This week we see and hear a foretaste of resurrection which as we find ourselves under the spectre of suffering and death from the Covid 19 virus, in addition to all the other possible sufferings and threats, is encouraging but also hard to grasp. (Fifth Sunday in Lent. Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45)
This week we hear two very familiar and fantastical stories of resurrection. The story of Ezekiel and the dry bones which is very hard to hear without a Sunday School song ringing in our ears. And the amazing and wonderful story of Jesus’ love for Lazarus and his resurrection. In these stories we have a foretaste of the resurrection as we shall experience it on Easter Sunday in the resurrection of our Lord in which he shall be raised not only to life as it was before but life eternal.
At this time of the year, and this far into Lent, we are being reminded to lift our heads up and see where we are headed, to be reminded that all this struggle and suffering that we now endure and are about to go through, is part of the greater journey from life into life without end.
Now unlike the Sunday School song about “dem bones “ -which is very catchy and upbeat - the tone of the readings as a whole this week are not quite so upbeat. They are filled with ultimate hope but not easy cheesy hope.
In the midst of our readings we cried together: “Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord: hear my voice ... My soul looks for the Lord: more than watchmen for the morning, more, I say, than watchmen for the morning.”
All of us know in some part of our life that sense that things are beyond hope - that some love or hope of ours is already dry bones and beyond help. Whether that is personal as in our own life, or the lives of our nearest and dearest or in the wider community of which we are a part, or in a world far away but close through television and other media. As most of the world reels from the impact of the pandemic we have to dig deep into our faith to trust that there is resurrection in our world and beyond this world. Here in Australia we are also in the aftermath of our terrible season of bush fires when we have lost so much natural habitat, so many homes and properties, so many human lives and creatures without number we can feel that we have now traveled so far down the extinction trail that we cannot turn back. And yet these ancient stories come to us and speak in images fanciful and very literal of hope that can rescue us even from the grave.
So what does that mean to us? Firstly I need to say something about what I think it doesn’t mean. Dear old St Paul has sort of muddied the waters by using the language of flesh vs spirit and it seems to infer that human flesh is disposable or even despicable and that disembodied spirit is all that matters. Yet that does not make sense to most of us. If we love someone we care desperately about their physical well being. All the texts this morning value the preciousness of human flesh and human everyday life. The Lord says to Ezekiel “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 ... and I will place you on your own soil.” The God of Israel promised very concrete physical earthly fulfillment – life in the land of your own. Jesus wept for the love of Lazarus and the love of his family for him and restored his friend to physical earthly life. Even Paul himself finishes this passage by saying “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”
Scripture conveys the preciousness of human life. Beginning with the Creator declaring all that had been created good, including the restoration of dry bones to breathing flesh and blood, and the restoration of living Lazarus to his life and family.
Scripture also acknowledges the sad truth that flesh has a limited season and God does not change this inherent part of our makeup. We are creatures who are born, who live and who die. The resurrection of Lazarus did not prevent him from dying later of normal causes. And we are also creatures destined for resurrection, for life that continues beyond the confines of this phase of life. But resurrection is more than a forever home beyond our comprehension, somewhere beyond the rainbow, although it is surely that also. Resurrection is a theme of faith here and now to be claimed, and explored, and lived out in whatever circumstance we find ourselves.
Resurrection is calling our name when we feel like dry bones buried and forgotten. Resurrection is calling us into life even when we feel like part of us is already stinking and putrefied beyond repair.
And resurrection is something we are to contribute toward for ourselves and for others. Jesus does not say Abracadabra! And puff everything is better and back to normal. First of all he weeps for the pain and suffering of those he loves. Then he prays to his Father and grounds himself in that relationship beyond time and space. Then he tells us to roll back the stone, he tells us to come forth, he tells us to take our loved ones bandages off. We are called to be participants in resurrection – in our own and in others.
This is a belief that must permeate every aspect of our life – our hearts, our minds, our souls. Resurrection is a spiritual, social and physical principle. It needs to express itself in our love relationships, our finances, our charitable giving, our farming and gardening practices, our political affiliations, our correspondence, our conversations.
Resurrection gives us the eyes to see and the hearts to discern hope and joy. Resurrection upends us and disorientates us. Resurrection restores us.
But resurrection cannot work against our will. If Martha and Mary had not sent word, if those with the strength had not rolled back the stone, if Lazarus had not heard the command, if his loved ones had not unwrapped the bandages resurrection would have been blocked. Like almost everything since the creation it is an act of free gift and acceptance, it is a work of co creation.
It is maybe why we have to go through this cycle every year, every Lent, and many times besides so that each time another layer of despair, and death, and hate, is stripped away until nothing is left but desire, life, and love. It is an ancient spiritual truth that we must die before we die. That is that the many deaths of our hopes, our everyday life, what we regard as precious must be stripped away so that our naked and true self awaits the call of the Christ to come forth. The great cycle of life revealed in natural cycles of plants and animals and maybe planets themselves of birth, life, death and new life and brought to fullness in the birth, life, death and new life of Jesus the Christ.
So as we gather only two miles from Jerusalem, only two weeks from Easter, in the shadow of the cross and the pandemic, let us close our eyes, calm our hearts until we can hear our Lord call “Come out”. And let us unwrap one another’s bandages.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, call us into life.