Fifth Sunday in Lent
John 11:1-45 (46-53)
Jesus said to her, ĎDidnít I tell you that if you believed, you would see Godís glory?í
Have you ever been in a situation that seemed hopeless? You know there is something you should do, but you also know that it wonít do any good. For instance, parents know that it is impossible to reason with a toddler who is having a tantrum or a teenager who has decided to rebel. Iím still trying to figure out how we managed to survive those years!
Unfortunately, many people have decided that it is hopeless these days to have discussions with people on the opposite side of an issue. We know that we arenít going to convince anyone and that we arenít going to be convinced, especially since those discussions inevitably end up becoming personal with judgment and name calling the result. Many friendships have been broken over the past few years because they canít find a way to even talk about anything other than whatever issue is between them. It has not only become pointless to have the discussion, but also to speak to one another at all.
Sadly, most Christians have come to the belief that it is pointless to share the Gospel. I suppose some of it is the fear of being rejected, but also the worry of what others will think of them. We are expected to accept others just as they are; if we share the Gospel then we are deemed judgmental and intolerant. Weíd rather just live our faith quietly; after all we have been repeatedly told that faith is a private matter anyway. There are those who do not even think it is their place to raise up their children as Christians. ďThey can decide when they are grown.Ē
How will they know if we donít tell them?
God commanded Ezekiel to do something absolutely pointless. What good would it do to prophesy over a field full of dried bones? The people that were once those bones had been long dead. There was no chance that they would ever come back to life. There was no skin, muscle or organs. It is likely that wild animals had carted off at least a few of the bones. If the flesh was gone, so was the soul. How could one manís word change anything about that field?
Ezekiel knew that only God knew what could happen. ďLord Yahweh, you know.Ē So, when God commanded Ezekiel to speak to the bones, Ezekiel did so. Immediately the bones were brought back to life, with skin, muscle and organs. When the flesh was restored, God commanded Ezekiel to speak again and to command the wind to breathe upon those He had resurrected. Ezekiel spoke and they were filled with life. God was able to restore flesh and soul into dry bones.
This story is a miraculous witness to the work God can do in this world. He gave the prophet Ezekiel the words to speak so that the dead were raised to new life. This is what God does every day with His Word. Those who do not look to God or to Jesus as Savior are walking like dead men in this world; they are dead in their sin because they have not heard the saving words of forgiveness that comes from the blood of Christ. Godís Word will bring them to life again. By His Word, God puts His Spirit into their hearts so that they will have faith and hope in His promises.
How will they be restored if we donít speak Godís Word to them?
You canít get any more dead than those old dry bones that Ezekiel saw in that valley. They were old and dry. The story of Ezekielís 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. Only God knew if the bones could live; only God could give them life. God did the work, but Ezekiel became part of the process by speaking Godís word to the dead bones.
In the religious understanding of the Jews in Jesusí time, you couldnít get any more dead than Lazarus. See, they believed that the soul left the body after three days, so while there might be resurrection until that moment, there was no hope after. Once the soul was gone, the person was dead forever. The Gospel story is a little different from the story from Ezekiel. 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. Both stories speak about hope and trust. In Ezekiel, the valley of dry bones represented the people of Israel who no longer had hope because they no longer trusted in God. In the story of Lazarus, we see that Mary and Martha had lost hope. They trusted that Jesus would rush to the bedside of their brother. They probably even hoped that after Lazarus died, Jesus would be able to raise him until that third day. When Jesus delayed in coming, they lost hope. How could He wait so long when his beloved friend needed Him?
Jesus waited because God would be glorified by doing that which would seem pointless to the rest of us. The man born blind in last weekís story wasnít blind because he or his parents sinned. He was blind so that God would be glorified. The same is true with this weekís story. Lazarus died so that God would be glorified. We see in the story of the valley of dry bones that there is hope even when it seems hopeless. Ezekiel didnít say to God that it was impossible for the bones to live; he said that only God knew. While he might have thought the situation was hopeless, he trusted in God, and it is there we exhibit our hope. We donít have hope because we think we know what is going to happen or because we think we can make something happen. We have hope when we trust that God will make something happen.
We speak, even when it seems pointless, because God can do the impossible.
Megan Phelps-Roper was a member of Westboro Baptist Church. Her grandfather was a founder, and she attended rallies from a very early age, happily holding signs that condemned people to hell. The church never really grew very large, most of the members were family, but they gained an anti-church protest following. She became extremely vocal on Twitter. Megan often found that conversations with the detractors to be much like we see everywhere today, always leading to judgment and condemnation. This was true on both sides.
She found a few, however, that were willing to really converse. They listened. She learned to listen. Meanwhile, she was beginning to have doubts about some of the things her church was preaching. So, she listened even more; she continued to listen because she found a few souls who had not given up hope for her. They didnít think it was pointless to share Godís grace. She decided to leave the church and in the end married a man who had the patience and faith to keep talking even when it seemed like there was nothing that could change her mind.
Monica of Hippo was the mother of one of those impossible people, Augustine. He is remembered now as being one of the great early saints, but it took many, many years for him to turn to God. He loved life, and took after his cheating father for a time. He was lazy, had a long term affair which he broke off to marry the very young daughter of a wealthy family. He rebelled against his mother and the rules, having once stolen fruit not because he was hungry, but because it was not permitted. Monica had faith even though he refused to listen to her. She prayed for him, even though it seemed like a pointless habit. Eventually Augustine repented, and he not only believed, but he became a great man of God whose works are still read today. He laid a theological foundation for many other great men of God who followed, particularly those during the Reformation years.
Sometimes God calls us to do pointless things. We discover that when we are obedient, the command was not so pointless. We see that He is faithful. He is glorified by our faith and our willingness to speak to the dry bones.
Someone once jokingly suggested that the Gospel lessons during Lent get progressively longer to train the readers for the crucial but very long readings during Holy Week. The Palm Sunday reading is nearly two chapters of Matthew. On Good Friday we hear two chapters of John. They also help train the people in the congregation for hearing the texts. We easily get lost in our thoughts when we have to sit or stand and listen to such long readings, especially since these stories are so familiar. We believe we know every word, that weíve heard it all before. So, we stop listening. After the first verse or two, we think, ďI know what this passage says,Ē and turn our minds to other things.
The problem for a writer like me and all the pastors prayerfully planning their sermons for this week is that this text is filled with so many important lessons. This is a crucial moment for Jesus. It is a catalyst for what is to come. For the teaching pastor, there are a dozen details that could be expounded upon to help us better understand the time during which this happened and the people to whom it was happening. John writes well beyond the physical particulars of the story, so we could spend pages or hours discussing the spiritual dimensions of this story. We could look at the people and the relationships in this story, try to identify with their experiences and see God in our own pain and suffering. How do you take fifty-three verses of text and write a few hundred words or speak for a few minutes?
Our Gospel lesson for today was the straw that broke the camelís back, the final sign of Jesus that decided for the leaders that it was necessary for Jesus to die. Ironic that life for one man meant death for another. However, the Jews were concerned that Jesus was going to incite riots and upset the Romans. Though they were watching and waiting for the promised Messiah, the power Jesus demonstrated was beyond their control. They expected the Messiah to be one of them, but Jesus upset the status quo. Though the raising of Lazarus should have convinced them that He was the one for whom they were waiting, they knew that Jesus would not do their bidding. They were willing to ignore and reject Jesus for the sake of their future. They were comfortable in their positions and they would not accept a Messiah unless they could be assured of their own status in his kingdom. Jesus would not convince them otherwise; His actions from now on may have seemed pointless to those watching.
Thankfully, Jesus didnít think it was pointless.
Jesus came to restore the kingdom and to bring life into those who were dead. Though they were alive, the people of Israel were dead because they had grown far from God. They were more concerned about the rules than the One who gave them the Law. They were more interested in status and power than they were in compassion and mercy. They had interpreted and reinterpreted Godís Word to the point that it no longer meant what God intended and they made it a burden for the people. No one could live up to the expectations of the laws and too many were displaced, outcast and exiled for their lack of righteousness.
It is easy for us to look back at this story and see the failure of the Jewish people, but are we that much different? When we know someone who has been less than righteous, it is hard for us to imagine him or her forgiven, particularly when they have sinned against us personally. We canít imagine forgiveness for our enemy or new life for those we would rather see dead.
Yet, that is exactly the way the Jews were thinking in the days of Jesus. They considered the poor and the sick sinners who deserved their lot in life. They had no mercy or compassion for those who did not do as they expected. The foreigner was despised, the tax collector rejected. We might not despise the same people or outcast the same sinners, but donít we also lay judgment upon those who do not live up to our expectations? We condemn those who do not agree with us and we cast aside those who do not do what we would have them do. We wonít listen to those who have a different point of view.
Even now I imagine that many of us are thinking of ways we have been condemned and outcast. In our perspective it is always the other guy who lacks compassion and mercy. ďTheyĒ wonít listen, so why bother? We do not see ourselves in need of mercy or forgiveness. Yet, our own self-righteousness makes us no different than that valley of dry bones, no different than Lazarus decaying in the tomb, no different than the leaders of the temple willing to kill a man for the sake of their position and power. We are deader than dead because we have no hope for tomorrow.
We all sin. We donít treat our neighbors with love and respect. We get angry with our children and our spouses, gossip about others, take things that are not ours. We fall to the temptations of this world. We are greedy, lustful, abusive, self-centered. We want it all and we want it now. We look for help in all the wrong places. Sadly, we often do not even realize our sin. We recognize the biggies, especially in the lives of others. But when it comes to our own failure, we are blind. We think we are good enough. We are better than our neighbors, anyway, so we go on our way without turning. This way of life takes us on a path that will lead to more sin.
Even one wrong thought, word or deed against God or man is a sin and we are all guilty of something. None of us could stand before the holiness of God. But God is gracious and merciful. He forgives our iniquity. He not only grants forgiveness, he also forgets our sin. Washed by the blood of Christ, we are cleansed and made new and right before Him. As we live in this hope, we find ourselves walking in the light of Christ, covered by the unfailing love of God and reconciled to Him. When we wait for the Lord and watch for Him, we are less likely to fall into the temptations of this world. Though we may still fail in our daily walk of faith, He is near with His forgiveness for those who will see.
Just like the Israelites in Babylon and the sisters of Lazarus, God comes to us with a vision of what life will be like under His rule. He shows us new life brought by His Word and His Spirit. The dead bones in the valley can dance and sing His praises. By Godís power, Lazarus can walk out of his tomb to live another day. So, too, in faith we can live in hope and glorify God with our lives.
The only thing we have to get us through is our faith. Jesus says if we believe we will see the power of God. That power will bring life out of death. It is a matter of trusting the Lord to be faithful to His promises, to look to Him for salvation. It is this trust to which the psalmist is referring in todayís Psalm. ďBut there is forgiveness with you, therefore you are feared. I wait for Yahweh. My soul waits. I hope in his word. My soul longs for the Lord more than watchmen long for the morning; more than watchmen for the morning.Ē
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 donít recognize our own death. We donít 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 donít live as God has called us to live, full of mercy and compassion for those who are suffering, boldly speaking the Gospel message to those He will raise to new life.
Paul reminds us that when we live in this attitude we are dead, but when we live in the Spirit we will know real life and peace. In Christ we are no longer dead. ďBut you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if it is so that the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if any man doesnít have the Spirit of Christ, he is not his. If Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the spirit is alive because of righteousness.Ē
We are going to mess up. Even after Martha confessed her faith in Jesus, she still doubted what He could. It is that way with us every day. We second guess Godís work in the world. We question His mercy, we doubt His promises. As Martin Luther put it, we are ďsimul justus et peccatorĒ which means that we are simultaneously saints and sinners. However, in Christ we have been given the gift of His Spirit, which dwells in our hearts. As we are sanctified, daily growing in faith and in knowledge of the work God is doing in our lives as well as in the lives of others. While we may think someone is beyond hope today, we might see the amazing gift of God in their life tomorrow.
And because we have this hope, there is hope for others. It isnít pointless to speak Godís Word to the world because God can, and does, bring life out of death.Looking to Jesus means looking at hope, trusting in Godís promises to bring us through. He will bring life out of death according to His good and perfect Word. And though our bodies are riddled with sin and death, Christ gives us life to live for His glory, but taking His mercy and grace to all the world.
They may not listen when we proclaim Godís Word, but they canít hear if we donít even try. We speak, not expecting our words will bring life, but knowing that Godís Word can raise the dead. We donít always know exactly what will happen, but God knows. He can restore the flesh on dry bones and raise the dead out of their tombs. So, when it seems hopeless, we are called to trust in God. God can do the impossible and He will be glorified by our obedience. Are we willing to shine hope in a world that seems hopeless? Are we willing to share the Gospel even when it seems pointless?
A WORD FOR TODAY
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