Ezekiel 37.1-14; John 11.1-45
+ Sometimes the lectionary—those assigned Bible readings we have each Sunday—are weirdly prophetic. They sometimes speak exactly to the situation at hand. They sometimes perfectly mirror a situation in which we are all living.
Well, today is one of those days.
Today, our reading from Hebrew Scriptures and our Gospel reading reflect our own strange time perfectly.
The first reading, of course, is Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones. It’s a great story in and of itself. Ezekiel is brought by God to a valley full of dry bones and told to prophesy to them. As he does, they take on flesh and come alive.
It’s a great story for any Lenten season. But man! Does it speak loudly to us in this Lenten season!
And our reading from the Gospel today is the raising of Lazarus. This story of Lazarus takes on much deeper meaning when we examine it closely and place it within the context of its time. And it’s a story I LOVE to examine and wrestle with.
One of our first clues that the something is different in this story is that, when Jesus arrives at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, he is told that Lazarus has been dead four days. This clue of “four days” is important.
First of all, from simply a practical point, we can all imagine what condition Lazarus’s body would be in after four days. This body would not have been embalmed like we understand embalming today in the United States. There was no refrigeration, no sealed metal caskets, no reconstructive cosmetics for the body of Lazarus. In the heat of that country, his body would, by the fourth day, be well into the beginning stages of decomposition. There would be some major physical destruction occurring.
Second, according to Jewish understanding, when the spirit left the body, a connection would still be maintained with that body for a period of three days by a kind of thread. According to Jewish thinking of this time, the belief was the spirit might be reunited with the body up to three days, but after that, because the body would not be recognizable to the departed spirit because of decomposition, any reuniting would be impossible. After those three days, the final separation from the body by the spirit—a kind of breaking of the thread—would have been complete. The spirit then would truly be gone. The body would truly be dead.
So, when Jesus came upon the tomb of Lazarus and tells them to roll the stone away, Martha says to him that there will be stench. That’s an important part of the story as well. He was truly dead—dead physically and dead from the perspective of his soul being truly separated from his body.
So, when the tomb was opened for Jesus, he would be encountering what most of us would think was impossible. Not only was Lazarus’ spirit reunited with his body, but he also healed the physical destruction done to his body by decomposition. It would have been truly amazing.
And Jesus would truly have been proven to be more than just some magician, playing tricks on the people. He wasn’t simply awakening someone who appeared to be dead, someone who might have actually been in a deep coma. There was no doubt that Lazarus was truly dead and now, he was, once again alive.
Now, at first glance, both our reading from the Hebrew scriptures and our Gospel readings seem a bit morbid.
These are things we don’t want to think about. Certainly not right now. Not now when we are surrounded by a deadly pandemic. Not now when people are dying in droves of this terrible illness.
But, let’s face it. They do speak loudly to us. We are living in a valley dry bones right now. Or it does feel like it right now.
We are sequestered.
We are isolated physically from each other.
We are in quarantine.
And it feels as though there is nothing but bones and uncertainly around us.
It feels like a very desolate time.
And to top off that desolation, we are rapidly heading toward Holy Week. Next week at this time, we will be celebrating the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. We will be hearing the joyful cries of the crowd as he rides forth. Within 11 days from now, we will hear those cries of joy turn into cries of jeering and accusation.
For us, Holy Week this year will feel doubly desolate. We will not being gathering here in this building to commemorate these events. There will be no washing of the feet on Maundy Thursday. We will be sharing the Eucharist spiritually, yes, but not physically.
To just add even more to it all, we will be hearing about betrayal, torture, murder and death as Jesus journeys away from us into the cold dark shadow of death. These images of death we encounter in today’s readings—as unpleasant as they are—simply nudge us in the direction of the events toward which we are racing, liturgically.
During Holy Week, we too will be faced with images we might find disturbing. Jesus will be betrayed and abandoned by his friends and loved ones. He will be tortured, mocked and whipped. He will be forced to carry the very instrument of his death to the place of his execution. And there he will be murdered in a very gruesome way. Following that death, he will be buried in a tomb, much the same way his friend Lazarus was. But unlike Lazarus, what happens to Jesus will take place within the three days at that time required for a soul to make a final break from his body.
And this brings us back to the story of Lazarus. We often make the mistake, when think about the story of Lazarus, that Lazarus was resurrected.
The fact is, he was not resurrected.
It was not resurrection because Lazarus would eventually die again. He was simply brought back to life. He was resuscitated, shall we say.
So, Lazarus truly did rise from the tomb in Bethany, but he was not resurrected
there. He went on to live a life
somewhat similar to the life he lived before. And eventually, he died again. There’s
actually a tomb purported to be Lazarus’ on Cyprus (though his actual bones, it is believed, have been lost).
|Lazarus' purported tomb on Cyprus|
But Resurrection is, as we no doubt know, different.
Resurrection is rising from death into a life that does not end.
Resurrection is rising from all the things we encountering right now in our lives—Covid, pandemics, sickness, death, anxiety and fear.
Resurrection is rising from our own broken selves into a wholeness that will never be taken away from us.
Resurrection is new bodies, a new understanding of everything, a new and unending life.
Resurrection, when it happens, cannot be undone.
It cannot be taken away.
Resurrection destroys the hold of death.
Resurrection destroys death.
And the first person to be resurrected was not Lazarus. The first person to be resurrected was, of course, Jesus. His resurrection is important not simply because he was the first. His resurrection is important because it, in a real sense, destroys death once and for all.
The resurrection of Jesus casts new light not just on our deaths at the end of our lives.
The resurrection of Jesus casts light on where we are now.
God’s raising Jesus from the death shows us that we will rise from this dark time, this time of pandemic, this time of coronavirus, this valley of dry bones in which we now live.
All of this fear and uncertainty and sickness and foreboding is only temporary. But the resurrection of Jesus and the life he promises-that unending life—is eternal.
The end is not a cross or a tomb.
The end is not a valley of dry bones.
The end is not pandemics or anxiety or fear.
The end is that Easter light.
The end is that life in which we will be raised like Jesus into a new and unending life.
We will be raised into a life that never ends, a life in which “sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life eternal,” as we celebrate in the Burial Office of the Book of Common Prayer. Because Jesus died and then trampled death, he took away eternal death.
So, as we continue our journey through this valley of dry bones, as we journey through this time of uncertainty and anxiety, as we move through these last days of Lent toward that long, painful week of Holy Week, we go forward knowing full well what await us on the other side of the Cross of Good Friday. We go forward knowing that the glorious dawn of Easter awaits us. And with it, the glory of resurrection and life everlasting awaits us as well. We go forward knowing all of this in only temporary. But what awaits is eternal.
So, let go forward. Let us move toward Holy Week, rejoicing with the crowd. And as the days may seem dark and we may feel weary, let us keep focused on the Easter light that is just about to dawn on all of us.