God's power over death
Fifth Sunday in Lent
God’s power over death
Today we hear about death and new life, the end of some things, and perhaps the beginning of others. Death is always a topic close to home that seems to get closer every year. On the eve of Palm Sunday and Holy Week, it's particularly immediate.
So, it makes good sense to hear Ezekiel preach to the valley of dry bones, listen to Jesus' command, "Lazarus, come out,"—and wonder what all that means and whether it matters.
We, as Christians, have some very distinctive and extraordinary things to say about death—about both physical death and other deaths, like the death of a marriage or relationship or numerous other losses. We say much the same thing about both types of death. What it is can be found in both Ezekiel and John.
The valley of dry bones Ezekiel is looking at and talking to is Israel. The great nation God had created to be a blessing for all the world is gone. There are a handful of exiles in Babylon with few memories, fewer hopes, and a lot of hate for the people they blame for their problems. And there are a few folks left in Judah that the Babylonians figured weren't worth the effort to haul off. That was it. In the eyes of the world, Israel was dead. Never in the history of humanity had, or has, a nation (or a faith) so defeated and scattered ever been rebuilt.
Ezekiel knew that. The Babylonians knew that. Everybody aware of the situation knew that. Death ruled Israel when Ezekiel preached, and death ruled supreme, for the people of Isreal were lost and without hope.
So it was with Lazarus. Lazarus, like Israel, was dead. In fact, Lazarus was dead past three days, and the rabbis taught that after that long, all that was left was corruption. Maybe Jesus could have helped if he'd arrived earlier, but not now. Death ruled over Lazarus.
So, Ezekiel looked over the valley of dry bones, and Jesus looked at the stone in front of the cave where his friend's body lay. When we Christians are at our best, we look at death with the eyes of Ezekiel and of Jesus and see what they saw; death and corruption. They both saw that. But they saw something more.
Ezekiel and Jesus saw that God was Lord, Lord even over death. God was Lord even over a dead Israel—and so God, and God alone, could call Israel back and give it new life and direction. The wonderful part of Ezekiel's vision is not that some dry bones could move—the wonderful part of this story is that the Spirit of the Lord could not be stopped and that even death could not destroy the purposes of God.
So it is with Lazarus. The real point of Saint John's account of Lazarus is not that Lazarus came back. Lazarus will die again and, as far as creation is concerned, will remain dead. So that cannot be the point. The real point is that Jesus is Lord of the living and the dead. The real point is that the voice of Jesus carries—it carries even through the walls of the grave, and his word is the clearest, strongest, and last. That's the good news; that's what we Christians see that non-Christians do not see.
Even through our tears, we see that the word of God, the purposes of God, and the love of God cannot be silenced, cannot be stopped, and will not be stopped. Not even by the strongest and the worst that the world has to offer can God's word be stopped.
At the same time, notice that the accounts of the dry bones and death of Lazeruas give us no information about the mystery of death itself. No matter how hard we try to know about the secrets of death and thereby have some bit of power over it, death remains the great unknown. Nor do these stories promise that everything will be alright or that they will be terrible, as we count such things.
Israel never again became what it used to be or what it wanted to be. The dry bones formed into something very different, less powerful, and less successful, but truer to its mission than Israel had wanted and hoped and prayed for. The promise of new life is not that we are in charge and will get what we want but that God is ultimately in control over all things, including death.
Lazarus doesn't become a celebrity talking about tunnels, bright lights, and four days' worth of even-nearer-than-near-death experiences. There's none of that. Moreover, John's Gospel tells us that Lazarus' life got messier and more complicated after Jesus brought him back to life. He didn't live happily ever after, for we told that "the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well because, on account of him, many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus."
The promise is better than living happily ever after. The promise is that God, in Jesus Christ, is Lord even of the dead. And that what he says goes. That's what we Christians see. We can see no farther—we can see no more, and we should not claim to see more. Of course, being a sinful people, we want more, we want details, and we want guarantees, and we want some power and some control in all of this. But we don't get any of that, not in the face of physical death, not amid the other deaths, the smaller deaths of life.
Instead, in the face of the deaths that make up our lives, we are told first of all that death is stronger than we are and that we have neither knowledge about nor power over death no matter how hard we try to avoid death. Secondly, we are told that Jesus is Lord, Lord of all—Lord of life and death.
So whatever deaths are before us, we have a choice. We must choose to despair or to trust; to give up or to go on; to abandon hope, or to let go in faith. That choice is not made for us but is instead given to us. And that choice can be terribly hard. More than at any other time, the reality of death—death in whatever form—is a call to trust, indeed, to trust blindly in God's love and care.
On the one hand, we see only what non-Christians see, but we see more through our eyes of faith. We see that the dry bones, even our dry bones, can live once more. And we see that the word of Jesus has power. "Come out," the Lord calls. "Come out" into a different life, into new life. "Come out" into a life unknown and unexplained. "Come out" in trust and sure hope. Amen.
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Rev. Dennis Rhoads
Vacancy pastor. LCMS