Sermon preached at The Church of the Redeemer, Providence RI on Sunday April 6, 2014 (Lent 5, Year A). You can listen to the sermon here.
This week, my twitter feed has been flooded with commentary of the Afghan presidential elections. But one tweet more than any other stood out to me. “Afghan presidential vote extended by an hour because of heavy turnout.” I sat staring at my computer screen for a few moments thinking, “Hours extended due to heavy voter turnout?” This made no sense to me. A people who have known so much war, violence, and poverty have shown up to vote even in the face of terror. It made we wonder what is inside them – what moves in them – to give them this courage. Does the same thing move inside me? Inside you? Is there something inside us that allows us to stand up in the bleakest of situations, in the face of adversity, and attempt to change the world?
This morning we have heard one of the most imaginatively dramatic readings in all Scripture: Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones. This vision reminds every generation that God not only gives life but also restores life even in the bleakest of situations. We are reminded that death will not have the last word, even when all signs of life have been taken away.
The key word of this passage is the Hebrew word ruach meaning, “breath,” “wind,” or “spirit.” The prophet prophesies just as God commands and the bones come back together, sinews and flesh come upon them. But there is no life in them. They need the breath of God – they need ruach. It is this life-giving breath that makes these bones live once more. But, this breath does so much more than bring these bones back to life. This is the same wind that moved over the waters in creation; it is the same breath God breathes into the first human beings; it is the spirit that comes upon each one of us when we are baptized; and it is the same life-giving force that moves in Lazarus.
When Jesus calls out to in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” Breath is restored to Lazarus and he lives once more. He who has been dead for four days gets up and walks out of his tomb. But, just as was true with the man blind from birth last week, there is far more going on than the miraculous nature of this episode.
In many ways the miracle itself is not the focal point, but rather this restorative act serves as a sign of something far greater than one moment in time. The revelatory nature of this act tells us something about the power and glory of God. The raising of Lazarus signifies that God’s eschatological promises – God’s promises for the end of time – are here and now, already being realized amid, and despite, the ordinariness of the course of life, which includes illnesses, deaths, and burials just like those of Lazarus.
This chapter from John’s Gospel opens with Jesus letting those around him – and us – know something important is going to happen. “This illness” meaning Lazarus’ illness, “does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be gloried through it.” It is important to keep in mind that “glory” and “glorification” for John have to do with oneness with God. It has to do with Jesus being lifted up on the cross, being lifted up from death to life, of being made one with God. This oneness is central to the Gospel message, to the Christian life, to all that God has in store for us and for the world.
Life as we know it is a balancing of the tensions between life and death. In this season of Lent – in this Gospel passage – this tension between the hope of resurrection and the finality of death is palpable. It is far too easy to see the world as a valley of dry bones both literally and metaphorically. In the midst of war, violence, and death – of news stories of shootings and tragic accidents it is easy to lose hope, to be dried out, to think all is lost. At times it seems as if the world around us is stacking the deck towards death – towards an old way of understanding the world.
In the midst of all this we yearn for resurrection and the unbinding that releases us to dream beyond the boundaries and experience life anew. To dream beyond the boundaries is to imagine a world in which wholeness, well-being, health, and prosperity are normative expressions of human existence and to partner with the God of life in making that dream a reality. It is to see the world as God sees, to take our place in the life giving work of God, to be open and receptive to the breath, the wind, the spirit of God.
In this new life we have a role to play. We cannot be passive observes and just wait for God to do all the work. In Ezekiel’s vision, it is the mortal who follows the command of God and prophesies to the bones. It is the prophet whose actions usher in the will of God. In the Gospel our charge comes in the penultimate sentence, “Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’” Jesus calls on the community to participate in Lazarus being raised from the dead. In this Jesus brings the reality of resurrection to the present.
In this respect, resurrection confronts us as an urgent call, impelling us to consider the possibility that those whom our world deems dead – no matter if that be socially, physically, spiritually, or emotionally – might live into a new reality; that life is still possible for them. We pray that all those oppressed and held in bondage will be filled with the spirit of God and come out! Each and every one of us can participate in this new reality. We have the power to unbind, to release persons and communities from the clutches of death. Resurrected woman, men, and children today require caring communities that are willing to nurture and strengthen them until they are able to walk alone; they need to be unbound, to have the graveclothes of self-doubt, social isolation, marginalization, and oppression removed. We can help them tear away the wrappings of fear, anxiety, loss, and grief, so that unbound people might walk in dignity and become creative agents in the world. The breath of God moves in all people – the restorative, resuscitating, renewing, and resurrecting spirit of God is present in the least, lost, and left out of the world. Our call as Christians is to unbind them and set them free so that they can be restored and live without fear.
The bones Ezekiel prophesied to represent the whole house of Israel. They have gone through devastating loss. Their temple has been destroyed, there has been tragic violence against them and their leaders, and they have been removed from their land. Everything they knew has been taken away from them – they are in despair and all seems hopeless. This is the same witness that our world needs today. Ezekiel’s vision is for these people who need to be unbound. It is for those people who pay the physical and spiritual toll of poverty, natural disasters, and genocide.
We are called to prophecy to the dryness of the world. We are called to unbind those who are held captive to oppressive forces. When God asks, “Can these bones live?” This is what God is asking. This is what God wants us to do.
Paul, in his letter to the Romans, gives us a glimpse of how we are to do this. He makes clear that we are to set our minds on the Spirit, we are to allow the Spirit to dwell in us. We hear this morning that, “to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” We are to set our minds on the Spirit. Throughout Romans, the most comprehensive statement of Paul’s theology is that the Christian mind must become the initial, and transformative, locus of renewal. When we set our minds on the Spirit, we set our minds on life and renewal. We allow the spirit of God to dwell in us – that same spirit that raised Christ from the dead, breathe life into the dry bones, and brought Lazarus back from death.
This makes accessible to us a force beyond ourselves. It gives us the power to stare sin, decay, and death squarely in the face – to proclaim that death will not have the final word. We are given the wisdom to discern how God is calling us; how God is equipping us to serve the present age as agents of God’s transformative work in the world. To live life in the Spirit – to set our minds on the spirit – refers to how we conduct ourselves. It is manifested in how we use our physical energies and our material resources, how we care for our neighbors and for our planet. It is through this spirit that we participate in the power of Christ’s resurrection.
In an historic election Afghan people showed what happens when people are unbound. They know the destructive nature of evil and death, but they have been able to stand up and be counted. The breath of God is moving in our midst and making all things new. Death is being transformed to life, despair is turning into hope. Today we find ourselves quickly approaching the end of this Lenten season. The three holiest days of our life as Christians are within sight.
This Lenten season, may we look at the dryness in our souls. Where do we need the birth of God to bestow upon us life-giving strength? Where do we need to proclaim God’s saving love and grace in the world? Where is there unbinding that we need to attend to? Who can we walk with and participate in their restoration to health, wholeness, and oneness with God? When God says to us, “Mortal can these bones live?” let us stand together and proclaim, “Yes, Lord, they most certainly can.”