Sunday, 9 March 2008

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones!

1. Introduction
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.
Ezekiel connected dem dry bones.
Oh hear the word of the Lord!

Forgive me for my poor singing, but after hearing the words of Ezekiel’s stirring vision in our OT reading, I couldn’t resist it!

Both readings today are about resurrection: the renewal of life in someone or something that to all appearances is dead. Ezekiel (37:1-14) prophesies the resurrection of the House of Israel, at a time of desolation and exile. And John (11:1-45) tells us the charming story of the raising of Lazarus.

So today I’m going to examine these readings more closely and ponder the meaning of resurrection. What a fine subject resurrection is for a fine spring day, when all about us seeds and plants and trees and lambs and calves are bounding into new life in our gardens and fields!.

2. So firstly, what about Ezekiel’s dry bones?

Ezekiel is writing in Babylon around 580BC, shortly after Nebuchadnezzar’s armies had laid waste to Jerusalem and the Temple. The Israelite leaders and many of the people had been deported into exile by the banks of the Euphrates, close to Babylon in what is now modern Iraq. Babylon may well have been the greatest city in the world at that time, with a population estimated at about 200,000. There are disturbing reports that when the American army invaded Iraq, they bulldozed and levelled part of the ruins of this great city to build a base for tanks. The invading armies of today are no less brutal and destructive than those of antiquity!

Ezekiel conjures up such a vivid picture, doesn’t he? The unburied corpses of the Israelites killed in the Babylonian invasions have weathered to parched, dislocated and scattered bones. We are told they represent the whole people of Israel, the exiles crushed by despair, and the dislocated and disoriented Israelites left behind, not just the dead. And Ezekiel tells this devastated people that their God YHWH will not let them down; he will open their very graves, he will give them life, and he will restore them to their land.

Many people have seen this passage as a promise of a literal resurrection of the dead, but I think that is a mistake. I feel sure we should see it as a metaphor, a metaphor carefully crafted by Ezekiel to give a devastated nation hope, hope that one day they will be restored to their land. His words, and those of other prophets, resonated with the people of Israel, and helped to hold them together, until eventually the exiles were able to return to Jerusalem, 50 years later, when Babylon in turn was captured by Cyrus the Persian. The ancient people of Israel did indeed experience a resurrection to new life!

These words resonated once again with the devastated Jewish people of Europe, emerging from the Nazi extermination camps after the Holocaust, the Shoah in Hebrew, as they created their modern state of Israel in Ezekiel’s ancient homeland. A heart-breaking consequence has been the devastation of the Palestinian people they displaced. The creation of the modern state of Israel brought exile and dispossession to some 750,000 Palestinians, which they call the Nakba, or Catastrophe in Arabic. As we walk with Jesus on the road to Jerusalem and the cross this Lent, let us pray for an end to the evil cycle of hatred and bloodshed there, for reconciliation with peace and justice, for a resurrection to new life for all in the Holy Land.

The black slaves transported to America were another devastated people. The plight of the Israelites in exile and Ezekiel’s message of hope resonated with them too, inspiring the fine Negro spirituals and Gospel music which are part of our common inheritance. Thank God that Christian leaders like Martin Luther King were there to harness their hope. I quote from his great speech to the March on Washington in 1963:

Let freedom ring. And when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics—will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
A call for resurrection to new life, if ever I heard one!

3. Now let’s turn to John’s Gospel and the raising of Lazarus.

It’s a rather long passage, and it’s a puzzling story, but the Evangelist fills it with so much incidental detail that the scenes really come to life.

One lovely thing that shines out is how much Jesus loved Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus.
  • Luke also tells us about Martha and Mary, but not Lazarus. If you remember, Mary sat at Jesus’s feet and listened to him talk, leaving Martha to do all the housework. And when Martha complained, Jesus gently chided her for being so distracted by mundane tasks.
  • How delightful it must have been for Jesus to visit these close friends, to relax, to be himself, and to drink in the warmth and love of their home. As a wandering teacher Jesus had no home of his own. I feel sure that he must have needed that sort of refreshment, just as much as we do.
  • But this visit was different. Lazarus was dead. Both Martha and Mary separately said to him ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died’. How guilty Jesus must have felt for arriving late! When he saw Mary weeping, Jesus too broke down and wept. Our translation has it that he was ‘deeply moved’, but this really isn’t strong enough at all. The Greek word used by John is also used of a horse snorting. The meaning must be that Jesus’s heart was so wrung by anguish that he groaned out loud.
  • And then Jesus did what he had come to do: he called Lazarus out from the grave, back from the dead.

But there are a number of things that puzzle me about John’s story:

  • Firstly, some of the words he puts in Jesus’s mouth seem rather out of character to me. Think for a moment about his declaration that Lazarus’s illness ‘is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it’. What a cold way to look at a friends suffering! Could Jesus really have said that? John's purpose in writing his Gospel was to convert Greek speaking Jews who were not believers. Is it possible this lead him to colour his story?
  • Secondly, John makes it clear that the raising of Lazarus is the immediate reason why the Jewish authorities decided to do away with Jesus, leading directly to his crucifixion. Yet the other three Gospels say absolutely nothing about it, nothing at all! We know that at least one of the apostles was there, Thomas. So how could the other Gospel writers not have heard of and written about such an important miracle, with such momentous results, if John’s account is correct? Is it?
  • And then there’s the elephant in the room. How can we explain satisfactorily - scientifically - a four day old, stinking corpse rising up and walking? A person who has apparently just died might be woken from a coma. But one that has started to decompose?

There may be problems with John’s story. Some of us will believe that it all happened just as John sets down that it did. Others will be much less certain. And we can never know for sure what exactly happened so long ago. But does it really matter whether or not Jesus literally raised a corpse to life in Bethany in AD30?

4. What really matters, I think, is the spiritual message.

That message is that that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Perhaps John has crafted the whole story around that message.

Jesus said to Martha ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die’.

One thing is clear – Jesus is not speaking of physical life. We all know that Christians experience physical death just like everyone else.

But if we believe in Jesus Christ, if we accept everything he teaches us about his loving Father God as absolutely true, and stake our lives upon it, then we enter into a new relationship with God, and we enter into a new relationship with life.

  • We become absolutely sure of God’s love. We become absolutely sure that above all he is a redeeming God – if sin is death, forgiveness is resurrection. And the fear of death vanishes, because death means nothing more than a merging with the great lover of souls.
  • With faith in Jesus Christ, our life becomes a new thing, a strong thing, such a lovely thing, that we cannot imagine it ending incomplete.

‘Do you believe this?’ said Jesus. ‘Yes, Lord’ said Martha, ‘I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world’.

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