The Federated Church of Marlborough
Marlborough, New Hampshire


Sermon - April 2, 2017
Scripture Reading: Ezekiel 37:1-14  John 11: 38-45
Sermon Title “The Dead and the Living

The Rev. Robert Vodra

     The two stories we read this morning play together, they are stories of desperation and hopelessness.  Ezekiel was a prophet just after the temple was destroyed and the leaders were taken to Babylon.  Quick way to remember that history is 500 years.  First temple was built around 1,000 BCE, destroyed around 500 BCE, and then rebuilt and destroyed again just after Jesus’ life.  The destruction of the first temple actually happened in 587.  Babylonians came into Jerusalem in 597 and took a wave of leaders, then came back 10 years later, took the rest of the leaders and destroyed the temple. 

     This was huge to the early Jewish people.  At that point people believed that God lived in the temple, inside the Ark of the Covenant, in the center of the Holy of Holies where only the highest priest could go.  So if you get taken out of your house and brought to a foreign land, and hear that your God’s house is destroyed, what happened?  When the Israelites came out of the desert, any battles they fought, the ark went first.  That was where God was and God will protect you.  So now, where is your God?  Why didn’t your God protect the temple?  Maybe your God is not the strongest, maybe by being brought to Babylon, there is really a god that is stronger, who has defeated your God.

     Even if you still believe in the God you believed in before, how do you worship.  From what you know, by being in Babylon, you are now separated physically from God. 

     Without their God, in a strange land, scattered, not all went to Babylon.  They are like dry bones, how to they worship, how do they pray, how do the follow the Jewish law, where is their God? 

     Mary and Martha are also having a bad time.  Their brother Lazarus is ill.  So they sent word to Jesus.  Jesus by this point is getting pretty well known, he has healed many.  Just last week we heard about the blind man.  But Jesus kind of brushes them off, “Yeah, he is sick, but he is not going to die.”  Two days after saying that he said “OK, let’s go see Lazarus now.”  There is some back and forth, Jesus says Lazarus is sleeping, so the disciples say “Oh, good, so he is going to be OK.”  Jesus says “No, by sleeping I really mean dead.”  They brought Jesus to the tomb, and verse 45 says “Jesus began to weep.” 

     I am not sure exactly what John meant when he said weep.  Mary and Martha were crying, their brother had died, and Jesus didn’t even show up.  If Jesus had been there, maybe Lazarus would not have died.  Mary and Martha blame him for not coming sooner.  But at that point Jesus began to weep.

     It is a valley of dry bones, it is a dead man in a tomb.  I think we have all been there.  How can these bones live again.  How can the core of our existence, which is now dry and withered be pulled together.  How can Lazarus, who has now been dead for four days and has developed a stench, come back to life.   When we are like those dry bones, or feeling dead, how do get through that time?

     Many of you know that the Hebrew word for Spirit, wind and breath are the same. Ruach.  God commands Ezekiel in this vision to prophesize the bones coming together.  Prophesize is an interesting word to use.  Prophesy is a prediction, or vision of future events.  So Ezekiel is not being asked by God to put the bones together, or even order them to come together, but to predict that they will all be put together, connected, covered with skin.  If you can imagine a valley full of bones, I think of disorder.  This skull over here belongs to that spine over there, which belongs to that fibula over there.  But Ezekiel imagines, and speaks of that prediction that there will be order.  Every bone in every body, none left over, none missing. 

     But even in that prefect order, these bones do not live without Ruach, without breath or spirit or wind.  Just as, in our creation story, God gives us a breath to live, God also gives these dry bones, now put together and covered with skin a breath to live. 

     Notice that Ezekiel never touches the bones, never commands, he predicts what will happen.  This mess, these dry bones will come together, and then will be given the spirit of God in order to live.  Now Ezekiel interpreted this to be for the people of Israel.  Their God, who they believed lived in the temple, was not destroyed by human hands.  Their God does not need a building, the spirit of their God is all around, breathing life into them.  And although they are scattered and broken and dry, God will put them back together, and give them new life.

     Jesus, on the other hand, is more direct with Lazarus. No prophesy.  The stone is rolled back and Jesus commands "Come out!" -- Jesus, the one who is with God from the beginning, issues an order not unlike the command in Genesis that called forth light. "Let there be light" spoken long ago. "Let there be life" spoken into the pain and need of those gathered in today's reading. "Come out!" It is a command that creates and draws us into the knowledge and hope: When pressed to the edge, when faced with the absolute end of all that we have known or can imagine, we are thrown back on the mercy of the God who commands Lazarus, and in time each of us, to come forth. The responsibility for life -- creating it in the first place and recreating it once again -- is wholly God's.

     But lest you think that this is all God’s action, Jesus tells those gathered to unbind him.  Set him free, take away those things that restrict his movements.  Certainly, God can do it all, but perhaps this suggests that God wants us to work with us. 

     Put yourself into this story if you can.  Maybe you are Mary or Martha, full of split emotions.  Your brother just died, and the one that can save him didn’t even bother to show up until 4 days after he died.  But this one, who could save him, is the one you have been calling Lord.  John describes Mary and Martha and Lazarus all as loving Jesus, and Jesus loving all of them.  And then going to the tomb Jesus wept.  Jesus, the one we follow as the son of God, a part of God, part of the trinity, cares enough about humans to weep. 

     Or perhaps you can imagine yourself as Lazarus.  You get ill, you know that your sisters have called for your friend Jesus to come and see you, but he does not until it is too late.  4 days later the tomb is opened and you are ordered by God to come out.  You now know, 100% sure, that Jesus is God.  You were dead, so dead there was a stench around you, and yet Jesus, when he wants to call you, does not even let death step in the way.

     Or maybe you are one of those others gathered.  You are Jewish, you believe again that God brought your people back together, and that God now lives again in the temple.  Maybe not fully, you are starting to understand this spirit, but also kind of nervous about this guy who is performing miracles.   But then you see it with your own eyes, the one you knew was dead, just walked out of the tomb and you were asked to unbind him.

     45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.  Isn’t that the way it should end?   A happy ending, Jesus performs a miracle, and everyone believes.  But I wanted to share the next bit with you. 

46 But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. 47 So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place[h] and our nation.” 49 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! 50 You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” 51 He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. 53 So from that day on they planned to put him to death.

     Next week is Palm Sunday.  But you see the plot to kill Jesus didn’t start when he rode into Jerusalem.  I will not even call it a plot, it was a developing plan.  The Pharisees and Chief priest were worried.  Here is Jesus, who has a lot more power than we do.  Sure, he had fed 5000, changed water into wine, cured a blind man, impressive but not really a threat.  But now Jesus raised a man from the dead.  This is serious, the only solution we have is to kill him.  We cannot raise people from the dead, so the way we are going to keep order is to put him to death.   A plot seems sneaky, this is not, this is an order that Jesus must be killed so that we keep our power. 

     And when you add on that last bit, these stories mimic life.  When we find ourselves as dry bones, we need the spirit of God.  When we find ourselves close to death, we want Jesus to come, Jesus will come, in his own time.  We are raised up, others help to unbind us.  But stories, our stories, do not always end on a positive note.  We will find ourselves over and over in that valley of dry bones, waiting to be picked up, put back together, given life.  We will find ourselves as all the people in the story of Lazarus.  We are Mary and Martha, happy to see Jesus and also very upset that his time was not their time.  We are Lazarus, who experiences the life that Jesus gives and believes.  We are both those that saw and believe, and also those that saw, but see their own power being threatened and ask do what we can to protect it. 

     But in the end the choice is yours.  Will you accept the spirit of God to breath life into you?  Will you accept the life that we are offered in Jesus?