In his word is my hope…said the Psalmist to God. In his word is my hope. As he sits in whatever deep and dark place he is in, as he waits for a morning that seems to be a long time coming, he knows that what he needs is a word, but not any word, a word of God. He needs to hear what God is saying to him. That’s what will pull him up out of these depths he has fallen into. Words can do that. Words can change the world, if they are the right words, from the right person, at the right moment.
There are a lot of words in our readings today. I don’t just mean that they were long, though they were, but that they are full of messages and conversations, full of people saying things to one another. But often those words seem to bring more confusion than clarity.
“Can these dry bones live?” says God to Ezekiel in a vision. Ezekiel looks around at the scene, an ancient battlefield scattered with the bleached, dried out remains of a fallen army of people. What kind of silly question is this? Can these dry bones live? No, of course they can’t. I’m sure that’s what Ezekiel thinks, just as we all would. But he hedges his bets, suspecting that there is more to this question than meets the eye. “O Lord God, you know”. Ezekiel really doesn’t have a clue what is going on, and every step along the way as this vision unfolds is a new challenge for his faith. It isn’t till the end that the reason behind God’s bizarre command to prophesy to the bones becomes clear. This is a message of hope to the exiled and hopeless people of Israel. They may feel like dry bones, but God hasn’t finished with them yet.
The Gospel reading is equally baffling to those caught up in its story. It is full of misunderstandings.
Is Lazarus seriously ill?
“Yes, but it won’t lead to death,” says Jesus.
He’s right – in a sense. At the end of this story no one is dead. But the disciples take him literally. It’s a relief. They didn’t really want to have to go dashing off back to Judea anyway. They’ve only just managed to escape from Jesus’ opponents there who wanted to stone him.
So they are a bit dumbfounded when, two days later, Jesus suddenly announces that they are heading for Lazarus’ house after all.
Has he taken a turn for the worse?
“He has fallen asleep,” says Jesus.
“Well, that’s all right then. He’ll wake up again. We don’t need to put ourselves in danger” they say.
So Jesus has to spell it out – Lazarus is dead.
Now, why didn’t he say that in the first place?
While they’re still trying to take this in, to add insult to injury, Jesus starts telling them that this delay is part of God’s plan , that he is using it to build up their faith. No wonder Thomas seems to give up even trying to understand at this point. Death seems simpler than all this confusion.
When they get to Bethany, things don’t really improve much. Martha and Mary both greet Jesus with identical words. “If you had been here my brother would not have died.”
It’s a pointed and painful comment. Jesus has healed all sorts of other people, often complete strangers to him. Why could he not have prevented the death of this very special friend, the one whom he loved?
Jesus may know what he’s up to, but he doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job of communicating it. But if we feel aggrieved on behalf of Martha, Mary and the disciples, if we feel sorry for Ezekiel, faced with that unanswerable question from God, then I think that’s because we are meant to.
Of course, for all these people, the end of the story is a happy one, but they don’t know that at the outset. Ezekiel’s vision ends with those scattered bones being brought together, clothed in flesh and given back their lives. Lazarus comes out of the tomb, trailing his grave clothes, and is restored to his family. But there is no reason why Ezekiel, or the disciples, or Martha and Mary should have expected that to happen.
The idea that the dead could rise again wasn’t quite as unthinkable to ancient people as it might be to us. They believed God could raise the dead, but they didn’t think he would do unless there was some exceptional reason. They expected and assumed, like us, that death was final and irrevocable. Whatever they thought came after it, there was no way back.
And just like us, they didn’t want to die, and didn’t even want to think about dying if they could avoid it. Who would? But the thought of death has a way of intruding into our lives at some point anyway. A car screeches to a halt with inches to spare as we step off the curb without looking. A suspicious symptom turns out to be nothing, but might not have been, or maybe a serious illness is caught just in time. That could have been it, we think. Someone close to us, our own age, dies in some random accident. That could have been me. Suddenly it comes home to us that we are fragile, mortal creatures and that in the end the battle for life is one we will all lose.
If that thought makes you uncomfortable, you are in good company. Most people are scared of death to some extent. Even if we believe in an afterlife, we don’t want to lose the life we have and know. Some fear the process of dying. Some fear the thought of leaving their loved ones behind. Others simply struggle with the thought that they won’t be part of this world any more, part of the events of life, as if they are being snatched away early from a party they were really rather enjoying.
Martha, Mary and Jesus’ other disciples don’t want to think about death, any more than we do. They don’t want it to acknowledge that it is going happen to them, or to their friend Lazarus. They want Jesus to stop it, wave a magic wand or prescribe a magic potion.
They won’t want Jesus to die either when the moment comes, which it very soon will do, and that is what this story is really pointing forward to. He has told them clearly that it is inevitable that he will be killed because of the message he preaches, but they will try as hard as they can for as long as they can to hold that thought at bay. They’ll pretend it can’t happen and won’t happen. We’ll protect you, Peter will say. God won’t let you die.
As Jesus is arrested and crucified they’ll look to the skies for God’s angels to swoop down and rescue Jesus, to spirit him away from his captors, to enable him to leap from the cross. When that doesn’t happen and his body lies cold in the tomb, they’ll be baffled and angry, convinced that all their hopes have died with him.
Martha and Mary say to Jesus “If you had been here our brother wouldn’t have died”.
After Jesus’ death the disciples will echo those words in their own minds. “If God had been there, Jesus wouldn’t have died…” How could this man be God’s Messiah if God had let this happen? It is only when he rises from death that the question is answered for them, but it isn’t answered in the way they expected. Instead of avoiding death, Jesus has gone through it and come out of the other side.
For the early Christians this wasn’t just a miracle. It was also, and more importantly, a vindication. It told them that God had been with Jesus, even as he suffered and was humiliated and died. And it made all the difference to them in their own lives, because if God could be with Jesus even when he was suffering and everything seemed to be going wrong, God could be with them too.
Many of them would die violent and squalid deaths too. They would look – and maybe feel - like failures. But the death and resurrection of Jesus convinced them that this wasn’t the case. Death didn’t mean that God had deserted you or judged you and found you wanting. What mattered wasn’t that they died, or how they’d died, but whether they had walked in the way of Christ, loving those around them, living with integrity. Dying or living, succeeding or failing in the world’s eyes, they were still held securely in God’s hands. Neither their living or their dying was in vain.
That’s something we need to know too, not just as we face our physical deaths, but also as we face the myriad small deaths that come before it; the moments when we realise that we aren’t the all-powerful, self-sufficient, all-knowing, sorted out people we’d like to think we are. We can’t avoid death or failure - they are part of being human - but we can discover God’s presence and God’s blessing within them and when we do that they start to lose their power to terrify us.
Death shouts loudly at us sometimes, but the word of God, the word of life can cut through the noise if we will pay attention. Yes, it says, the human life we know in this world is limited in all sorts of ways, including in its length, but what joy and blessing there can be within it, for us and for others, if we have the courage to live it fully, wisely and lovingly, not constricted by the grave clothes of fear, but clothed in the love of God which is eternal.
In God’s word is my hope, said the Psalmist. For all the confusing words in our readings today, at the end the words that really matter are crystal clear. “Lazarus, come out!” shouts Jesus. Come out and live. Come out and love. Come out and walk in the way of Christ.