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Sunday, April 2, 2017 | 8:00 a.m.

Lenten Sermon Series:
Following Jesus through the Gospel of John

Can These Bones Live?

Matt Helms
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 95
Ezekiel 37:1–14
John 11:17–44

 Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime.

Attributed to Martin Luther


“Mortal, can these bones live?”

You know what you should say—what the Lord expects you to say—but the words stick in your throat. The bones lying in this valley, the bones of Israel’s hopes and dreams, are scattered around you, picked clean by the empires and powers that be, dried by generations of being disregarded.

This valley had once been the valley of David, the valley of Solomon, an empire stretching out beyond its humble beginnings, a theocracy that sought to serve both God and its citizens even as it lay quietly in the midst of larger and more powerful empires. This valley had seen many powers come and go, Egyptians, Hittites, and Assyrians, but still it had remained—holding on even in the midst of invasion, war, and famine; a testament to the God who watched over it, who held fast to the people even in times of trouble and who was praised in song, psalm, and scripture.

But you, Ezekiel, have been witness to the end of an era—to the day Jerusalem fell and Israel’s best and brightest were led off to exile in Babylon. You were there when they led women and children away to be slaves in another land, leaving not just your hometown but your entire homeland desolate. You have watched as a puppet government loyal to Babylon was installed in Judah, serving not the will of the Lord but the will of Nebuchadnezzar, as Babylon’s empire stretched further and further beyond your borders. All that is left of Israel are its dry bones—a skeleton of what was, not what is.

“Mortal,” the Lord asks again, as you stare out into this valley of dry bones, “can these bones live?”

“O Lord God, you know,” you reply, uncertain of what hope might even look like for your people. It has been twenty years since Jerusalem fell, an entire generation knowing nothing of Israel but the stories they heard from their parents—a myth more than a reality. How could God bring life from this disastrous diaspora—life from the death of an entire nation?

“Prophesy to these bones,” the Lord replies, “and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath—quite literally spirit—within, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

You have read the stories and heard the promises, proclaiming and passing them down before, but you’ve never felt skepticism until now. Having stared at the face of death, how can one imagine life? Can these bones truly live?

“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

You want to say yes, but the voice in your head is screaming out that it cannot be. Your brother Lazarus has been dead for four days now, taken suddenly by an illness while Jesus was on the road preaching and teaching. You have seen him do incredible things, things that defy belief or logic: you have witnessed blind men receive sight at his touch, heard of a crowd of 5,000 fed from little food and whispers that he was able to walk on water even in the midst of a storm. There is no doubt in your mind that there is something different about Jesus, something holy and great. If only he had been here, your brother Lazarus could have been healed. He would still be alive. But though you have seen Jesus heal sickness and defy our understanding of the natural order, there is nothing quite so final as death. Surely even Jesus cannot change that—or at least not now. You wept by your brother’s side as his breath left him. You felt his hands grow cold as you and Mary said your good-byes, and you helped to wrap his body and place him in the tomb. Many within your faith believe that a person’s soul stays with their body for up to three days, but today marks the fourth day since his passing: whatever part of him may have remained is surely gone for now.

“Martha, I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus calmly says again. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Lord, I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God coming into the world,” you say, trying to avoid the answer that your heart is telling you: what is dead is dead, never to return.

As you walk towards your brother’s tomb, you see Jesus begin to weep, and doubt continues to creep across your mind. Surely he understands now that it was too late—that even he cannot do anything to change this. When he asks for the stone to be rolled back and the smell of death hits your nostrils, you are overcome with emotion once more. But then you see Jesus looking up in prayer, asking for God’s glory to be revealed to all those gathered. Suddenly, with a clear voice he shouts, “Lazarus, come out!” Can this really be happening? Can you truly believe this?

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Both of our texts today deal with the impossible: the idea that life could come out of death, not just in metaphor, but in reality. Although Ezekiel’s vision of standing with God in the valley of the dry bones is a clear example of biblical metaphor, Israel truly no longer had any hope of surviving after the Babylonian exile—not with its citizens scattered and its homeland decimated. But sixty years after Jerusalem fell, the sudden rise of the Persian Empire, and its governing policy that allowed nations to peacefully exist while still practicing their own religious expression, meant that Israel was able to reshape and reform itself. The dry bones were put back together and life returned; a second temple was built, leadership arose, and Israel experienced arguably one of the most productive periods of religiosity in their history. It was a time that was nothing short of stunning, a national turnaround that would have largely been unknown in the ancient world. While the power of countries and empires waxed and waned, there would have been little to no precedent for a return like Israel’s return from the dead.

But while metaphor and reality blur in Ezekiel’s text, there is no such ambiguity in the Gospel of John as Jesus raises Lazarus. This text is written in a way that emphasizes the reality of death, not just in the descriptions of the passing of time, but in the grief that Mary, Martha, and even Jesus feel. Although we witness Jesus cry in the texts of all the Gospels as the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday take place, this account from John allows us to see a very human side of Jesus. In John 11:35, the shortest verse in the entire Bible, we are told “Jesus wept”: only three words in the Greek, but words that powerfully highlight this scene. Earlier in the passage, when we hear that Jesus loved Lazarus, the Greek word behind love is not agape—the sort of idealistic, transcendent love that we often speak and preach of in church. The word that is used is phileo—brotherly love, the affection that one feels for a good friend. The stakes were real for Jesus, just as they were for Mary and Martha.

Some have posited that Jesus recognized this moment as a foreshadowing of his own death on the cross and subsequent resurrection, but we are told too by the text that Jesus is greatly disturbed in spirit at Mary and Martha’s tears and was deeply moved by them. Even knowledge of God’s power to give life does not remove Jesus’ empathy for what death means in our world. But refusing to let death have the final word, Jesus marches with the crowd to Lazarus’s tomb, where the unthinkable happens: he issues a short command and Lazarus comes walking out. Can these bones live? Will those who believe in Jesus live, even though they die? John’s Gospel gives us an unambiguous answer: yes.

The implications of this answer are profound, to say the least, and they will culminate in the triumph of Easter morning in just a few short weeks. Many of us wrestle with the concept of resurrection, not just in these passages but in the Easter story as well, as our own experience of death in our lives feels far more like Mary’s, Martha’s, and Jesus’ grief. We struggle to accept these stories, identifying far more with the internal doubt of Ezekiel or Martha, who in the face of these great questions can only say that God alone knows. But to believe in resurrection is akin to believing in transformation or, perhaps more accurately, God’s ability to transform. We are not asked to understand resurrection or transformation; we are only asked to trust that it is indeed possible, that life could come from death, both literally and metaphorically, and that in God, through Christ, all things are possible.

For those of us who have indeed decided that God’s redeeming and restoring love is where we ultimately place our trust, we are challenged by these passages to work for the sake of life in any place of death in the world around us. As Veronice Miles, the professor of preaching at Wesley Seminary, once put it: “We, as Christians, believe that resurrection informs our sense of Christian vocation. It confronts us as an urgent call and beckons us to consider the possibility that those whom our world deems socially, physically, spiritually, and emotionally dead might live into a new reality. And so we pray for transformation in the lives of persons and communities bound by the grave-clothes of war, genocide, poverty, disease, abuse, and systematic oppression.” But our efforts do not stop with prayer. We are asked to challenge each of these things as best we can, to call out for life wherever we are witnessing death.

We are not the author of life and death; our passages make clear that that role belongs to God alone. But as followers of Jesus, the one who died but ultimately was risen, we are to be champions of any effort, policy, or program that promotes life, and we must resist anything that promotes death in our world. We struggle against the very real physical threats of death in our world: rampant hunger and malnutrition, war and violence, and disasters both natural and manmade—just as we struggle with the unseen threats of death in mind or spirit for those who struggle with addiction, depression, loss of purpose, a lack of hope, or any number of other things. Advocating for life in the midst of all forms of death is difficult, sometimes bringing out the dark, cynical side of ourselves that rejects that such a thing would even be achievable. But if we trust in God’s ability to transform, then we believe that all things—even those that we can scarcely comprehend—are indeed possible. Can these bones live? May not just our mouths, but our lives answer yes. Amen.