Texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14, John 11: 1-6, 17-22, 38-44
2 April 2017 in English at Tainan International Community Church
Since God is livelier than we are deadly, it’s time for us to choose God’s side.
Longer ago than I would care to remember (I was 12 or 13 years old at the time) I was invited to a party at a friend’s house. There were snacks, music, dancing and games. One of the games required a person who did NOT know what was going on to lie on the floor and be covered up to his neck with a blanket. He was then told, “you have to take something off before you can rejoin this group.” The fun was to see how many pieces of clothing a person would remove and throw out before stopping, and then being told that the thing that had to be taken off had always been “the blanket.” When the game began, I was sad that I hadn’t been picked to be the center of attention (I certainly didn’t know what was going on). By the time it ended I was very glad not to have been picked.
Religions that ask people to “convert” (Islam, Judaism, Christianity, even Buddhism when someone enters a monastery or convent) often demand that “converts” to give something up on the way to the new faith. The “old life” is exchanged for the “new.” A British evangelist who lived in Taiwan decades ago once told me about his conversion to Christianity while serving on a British naval ship in the second world war. Because of how HE had come to faith, he believed that the best way to persuade someone to believe in Jesus was to first get them to be aware of, and sorry for, their sin, then tell them how they could be saved by believing in Jesus. One problem with this method is that it begins with the BAD news “you are a sinner” and only after a person feels bad about that can he or she be shown the way out, which is in Jesus. Because most of us stop listening as soon as someone starts talking about sin, it doesn’t draw many people.
Today we’re going to look at a couple of Bible stories, both of which we’ve just read, from the point of view that we’re not being called “INTO” something new (faith in Christ) as being called “OUT OF” something very human, a preference for death.
We didn’t read all 44 verses of the assigned Gospel text for today, 19 were enough. Most of the rest of them weren’t about Lazarus, anyway, and it’s him we want to look at.
He is described as Jesus’ “dear friend” (v3) and is listed with “Martha and her sister” as a person whom Jesus loved. (v5). Nothing written in the verses we read, or in the ones we didn’t read, says anything about Lazarus being sinful, or of his being aware of his sin, or of his being sorry about his sin. Then, in verses we didn’t read, Lazarus died. Other characters in the story, even Jesus himself, used “nice language” to talk around death (“Sleep” is mentioned in vv 11, 12 and 13). This was so confusing that Jesus had to speak plainly and tell his friends “Lazarus is dead”(v14). But it was too late. The delay between hearing the news (v3) and Jesus arrival at Mary and Martha’s home was several days. The body had already been in the tomb for 4 of them. That’s rather dead.
All through the chapter there were many opportunities to connect his death with sin, either someone else’s or his own. This is a common thing among good religious people like Jesus, his disciples, Lazarus, his sisters, and US. But there’s no mention of sin or connection to sin at all. For whatever reason that Lazarus came out of his grave tomb (v44) saved from death, it wasn’t because while he was in there there he “repented of his sins and accepted Jesus Christ into his heart as his personal Lord and Savior”. Whatever it was that had Lazarus dead in a tomb (and, apparently it wasn’t sin), Jesus called him out, and he came. God is livelier than we are deathly. It’s time to be on God’s side. It’s time to “come out of there” and live.
The idea that we can avoid death, or come back from death, is not uncommon in religions. Right there in the story Martha told Jesus that she believed he could do something about her dead brother, if not immediately, then in “the resurrection”. Bringing people back from death is a common enough part of stories in both the Old and the New Testaments of the bible. Elisha did it, Jesus did it, Peter did it. Part of the “deal” we’re offered through faith in Christ is “eternal life”, and during the years that the New Testament was being written some people expected Jesus’ return to make all things right to be so near that they didn’t expect to ever see death themselves. But death surrounds us.
The Valley of Dry Bones
The stuff we read from the Old Testament this afternoon never happened. It even says so right in the first line, “I felt the powerful presence of the Lord, and his spirit took me and set me down in a valley where the ground was covered with bones.” This prophet had a dream or a vision. Let’s not doubt that. Though there was never a real happening of bones coming together in a valley somewhere, the metaphor and parable are powerful lessons for us in our own “here and now.”
Like the prophet looked on the situation of his nation and saw “a valley of dry bones”, so dry that there was no life in them at all, we need, from time to time, to look at the situations of our own lives. It’s likely that there have been, there are, or there will be times in our own lives when a valley of dry bones is not a bad way to see things.
In his vision, the prophet understood the bones to be his people. In the vision he saw them dead and scattered, incapable of being a “people” ever again. But under the direction of the Lord he prophesied to them, he gave them orders about how things were to be, and they got organized. No longer scattered dry bones, but a bunch of dead bodies. (Not much better.) Then, again by God’s command, the prophet turned to “the wind” and told IT how things were to be, and life came into the bodies.
Like the parables that Jesus told to the people who came to listen to him, this vision was told to a people who needed some simple and powerful images in their lives. They were discouraged and needed hope. Life was hard and they were pretty well settled into the mindset of “life is hard.” Regarding that mindset, they needed to be told to “come out of there.”
Remember, God is livelier than we are deathly.
Sometimes it seems that the occupation of some humans is to deal out death, either by air strikes killing people who are NOT fighting a war (as recently in Mosul, Iraq) or by drone strikes (as recently in Yemen) or by traffic accidents (as on the roads in any country). But there are many kinds of death, some of which leave a body living and a person functioning in society. NO, I’m NOT talking about Zombies.
Though In the Midst of Life we Be, Death Surrounds Us.
Medical science in the first world has advanced to the point where many conditions that would have caused a child to die only 100 years ago are treatable, so kids live on. In the third world, childhood death remains common, so there’s a long way to go.
But for we who have survived childhood, living on to whatever age we’ve already attained, and hopefully for many many years to come, there are other situations which the Bible stories we read today can be applied. There are other tombs and valleys from which we need to be called out, or re-organized, or “re-spirited”.
Graduate students generally have to write a thesis of some sort, right? And if one is writing a thesis, there’s usually an adivsor somewhere in the picture. From time to time between the thesis “idea” and the finished thesis, the student meets with the advisor for encouragement and guidance. It’s been known for students to get off track, to follow some idea that the advisor, who is supposed to have knowledge and experience, knows will go nowhere. Sometimes a student can get very enthusiastic about this “new idea”, and need to be called to “come out of there” because you’re headed for a valley of dry bones, or a tomb.
Parents in Taiwan are often very suspicious of the friends their children make at school. It’s probably true around the world, but you hear it more here, that children should not enter into friendship with “bad” people. Parents naturally worry about many things related to their children, things that may never happen and often never have a shadow of happening, but that doesn’t stop parents from worrying. When I’ve personally gotten lost in those kinds of worries about my own children, I eventually realize that God has been shouting at me to, “come out of there” rather loudly and constantly, but once again, as is often the case, I’ve been deaf to the call.
There are seasons in life when the “romantic” life calls to us from somewhere deep inside our bodies and souls. Personal loneliness, sexual desire, the life of couples around us— these call to us. “Everybody else is in love, why aren’t I?” But when romances fail, and instead of a sigh of relief we ache from a broken heart…. It can be like we’ve been entombed, or our entire life is a valley of dry bones. There’s no promise here of “just trust in Jesus and all will be well.” Falling in love feels great, falling out of love is the pits. At these times, whether we want to or not, the voice of God calls us to the one who loves us unconditionally, and whose liveliness is stronger than our deathliness.
Spiritual or religious life, even for Christians, isn’t as “happy” as we might want people to think it may be. Even Mother Teresa of Calcutta, that wonderful little nun who served God so beautifully and inspired so many of us, had struggles. 10 years after she died, a collection of her private letters was published, in which she described that for at least 40 years she had felt abandoned by God. “I am told God lives in me,” she wrote in 1957, “and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”
She was living through what St. John of the Cross termed the “dark night of the soul.” All of us are confused in our desires and attachments. We seek first our own comfort, pleasure and will. On the way to spiritual maturity we must pass through our dark night or nights of the soul. To the person passing through this type of dark night, it feels like God has left them to deal with their cross on their own.
When we experience ourselves in those kinds of places spiritually it doesn’t feel good. In fact, it sucks. But we haven’t been abandoned and we’re not being punished. We’re being taught (not tested). At those times we need to be especially attentive, because God, like a prophet’s voice speaking to bones, or the savior standing outside the tomb, is calling, ”Come out of there.”
When the dead guy came out of the tomb, it wasn’t just him and Jesus there. Others were watching (we read about that in the way Jesus prayed). When it’s not us in the tomb being called out, we are the other ones standing around. Remember how in the story Jesus gave them orders? “Untie him and let him go.” Our job, sisters and brothers, is to be the people who untie others, who liberate others. While others go through their struggles, we stand with and by them, helping them through. When others come out, we help them get back into life. This is not just a matter of words, it’s a matter of loving caring support.
God’s liveliness is stronger than our deathliness. When we’re the ones whose lives seem like valleys of dry bones, we are to listen for that voice calling us out of the graves and depressions of our lives, out of our closets and prejudices. And to those of us who were not in the valley, in the grave, in the closet, God’s call to us is to stand with those who come out, welcoming them into our communities of love, and setting them free to live.
In the name of the father, and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN
(Credit Stimson Chapman at Our Sunday Visitor for insight into the dark night of the soul. https://www.osv.com/OSVNewsweekly/ByIssue/Article/TabId/735/ArtMID/13636/ArticleID/17512/Understanding-the-%E2%80%98dark-night-of-the-soul%E2%80%99-.aspx )