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In these perilous times when the question of life or death takes center stage, our scripture readings today assault us with images of a valley of bones and a burial tomb. Can’t we move on to Easter with its celebration of new life – spring flowers, chocolate Easter bunnies and Alleluia’s. To paraphrase the words from an old musical: ‘We need a little Easter, right this very minute!”
We’ve been told that we should be back to our normal lives by Easter. We need to get back to making and spending money to save the nation’s economy. We are a nation of producers and consumers. But, the problem is, we are not in control. We have been brought to our knees by an organism so tiny we can’t even see it. An organism that cannot live on its own, but must have living bodies to keep it alive. If that doesn’t make us humble, I don’t know what can.
Ezekiel couldn’t make those dry bones live, nor could Jesus save his friend, Lazarus. Only the breath of God’s Holy Spirit could resurrect them. We can only wait in hope.
We aren’t very good at waiting. For me, the past week has seemed like, at least, a month. I want this time of staying home and staying away from other people to be over soon. I want a date given that I can visit my grandchildren, eat at a restaurant with friends, and celebrate the Sabbath with my congregation. But when, or if, these things will happen, only God knows. Each of us has to face the possibility that we, or people we love, may not live through this pandemic. When the virus has been contained or destroyed, we may be facing new challenges brought about by its political, economic and social consequences.
The Bible is the story of humanity waiting for God and God waiting for humanity. The psalmist’s cry: “How long, O Lord, how long?” echo throughout the Scriptures. 1Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
Abraham and Sarah were elderly before their long-awaited son arrived. God promised Abraham he would be the father of nations and his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky, but he would not see this himself. Abraham had to trust the promise and live in hope. The Hebrew people waited 400 years to be released from slavery in Egypt, then spent another 40 years wandering in the wilderness before reaching the Promised Land. The Babylonian exiles waited 60 years before being allowed to return to Israel. It was 400 years between the last word God spoke in the Old Testament until the next word in the New. After waiting more than a thousand years for a Messiah, Christ’s time on earth was only about 30 years. Then we read in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonian congregation that they had asked him: “When is Jesus returning? We’re worn out with waiting.” Paul’s cryptic answer was: “With the eternal Lord, a thousand years are like one day.” God just doesn’t operate on our timetable. God has put the choice before us: we can live in hope or die in despair.
The prophet, Ezekiel, got a graphic vision of death and despair. He saw a valley of dry bones. This vast expanse had once been the valley of David, who ruled Israel in obedience to God’s Laws surrounded by larger and more powerful pagan empires. That valley had been ruled by Egyptians, Hittites, and Assyrians and had seen wars and famines. In his lifetime Ezekiel had watched as his people had been marched off to be slaves in another land. He had seen his homeland laid bare by death and destruction. He had seen his country ruled by a puppet king who served, not God, but Babylon’s king Nebuchadnezzar. All that was left of the hope and glory of King David’s reign were the dry bones of what Israel once was. Historians claim the average lifespan of an empire is 400 years. Israel lasted less than two. Ezekiel had seen death. God was challenging him to imagine a new life.
Ezekiel was to be a part of God’s plan for resurrection and renewal. God told Ezekiel to speak God’s prophetic Word to the bones, and then to the bones that had taken on flesh, and then to the people whom God explained were the whole house of Israel. God promised: “ 14I 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.”’ Without God’s spirit, there was no life in the valley of the dry bones. With God’s Holy Spirit those bones would take on flesh and have a second chance to live as God intended.
Israel was not the same after the exiles returned as it was before. The people did not predict their defeat or exile, neither did they expect to be freed from their exile by a Persian king. Sixty years after Jerusalem fell to their Babylonian conquerors, the world power dynamic had shifted. Babylon was conquered by the Persians. The Persian king was not threatened by people who practiced different religions. The exiles were allowed to return to their homeland, rebuild the temple and reshape their lives. The Jewish people became a cohesive faith community that thrived, even under foreign rule. They were restored to life. It wasn’t the life they had expected, but it was a new life, lived closer to God and one another. That is what we are taught by Christ – true life in the spirit is a life lived for the love of God and one another.
Scroll forward to Jesus raising his dead friend Lazarus to life. Here, God’s Word made flesh, was asked to save a life. Why did he wait three days to come to Lazarus after Mary and Martha sent word it was a matter of life and death? Who has the patience to wait three days when every second counts? Perhaps the wait was a metaphoric foreshadowing of Jesus’ own death and resurrection, which transpired over three days. What makes this story unique in the accounts of Jesus’ healing miracles is his personal investment. The scripture tells us Jesus loved Lazarus. The Greek word translated as love was not “agape,” meaning love for humanity, the word used was “phileo,” brotherly love. The shortest verse in the bible, though one of the most poignant, shows us Jesus’ reaction to the news that Lazarus was dead. We read: “Jesus wept.”
Jesus did not cause Lazarus to die, but he grieved, nonetheless. Christ, fully human, suffered as we suffer. Christ, fully divine, is present with us in our current suffering. Sometimes, God does not answer our prayers the way, or within the timespan, we want. Jesus did not come immediately when he learned Lazarus was gravely ill. John doesn’t tell us what he was doing. For Mary and Martha, Jesus’ delay felt like a betrayal. Haven’t we all felt like that toward God when our suffering seems to great to bear?
Jesus understood that this tragedy could be redeemed. Lazarus would once again die, as all mortals do, but at this time God had another plan. God answered Jesus’ prayer to raise up Lazarus from the dead. Jesus explained what Mary and Martha could not understand themselves. God gave Jesus the power to resurrect Lazarus to demonstrate that the power of God worked through him. Jesus also used the raising of Lazarus to prepare his disciples for what was to come – his own death and resurrection.
Jesus hastened his own death, by saving Lazarus. More people believed in him, but the opposing powers became more set against him. John tells us: “Greater love has no man than to give up his life for a friend.” Jesus also commanded and commissioned his disciples on the night he ate his final meal with them: “Love others as I have loved you.” Life is restored with love.
These words of scripture we heard today challenge us to oppose anything that brings death. Today our focus is on resisting the Covid-19 virus and preventing our spreading the virus to others. There are many kinds of death that we can defeat if we make them a priority. There are dry bones that need to be raised up: crushing poverty, hunger, war, oppression, injustice and violence. There is death in systemic injustice and economic inequality. There is death in addiction, depression, and other forms of mental illnesses. There is spiritual death in loss of meaning and purpose in one’s life. There is death when we lose hope. As Christ’s disciples, we are called to bring life to a world that deals in death. We are Easter people. We do not just celebrate Easter on a particular day, we celebrate Easter whenever we see life restored. And we need a little Easter now, don’t we?
With the psalmist, we cry: “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word, I hope.” We wait for God to make all things new, but we do not wait in idleness. God is also waiting for us to take hold of the life God offers and use it to bring life wherever we see death settling in to destroy. We wait in hope because Jesus has promised us:
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live,26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!
© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2020, All Rights Reserved
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“Why am I a member of Westminster Presbyterian Church? Two words keep floating up in a rather persistent way – “home” and “family” – and I realized that it is an inescapable fact that is what this church means to me. During my 40 years here, so many life events have happened and Westminster has been there for me through all those times – good and bad. It has been my home and family. They say “home is where the heart is” and I’ve found the heart of Westminster to be as open and warm as a family’s!”