Sermon: Lent 4, Year A
Texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45
There is a scene in the movie Return of the King, based on the third volume of J.R.R. Tolkien’s saga The Lord of the Rings, where Aragorn gives dead soldiers who deserted their king a chance to regain their honour and be restored to peace if they will help to defend the City of Kings which is under attack by evil powers. He enters a cave through a small crevice in the mountain. It is dark and the sound effects make it clear that this is not a pleasant place. He steps over piles of dry bones heaped up against the walls of the cave and it appears that these are nothing but dry skeleton bones. Suddenly, in the centre of a large room, these skeletal creatures begin to threaten, but they are not really alive. Aragorn offers them a chance to redeem themselves by making good on their pledge to defend good against evil, and to be a part of a community that will restore the kingdom.
The prophet Ezekiel has had a similar experience. In a vision or dream, he is with God in a valley of dry bones. God tells Ezekiel to instruct the bones to listen to the Lord. Then God tells the bones that God will restore their bodies with muscle and flesh and give them breath, resurrecting them to life and knowledge that God is the Lord. God calls upon the four winds to bring life back into the bones and they are alive again. This powerful image of God’s Spirit being breathed into the bodies so that they may live brings us back to the creation story in Genesis.
Both of these stories are about restoration, not of individuals but of communities being redeemed. The dry bones are a metaphor for the desiccated people of Israel. They both have a prophet who is the messenger to the people. They both reject death and trust the stunning freedom and power found when the whole community is restored to their call to action and faithfulness.
Paul’s letter to the Romans talks about the same Spirit of God that gives life. He explains that the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead lives in us and is responsible for giving us life. There are things of the Spirit that give life and things of the world that take life away. The Spirit is not distinguished as separate with things of the flesh being evil and things of the Spirit being good. Hearing these stories during Lent gives us a chance to examine whether we are living according to the Spirit or not. As we near the end of Lent, we are being reminded that God’s Spirit is the source of our life as a community. This Lenten season, we are not only being prepared for Christ’s resurrection but our own.
As we read the Gospel, we have to look beyond the obvious. This account of the resurrection of Lazarus seems strikingly similar to the account we will hear of Jesus’ resurrection in a few weeks. In fact, it is this story that precipitates the plot against Jesus’ life and leads to his death and resurrection. It is a sign story revealing that Jesus acts, not on his own, but from above—and not at the urging of others. It is another account of life coming from God and no one else.
Jesus is told that his friend Lazarus in Bethany is ill. But Jesus does not go there for two more days and not until after the disciples remind him that Bethany is the place where the people wanted to stone him just a short time ago. Jesus takes the opportunity to tell the disciples that he will go there so that they might believe. He is the prophet in this story and it is up to him to bring God’s message of life.
As Jesus approaches Bethany, Martha, one of the sisters of Lazarus, meets Jesus and tells him he is too late, that Lazarus is dead. Jesus tells her that her brother Lazarus will live again because he, Jesus, is “the resurrection and the life. Those who believe, even if they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die”. Jesus is visibly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. When Jesus asks where Lazarus has been laid, Martha says, “Come and see”. Jesus begins to weep. Is he aware that the same things will happen again only to him in just a short time?
Martha sends for her sister, Mary, the sister who anointed Jesus with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair, and asks her to come join them. The other mourners follow her because they think that she is going to the tomb to mourn. The tomb is described as a cave with a large stone in front of it. Jesus asks them to roll way the stone. Then he looks upward and thanks his Father for always hearing him. He calls into the cave and with a loud voice tells Lazarus to come out. Lazarus does come out proving once again that only God gives life.
As a part of our Lenten journey we are given yet another opportunity to walk a path toward restoration with Jesus. But we must walk that path as a community so that there may be a resurrection into new life. We are reminded that only God gives life. These stories give us hope that God will continue to give life even over death.
We are living in a New Age, one that points us towards Pentecost; but first we must experience Easter. We can make some choices about how we get to Easter. We can choose not to focus on the things of the world that distract us and drain our life from us. We can choose to resist loving or accepting some more than others because they are different or think differently. We can deny those things that satisfy a sense of artificial power based on material things. We can choose to nurture a sense that we are individually more important than who we are together, as a family.
Or we can be restored by allowing the Spirit of God to give us life. We can choose to live as Jesus lived. We can live into our call to be a community of faith focused on the strength of our unity. We can give ourselves over to be restored by letting those things that separate us from God and each other die and be resurrected in Spirit to life as faithful believers.