Sunday, 6 April 2014

God's power to bring life - Lent 5

Ezekiel 37: 1-14
John 11: 1-45

Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones has to be one of the weirdest stories in the Bible, I think. It always reminds me of Sunday afternoons in front of the TV. One of my favourites was Jason & the Argonauts, with stop frame animation by Ray Harryhausen in it. One of his most famous scenes was the skeleton fight. I’ve forgotten what Jason and his crew were trying to do, but somehow they end up in a battle with a vast army made up of skeletons that just leap up from the dust & start moving towards them.

That’s the sort of image I get when I hear of Ezekiel seeing a vast army, raised up by God, in the valley.
A strange story to spark the imagination.
But I think it’s got a lot to offer us, today.

I don’t know about you, but perhaps it’s because Easter is late this year and it feels like a long time since the last holiday, I’ve been feeling tired, and in need of refreshment.
Or maybe it’s because the bad news  - of war in Syria, and shootings in Afghanistan and the loss of the Malaysian plane seems relentless.
Or maybe it’s because Lent forces us to face up to our mortality and fear and we know we can’t pretend before God.. but I can really relate to those dry bones – scattered, useless, dessicated. Dry as dust, without the spark of life, best left in peace.

But Ezekiel is shown these bones not to make him shrug and say ‘yes, I feel like that’.
Ezekiel is shown this because the Lord wants his people to know that even though they feel scattered and worthless now, they will be brought back to their land & God will not abandon them.
God breathes new life into the bones, just as he will breathe new life into the people of Israel.

And not just walking bones, but bodies with sinews and muscles and the very breath of God which is life and hope and resurrection. God promises “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live”.

So if you’re feeling a bit fraught – or even a bit desperate this morning, hear the prophecy of Ezekiel.

We also heard the amazing story of the raising of Lazarus, another story of hope for new life. Actually we had to wait nearly to the end of the chapter to get to the raising of Lazarus. So what else do we hear?
Mary is introduced as the one “who later anointed the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair”. Lazarus, her brother, is sick and Jesus is sent a message telling him this. Jesus reassures "This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God's glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it."  - but much as he loves Mary & Lazarus & their sister Martha, he does not rush to prevent the natural course of events. So by the time Jesus gets to Bethany, Lazarus has been dead for 3 days.
Even though the laws of nature might bring us pain and suffering, Jesus shows that we are not abandoned by his love, he can change our ultimate destiny. So he arrives to change things.

First he meets Martha – because she has come out to meet him “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”. She can’t wait for Jesus to arrive – she has to rush out to meet him –
but she does so with trust in her heart, and Jesus promises ‘I am the resurrection and the life’. When we come to the Lord in a panic, full of what troubles us, the great pain of our heart, he promises us his peace and his healing. However breathless our request, whatever doubts assails us, his promise is sure – resurrection and life.

I must have heard that phrase hundreds if not thousands of times in my life – but only this week have I stopped to wonder why Jesus says ‘I am the resurrection and the life’. He could have just said ‘I am the resurrection’ – Lazarus will be resurrected – or ‘I am the life’ Lazarus will be brought back to life.

But Jesus wants Martha to trust that he will not only bring Lazarus back to life – only to later die again, but that through his grace Lazarus will live for ever. And that promise is for us – we can be resurrected – we can be picked up, given new energy, but more importantly we can receive life in Jesus – eternal life – a quality of life that is for now, but is also a promise of life forever, life that death cannot extinguish.

Then Jesus gets to the house and Mary, who sat at Jesus’ feet to listen while Martha was so busy, falls to Jesus’ feet again – this time asking for help, confident that Jesus is the one who could make a difference “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

And because we know the whole story, we know that Mary is right to believe in Jesus as the one who can help and heal. Jesus goes to the tomb, orders the stone to be rolled away, and commands Lazarus to rise from his grave.

Because we know the whole story, we know that Jesus himself will rise after 3 days, but no human hand will need to roll away the stone for him, and no human voice will call him back to life.

Mary shows us that we can trust Jesus to hear our prayers and to answer them, because he is the Lord of Life and Death.

Resurrection is God’s gift to those who need it most. New life, new power, new hope.
We know that this is what Ezekiel saw, we know it is what Jesus promised when he raised Lazarus, and we now it is how the Lent and Easter story ends.
When we look at our world and feel helpless, we need to turn to God, whose power can fill us with new life and new resolve.

So hear the word of the Lord – and receive strength for life.
Hear the word of the Lord – and get ready to celebrate the Easter joy of death overcome by new life.
Hear the word of the Lord – and rise up to eternal life, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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