Ezekiel 37.1-14: John 11.1-45
What an interesting pairing. Our Old Testament reading from Ezekiel 37 and our Gospel reading, the story of the raising of Lazarus. Dry bones in the valley, a dead man in a tomb. The readings seem so very different. Ezekiel sees his vision, the more you try to picture it the more surreal the vision becomes. The Gospel story seems positively ‘homely’ in comparison: friendship, love, compassion…but also death, a tomb, the graphic detail of the ‘stench’, and then a man who was dead emerging shrouded in his grave clothes from the tomb: both miraculous and horrific.
Let’s compare them. Lazarus is ill. Lazarus, Jesus’ friend, dies. It’s a personal story. It’s a story that we know because we have experienced it ourselves. Someone perhaps we have loved has died and we have all the feelings and emotions to hand to feed our reading of what is going on in this gospel account. Mary and Martha are people of faith. Mary and Martha, used to hosting Jesus in the home, know something of who He is. They both say to Jesus ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ They believe not only that he is their friend and teacher but that he is a ‘healer’ of some kind. His touch would heal Lazarus and restore him to health. But Jesus is absent. He does not heal his friend. There is a death. There is deep grief and, as was the custom, prayers (no doubt) and a burial. One man. One death.
In Ezekiel the bones in the vision are those of not just one man but of the whole nation. These dried bones are the people of Israel. Except they are not. They are an image, a picture, a metaphor or simile for the real live people of Israel. In the dream the bones join together and are enfleshed. In reality the people are able to say to God in verse 11 ‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost and we are cut off completely.’ So what is going on? Where are these people whose lives are a ‘living death’, who believe themselves to be cut off from God, from life itself?
Israel is in exile. There has been death. There has been warfare. There has been famine. Israel’s cities were placed under siege by Babylonian armies who had themselves followed in the wake of Assyrian conquerors. We are in the 590’s BC and those who had survived the destruction of Jerusalem are enslaved. This is a figurative ‘death’ but it is no less real. Whilst we have not experienced this (thank God) there are thousands upon thousands across the world today who have. On the radio earlier this week a man was interviewed who had fled the war in Syria. He was an optician. He ran a successful business, lived in a comfortable house, cared for his family, his wife, children and grandchildren. And then barrel bombs dropped from helicopters into cities that opposed Bashar el Assad and it was no longer safe. He left everything. Where did he end up. In Turkey – a place that holds almost 4million refugees, mostly from Syria. There he built up another business. There he began to put down roots: he is skilled, he is able, courageous and persistent…and then the earthquake struck. This man knows something of the cry of the exile: ‘our hope is lost, we are cut off.’ No, he is not a slave (as the Israelites were) but where is his life? What would it be to ‘go home’ and be safe?
A real death, a living death, and a question ‘What will God do?’ This is only a question for people of faith and it is the hardest of questions. If your world view is that ‘it is what it is’, nothing can change, fatalism writ large then there is no room for God, no difficult question to ask, just suffering to endure (or ignore, giving thanks that it’s not your suffering). This is the way of the world, don’t imagine that it is otherwise.
But our faith won’t allow us this option. The people of Israel believed themselves to be bound by a covenant they had made with God at the time of Moses. They had broken that covenant repeatedly. They frequently forgot the covenant, ignored it, lived without it but it would not let them go. Why? Because the other party to the covenant (God) would not let them go. And that’s what we see in our Old Testament passage. As far as Ezekiel is concerned the people are in exile because of their faithlessness, their choosing to abandon the covenant with God. BUT GOD remains faithful to his side of the agreement. How? The prophetic word is spoken ‘I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people: and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.’ He will not let His people disappear from the earth. He calls them back into life. He gifts them His Spirit, He restores them to the land He promised to their ancestors. Why does He do this? Because He cannot break His word. New life here is a metaphor isn’t it? It’s a metaphor for national renewal. Resurrection is, for Israel, ‘coming home’. Some did. I don’t mean in 1948, I mean under Cyrus the Great of Persia i500+ years before Christ. Being safe. Being able to put down roots. Being able to care for your family. Millions want nothing more than this.
Lazarus’ story is also a metaphor of sorts. Jesus tells his disciples that his friend’s illness ‘does not lead to death, rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ This seems bizarre if not cruel. Push the story at this point and we have Jesus both prepared to let his friend suffer, and causing Mary and Martha to grieve…for the sake of their being a visual aid? When we hear this story is our primary focus on Lazarus …or on ourselves. Are we meant to read it as ‘history’ or as a ‘sign’ a ‘parable’ with a deeper meaning? Can there be no ‘deeper meaning’ unless we have an actual ‘historical’ event behind it?
The parallels with the Ezekiel reading are these.
The creative word of God. In the Old Testament reading God speaks through His prophetic word. ‘Say to them: ‘Thus says the Lord God’. You will know that I the Lord have spoken and will act, says the Lord’. In the Gospel, Jesus calls out with a loud voice ‘Lazarus, come out’. There is no touch involved, just the Word. We take for granted the Word of God as Christians. We all have bibles, many are unread. We read from the scriptures in worship. We sing the scriptures in our songs and hymns, the words of our services are built from scriptural texts. And whilst the Word of God is much more than the bible alone what these passages show is that God’s word brings life. So, as Geoff said in his sermon last week, we must tell the story, to one another, to our children, to any who will hear. This Word has life.
God’s creative word. And God’s call. In the Old Testament the exiled people feel forgotten, cut off from their land, from God Himself. But did you notice? They are referred to as ‘My people’ by the Almighty. He has not forgotten them. They are known and (for all their many faults) they are loved. ‘My people’. ‘You will be ‘my people’ and I will be your God: that was the agreement and God will keep it. Jesus calls Lazarus by name. Yes, there were presumably many others in tombs nearby in this cemetery outside the village, but Jesus calls this one. That is not to say that the others do not matter. Rather, it is to show that Jesus loves the individual, the one. He calls us by name, one by one. The Good shepherd doesn’t worry about church statistics and the many: he searches out the one lost sheep. Which is why names are important here in church. Which is why each person’s story is important here in church. How we heard the call. How He called my name. How we responded and stumbled, like Lazarus, into His new creation, a new way of living and being utterly dependant upon His call.
‘I am going to open your graves’, ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ These are the words of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
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