Sunday, April 10, 2011

Fifth Sunday in Lent
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

Prophesy over these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of Jehovah.

It is springtime in Texas. I have been out and about, hunting for wildflowers to photograph. I found a few lovely fields, although the dry weather we have been experiencing for a long time has definitely affected the crop of flowers this year. The fields are covered, but the flowers are smaller and not so abundant as they were last year. In Texas we look for the bluebonnets, because they are so unique to our landscape, but we have plenty of other flowers that pop up in the spring. I managed to get photos of a few new flowers and several creatures this year, perhaps because they were not hidden beneath the bountiful collections of wildflowers. These flowers are much smaller, so either the sparse plants have allowed them to receive necessary sunshine, or they are just not hidden by the taller plants.

I’ve seen one photo of a bluebonnet field that was absolutely covered, despite the poor weather. The person who posted the photo warned wildflower hunters that the field would not last very long. The farmer who owns the field is anxious to get this year’s crops planted, so the flowers will be cut down soon.

Now, I don’t know what is necessary for other wildflowers, but I’ve learned about the conditions necessary for the bluebonnets. First of all, the best outbreaks come when we have had good rainfall in October and in February. The seeds lie in the ground waiting for the right conditions. The rain in October brings the seed to life, but the early roots sleep through the winter. Then the plant is brought back to life in those February rains, popping through the surface in late February and March. Some seeds might be strong enough to go through the process without the rain, but when they bloom they are smaller and less hearty. The rest of the seeds just lie in the ground, waiting for the right conditions.

For the seeds to lie in the ground, however, it is necessary for those plants to be allowed to go to seed. As the petals of the bluebonnet fade, seed pods grow out of the stem. Those pods eventually break open and drop the seeds into the field, where they lie for a year or longer. If the flowers are picked or cut before the right time, there will be no flowers in that field the next year. I suppose the farmer is anxious to reclaim his field, but it is sad to think that all those bluebonnets will not replenish the earth because the farmer plans to cut them down too early.

Of course, around our own house we try to keep the wildflowers at bay. Unfortunately, on a neatly manicured lawn, a wildflower is little more than a weed. Not that our lawn is that nice or that we have lovely bluebonnets covering it. Most of our ‘wildflowers’ are really weeds. No matter how hard we try, we can’t seem to get rid of them. Seeds from less concerned neighbor’s yards and the overgrown drainage ditch are dropped by the wind. It is hard to imagine how those plants could possibly grow, but while our grass is drying from the drought the weeds are thriving.

At this time of year we also look at our gardens, the beds where we specifically have planted flowers for color and beauty in our yard. It is hard to keep those beds beautiful: it takes daily water and regular weeding. We have tried different plants, done different things. This year we have filled most of the beds with a covering of mulch and weed block. We are going to add color with potted plants. Though they need to be watered daily in the heat of the summer, they take less water and work overall. We have done pots in the past, and they look lovely.

Since we live in such a temperate climate, sometimes the annuals we buy last for more than one year. We never experience that long freeze that completely kills the whole plant. We looked at the plants in our pots and it seemed as though they might come back. We decided to give them a few days, but we didn’t do anything to help the process. We didn’t give the plants water or trim out the old stems. A few days later it was obvious that the flowers were dead and needed to be replaced.

What does all this have to do with today’s scriptures? In the Old Testament and the Gospel lesson, we see God bringing people back to life. In Romans, Paul reminds us that our tendency is toward darkness, to turn away from God, to be dead in the flesh. We are, by nature, like those seeds that fall to the ground, but need something to bring us to life. The rain that falls is, as we’ve seen in our Lenten texts, the life giving water which is Christ. In Him, and by His grace, we have life.

The difference between us and the flowers is that God invites us to be a part of His work. Do we take advantage of our opportunities to bring life, or do we let it go until it is too late, like with our pots of flowers?

The story of Ezekiel’s vision is odd, but amazing at the same time. The imagery is something out of a horror film, and yet miraculous in the way God can take something that is so far beyond restoration and give it life. Those bones were dry; they were probably lying in the wilderness for a very long time. There was no hope for life. God asked, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel answered, “O Lord Jehovah, thou knowest.” Then God told Ezekiel to speak to the bones, to tell them, “O ye dry bones, hear the word of Jehovah.” As Ezekiel spoke, the bones came to life. The bones were covered with sinews and skin, then God breathed life into them. God did the work, but Ezekiel became part of the process by speaking God’s word to the dead bones.

We are given the faith to take God’s promises to others, so that they might experience the reality of hope. God is faithful and He is life-giving. Though this story is a vision, not an historical event, we see in the vision something that is true for so many people: they are without hope. This vision was given for the people of Israel who were exiled in Babylon. They were a people who had lost hope. They were defeated, oppressed and far from the temple and their God. They were dead, not in flesh but in spirit. God asked if life could be restored. Ezekiel responded that only God could know. Only God can bring life to the dead.

The story from the Gospel lesson is a little different. Instead of a valley full of bones, the dead body was one man. Instead of being dried bones, Lazarus was rotting in a tomb. Instead of being a vision, it was an historical event. Jesus was there. He spoke the words. Lazarus was raised. The other difference is that no one helped bring Lazarus to life. But it is a story of hope and trust. And in the beginning, the people had lost hope.

Lazarus, Mary and Martha were friends of Jesus. I imagine they spent many hours hosting Jesus in between His journeys. They offered a home, a place to rest, the comforts of family and friendships. While Jesus was away from His friends, traveling near where John had baptized in the Jordan, Lazarus became sick. A messenger was sent to Jesus to tell him about Lazarus. His sisters hoped that Jesus would heal him. Jesus did not leave immediately, telling the messenger that the illness would not end in death. A few days later, Jesus told the disciples that they must go to Lazarus. They didn’t understand why Jesus would risk going back to Jerusalem when the leaders were plotting His death.

Despite Jesus’ promise that Lazarus would not die, he died, but this was so that God would be glorified. He told the disciples, “And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent ye may believe; nevertheless let us go unto him.” Why would Jesus allow Lazarus to die? Why would He allow His good friends to suffer the pain of grief for even a few days? By the time Jesus arrived, Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days, well beyond the possibility of physical resurrection. The Jews believed that the soul departed the body on the third day. There was no Lazarus left to resurrect. The sisters said to Jesus, “If only you had been here!” They still had hope in the spiritual, but they wanted their brother in flesh and blood.

Jesus waited so that we would see that there is hope, even when there seems to be no reason to hope.

Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth on me, though he die, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth on me shall never die. Believest thou this?” In response, Martha offered a confession of faith in Jesus. “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” As simplistic as this may sound, that is all that is needed to see new life come out of death. Though Martha does not do anything to help Jesus bring Lazarus back to life, she joins in the work of God in her confession. She trusted that God could do it, and God did.

Our hope is found in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Without Him we are nothing more than dead bones in a valley or dead men in the tomb. Without Him we have no hope. All too often, however, we don’t recognize our own death. We don’t see how we are being like the Pharisees by our attitudes toward others. We do not see that we are relying on our own righteousness. We don’t live as God has called us to live, trusting in Him or speaking His Word into the lives of others.

Paul reminds us that when we keep our mind on our flesh we are dead, but when we live in the Spirit we will know real life and peace. In Christ we are no longer dead. Paul writes, “But ye are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you. But if any man hath not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the spirit is life because of righteousness.”

I was surprised when I went out wildflower hunting because every report said that there would be no bluebonnets this year. I visited one field that I have visited last year, and I think there were more. Though the flowers are definitely smaller and sparser, there are plenty of flowers to enjoy this year. I know some people who weren’t going to go wildflower hunting because the word they heard was hopeless. How often do we ignore the opportunities we have to speak the life-giving word of Christ into someone’s life because we think that there is no hope?

But we don’t always know exactly what will happen: there is always hope when we trust in God. He can bring life to dry bones. He can raise the dead out of their tombs. He can make bluebonnets bloom in the spring, even if there is no rain. He can even fill a field with bluebonnets that have been cut down before their time. So, when it seems hopeless, we are called to trust in God. We are encouraged to join the psalmist in a cry of faith. “I wait for Jehovah, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope.” We are invited to speak God’s grace to the dry bones. Will we ignore the opportunities or join as His partners in the life-giving work of forgiveness in this world?

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