house of Israel. And yet, God brought Ezekiel to that valley of death to reveal his glory, to bring remarkable blessing. In the midst of death, God was bringing life.
When Jesus heard the news about Lazarus, he knew what would happen. His delay seems disturbing, having heard the news of his friend’s illness. But Jesus still cares for Lazarus and his family, and he knows and trusts the power of God in the midst of that tragedy. Jesus delayed two days, but by the time he arrived, Lazarus had been dead for four days. His sisters, Mary and Martha come out to Jesus in their distress. Each one, in their turn, say to Jesus “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!”
So much must have been going on in them at that moment. Sadness and grief, the loss of their brother. Why wasn’t Jesus there? He could heal him. I’m almost surprised they went to him in their grief, but even as they grieved, they still knew who he was, still trusted his love for them. They trusted him enough to speak from their grief to him, even perhaps in frustration at his absence: Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” Where were you? How could you let this happen?
Jesus, for his part, is not unmoved. Indeed, he is deeply grieved. Twice, we read of how disturbed Jesus is in the midst of their grief. The words are hard to translate—they come from the words for our guts, our innards, down deep where we feel things, and where we are bowed over with grief. Jesus felt all this grief and loss in his gut. And Jesus, like us, wept. Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus, his friend. Jesus felt all that sorrow within him. Yet he also knew what came next. In the midst of all that grief and loss, even in the midst of death, Jesus came to bring life.
It has been two weeks of our semi-shut down, this time of social distancing and stay at home living. Of course, the crisis has been going on for longer than that, and it looks like it will continue for a long time. We cannot get together with friends as we did, we cannot enjoy the same freedoms we had before, we cannot even gather together to worship the Lord. Some of us face financial difficulty, and wonder what will happen with April’s bills, or May’s bills. And what will happen in June? In the news, we read of illness, and in New York and Italy especially, many are dying. Our own Bill Hetzler died last week, though not from Covid-19, but rather from complications from Lymphoma. Bill is a man of faith and kindness, a man of deep prayer who inspired me and many others. We will miss him.
In the midst of this struggle and loss, even in the midst of death, can these bones live? Can God bring us new life?
When I was a teenager, I had a friend named Jerry. I had struggled to make good friends, and I prayed eagerly for a close friend, a trusted friend to share life with. Jerry became that kind of friend for me. It wasn’t a dramatic story or intense friendship; in many ways we grew to be friends kind of accidentally (or so it seemed). But he brought me great joy and confidence and I looked forward to my junior year in high school. We went to a boarding school, and he and I were to be roommates that year.
About a week before my sixteenth birthday in the summer, I got the shocking news that Jerry died in an automobile accident. I couldn’t quite believe it. It still feels shocking to me. I had the privilege of grieving with his family, and indeed, I’m still in touch with his family. Now this is not a story that ends with Jesus raising Jerry from the dead. No, he still awaits that final resurrection. The loss of Jerry was a loss to us indeed. And we searched for and sought after God’s presence in the midst of our grief.
I tell you this story not to dwell on the tragedy, but to speak about where God was at work, where God was bringing life, even in the midst of death. To be clear, this is not always a metaphor, sometimes God really does bring life to someone at death’s door (or just beyond). But even more so, God brings life to us in other ways as well. Jesus said to Martha ‘if you believe, you will see the glory of God.’
In the midst of my friend’s death, God was still at work in my life and in the life of Jerry’s family. There was something about God’s blessing through that relationship that changed me. And God’s blessing given to me through Jerry did not die. Another friend of mine, John, about a year or two later, told me he had seen a change in me when Jerry and I become friends. And John told me that this change had not gone away when Jerry died. Even long after Jerry’s death the blessings that God gave me endured. God continued to form and shape me through that relationship, and indeed does so today. Even in the midst of death, God brings life.
Our relationships change us. God works in and through our relationships. Even in the rough and messy parts, God forms and shapes us and offers us tremendous blessing. Especially in our relationship with God in Jesus Christ, God gives us new life.
Look at the exiles—destroyed, dead, exiled in a pagan land. But Ezekiel’s prophecy was true. The Lord told Ezekiel to prophecy to the wind (and remember that the words for wind and breath and spirit are all the same word in Hebrew and in Greek). Prophecy to the wind, the breath, the spirit, that it may come upon these bones, to breathe upon these slain, that they may live. The Lord said to them, I will bring you up from your graves and you will live, oh my people! And Ezekiel’s prophecy was true: Persia overthrew Babylon and the Jews returned to Jerusalem, rebuilt the city walls, rebuilt the temple of the Lord and renewed their relationship with their Lord. The Spirit of the Lord stood the whole house of Israel on their feet, a vast multitude! In the midst of death, God brings life!
When Jesus came to Bethany, Martha and Mary and others knew Jesus was a great teacher, many even knew that he could heal the sick—he could even heal a man born blind! But even in the face of death, Jesus brings life. Weeping, crying at the grave of his friend, he calls them to take the stone away from the mouth of the tomb. He prays to the Father to give witness to the power of God to bring life. And he calls to Lazarus, “Lazarus! Come out!” And Lazarus comes out, bound in burial cloths. And Jesus says “unbind him, and let him go!” Even in the face of death, Jesus brings life.
In the struggle, we often see only the struggle. In the loss, we often see only the loss. I’m not talking about mere optimism or finding silver linings. I’m talking about finding the living God at work, often under the surface in uncanny ways to restore and renew and bless beyond our struggle and loss. God is at work robbing loss of its power, building blessing with his strength. God is growing within us a resilience and grace that is durable and powerful and living and multiplying as we share that grace with others.
Look at the blessings that God is bringing even in the midst of this epidemic. I’ve been praying that God would strengthen relationships and engagement in Christian fellowship, study and prayer and ministry. And strangely enough, in a time of social distancing where we can’t be together, God’s Spirit is raising us up, motivating people to reach out and get connected and encourage and strengthen and deepen those relationships with God and each other. The Spirit of the Lord is standing us on our feet, giving us new life.
Look for that new life. Look for the living God at work in your life.
Even in the midst of struggle and loss, even in the midst of death, God gives us life.