Sunday, March 13, 2005

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

But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared. I wait for Jehovah, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope.

Our Gospel lesson for today was the straw that broke the camel’s 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 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.

They weren’t going to get that from Jesus. He came to transform lives, to restore the kingdom and to bring life into those who were dead. Though they were alive, Israel was 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 God’s 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.

What the leaders could not see is that they too lacked righteousness and that Jesus came to restore them into the bosom of their God. The signs of healing and grace were given so that they would see the Kingdom of Heaven and believe in Jesus. Lazarus died and was raised so that God would be glorified.

The prophet Ezekiel had a vision. He was in the middle of a valley of dry bones and the LORD asked him if the bones could live again. Ezekiel answered, “Only you can know.” The bones were representative of the people of Israel who were exiled in Babylon and their lost hope. They were defeated, oppressed and far from the Temple of their God. They were dead, not in flesh but in spirit. Only God could bring life to their bones.

I have never really liked the imagery of this story. It sounds like something out of a horror movie. There’s Ezekiel standing in the middle of a cemetery when suddenly the bones began to rattle, tendons grew on the bones and skin covered the muscles. Then God breathed life into them again, just as He had breathed life into Adam and Eve in the garden. What was dead came to life before Ezekiel’s eyes.

I don’t think the imagery of the raising of Lazarus is much more comfortable. He had been dead for four days, buried in a tomb and most likely already decomposing. Martha reminds Jesus that there would be a bad odor when He asked for the stone to be rolled away. I’m not sure any of us would like to experience either story first hand. Death is frightening and uncomfortable for us, but it is a surety. We do not know how to experience the raising of new life out of death.

Even in spiritual terms this is difficult for us to understand. 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 can’t imagine forgiveness for or 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 were deserving of their lot in life. They had no mercy or compassion for those who did not fit into their expectations for the blessed. The foreigner was despised, the tax collector rejected. We might not despise the same people or outcast the same sinners, but don’t we also lay judgment upon those who do not live up to our expectations? We condemn those with whom we do not agree and we cast aside those who do not do what we would have them do.

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. We do not see ourselves in need of mercy or forgiveness. Yet, when we live in this attitude of self-righteousness we are 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.

But 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 God’s 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.

When Jesus finally arrived at the tomb, days after He learned of the illness of His friend, Martha was grieved at His slowness. “Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.” Even when Jesus promised that Lazarus would live, she saw this as only a future, spiritual event. “I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” She did not expect that Jesus could bring him back to life. Lazarus had been dead for four days. According to ancient thought, the soul of a person would stay near the body for three days and then leave. After the third day there was no hope.

Jesus demonstrates that there is hope even when there is no reason to hope. Jesus tells 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 offers 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. When we are faced by enemies that surround us and threaten to defeat us in this world, we need only look to Christ to have hope. And that hope need not be only for us, but it is meant to be for all who cross our path – even our enemy. Knowing that Jesus can bring life out of death, we know too that He can transform the lives of the most wicked sinners. When things seems like they are out of control, we can live in the assurance of the hope that comes from faith.

When Martha left Jesus she told Mary He was there. She ran out to greet Him with the same protest. “Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.” Mary obviously knew that Jesus had the power to defeat illness, but she did not consider the possibility that He might do something even greater. When He saw her grief, He too wept. Those watching were divided about the meaning of His tears. One group said, “See how much He loved him!” The others said, “If he could heal others, why didn’t He come to heal Lazarus?”

Isn’t that the way we react to illness and death in our own lives? The Israelites in Babylon called out to God over and over again for salvation, until they no longer had hope. We do the same thing when we are facing difficulties. “God, why won’t you help me?” “Why don’t you hear my pleas?” We blame God for our difficulties without seeing the possibility of something even greater coming after we have gone through it.

When Martha reminded Jesus of the stench, He said, “Said I not unto thee, that, if thou believedst, thou shouldest see the glory of God?” Even with her confession of faith, Martha still doubted. Even after the resurrection, we too live with times of doubt and uncertainty. We don’t look beyond our pain and suffering to the resurrection that will come. Though ultimately the resurrection we will know is one of new life in heaven, eternal life in Christ. However, we go through resurrections throughout our lives – satisfaction after times of hunger, health after dis-ease, new friends after broken relationships.

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 today’s Psalm. “But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared. I wait for Jehovah, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope. My soul waiteth for the Lord More than watchmen wait for the morning; Yea, more than watchmen for the morning.”

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 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. “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.”

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 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 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.

Looking to Jesus means looking at hope, trusting in God’s 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. Thanks be to God.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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