Sunday, April 6, 2014

Fifth Sunday in Lent
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:1-11
John 11:1-45 (46-53)

There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.

It is bluebonnet season in Texas. Well, it is wildflower season, but the favorite for most wildflower hunters is the bluebonnet. It is the official Texas State flower, and it is delightful to see. The bluebonnet is a lupine in a stunning shade of blue, which is amazingly rare in flowers. Most flowers are red, pink, yellow, white or purple. Every year there are families who search to find the perfect field of bluebonnets to take pictures of their kids; it is a delightful tradition that makes wonderful memories.

Bluebonnets are rather fickle. The conditions must be perfect for there to be large numbers of the flowers. Interestingly, the best seasons occur after particularly cold and wet winters; as someone wrote, “The more miserable the winter, the more beautiful the spring.” They are annuals, which mean they go from seed to flower to seed in a year. It is vital that the plants we see in those beautiful blue fields are allowed to mature until the pods have opened and dropped the seed for future growth. Unfortunately, many people get impatient with the fields once the beautiful blue of the flower has disappeared. They mow the dying wildflowers too early, destroying the chance for future flowers.

Fortunately, bluebonnet seeds can also go dormant for a number of years and spring to life years later. The seeds dropped this year may not become bluebonnets until the next miserable winter prepares the seeds for a most beautiful spring. Isn’t it amazing how such beautiful life can come out of death? After all, that’s what happens, isn’t it? The plant dies, drops the seeds which lie lifeless in the ground until they eventually crack open as the new growth sprouts out of the ground. Death leads to new life.

You can’t get any more dead than those old dry bones that Ezekiel saw in that valley. They were old and dry. 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, and 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.

In the religious understanding of the Jews in Jesus time, you couldn’t 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?

In last week’s Midweek Oasis, we talked about how the Messiah was expected to accomplish four miracles. He was expected to heal leprosy, to cast out a mute demon and to heal a man blind from birth. The fourth miracle was raising a man who was dead for four days.

That’s why Jesus waited. The man born blind in last week’s story wasn’t blind because he or his parents sinned. He was blind so that God would be glorified. The same is true with this week’s 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 didn’t 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 don’t 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.

Mary and Martha were upset. Human beings are emotional beings. We laugh and cry, love and hate. We face fear, doubt, lust, loneliness and pain. We experience joy, excitement, certainty and courage. Emotions fulfill a purpose in our lives. In the garden, our bodies worked perfectly. Our bodies, souls and spirits worked in harmony. We were healthy, we were whole, and we were in a right relationship with our Father. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit the harmony was destroyed and everything was turned upside down. Our flesh took control and we no longer looked to God.

Mary and Martha were close to Jesus, and I’m certain that they believed in Him. Perhaps they even believed that He was the Messiah for whom they were waiting. Martha understood that there would be a future resurrection of the dead and that her brother would rise with them. She just didn’t understand completely what that meant. She believed, but she needed help with her unbelief. She, like all the other disciples, needed to see God in action in the most miraculous ways so that they would know, without a doubt, that Jesus was more than they thought and every bit what He claimed. It would never be enough for the Messiah to be a worldly king. He had to be the King.

Many of the Jews refused to listen to Jesus or believe what He said. They were set in their ways. They had opinions about the Messiah and what He would do. When Jesus came, He did not fit into the image they had created and they could not see God in the works He did. Some even claimed that Jesus must be from the devil. This caused division among the people: there were those who believed and those who did not believe. No matter how much Jesus spoke about the Kingdom of God, some people could just not get past their attitude about Jesus.

As we read through the Gospel narratives about the life of Jesus, it seems impossible to us that anyone could disbelieve in Jesus. His words hold so much authority and His actions came from one with power. The Pharisees saw the miracles and heard His preaching and yet they would not believe. They could not get over their own interpretation of the signs and prophecies. They knew Jesus threatened to turn their world upside down and they did not want anything to change. They refused to believe despite the proof and came up with many excuses to reject Jesus.

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. Lazarus became sick while Jesus was away, but He heard about the illness from a messenger. His sisters hoped that Jesus would heal him. Jesus did not leave immediately, telling the messenger that the illness would not end in death. It wasn’t safe for Jesus to go to Jerusalem because the religious leaders were already threatening Him. The disciples didn’t understand the risk when Jesus said they must go.

Despite Jesus’ promise that Lazarus would not die, he died 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? 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 everything seems hopeless.

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.” This amazingly simple confession is one of hope, it is the sprouting seed of new life that comes out of death. Martha trusted that God could make things right.

We are reminded by this story that Jesus is our friend; He is there for us in our times of need. However, He is also the Divine, the Son of God, and He knows the end of the story. We might think we need Him to be here at this moment, to heal at this time, to finish His work right now, but He sees beyond our immediacy. He knows the right time to come and He will be there. We will probably react like the sisters, complaining that if only He were there when we thought we needed Him, things would be different. We learn in this story, however, that God might have something even greater planned for us on the other side of our suffering. Trust Him. He is faithful.

He is willing to do whatever it takes to make us love Him, but we easily forget all that He has done. There are many reasons why this might happen. We get caught up in the cares of this world and forget that God will give us rest. When we are comfortable, we think we do not need God, so we forget that our success and prosperity comes from Him. We are easily distracted by the schemes of the devil or just with our daily living that we do not realize how near He is and how much He truly loves us. Once in awhile we wake up to the love and it is on those days we find ourselves truly rejoicing.

Life begins when we meet God, when He speaks our name and calls us out of the darkness of the tomb. Life begins when He puts life back into our old, dead, dried up bones. He lives in us and we live in Him. His kingdom flows out through our lives by His Spirit. Sometimes we forget our God. We forget what He has done and how much He loves us. Yet, God never forgets and He will continue to come to us in mercy and grace to make us fall in love with Him again. He dwells in our hearts and we can rest in the promise that we will be with Him for eternity because of the love of our Lord Jesus Christ

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, full of mercy and compassion for those who are suffering in this world.

Paul reminds us that we are dead when we rely on ourselves, but we live in because God’s Spirit dwells in us. We will know real life and peace in Christ because we are no longer dead. “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 heard a story on the news about a man who had been paroled from prison. He quickly returned to his old ways, breaking in to a house to rob the owners of its contents. He needed money for booze, but in the process of searching the home for goodies, he found a bottle of Crown Royal. He sat down to take a sip and the owners later came in to find this man passed out drunk on a chair. He was arrested and returned to prison. When we walk in the darkness it is very easy to slip and fall deeper and deeper into sin. The paroled man was just looking for enough cash to be able to go buy a case of beer or a bottle of cheap booze. When he found the Crown Royal, he no longer needed any cash.

We all sin. We do not always treat people with love or respect. We get angry with our children and our spouses, gossip about others, take things that are not ours. We fall to the temptations this world has to offer. We sin against God and our neighbor in our thoughts, words and deeds by what we do and what we fail to do. However, Christians have something that others do not have. We are forgiven and we walk in the light of our Lord Jesus Christ. We know by faith that we can turn to Him even when we fail.

The man on parole was looking for help in all the wrong places. First he thought stealing would help him get a new start on life. Then he thought drinking would help him through. However, he got caught in his sin and instead of a new beginning, he was sent back into the life of prison, bound by the consequences of his sin. The correctional facility released him on parole with the expectation that he would stop leading a life of crime; he was given a new chance on life. When he failed, his past failures were recalled and he was punished more severely for his crime.

However, our life in Christ is different. When we fail and turn to God for forgiveness, He not only grants that forgiveness for the sake of our Lord Jesus, but He also forgets our sin. We don’t have a record or else we would become buried in the prison of our sinful nature. As we live in this hope, we find ourselves walking in the light of Christ, covered by the unfailing love of God, reconciled to Him by His own blood.

We are going to mess up. Martha confessed her faith in Jesus, but still wondered what He could do. It is that way with us every day. We second guess God’s work in the world. We question His mercy, we doubt His promises. As Martin Luther put it, we are “simul justus et peccator” which means that we are simultaneously saints and sinners. However, in Christ we have been given His Spirit which dwells in our hearts. In Christ there is no more condemnation, only life. We may think things are hopeless, but when we trust in God we will see Him as He brings life out of death.

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