Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 26 March 2023.
• First Reading: Ezekiel 37: 1-14 (The valley of dry bones)
• Epistle: Romans 6: 8-11 (Since Christ was raised from the dead, He cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over Him. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus)
• Gospel: John 11: 1-45 (The raising of Lazarus. I am the resurrection and the life)
Each of us has something in us that springs to life when excited. It may be meeting friends, hearing a piece of music, the rhythm and movement of a dance, a particular spot in the countryside – or whatever.
But it is that thing which puts a spring in our footsteps and a zing into our lives. It is that thing that draws us deeper into ourselves, closer to one another, closer to God. It can be there in the most profound silence and in the most jubilant shout of joy.
But it is the thing that lifts us out of our routines and the greyness of the life of same-old, same old.
In its way it is about life before death – but a kind of life that makes us wonder what comes after the eyes close for the last time, when the heartbeat stops and the breath of life fails. What then – what is it all for?
Then we have that strange vision of Ezekiel, taken from his exile home and shown a valley of dry bones. Bones long dead but which had once lived and breathed, laughed and loved. Now still and silent.
And God puts this question to Ezekiel: ‘Can these bones live?’ to which Ezekiel is quite unable to reply. The logical reply based on the evidence in front of him is a clear ‘No’.
But then this is a question from the Lord who made heaven and earth and all that lives upon it. An open ‘No’ would be defiant and so Ezekiel hedged it. And so the Lord said in effect, well look and see.
Now there was that rattling and rustling, as bone came to bone and they fitted together, rising up but still lifeless and breathless. But there must be more to it than this and so Ezekiel was brought into it again. This time there was life.
For God, a body with a skeleton and even its sinews but without life was never going to be enough. It might be fine for human organizations and institutions, but not for God.
Some churches may be content to be efficient organizations but devoid of the life of Christ: so they are then just so many functioning parts. Efficient but lifeless.
And the Lord whom we serve is the Lord of life in all its parts and in all its fulness, even if there are areas in it that we have not yet entered.
But then the lectionary joins this lesson from Ezekiel with the story of the raising of Lazarus.
Jesus had heard of Lazarus’ sickness and was willing to let him die so that a deeper lesson may be learned. He could have saved him but chose not to. And yes, He sometimes does this with His friends.
But then there were indeed lessons to learn. First, the raising of the dead was a sign of the Messiah, which would draw the attention of the authorities and being so close to Jerusalem it was like setting off a firecracker in the ruling council. They would have to look into it.
But Jesus had raised the dead before: the young man at Nain, the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue at Capernaum. This one was special for Lazarus had been buried for 4 days and was thought to be beyond resuscitation.
But then more importantly, this was going to be distinct from His own resurrection for these resuscitated lives would meet death in the end. Jesus’ resurrection was going to be forever.
Not only that but Jesus was never going to perform His own resurrection. This would be done by God the Father and vindicate both the degradation of Jesus’ crucifixion and the totality of His atonement for sin.
With the resurrection of Jesus, death and sin would never again have the power to terrorize the whole of humanity. But the resuscitation Lazarus there would still be more to come.
Yet the raising of Lazarus was also a pointer to what was coming.
It was only a few miles away from Golgotha. What Jesus did here was really going to provoke the authorities because they would have to either believe Jesus or reject Him.
There would be no middle way, no room for agnosticism or debate. And this is where Jesus challenged His own friends most pointedly. Do you believe? Do YOU believe? No room for niceties or polite equivocation. What is the ground on which you will stand? Is it firm enough to take the weight that will be put upon it?
For what was coming was going to test their faith, if possible to destruction. It would be a spiritual and emotional storm where there would be no shelter or escape. Even the closest disciples would be tested and some would fail.
But then there is the first lesson. It is not just whether we believe on our own.
It is whether we believe that that pile of bleached and scattered bones can come together to live – not just exist or function. It is whether we also are willing to trust in God when so many things seem to be undermining us and bringing discouragement and despondency.
For Jesus is also challenging us in these days of ours: ‘Dare we believe and trust? Will we allow Him to lead us – even into places we would rather not enter?