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Sermons

More Than Ezekiel Dreamed

March 21, 1999, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Fifth Sunday in Lent
The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson
Pastor

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45;

The toe bone connected to the foot bone, the foot bone connected to the ankle bone, the ankle bone connected to the leg bone . . . Now hear the word of the Lord!” This well known African-American spiritual about Ezekiel’s dream knows that this is about more than reconnecting skeletons or reviving dead bodies. This is about God’s promise to us all, and when all is said and done, it is more than Ezekiel ever dreamed.

The nation Israel was dead. Taken into exile in Babylonia, their temple and Jerusalem in ruins, they were like that valley scattered with dry bones. The question on everyone’s lips was the question God asks Ezekiel: “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel does not answer the Lord. He simply turns the question back on God: “O Lord God, you know.”1 It is a sign of even his despair, a statement of the obvious, somewhat like our saying “God knows – can things get any worse?” There is no future.

It's time for a little prophetic preaching! Ezekiel is commanded to speak God’s word to the bones. That is what prophetic preaching is -- speaking God’s word to people who have lost hope, to people who have lost their way, to people who have forgotten who they are, to a people who have forgotten whose they are, a people who have forgotten how to live, to a people dried up, without hope, cut off completely, to a people saying “God knows -- can things get any worse?2 It is always prophesying -- speaking God’s Word. It is not an inspirational pep-talk, nor the telling of nostalgic stories, it is speaking God’s Word in a situation where it has never been heard or has long been forgotten. It happens in pulpits. But it also happens in hospital rooms, in conversations after worship services, and in pastors’ studies. It happens in Session meetings and in capital campaign planning sessions. And always, in the speaking that Word, God’s power is unleashed.

When God’s Word is spoken, God’s power is present to do God’s work. This is why the Reformed Tradition has always understood the Preaching of the Word and one of three marks of the authentic church. In the speaking of that Word, God is present to address us, support us, encourage us, change us, and lead us into God’s future. That Word even creates the future for us. Ezekiel preaches his head off, just as God tells him to do, and sure enough – “The toe bone connects to the foot bone, the foot bone connects to the ankle bone, the ankle bone connects to the leg bone.” They have heard the Word of the Lord!

Suddenly there is a rattling in that valley of death. That too always accompanies prophetic preaching – a rattling – as it shakes things up. Prophetic preaching always shakes things up. Why? Because it gives us God’s Word, rather than the word we wanted to hear. Yes, we would like to hear words of comfort or words that tell us things will work out the way we would like, words which tell us God will intervene for us to make things come out the way we would like, that we need not do a thing to change the way we are living. Unfortunately, such a word usually has far too much self-interest in it to be God’s Word. It is more our word than God’s, and has no power to change us. God’s Word frequently comes with a jolt. It rattles us, causes us to pay attention, often suggesting things that you and I consider impossible, or, things we would rather not hear.

In this case, bone joins bone, then sinews, muscle and skin, as things come together in graphic imagery which will forevermore grasp the imagination of people. But, you know what? Those bones are still dead. There is still no life in them. You see, reversing the metabolic process, reconstructing bone upon bone and flesh upon flesh is not enough to create life. And now another point to the story emerges: putting things back together the way they were is not enough.

How often do you and I go to God in a situation of death, asking God to put things back together the way they were? That is always the first prayer of the person going through loss, whether of a loved one, one’s health or one’s professional life. That is always the first plea. Please Lord, let things be what they were. But that is not possible. We are no longer who we were; we can’t go back. Putting things back together the way they were is simply living in the past – which of course, is not living at all. That is never good enough. The past is, after all, how we got to the present in the first place. What we need is a future.

Their past had been put together, but those bones were dead. Something is still missing – God’s Spirit. Life requires God’s Spirit.3 Without God’s Spirit they will not live. It is the Spirit who gives life, who is, in the word of the creed, “the Lord and giver of life.” You remember, it was not until God leaned over that mud-clay form by the river bank and breathed God’s own breath into it that the form came to life and became human.4 Have the people of Israel forgotten what the Spirit of God can do? “Prophesy to the breath” says God. As Ezekiel does so, breath comes into the lifeless bodies. God stands them up upon their feet. A vast multitude emerges out of that valley, and lives. God is taking them into a new future. What they thought impossible or beyond their own ability and power, has now been given to them. God is taking them into the future. But that is not all. There is one more promise.

God promises to open their graves and place his spirit within them.5 It is not just a matter of being alive. It is a matter of living. What is the ancient Oriental blessing? “May you live every day of your life!” Think about that. Are you living every day of your life, or simply rattling around, like a lifeless bag of bones? The difference is nothing less than God’s Spirit, promised in baptism, and experienced by those who listen for and attend to God’s Word. As Paul writes to the Romans, “... he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”6 The life God gives is about more than existing, it is living with the taste of eternity in your mouth. Jesus called it “eternal life,” life born from above, life without thirst, life with vision to see things as they really are, life that is not stopped at the grave. “I have spoken,” says the Lord, “and I will do it!” And he did. In 539 B.C. the exile was over and the people returned to Jerusalem to rebuild their Temple and their lives. God kept the promise, but did so beyond Ezekiel's wildest dream.

By Jesus’s day, Ezekiel’s vividly graphic language had caused great expectation as well as religious debate. The conservative and liberal parties within Judaism disagreed over whether or not there was such a thing as resurrection and life after death. Jesus appears on that scene and re-enacts the story of Ezekiel as he raises Lazarus from the dead. John’s gospel gives us one more sign of who Jesus is – the one who has power to give life to those who believe in him. He is the resurrection and the life.

The crowd of mourners watched as Jesus arrived with his friends. Knowing who he was, and remembering that he had healed the man born blind, they wondered, even as Mary and Martha wondered, why he had not come sooner to prevent this death. But once again, God was using a moment of adversity to reveal not only God’s power and promise, but who it really is who walks among them in his Son. As always, in John’s gospel, the people don’t get it. His disciples think Lazarus only asleep, Martha and Mary think his power for healing is limited only to life before death, and the people who see him weep mistake it as sorrow over the loss of Lazarus. To be sure, Jesus loved Lazarus, and was filled with sadness and sorrow over what had taken place. But his weeping -- his crying out that we see in this scene -- is less about his love for Lazarus than his frustration at how little the people know or believe. Where the crowd of mourners take up their funerial weeping, Jesus cries out.7 His tears are less for Lazarus, than for the people around him, for Mary and Martha or for us. Here are a people who know Ezekiel’s prophecy, here are a people who know the promise that God will open their graves and bring them to life, but they do not get it, they do not live like it.

As if filled with a holy anger Jesus approached the tomb, demanding that the stone be taken away. Meeting resistence, his determination is not to be thwarted – these people are going to see the glory of God whether they believe or not! They are going to see the presence of God and God’s power at work in life’s greatest dead-end – the stench of death. After a brief conversation with his Father Jesus prophecies to dead bones, he commands Lazarus to come out, and he does.

But Lazarus is still wrapped in the strips of cloth in which dead bodies were buried. This is not the end of the miracle. One would think that would be enough, but it is not. Jesus preaches on: “Unbind him, let him go.” Set him free. This miracle is about more than power to give us life beyond death.

This is about his power to give us life now. “Unbind him, let him go.” Jesus has come not only to give us life, but to unbind us, to set us free. The Christian life is not about keeping rules so that if we break them God will stop loving us . There is nothing in life or in death that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.8 Nor is the Christian life about believing this or that about Jesus, so that if you and I don’t get our theology correct we are hell-bound. We are not saved by what we believe about Jesus. We are saved by living in a daily relationship with him where he is the source of our life, the focus of our attention, the one upon whom we depend for life, the one we seek to follow and serve. Out of that kind of living God’s Spirit engages us, revives us, sets us on our feet, and heads us into the future with a life that is free. Jesus called it both abundant and eternal. It has power for living now, and its power is such that not even death can stop it.

Where then do you find yourself praying, “O God, if only things could be like they were”? Where are the places that hope is gone for you, where you feel scattered, dried up or as good as dead? Where are you bound by strips of embalming cloth or living in a tomb? Where is life at a dead end for you? God has kept the promise in ways that old Ezekiel could never even dream.

As he did that afternoon in Bethany, Jesus again speaks. Calling you by name he says, “Come out.” He wants not only to set you free, but to give you life that not even death can stop. And he wants to accompany you in that life, live it with you until it turns into eternity.

LET US PRAY:

  1. Ezekiel 37:3b
  2. Ezekiel 37:11b
  3. Thomas Dozeman; Soards, Dozeman and McCabe, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Lent/Easter, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1992), p. 75.
  4. Genesis
  5. Ezekiel 37:13-14
  6. Romans 8:11
  7. The former word is klaio, a formal funeral behavior, whereas Jesus “cries” dakryo, a spontaneous bursting into tears. Cf. Marion Soards, op cit., page 80.
  8. Romans 8:39

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