The God of the Dead
The Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A
Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-42
The rocking chair was old, but it had been well made, and it’s structure was solid. It had been handmade, and made well. Unfortunately subsequent owners didn’t know what to do with wood. The layers upon layers of paint testified to that. Why did people paint over perfectly good wood? Hadn’t they any sense? It was her summer project. She set it out on her screened in back porch. It was going to take a lot of paint remover to get the layers upon layers of paint off, and she’d need plenty of ventilation. She was also going to need plenty of Q-tips to get the paint out of the grooves, the ridges, and the hand chiseled design on the back. But that was okay. She was a patient woman, and she had the perfect place in her living room for the rocking chair. Day after day she smoothed the paint remover on and wiped it off, humming quietly to herself. She patiently removed the paint in the grooves, ridges and carvings with Q-tips. The wood–the real wood–was beginning to show through. It was a beautiful mahogany, it’s red undertones still vibrant. Who in their right mind would paint over this? she continually thought. Finally, it was done. All the paint was off. The wood was dull and looked lifeless, but not for long. She carefully sanded it. She had to go to three different hardware stores, but she finally found varnish that matched the tone of the wood perfectly. She put on two coats of varnish, letting it dry in between. Then she waxed it to a shine. It looked new. It was no longer the old beat-up, glumly painted rocker that she had nearly stolen for $15 at a garage sale. It looked liked the handcrafted antique that it was. No telling, what she could get for it if she wanted to sell it. But that she wouldn’t do. She was now going to enjoy the fruits of her labor. She picked up the rocking chair, eased it through the back door and placed it in the living room next to her big picture window. It would be a wonderful place to read, to crochet, or just to watch TV in the evening. Everyone who came over oohed and ahhed over it. Including the woman she bought it from. The woman she bought it from never believed that the red mahogany rocker was the same battered up rocker she had just wanted to get rid of.
Some people have the ability to see something beyond what it is to what it could be. There are also people who have the ability to see beyond what a person is to what he or she could be. Jesus was one of these people. He saw beyond tax collectors, sinners, and prostitutes to people God loved and God could transform. He saw beyond reputations–good in Nicodemus’ case, not-so-good in the Samaritan woman’s case–to the heart and offered to them what they really needed. Like God, Jesus never gave up on anyone: even the dead.
But let’s begin with God who didn’t give up on Israel, even after their idolatry and trampling on each other put them into slavery. In fact, the people thought they were dead and in their graves. But God doesn’t give up on them. At the beginning of Ezekiel’s ministry God called him to call the people to repentance, so that they would not go into exile. But the people did not listen and Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed. In the second half of his ministry, God called Ezekiel to reassure the people that God was still their God and still with them. Our passage today is one of the strongest statements God makes to the Jews in exile, and one of the most mind blowing promises in Scripture.
In a vision Ezekiel sees a field of dried, strewn out bones. It looks as if they died in battle, no one buried them. This was an ancient way of making sure people didn’t move onto the next world after death. This is how the Jews saw themselves. They were in captivity, and their land was gone. They had no hope. But God gives Ezekiel a vision, an incredible vision. These bones that have been lying in this valley for so long they are now dried up are commanded to life. And God doesn’t just do it. God tells Ezekiel to prophesy and tell these bones to come together, for flesh to form and muscles to develop. God worked through the prophet God had called instead of just doing it. When God renews life, restores life, resurrects life, God wants to work with us.
After the bones have bodies, they are still not living. So God commands Ezekiel to command the wind–God’s Spirit–to come and breathe life into the bodies. This would remind Ezekiel’s audience of the creation story in Genesis when God made the human out of clay and breathed life into the body. Now through a prophet’s word God’s Spirit comes and breathes life into the bodies that have raised from “dem dry bones.” Then Ezekiel is to tell the exiles just as God raised a living army from these dry bones, so God will restore the people to their land. They will once again be a nation, in their land. They are not without hope. They are not dead in their graves. God still loves them and restores them to their original covenant with God.
Whereas God restored and resurrected a nation that had been destroyed, in our New Testament reading, Jesus will resurrect a friend and restore him to his family. John tells us that Jesus loves Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. They have a close friendship. So it is surprising when Jesus does not go when Martha and Mary send news that Lazarus is sick. Jesus waits two days and then travels to Bethany. When he gets there, Lazarus has been dead and buried for four days. Martha meets Jesus before he gets to the house and tells him that she knows her brother would not have died if Jesus had been there. She goes on to tell Jesus that even now she knows God will grant whatever Jesus asks. Martha and Jesus go on to have this conversation:
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.”
Whereas Peter has the ultimate confession of Jesus being the Messiah in the other three Gospels, in John, it is Martha who gives the ultimate confession of faith. She is the one who proclaims Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son that God has sent into the world. She also makes this confession before Jesus raises Lazarus. In John this is the faith that is true, the faith that Jesus is looking for. Faith that believes that Jesus is the Son of God apart from the miracles and signs.
After this Martha goes to Mary and tells her that Jesus wants to see her. Mary goes to Jesus and tells him the same thing Martha said: Lazarus would not be dead if Jesus had been there to heal him. Then they go to the tomb. At the tomb Jesus is greatly troubled and angry. He is angry because God hates the things that destroy us. Jesus came to make sure that sin and death no longer had the last word. In fact, this is the last event in his public ministry. After this Jesus prepares for his “hour,” his death, and tries to prepare the disciples as well. Jesus decides that death will not have the last word with Lazarus and his sisters. Jesus orders the stone to be removed from the front of the tomb. The always practical Martha reminds Jesus that Lazarus has been in the grave for four days–there will be a stench. Jesus reminds her of what he told her when she met him on the road to her house. If she believes she will see the glory of God.
The stone is removed, and Jesus calls out “Lazarus, come forth!” Do you ever wonder how many people in the crowd fainted when Lazarus actually stumbled out of the tomb? Once again God’s people are told to help: they unbind Lazarus from the burial clothes he is wrapped in.
In both stories something or someone is given new life: Israel in Ezekiel and Lazarus in John. In both stories we see that God does not like the things that destroy God’s people: sin, death, and destruction. We also see that God chooses to work through God’s people: through Ezekiel, through those who rolled back the stone, and through those that removed Lazarus’ bindings. God also uses us to restore and bring new life into our worlds. These stories remind us that God has never stopped creating and re-creating. God still restores and gives new life. These stories tell us that God alone is life, and that God hates death and destruction. And God uses God’s people, God uses us, to continue to re-create, restore, and give new life to the world God created. Earlier in John Jesus said that God never stops working. God never stops working in the world, and God never stops working in us and through us to make us the people God wants us to be and to continue building God’s kingdom in this world.