Texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-4
Over the past three weeks, with a whole new way of gathering in worship by livestreaming, our liturgy has been different. One very obvious change is that we’re not sharing the Lord’s Supper. Another adjustment, maybe not so obvious since it’s not something we do absolutely weekly, is that we’re not confessing our sins.
Ordinarily Lent is a deeply confessional season. It’s a time for steeping in a forty day discipline of contemplating our sins and confronting the need we all have of God’s forgiveness. This is the church’s original pattern for everyone preparing for baptism. These days it is how we prepare ourselves spiritually for Easter’s message.
In worship our form of confession is corporate. We do it together. It’s just not the same to read a confession in the safety and anonymity of our individual homes. We’re not accountable to one another, not really.
What we can always do of course, is make our personal confession to God. As a matter of spiritual self-discipline, it’s good to take a little time for scripture, silence, and stillness before God each day. And if, during that time, we can’t name a single regret, failing, or fault…well then, God help us. Seriously!
Why is this so very important? Remember how the journey of Lent is from death to life. Under ordinary circumstances Lent makes no sense to non-Christians. Why contemplate death when you are so completely alive? What’s the point? If you’re lucky you’ll never have to look death in the eye anyway. One day you’ll just, as some say, wake up dead.
Now, suddenly, the idea that death is close, maybe even within us already, or in loved ones, is not so crazy. And how do you make peace with that? How do we find our way through it?
Our bible readings today from Ezekiel’s prophecy and John’s gospel are all about this very thing. They counsel us to contend with death’s claim on us. Listen now to a better word - the Word of God. Isn’t that the best part of Ezekiel’s tale? O dry bones, littering a desolate valley, listen up!
But first God asked Ezekiel if dry bones could live. Out of wisdom or fear the prophet replied, “O Lord God, you know.” Perhaps they are the same thing, in the sense that fear is the beginning of wisdom, as Psalm 110 and Proverbs 9 say. But maybe Ezekiel also knew there was nothing hecould do about the dry bones. Whatever would happen was up to God.
So God commanded Ezekiel to prophesy to the dry bones. “…say to them:O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. (Who doesn’t hear in their head that great African American Spiritual, “Dem Bones”?) Speech only happens when we have breath. Life only happens when we have breath. Ancient Israel knew that. That’s why in Genesis the Hebrew word ruach - meaning spirit/wind/breath – tells how God breathed over the waters, speaking creation into being.
In Ezekiel the dry bones begin to stir as soon as the word of God is spoken to them. The bones rattled back into place to become bodies. From chaos to order. Next, Ezekiel spoke God’s word to the stilled breath in the bodies. Since they had died, the only way they could live again was to receive the breath of God. And so they did. A new creation!
There was one more thing that needed to happen. In Ezekiel’s time Israel needed to find a way back into hope after death, back to life with God as a whole and healthy community. Once more God’s word was spoken: “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.”
Paired with this epic drama from Ezekiel, is the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the grave. The people inhabiting this story are more than anonymous dry bones. There was Lazarus, the unfortunate dead man, attended by his shattered sisters Mary and Martha. And Jesus, dear friend to the whole family, who was so deeply troubled and moved that he too wept.
First Martha, and then Mary, approached Jesus saying, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” They sound angry. After all, Jesus did delay in coming. They’d sent word when Lazarus was very sick, but still alive. Now all they had was a tomb and memories.
In this gospel, it’s hard to keep straight what Jesus was saying. This was an illness that did not lead to death, but happened in order to show the glory of God through Jesus the Son. The disciples struggled too. They also wondered why Jesus was going to go to Judea where the religious power brokers of Jerusalem were out for his blood. Yet Jesus had already made it clear that he was motivated by love for Lazarus, Mary, and Martha – those who believed in him.
Jesus went on to say that the present season was split, with twelve hours of daylight and twelve hours of night. He chose to walk in the light. The alternative was to walk in the dark and stumble. This comment may relate to the two groups of witnesses here. There are the disciples who followed Jesus to Bethany already believing. And there are the Jews who came out from Jerusalem to comfort the grieving sisters – still darkness not knowing Jesus as God’s Word.
You know how the story goes. Jesus gave glory to God, then cried out loudly (as God’s Word), calling Lazarus out of the tomb. There’s a paradox here: as a mortal, Lazarus would still die again. But after four days in the tomb he’d learned how to be more in the spirit (as Romans says) than in the flesh. Then, as Jesus unbound him he took his first deep breath of new life.
Jesus asked his followers to grapple with the stark reality of death. Even, and especially, to confess our own sin and contemplate our own death…to let our souls wait for God. And to hope that in God we will emerge from that dark alley more filled with life and God’s Spirit than ever. Because the only alternative is to shut down completely and let death have the last word.
Right now we are like Lazarus in the tomb. More than at any other time in recent history, chaos and death are all around. But hear the Word of the Lord: “I will open your graves and will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.” And, “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?” The way back to whole, healthy community is by such faith. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.