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We begin our lesson with death.
I know this is a morbid place to start. You might even find this body offensive. If you do, I’m sorry. It is not my intent to offend.
I know this is painfully real for many of us. Five years ago this was my father-in-law. Eight months ago it was my sister-in-law.
It would be safe to say that the majority of us here have experienced great loss in the last year. For some it has been the death of a loved one. For others it has been the loss of a job, or a house, or a marriage.
Four years ago this was my church. It was my dreams. It was a huge piece of my identity. Lost, broken, dry. Five years of my life seemed wasted. Good friends turned their backs and left. I was so numb that I couldn’t dream. I didn’t want to read, anything. Not even the Bible.
Turn on the news and you can see that the world looks at this every day. It turns my stomach to think of thousands of bodies washing up on the shore of Japan, or lying under the rubble in Haiti, or laying in the streets of Libya.
The prophet Ezekiel knew this kind of pain. 600 years before Jesus lived, the city of Jerusalem suffered greatly at the hands of the Babylonians. For two years the Babylonian army laid siege to Jerusalem. They surrounded the city to starve them out. Those who did not die of starvation were dragged from their homes, made to watch as the city was burned to the ground, and were then forced to march hundreds of miles and placed in relocation camps.
Something happens in our souls when we suffer great loss. We go numb. We don’t want to do anything. And, many times, we don’t want to worship. The last place we want to be is in a room full of people who are singing praises to God and sharing in communion.
Maybe you feel like that today. Perhaps you can relate to Ezekiel. God took him out into a valley that was full of dry bones. They were the bones of his people. The sun had baked them dry.
God asks Ezekiel, “son of Adam, can these bones live?”
I’m not sure the tone of voice Ezekiel used to respond to this question, but I can only guess that he looked up in exasperation. “Only you know, God.” Under his breath I wonder if he said, “cause I got nothing.”
Jesus knew this pain. It had been four days since his friend Lazarus had died. Over the past three and a half years Jesus had become good friends with Lazarus. He wasn’t one of the traveling 12, but he and his sisters Mary and Martha had been strong supporters of Jesus and his mission.
Now Jesus stands outside the tomb. He is in the village of Bethany, just two miles away from Jerusalem. Things were coming to a head for Jesus. The religious leaders were in a frenzy and wanted him dead. The common people were divided over him. Some thought he was the Messiah, some thought he was crazy, others thought he was from Satan.
As he stood there looking at the stone, listening to the women wailing over the loss of this good man, thinking about the pain and suffering that he was about to face in Jerusalem, the emotion overwhelmed him. In the shortest verse in the Bible, we see one of the most powerful moments in Jesus’ life.
Two simple words. Jesus wept.
I wonder what that was like? Have you ever had those moments when everything in your life gangs up on you all at once and you feel like you will suffocate under its weight? It takes over your body and you can’t stop the tears.
Throughout the month of March I’ve been soaking in the discipline of fasting and trying to figure out how to teach it to the high school students. I reread a classic by Dallas Willard called The Spirit of the Disciplines and in his section on fasting he reminded me of an important fact. Suffering happens. In a physical universe people bump into each other. Things fall apart. God never promised that we would be exempt from suffering. It is not a punishment, nor is it always associated with evil. It just happens and it hurts.
And yet, in the midst of this suffering, Jesus stands at the tomb and weeps. This is an important truth about God. God weeps for us. And God weeps with us. We are not alone. God is the God of comfort. He enters into our pain and sits there with us, for as long as it takes.
The story doesn’t end there, though.
God said more to Ezekiel. God said, “Ezekiel, speak to these bones.”
This is an amazing passage that is right out of a supernatural thriller movie. Ezekiel speaks and it starts. A rattling sound cascades across the valley. The dry bones start shaking and moving and coming together to form human skeletons. Then the sinews and muscles wrap around them and skin forms over them. The decomposition of the bodies is reversed.
They were whole, but they had no breath. So God said, speak to the breath, and then the bodies were filled with air. The spirit animated them and brought dead flesh back to life.
Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. 14 And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.”
In a place where all hope seemed lost, the Spirit of God poured out, like a wave of water over a dry and thirsty land, and brought hope back to life.
Jesus stands in front of the tomb. He wipes the tears from his eyes.
“Move that stone!”
“No, Jesus. He stinks by now.”
Isn’t that how we are with our pain? We don’t want Jesus to expose it. We don’t want people to see it, because we know it stinks. We’d rather hide it and let it fester.
But we have to move the stone. We have to let the air in.
Then Jesus speaks in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!”
[Micki gasps and comes to life. She struggles to stand]
Lazarus, aren’t you glad to be alive? [Micki nods]
Then why aren’t you smiling and dancing for joy? [Micki struggles, but her hands are bound to her body by the graveclothes]
Do you see what’s happening here? This body has been brought back to life, but it is still bound.
I think the most important words in the Gospel lesson are in v. 44. “Unbind him and let him go.”
Can I get a couple people to help her? [two people from the congregation come forward and unwrap Micki]
Can you imagine how amazing it must have felt for Mary and Martha in that moment?
Let’s give her a big hand. Jesus is the resurrection and the life!
We’ve learned four things today:
- Suffering happens. It is part of the ebb and flow of living in the physical universe. We don’t escape it. God teaches us how to move through it.
- God weeps. God feels our pain and joins us in it. We can take comfort in that.
- Resurrection happens. God does restore hope. When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem to die. Today we are still two weeks away from the ultimate resurrection story, when Jesus conquers death. In life, we are not yet to the end of the story, either. We still wrestle with pain and suffering, but even in the midst of it, resurrection happens.
Four years ago, I didn’t know what to do, or where I was going. I didn’t know that God was going to bring me to Grace Lutheran Church. I think that is a resurrection story.
New hope can rise from the ashes of despair. Lives can be rebuilt. Thirsty souls can be quenched.
4. Resurrection is a group effort. This is the key lesson for today. If you are here, in this room today, that means you probably have at least an inkling of resurrection in you. You have enough hope to hop in here, but my guess is that many of us are still bound up in grave clothes. We are still struggling with hopelessness and sorrow, or guilt and shame, or anger and bitterness, or fear and anxiety. Whatever the grave clothes are, we need each other to peel them away.
As the body of Christ, we are called to remove the grave clothes. It starts with us as we strive to be honest with each other and reach out for help. And then, we are called to look out to the world in need. The helpless victims of hunger, AIDS, war, and famine are bound tightly in grave clothes. They are still in a valley of dry bones. They desperately need us to extend our hands to peel away the cloth and offer them a cool cup of water.
As we come to the end of our Lenten journey and move closer to the day of resurrection, let’s pray that we can become people who help each other in the process of peeling away our grave clothes and healing dry bones.