Beyond the Last Straw

This is the sermon I preached at Lakes Entrance Uniting Church on Sunday 2nd April 2017.  This was our first service back ” home” after two months retreat at the chapel at Lake Tyers Beach.

Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:17-27, 38-44

 I have heard it said that the key difference between the Old Testament and the Jewish Scriptures is their end point.  Last week Lyn read to us from Isaiah and she introduced that reading as “from the Hebrew Scriptures”, which was not incorrect, even as she was actually reading from what is the Christian “Old Testament”.  What’s the difference you ask?  The end point I answer.

So, here, in celebration of our return to this house, I offer another quiz with a pen as prize.  (And let’s hope this time the pen which is won stays in Gippsland.)  Here’s the question: what is the last book in the Jewish Scriptures?  And before you answer I’ll give you a big hint, it’s not the same book at the end of the Christian religion’s Old Testament.

[Anyone?  It’s 2 Chronicles.]

In today’s first reading we hear the story of the prophet Ezekiel and his vision of a valley of dry bones.  Ezekiel is asked whether the bones can live again, in other words could any good come of the situation.  I love the answer Ezekiel gives, he says “you know Lord”.  The obvious answer is of course “no”.  Here we have a valley of thousands of dry bones, very dry according to Ezekiel 37:2, and God asks “mortal”, (so there’s a hint), “mortal, can these bones live?”  Of course they cannot, they are dismembered and dried out.  There is no flesh.  Bones cannot live without a blood supply, and a dried-out dead bone cannot live again even if blood is returned to it.  The valley of dry bones is a valley of dead bones.  But listen to Ezekiel, “oh Lord GOD, you know.”  Even as a mortal faced with the firmest evidence of mortality Ezekiel has enough faith to look beyond the obvious “no” to acknowledge God’s sovereignty in that God alone determines what does and does not happen.  And then, through Ezekiel’s prophesying and God’s responding to the word as it is being proclaimed, the Lord’s spirit moves upon the bones to create new life in dead Israel.

There’s three things I want you to hear before we move on to the story of Jesus and Lazarus:

  1. Ezekiel “only” prophesies to the bones, just as Jesus “only” calls to Lazarus. There is no mechanical manipulation in either story; no laying on of hands, no making mud from spit, no forensic anthropological jigsaw puzzle while singing “’dem bones, ‘dem bones”.  There are only human preaching and God’s re-breathing spirit at work here.
  2. Ezekiel’s story is set in the wider context of his life of prophecy and the book which carries his name. As is true of the story of Jesus within his life and within the story told by John these stories are not about individual corpses but about whether dead people can live again.  In Ezekiel’s time the question is whether there is hope for a defeated, decimated nation.  These bones not only lacked sinew and muscle, but breath and spirit.  In the same way that God makes Adam by forming a body from the elements at hand, and then breathing life into that husk of a man, so the bones are re-ligamented (which is where we get the word “religion” from) and then re-animated with the spirit of God.  This is a story of national, indeed global significance; it’s not just about the dead soldiers.  Jesus’ raising of Lazarus is also a story about more than just the once-dead brother of Mary and Martha.
  3. The promise in Ezekiel’s story is not just life and spirit, but these “on your own soil”. Yes, the nation will be restored, but more than that the people will have a home.  This is the big story of Torah, Tanakh, the Jewish religious scriptures.  Where the Christian Old Testament is fulfilled in the coming of the messiah, and its last paragraphs (Malachi 4:1-5) are about “The great day of the LORD”, the Jewish story is fulfilled in the Jewish people coming home from exile and dispersion to Jerusalem.  Its last paragraph (2 Chronicles 36:22-23) is about King Cyrus of Persia restoring the razed temple so that the Judahites may “go up” to worship once more.

In John 11 Jesus is similarly on his way “up” to Jerusalem to celebrate Pesach, the Passover, the celebration of the work of God in liberating the Hebrew nation and giving them a land of their own.  We remember that John has built his gospel around seven (or eight) key “signs” that Jesus is indeed Immanuel and in this chapter we see the penultimate one, the last one John presents in Jesus’ lifetime.  In John 11:44 by his spoken word alone Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.  This episode is the hinge point of Jesus’ life according to John, a major major plot device by the author.  Indeed, this event is the last straw which solidifies Jewish opposition to Jesus, and from this point it is only a matter of days until Jesus is murdered.  In Matthew, Mark, and Luke the Jews decide to kill Jesus when he knocks apart the temple traders on Monday in Holy Week, but in John it is this event which gets Jesus killed: this is blatant in John 11:53.  Jesus is gloriously dangerous at this point because when Lazarus walks from the tomb Jesus’ earlier words “I Am…the resurrection” (which he said in John 11:21-22) are confirmed.  The authority of the messiah has been displayed and for the Sanhedrin, this is a situation which cannot be allowed to go unchallenged.  The only way to respond to a prophet who proclaims himself to be “the resurrection” is to kill him dead, and to do it publicly.

But let’s look at the other team, the ones who believe in Jesus.  Martha in saying “even now” in John 11:21-22 shows that she has confidence in God in the way that Ezekiel did.  Lazarus, her brother, is dead; but Jesus is now present and anything might happen.  Mary in John 11:32 gets part way there, suggesting that Jesus might have prevented the death, and Jesus is moved by her challenge.   One of the commentators I referred to this week suggests that Jesus’ weeping is compassion for the mourning sisters, who appear to be deep friends of his, but also his indignation that death has come to this house.  In his God-with-us persona Jesus is livid that a human life has been taken, something so precious to God snatched away by the insidious evil of illness in the world.  There’s more going on here than an empathetic man welling up in the presence of his tearful favourite girls, he’s had enough of the world wherein humans suffer and he wants it finished.  The fact that Lazarus and his sisters love and are loved by Jesus did not preclude Lazarus from terminal illness and death; God does not play favourites in that way.  But the fact that this family is dear to Jesus touches the heart of God profoundly on behalf of all human grief and the pains which cause it.  So, in the presence of the sisters’ faith in him and in the hearing and seeing of their tears for their beloved brother Jesus does the God-thing.  Jesus, like Ezekiel, does not dwell on Lazarus’ condition (that he’s dead) but shifts his focus to what could be done through it (that God would be glorified).  Not even death is the final word when God is involved.  God is not in favour of death and destruction, God never has been.  The God of the Jewish scriptures and therefore of Jesus’ theology is the God of homecoming and the end of exile.

There is no option for Jesus here, Lazarus must come back.

Martha’s confession in John 11:27 is the best example of what John believes about Jesus, and it sets the scene for what Jesus does by explaining why and how only he can do it.   What Martha says is far more profound than anything that Peter says about Jesus in John’s gospel: Martha knows who Jesus is, and she knows that death is never the end of the story for Jews.  However, in John 11:39 she still worries about the stench if the tomb is opened.  Maybe she is so used to Jesus speaking metaphorically that she struggles with his speaking literally.  She believes wholeheartedly that Jesus can restore Lazarus to her and Mary, and I think she even believes that Jesus wants to do this, but like Mary the virgin last week the wonder of its actually happening in the real events of the day is beyond her.  Even the deepest, most profound faith cannot overcome all trouble.  This is a great reminder for us when we doubt our faith, as strong as it is.  If we are not in a place where we can be baffled by God and amazed by the activities of Jesus, then we’re not really paying attention.

I am reliably informed that a direct Greek translation of the words spoken by Jesus in John 11:25 reads the one who continues believing into me that one will definitiely live into eternity.  Our hope, like that of the ever homecoming Jews, is about far more than believing certain concepts and doctrines; it is trusting in someone and being entrusted to him as a relational thing.  Only God can breathe life into what is as long dead as a valley of desiccated bones or a four-day’s stinking corpse in a desert cave, but we are assured that God will do entirely that in God’s perfect time, however late that seems to us.

Amen.

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2 thoughts on “Beyond the Last Straw

  1. Hi Damien, I was the ‘ preacher’ at Hare Street Uniting yesterday. Never ceases to amaze me how people tackle the set passages. I talked about death.

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