Dry Bones or Live Bones??
Our readings today are very complex. It’s easy to be left wondering exactly what the writers are trying to tell us. Let’s start with Ezekiel. As I hope you remember, one of the pivotal events in the ancient nation of Israel’s history was being overrun by the military giant, Babylon. Babylon exiled the leaders of defeated nations to another country and then brought in other exiles to populate that nation; the goal was to break down the social structure and the culture. So the upper-class Israelites were taken to Babylon and people from neighboring countries occupied Israel. The peasants were left, abandoned.
Ezekiel was the first prophet of Israel who became a prophet while outside the Holy Land. He received his call in Babylon, and one of his first duties was to tell the exiles that their Temple had been completely destroyed, for many of them had believed it could never happen. Then his job was to encourage the exiles by giving them a Utopian vision of the Israel of the future. He gave the exiles a vision of restoration to prepare them to return home and begin the job of rebuilding. But the vision is more than just restoration. It is a vision of resurrection of the dead – the totally and finally dead; a vision which begins with piles of dried out bones. I’m sure you’ve heard the story. Ezekiel says, “Dry bones: hear the Word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord, ‘I will bring spirit into you, that you will come to life.’” And the bones came together with sinews and flesh and skin, and God gave them breathe, and spirit came into them and they came alive.
Then God explained to Ezekiel, “These bones are Israel. The people say, ‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, and we are cut off.’” The imagery is used to describe the restoration of the people that will come about they return from exile. The imagery of resurrection describes God’s revival of his covenant people and the renewal of their relationship with him. What had died is now alive. This vision proclaimed that the fullness of their life, as a people, was this: knowing the saving power of God in that covenant relationship.
From the Christian prospective, the nation of Israel was indeed rebuilt, but the war dead did not come to life again. The people who returned were given the strength and desire to restore their nation, and there was an extended time of peace in the land. But resurrection did not come until the Messiah, Jesus, appeared.
It is exactly that resurrection that is the confusion in our reading from the Gospel of John. At the start of the story of Lazarus, Jesus is aware of Lazarus’ illness. Jesus’ response to the disciples’ concern is that Lazarus will not die, but the illness was for the glory of God, and that the Son of God may be glorified through it. There is confusion for the disciples between spiritual death and physical death. Yet Jesus deliberately waits, even though he was only two miles away.
John’s community also felt that somehow, Jesus was deliberately waiting, delaying his return to earth. They were tired of hoping he was might arrive at any time. At first it was believed that the 2nd coming of Christ would occur shortly after Jesus’ resurrection. Christians expected to live to see him return. But people in the early church, specifically John’s community, were dying. There was a growing scandal and disappointment of the people, leading to doubts and loss of faith/ spiritual death.
Then the disciples are confused again; they misunderstand the word “sleep”. Finally Jesus tells them clearly: Lazarus has died. For the 3rd time, the disciples are confused. They think they all will die if they return to Judea, where there had been threats of stoning Jesus.
John’s community was feeling threatened by persecution.
When Jesus arrives, Martha, like John’s community, clearly wants to ask, “Why weren’t you here? Why didn’t you come sooner?” But she only gently says, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus responds, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Martha understands and makes her confession of faith, as we do even to this day at Christian funerals.
Mary greets Jesus boldly: “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” Then she burst into tears, along with the others around her. Jesus himself began to weep, but likely in frustration more than sorrow, because there were those there who were openly critical. “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?”
John might have taken this angry and frustrated quote from members of his community as they gathered for the burial of a beloved believer.
Martha protests at the opening of the tomb, and Jesus must remind her: “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” As He calls Lazarus out of the tomb, John writes, “Now many who had seen what he had done began to believe in him.”
No doubt John was also praying that hearing the story of Lazarus will increase and solidify the belief and faith of his community some 60 years or so later.
This event is in the Gospel of John as the last of the miracles that Jesus did. It was the crowning glory of the many “signs” recorded by John. It is the miracle that must be remembered and reread every time death seems to still be in charge. Mature faith enables a believer to face physical death knowing that eternal life is not just a promise of resurrection, but is also a present and continuing participation in the life of the ever-living Jesus.
When Lazarus emerged from the tomb, the last Passover was near, as was the crucifixion. What better time to be reminded of the power and glory of God than when we face a major trial, a time of crisis and suffering? Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, and I hope you will be able to participate in the Holy Week services. These days are a time to acknowledge the suffering that is a part of life and the cruelty that is part of people. But acknowledging those things also make us better able to believe the truth of God’s love and majesty and power, and the joy of the resurrection enables us to hold strong in the faith.