This week, continuing Year A’s string of exceptionally long Gospel readings, we hear from John 11:1-45, the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. The other text I preached on this week is Ezekiel 37:1-14, the vision of the valley of dry bones.
Although I didn’t end up mentioning it in the sermon, I would be remiss if I didn’t link to TobyMac’s excellent song, Speak Life, which is really the inspiration for putting “Speak life” on the wall of my office.
Let us pray. Gracious God, open our ears today to hear your Word. Show us from these stories how you speak to us, and guide us as we speak to each other. May your words and your hope shape how we live, today and always.
If you follow politics at all, you probably occasionally hear people worry about the end of our American democracy, the end of life as we know it. I’m not looking to debate whether or not those fears are worth paying attention to, although I think our country has proven its ability to endure.
But I do want you to imagine with me for a moment what it would feel like if our country did fall. Imagine if all the banks, churches, governments, these institutions we take for granted were to collapse. And then imagine on top of all that, an enemy army forcibly relocates you to a different land. Your whole life would feel like it had fallen apart.
That’s what it must have felt like for the Jewish people at the time the prophet Ezekiel was writing.
Ezekiel isn’t someone we hear from often, but he’s an important figure who lived during the Babylonian exile, right around 600 years before Jesus. This was not a good time to be alive as a Jew.
The kingdom of Israel has fallen, the people have been taken away from their land by the Babylonian army. God’s temple has been destroyed and looted, the holy city of Jerusalem has been plundered. This is about as dark as it gets. It looks like the end of Israel’s story, the end of God’s story.
In this dark time, God sends a vision to the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel sees a valley of dry bones, representing what’s left of Israel, God’s chosen people. Basically, there’s nothing left. Their kingdom is destroyed, their whole way of life is dead. With the temple gone, they’re afraid even God is dead.
I didn’t catch this the first time I read it, but when God shows Ezekiel this valley of bones, it takes a while. Verse 2 says “He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.”
There’s no blood or marrow left, no life. Just a valley of death. It’s like something out of a horror movie, or some bleak sci-fi scene, and God makes Ezekiel look at it. That had to be a painful experience, to dwell in the suffering, to realize the hopelessness.
When we see suffering, it’s easy to turn the page, or change the channel. But if you’ve had a situation in your life where it seemed hopeless, you know that for someone to really grasp suffering, they need to spend time in it.
Sometimes we need to spend time in the darkness, to realize how bright the light is. In two weeks, we’ll gather for worship on Good Friday, and I’ll encourage you to spend some time dwelling on Friday, in Jesus’ death, before we move on to Easter Sunday and resurrection. God overwhelms Ezekiel with the dry bones of death.
Finally, God starts talking to Ezekiel, asking, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Can anything come out of death? Is it ever too late for God? Remember, these aren’t even bodies, just bones.
Ezekiel isn’t sure he sees any potential here, so he takes the safe route and says, “O Lord God, you know.” Sort of seems like he’s evading the question, doesn’t it? Seeing potential in death is hard!
And then God starts to work. God starts telling Ezekiel what to say to the dry bones, and I think that’s the most interesting part of the story. God doesn’t say to Ezekiel, “Hey you of little faith, watch this!”
Instead, God instructs Ezekiel, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.” God is going to bring life, and Ezekiel gets to announce it. God is going to do a miracle, and Ezekiel gets to participate. The new life for these bones comes from the breath of God.
I don’t know if he’s quite sure about all this, but Ezekiel does as he’s told. He speaks to the bones as commanded, he speaks to the winds, and God raises up the bones into living people. The message to the people of Israel is clear. “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”
I love this story for two reasons. First, it’s incredibly encouraging to hear about God bringing life out of death.
I’m not going to say much about the familiar story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, but I will point out this miracle is as much about Jesus’ identity as it is about Lazarus. In the gospels, the miracles Jesus does often reveal something about him and about God.
This miracle of raising Lazarus is the turning point in John’s gospel, because it finally establishes for the people that Jesus is God. Raising the dead is something only God can do. Only God can create life out of death.
There’s the strange bit in this story where Jesus gets word that his good friend Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha, is very sick, and then he waits two days before leaving for Bethany, a two day journey. I don’t know why Jesus waits before going, and I don’t particularly like it. That’s one of the questions on my list to ask in heaven.
But a result of Jesus’ delay is that Lazarus has been dead for four days. He’s really dead. In fact, the Jewish standard for being really, really sure someone is absolutely completely dead is only three days. There’s no mostly dead, still slightly alive, Princess Bride thing going on here.
The man is decomposing. His body stinks. Any normal faith healer or miracle worker would look at the tomb, smell the decomposing body, and give up.
But it isn’t too late for Jesus. He does something only God can do. He tells Lazarus to come out of the tomb, and Lazarus comes out!
If you keep reading in John, this is the turning point where the religious and political leaders realize they need to do something about Jesus. They could ignore his other miracles, but you can’t ignore someone being raised from the dead. From then on, they began plotting to kill him.
From here, everything leads to the cross and Jesus’ death. Of course, after he dies, he himself will rise from the dead, which is the final, ultimate proof of his identity.
So back to Ezekiel, one of the parts I love is this idea about God seeing potential for life even in what looks like only death.
The other part I love is Ezekiel’s role, how he gets to participate.
I’ve been here at St. Peter for 8 months now, and I still haven’t gotten around to putting my seminary diploma up on a wall. I’m going to get to it. Maybe after Easter! This week, though, I added a little bit of decor to my office. Above my door, so I see it every time I leave my office, the wall now says, “Speak life.”
I put it up before I read this story, but I think it’s so appropriate, because that’s exactly what Ezekiel does. He speaks life to the dry bones. He announces what God is going to do.
“Speak Life” is a kind of shorthand way of describing our call as people of God. It’s something I get to do in my call as your pastor. I get the privilege of going to hospital rooms and reminding people of God’s love, and the privilege of standing up here in front of you every week to tell you God loves you, but pastors aren’t the only ones who get to speak life. This is what we are supposed to do as Christians, and we don’t just do it here in the church building, we do it as the church, out in the world, at school, at work, in your family, wherever you are.
I was at Luther College on Friday and Saturday to hear Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber speak, and one of the things she said was that as we look at a world where it seems like more and more people are ignoring or not caring about the church, we need to remember why the church is important. She said our job as the church is to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, administer the sacraments, and declare God’s forgiveness. That’s our job as church, because the world’s not doing that.
If there’s one thing we have as Christians to say to the world, it’s the message that real life, the abundant life Jesus talks about in John 10:10, life starting now and continuing for eternity is found in Jesus Christ.
God is in the business of life, creating it, restoring it, speaking it. Life is what God does, whether it’s for the whole world at creation, or a newborn baby, or into hopeless situations, valleys of dry bones or four day old tombs.
Our job, our calling from God is to speak life, to share the good news of what God is doing in our own lives and in the world. God told Ezekiel to speak life so the dry bones could live.
In the Lazarus story, when Lazarus comes out of the tomb, Jesus tells the people standing there, probably in shock at what’s happening, to step up, to get involved, to participate in God’s work. He says, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
How can you proclaim what God is doing in our world? How can you speak life?
Sometimes speaking life means mentioning God by name, other times it’s simply asking yourself before you speak, “Does what I’m saying speak life, or death? Does it tear down, or build up?”
I have cards here to give you as a reminder. They say simply, “Speak life.” These are for you to put somewhere you’ll notice. Maybe it’s on your dashboard, or on your mirror. As I said, I have it written above my office door.
May God use you this week to speak life to those around you, and may you hear God speaking life to you.