In the readings for Lent Five (John 11:1-45; Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; and Romans 8:6-11.) we see and hear a foretaste of resurrection which prepares us for the resurrection of Jesus at Easter but also invites us to experience restoration and renewal now in our lives as individuals and as community. In the midst of a world in turmoil and suffering, and whatever struggles we personally face, is an invitation to hope and renewal to such a degree that it is truly radical.
This week we hear two very familiar and fantastical stories of restoration, renewal and 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 cosmic and 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.”
Many 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, or a stinking corpse – beyond help. This is where the chosen people of God found themselves - in exile and their beloved Temple destroyed. This is where the family and friends of Lazarus found themselves. At one time or another most of us find ourselves here whether that be in our personal lives, or the lives of our nearest and dearest, or in the wider community of which we are a part, or in our world far away but close through television and other media. As much of the world still reels from the impact of the pandemic, wide spread and devastating famine and earthquakes, we have to dig deep into our faith to trust that there is resurrection in our world and beyond this world. Many of us fear that it is almost too late to turn back from the brink of extinction now. 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 wellbeing. And I don’t think that is really what Paul is saying either. Paul likes to use dualistic contrasts such as the present age and the age to come which can help us make sense of what he might have meant by flesh and spirit. The present age was the time in which Paul lived with the oppressive system of empire and the valueing of might over righteousness and suppression over true peace. The age to come was for Paul the world as the kingdom of God where the values of Christ ruled through the indwelling of the spirit of God in each heart. So for Paul the language of flesh vs spirit is about our orientation and priorities, our affiliation and values, our relationship with God’s son Jesus the Christ. Not a simplistic dismissal of physical matter.
All the texts this week 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 fulfilment – 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.
The promise of restoration, renewal and resurrection is calling our name even while 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 like magic everything is better and back to normal. First of all Jesus 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 life as we experience it, 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.