(a sermon for March 21, 2021, the 5th Sunday in Lent, based on Ezekiel 37:1-14 and John 11:17-45)
To begin with, going into this text, it’s important for us to know that it’s in the midst of her very deep anguish and enormous grief that Jesus says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, shall live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
This may well be one of the most crucial question asked in the entire gospel story, but at its very heart it’s part of an exchange that’s raw, and emotional, and immediate: “I am the resurrection and the life… do you believe this?” For Martha, the question is quite literally a matter of life and death: her brother Lazarus had been dead four days; Jesus, on whom she has placed so much home, has only just now arrived; and her pain of that loss hurts more deeply than anything she’d ever felt before in her life. So when Jesus asks, “Do you believe this?” it’s a question that cuts to the core of everything that she’s feeling in her grief, and all that’s she’s ever held to be true about her life and living. Biblically speaking, this question sets the stage for everything about to happen: it’s not only a pivotal point in this story of the raising of Lazarus, it also serves as a foreshadowing of the triumphant end to the horrific passion narrative that is just about to unfold. But for Martha, it’s a question that is deeply personal… and life-changing.
Which makes it all the more interesting, and even a bit strange, that for you and me in the here and now this question of Jesus, “Do you believe,” almost comes off as something too familiar and that which can easily be shrugged off as a given! After all, as the Christian church, isn’t this what we’re supposed to believe? Resurrection and eternal life; are not these the core understandings of our Christian faith, the very reason that two weeks from this morning, we’ll be gathering to celebrate Easter, quite literally our day of resurrection? Granted, there are times that we do wonder about “the impossible possibility” of the resurrection; there are even moments when, like Thomas the apostle, we might just harbor a little bit of doubt about it all! But at the heart of it, this matter of resurrection is the starting place of everything else we believe as Christians; so yes, of course we believe!
Or do we?
The fact is, friends, what Jesus is asking here is not about current theological consensus amongst Christians, nor is it about what the church professes nor what about what tradition or society accepts as true. What Jesus is asking is, do you believe that I am the resurrection and the life? Jesus’ question, rather than merely addressing a point of theology, is meant to be something direct and personal; a question that, as I said before, cut to the very core of everything Martha – and you and I – hold to be true.
So… all that said, that’s the question for today… do we believe? Do we believe in resurrection?
It goes without saying that we believe in death… for we’ve seen it so often. Who among us has not stood at a gravesite lamenting the loss of a loved one? Or have kept vigil with a parent or spouse or friend for whom death is imminent, trying to offer our love and support even as all along we’re feeling that something in ourselves dying as well. We are well-acquainted with death, and mind you, not just physical death: but also the living death that comes when hope is gone; the death of spirit that occurs when remorse and anger, doubt and despair takes hold of our life and living. Truly, whether it’s the news of yet another shooting rampage, this time at a spas in Atlanta, the heartbreaking realization that over half a million people have lost their lives in this year of pandemic, or for that matter, the death of simple human compassion in an increasingly suspicious and cynical time, it’s all too easy to recognize death as an indisputable reality of our lives.
But the question is, can we recognize resurrection just as easily? Can we, do we really believe that Jesus is the resurrection and the life? Are we able to confess as truth that believing in him, though we die the myriad deaths of earthly life, nonetheless we live, now and forever, never to die?
I’ll say it again: as regards our faith, it is a crucial question, and how we answer not only makes who we are as the Church, the Body of Christ. Truly, who we are a sacred community ultimately has to do with resurrection: life out of death; light in the midst of smoldering darkness; undeniable, unstoppable hope rising out of the despair of the world’s seemingly endless hopelessness. As believers and as the church, we are identified as a resurrection people, and not just resurrection in the sense of what’s to be received in the life to come, but resurrection that is ours in the here and now: life that’s full, abundant and a brand new in Jesus Christ.
Do you believe this? Do you believe this?
Our second text for this morning, from the Old Testament book of the prophet Ezekiel, offers up that rather haunting image of a valley full of dry, lifeless bones. Historically speaking, we need to understand that Ezekiel’s prophecy is directed to Israel in its time of exile; when Jerusalem and the temple had been destroyed, and the entire community of God’s people was deep in despair. All through this passage there’s an undercurrent of complete abandonment for Israel, as though God had left them without any hope of restoration. For them, these “dry bones” might as well have been their very souls. For all purposes, practical, spiritual and otherwise, they were dead.
And yet, what we read here is that as God shows the prophet this vision, he asks the question, “Can these bones live?” Truthfully, it seems like a pointless question with an obvious answer, but as God always seems to do, he moves beyond the obvious. As Ezekiel prophecies unto all these dry bones, God proceeds to breathe a breath of life into them; and suddenly, miraculously, there is a noise, a rattling, and now and the bones come together, with muscles and flesh appearing where just moments before there had been none. It’s like the story of creation all over again: God breathes, and immediately there’s life! And God says to Ezekiel, go to my people, these people who feel dried up and cut off with all hope lost, go and tell them, “I’ll dig up your graves and bring you out alive… I’ll breathe my life into you and you’ll live… I’ve said it and I’ll do it. God’s Decree.” [The Message]
It’s resurrection; God actively bringing forth life, life bursting forth in the midst of certain and undeniable death; understanding that this is no vague, future apocalyptic hope for the future, but the real and loving action of God in the here and now, divine action that restores the soul to the depth and fullness of living!
This is exactly the action that we see in the raising of Lazarus: in Jesus, God bringing forth resurrection and life, yes, as an assurance of what is to come when this earthly life is past, but also as the sign and seal of our fellowship with Christ in the here and now. What happens at the entrance of Lazarus’s tomb ends up as a summons to the true life that Christ gives us in the moment and shows forth what Christ promises to bring to fulfillment within us in the fullness of time.
This is resurrection, the promise of new life taking shape in our living NOW: the ability even amidst death, to see a bit of both the abundance and the eternity of life in this present moment; as well as reminding us that peace that real joy and true love can only exist, grow, and thrive among those who have been raised in Jesus Christ. And in this story, when Jesus cries out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” and the formerly dead Lazarus emerges, burial cloths and all, from his tomb a moment later, it turns out that there’s more to this miracle than a dead man being brought back to life. It also serves as our first reminder of the resurrection that is ours in Jesus Christ, this resurrection that frees us, now and forever, from every kind of death that we’ve ever had to, or ever will have to face.
“Do you believe this?” Jesus asked Martha, and that’s what he’s asking us today. “Do you believe this?” Martha – her voice shaking, not really fully understanding what she was saying, no clue as to how to process with Jesus was talking about or what he was planning to do, and yet knowing deep down in her heart it was true – answered that yes, she believed. But the question is, under those circumstances would you or I have said the same? That’s the thing, you see, about mystery, about wonder, about faith; ultimately, there is only one of two things that you can do with it: either accept it or reject it. And sometimes there’s not a miracle in the world big enough or the fifth of the fifth miraculous enough to convince us to believe.
So that’s why it’s good news indeed that Jesus offered up another sign.
If you were part of a church youth group or summer camp during the 1970’s, chances are you’re familiar with the tale of “Barrington Bunny.”
Part of The Way of the Wolf, a collection of stories, poems and songs by the late Martin Bell, “Barrington Bunny” is the story of a lop-eared, furry brown bunny with “unusually shiny eyes” who, encouraged by a great and mysterious silver wolf on one snowy Christmas Eve, sets out to give special gifts to several animal families living in the forest: sticks for the beavers’ house, dead grass and leaves for the squirrels’ nest, and so on. As night begins to fall and a blizzard approaches, Barrington discovers a baby field mouse lost and separated from his family, and now in danger of freezing. Knowing that bunnies are furry and warm, Barrington covered the little mouse, hugging him tightly throughout the long, cold night as she slept safe and sound. The next morning, wrote Bell, “the field mice found their little boy, asleep in the snow, warm and snug beneath the furry carcass of a dead bunny. Their relief was so great that they didn’t even think to question where the bunny had come from.”
And that’s pretty much where the story ends.
Needless to say, “Barrington Bunny” is a story that while extremely sad, offers up a powerful message about giving and sacrifice. I’ve actually read the story aloud a number of times over the years to youth groups, confirmation classes, and even a couple of times during a service of worship. I particularly remember one such occasion when afterward there was this sweet little girl from our congregation who came up to me after the service, her eyes red and welled up with tears, and said to me (and quite angrily, I might add), “Reverend Lowry, you didn’t finish the story!”
Taken a bit aback by both her tears and her tone, I stammered back, “Well… yes, I did… I’m sorry, but that’s where the story ends!” To she replied, with tears still flowing down her cheeks, “No! It doesn’t end there! The bunny is supposed to come back to life!”
And, of course, not only was this little girl very perceptive, she was also right.
Soon it will be Holy Week, and the time will come on this Lenten journey we’re traveling that we’ll stand at the foot of the cross, this unthinkable yet unforgettable place where Jesus died to bring us salvation before God. It’s the hardest part of our journey together, the most certainly it’s the part that’s the most necessary.
But here’s the thing: the story doesn’t end there!
As you well know, I am fond of saying that we cannot come to the joy of Easter without first confronting the horror of Good Friday, but it’s also important for us to remember that the opposite is true, that our faith does not end on a wooden cross at Golgotha. Because in fact, it is the cross that is the sure and certain sign that we are being brought to new life by Jesus, who is the resurrection and the life! And as Jesus himself said to Martha so he says to you and to me today: those who believe in him, even though they die will live, and everyone who lives and believes in him will never die.
But the question is… the question still is… Do you believe this? Do you?
I pray that you will give this crucial question your thought and prayer as we draw ever nearer to the cross.
Thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN!
© 2021 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.