Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent

March 26, 2023.  Texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-14; John 11:1-45.  

They had no names. Bones scattered in the dry, hot, desert valley. This was the vision given to Ezekiel. The prophet narrowed his eyes, deep in thought. Their presence told a story. What did they mean to say?

Scattered. Unburied. Unresting. Un-tended. These words flashed through Ezekiel’s mind.

Yes, God, he murmured. I see. A great battle between ancient foes. So many lost, no one left standing to bury the slain. Who can they be, to have been left so forlornly?

But the Spirit of God was speaking. “O son of man, can these bones have life again?” Ezekiel understood this was a lesson. He was there to learn. I look to your wisdom Adonai, my God. My ears are open.

The Spirit sighed deeply. Speak my creating word to these bones. Make them hear what I am saying. They will have breath! Be re-strung dry bones! Be enfleshed and be covered with fine new skin! Say these things to the bones, son of man!

And in the vision, Ezekiel spoke these things. Words he would never have known to say without the Spirit of God flowing through him; swirling around him. Then, in the vision, Ezekiel’s words summoned the bones, knit them together, and raised them up. But they did not yet live.

Speak again son of man,” said the Spirit. Summon the earth’s winds from every quarter.  Ezekiel did, and a whistling sound filled his ears. Then life entered into the bones so that they were again living creatures.

The Spirit sighed again. O son of man, look upon all of lost Israel. From the elders to the youngsters, these living beings are all kin to one another and beloved children to me. They thirsted to their very bones with longing for me. But they did not know it, for my name had become rarely spoken among them. Though I Am the very One who made them in the beginning!

Ezekiel waited, wordless now, for the Spirit to interpret the vision. Tell my people Israel that I myself will breathe in them. Tell them that I am their hope, and their homecoming. I will do all that I have spoken. And the Spirit of God left him.

Then Ezekiel became aware of himself again, though the vision was still strong in his mind. His ears still quivered with the Spirit’s resonance. So Ezekiel went out and told the vision.

This is what Ezekiel said. “God is calling your name O Israel. God has opened your graves. God has restored your life. Now stand up. What will you make of this precious gift, for the sake of God’s glory?

God’s people listened and took heart. Since the terrible capture of Jerusalem and its awful destruction, they had been held down, buried in sadness and grief. Living as though dead. Now the weight was lifted.

His name was Lazarus. A noble name in Hebrew, Eleazar, which means “God has helped”.  He died after a brief, unexpected illness.  It made a mockery of his name. How had God helped?

His heartbroken sisters laid him to rest. Mourners came out from Jerusalem to offer the women some comfort. Other people came to sit and wail, fulfilling their official role in the community.

But that was not the only reason people came. They’d heard that Martha, Lazarus, and Mary were close to Jesus. They’d heard that Jesus was a healer and he’d given sight to a blind man.

Too bad Jesus hadn’t arrived sooner. Lazarus was beyond healing now. Sure, the scriptures told them of the prophets Elijah and Elisha restoring dead persons to life. But no prophet since then had restored life to the dead. Besides, this man Jesus was a teacher; not a prophet or priest.

Meanwhile, Jesus had to convince the disciples his trip to Bethany was necessary. Twice in that region he’d been threatened with death by stoning. He explained again – about the coming darkness; the urgent call to act in the clear light of day.

Jesus said of his friend Lazarus’s eternal sleep that he was going to wake him up. And they took Jesus literally. So he’s not dead, right?  Yet after Jesus corrected their misunderstanding, they still failed to realize that their part was not to die with Jesus, or any time soon as martyrs to faith. No, their work was to witness to God’s mighty saving presence working in their friend Jesus.

Martha had gone out alone, filled with mixed feelings. Anger over her brother’s death. Sadness that Jesus had not come in time to say farewell to her brother. Fear over the gathering of people around their home, some of whom seemed to be there only to spy and stir things up.

Martha had managed to keep them from following her. Then suddenly Jesus was with her. Martha’s grief was outspoken. We needed you sooner. But you can make it right with God. Jesus said, “Lazarus will rise.” She answered, “On the final day of judgement.” Jesus said, “I am the rising and the life. Do you believe it?” And Martha testified to her faith.

Martha summoned Mary who came in tears. Others followed, some questioning, some weeping. Jesus asked them to take him to his friend’s tomb. Mary knelt and made her own testimony. You could have saved Lazarus. Jesus’s grief was gut-wrenching. He asked to see the tomb, and he cried. Some onlookers praised his love, while others criticized him.

Then Jesus called for the tomb to be opened, to Martha’s horror. Jesus encouraged her to believe in God’s glory. People expected the holy man to pray and Jesus did, calling on the name of God with thanksgiving. Then he called to Lazarus, come out here! And the man emerged, still bound up, hands, feet, and head. Jesus said, loose him and let him go. And the dead man lived.

His name is Andrew Tucker. His bones have been waiting to be enfleshed again. He is still behind the stone, but his belief in resurrection is strong. He wants to live. Like Lazarus, Andrew will come out still wrapped up with many layers of obligation and debt. Who will stand with him, offering counsel and holy love? There’s no magic in rolling away a stone and loosing the wrappings. It’s just the strength of determination, and love. As Jesus and all his friends know.