Sermon 6 April 2014 St Mary’s Whitby
Ezek 37:1-14,Ps 130, Rom 8:6-11, John 11:1-45
Today’s readings all deal in some aspect with life and death, with flesh and the spirit.
I like watching medical programmes on TV, and one of my current favourites is ’24 hours in A and E’. I was watching this last week, where someone had been wheeled into Resus, when I noticed the sign for the Resus department on the wall. R.E.S.U.S. It’s only one letter away from Jesus. This got me thinking – is Jesus our Resus?
In our culture we are so frightened of death, and our medical protocol often involves lots of technology to prolong life – the image of the paddles charging up, the doctor calling clear! as the patient’s heart is shocked into life is very familiar from our TV dramas. (I’m thinking maybe I watch too much TV?)
There is a finality about physical death that we all rail against, wanting life to be resuscitated no matter what the intervention.
No one wants to think that physical death is the end of the story, and every society and religion over many thousands of years has had some sort of understanding that life goes on after physical death.
In the Ezekiel story of the Valley of Dry Bones, at first the scene is without hope. The bones are not just parts of dead people, they are completely dry, detached from one another. Just like an empty shell on the beach, they are the calcium-rich signs that once, but a long time ago, life was there.
But when Ezekiel prophesies the Word of God to the bones, they start to come together – the leg bone connected to the hip bone, etc, as the old song has it.
The sinews and flesh cover the bones, and soon the physical bodies are complete.
But life is not there yet, that is, not until the spirit of God, represented by the four winds, is breathed into them. We must remember that this was a vision for Ezekiel – it is not a literal picture – and yet it is such a powerful image of God bringing life where there is none, or where life had once flourished, that we can relate to it on many levels.
The Romans reading sums up why this can happen – “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead – note the repetition for emphasis – will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” Romans 8: 11
When we come to our Gospel reading, the theme of life surviving after death is there too. Jesus has been alluding to his coming resurrection, in clearer and clearer words, and in today’s Gospel he gives a practical demonstration. There is a building-up of tension here, an ever-clearer picture of Jesus and why he came to earth. We could imagine the backing music for the story as it gathers momentum – the high violin notes of Psycho, with the low bass tones of Jaws sounding menacing. The story of Lazarus is the climax of all the healing miracles -remember last week that we heard about the man who had been blind since birth having his sight given to him.
At the beginning of the story, Jesus is told that Lazarus is seriously ill. Now you would think that as a close friend of the family, Jesus would drop everything and rush to his friend’s bedside. But no. Jesus says,”This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Jesus waited another two days, and we don’t even read that he prayed for Lazarus, just as we would if we heard of a sick friend.
Finally, Jesus suggests the trip to Judea, whereupon the disciples protest about the safety issues of going back into the lion’s den, where he had had trouble previously.
Jesus tells them that Lazarus is asleep, and as usual the disciples – who do get rather a bad press at times – are too slow to catch on that Jesus is talking about death rather than sleep. So Jesus has to explain. He makes it clear that the reason for going back into Judea, for visiting Mary and Martha and Lazarus, is so that the disciples would believe. They must have been really confused at this point. Maybe they were starting to worry that Jesus was becoming irrational, as he deliberately courted danger by entering Judea again. Maybe they worried about all the talk of death, and life, and didn’t understand what it was that they were to be shown. Interestingly, it’s Thomas, who later doubted Jesus’ resurrection, who impetuously agreed to go to Lazarus.
When Jesus got to Bethany, he told Martha that her brother would rise again. She tells him what was commonly believed in Judaism at the time – that everyone would rise again on the last day. Jesus takes this faith idea and develops it for her. He tells her, and us, why Lazarus will rise, and how.
“I am the resurrection and the life,” he said.
“Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” He took the common belief in resurrection and put his face on it.
Here we have the whole central point of the Gospel – in Jesus, we can have eternal life. Physical life will end, but that’s not the end of the story. It sounds so simple really – believe in Jesus, and death loses its power over us.
Of course, being a Christian doesn’t mean that life will always be easy, but in this big Unknown that is the end of physical life, it is simple. We don’t need to fear dying and being separated from God – belief in Jesus will ensure that we can live forever with him!
Now, it’s all very well having the idea, the theology. But Jesus goes further and demonstrates his power over death.The Jews knew that only God can restore life where there is no hope. The dry bones in the valley did not look as if they would have any signs of life in them, and here we are told that Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days, and that the natural processes of decomposition were sure to be well under way. Except that they put it more bluntly than that.
“Lord, by this time he stinketh,” as the King James version has it.
Jesus has an audience for his prayer – Martha and Mary, the disciples and the crowd. This was not a discreet prayer in the back of the church. This was a very public demonstration of power. Jesus makes it clear that those seeing this miracle are seeing the glory of God. In his spoken prayer he thanks the Father for hearing him, and again, makes it clear that this is happening so that the crowd will believe that he had been sent by God.
There’s a sense of urgency here- the story is focussing in, and the Gospel is going into close detail with the events of the last few weeks of Jesus’ life. Cue Jaws music. Jesus knows that he only has days remaining in his earthly journey, and he is struggling to convince the disciples and the crowd of who he is.
And now the climax – “Lazarus, come out.” Even the dead bones obey him! Lazarus is no mere upright corpse though – he could walk by himself, and after he had been helped out of the grave clothes, he was able to pick up his life again. We don’t hear any more about Lazarus at this point – an interview with him would have been fascinating! What we do hear is that his being raised to life had a huge impact on the crowds. Many believed in Jesus because of it, and next week we will follow the journey another stage.
The tension at this point is high – cue Psycho violins – many believed, but those opposed to Jesus became determined to kill him.
The reading we had today is quite a long one, but it’s one of those stories that’s hard to put down. Read the next bit when you have time.
If we go back to the Romans reading, we have an explanation of why we need to know about the power of Jesus over death – he tells us that we are in the Spirit, not in the flesh. Sure, we have containers of flesh to live in, and they are quite useful too! And fun! But the spirit side is more important- not only are we made in the image of God, who is Spirit, but God’s Spirit dwells in us.
We are promised that this Spirit that dwells in us, the same spirit that raised Jesus from the dead, the same spirit that raised Lazarus from the dead, will also raise us. Our bodies are mortal but that’s not the end of the story. Hallelujah!