Sunday, 2 April 2017

Lent 5: Words of Life

Audio version here

Ezekiel 37.1-14, John 11.1-45

So what do you think of today’s Gospel reading? Does it make it easier or harder for you to be a Christian?
For many people today, in my experience, this story of Jesus raising Lazarus raises more questions than it answers. We know all too well the finality of death, especially if we have lost someone we love.

It raised questions in the minds of those who first told this story too. That’s obvious from the reading itself. Those who saw this happen, it says, were amazed and confounded.  But the questions in their minds wouldn’t have been the same as ours.

We ask “how could this happen?” When people stop breathing, when there is no brain activity, we know that’s it. The end of physical life. The people of Jesus’ time, though, wouldn’t have been thinking like that at all.  They didn’t expect people to rise from the dead, or at least not until the end of time, but they didn’t think it was impossible. Life was a gift of God, after all. He gave it in the first place, so he could give it back again if he chose to. Their concern was whether he would choose to raise people from death, and who he would choose, and through whom this would happen. So their question wouldn’t be “how could this happen?” It would be “why did it happen?”  If we’re going to make any sense of an extraordinary story like this, we have to try to put aside our 21st Century rationalism, and climb back into their minds to see if we can understand what they would be thinking.  

The think that would have astonished them about this story wasn’t just that Lazarus had been raised from death, but that he had been raised as a result of Jesus’ prayers.

For them this wasn’t just an amazing miracle. It was evidence that God was at work in Jesus, evidence that he had been chosen, blessed and used by God. God was the only one who could give life, so how else could Jesus have done this?

Raising Lazarus validated the claim that Jesus was the Messiah, God’s chosen one. Despite the fact that he wasn’t a member of the religious establishment, despite the fact that he hadn’t had the religious training of a scribe or Pharisee, despite the fact that he seemed so often to act unconventionally, keeping company with people who the respectable elites would have shunned, this was the one through whom God was acting.

And if it validated his status as Messiah, it also validated the message he was preaching and living, and the priorities he’d set out. It validated his commitment to the poor and outcast. It validated his criticism of those in power who used that power to oppress others. If God was honouring his prayers, then the other things he said and did were “of God” too.

We’ve had 2000 years to get used to the idea that Jesus was, at the very least, one of the good guys, someone who was obviously holy. But he didn’t actually have a halo. He didn’t glow in the dark. He was a carpenter from Nazareth, nothing outwardly special at all. We shouldn’t be surprised that his contemporaries didn’t all instantly fall at his feet – why should they? The surprise is that any of them did.

By the accepted religious standards of his time, Jesus was, at best, problematic – a troublesome loose cannon from a backwater town in Galilee. At worst, he was a blasphemous heretic. He was teaching and advocating things which respectable society thought were completely wrong. This was the man who called the scribes and Pharisees “whited sepulchres” (Matthew 23.27) – tombs full of decay, just whitewashed on the outside. This was the man who’d declared that prostitutes and tax collectors would get into the kingdom of heaven before the religious professionals (Matthew 21.31). It was hardly likely to endear him to them. We can surely understand why they might have had trouble imagining him as Messiah material.

But the raising of Lazarus challenged them to think again, to look again. God, the giver of life, seemed to be on the side of this strange rebel, using him, listening to him, speaking through him.

This is a story not just about life and death – important though they are - but also, perhaps more importantly, about how God speaks to us, and who he speaks through.  It’s a story about the word of God, God’s message, embodied in Jesus, the Word made flesh, and about the words of God which we hear and speak today. It’s a story that reminds us of how powerful God’s word is. It can bring life out of death. But it also reminds us that it can be difficult sometimes to hear that word and to recognise it as God’s amidst all the other words that crowd in on us.

Today’s Old Testament reading reminds us of that too. The prophet Ezekiel is in exile in Babylon, along with most of the rest of the population of Jerusalem and its surrounding countryside. Jerusalem has been overrun and destroyed by the Babylonians. It’s people think they’ll never go home again, and even if they do, what kind of home will there be to go to? They’ve lost hope, just as, I am sure, many refugees and exiles do today. It’s easy when you are far from home and frightened, to find that the only words that echo in your head are words of despair. “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”

But Ezekiel has a vision, a vision of those dry bones, a valley full of them, perhaps the aftermath of a battle that happened long ago, so long ago that no one could doubt their deadness.  They aren’t even formed into bodies anymore. They’ve been scattered around by animals and the wind. It’s obvious that there’s no future for them. Again and again, though, Ezekiel is told by God to “prophesy to the bones” – to speak to them, to tell them what God is saying to them, to give them his words in place of their own. And Ezekiel does. And the bones come rattling together, and sinews and flesh form on them. And finally they’re filled once again with the life-giving breath of God, and they stand up, “a vast multitude”. Ezekiel’s vision is just that, a vision – not an actual event - but the hope it brought to his exiled people was very real. It kept them going through those tough times until they were indeed able to go home. The words God gave Ezekiel, words of life, words of hope, gave a future to people who thought they had none.  This story tells us that God’s words – if they are God’s words – have an awesome power.

We’re surrounded by words. All around us people are talking, texting, tweeting, facebooking.  We’re bombarded with opinions. Even when we’re alone, with all the electronic devices switched off our minds are full of thoughts, chattering away like demented monkeys. How do we know whether any of what we hear is God’s word? How can we detect, amid the babble of the world the “still, small voice” that is God’s word to us, the voice we really need to listen to? These stories give us a powerful clue.

God’s word, they say, is a word that calls us to life, not just the physical life that Lazarus was given back, but life “in all its fullness,” as Jesus put it just a chapter before this (John 10 .10). What does that kind of life look like? It’s life which has purpose and meaning, life which is marked by the ability to love and to be loved, to wonder and to care.

The word of God is a word that, when we hear it, enables us to get up, to come out of the darkness of the tomb, to face the world, to find a new direction.

But that’s not the end of it. God’s life-giving word isn’t  just for us. It is for everyone. So another test that helps us to decide whether the words we are hearing and speaking are God’s words is the effect they have on others.

The words of God won’t ever call us to live selfishly, to impoverish others so that we can heap up goods or cling to status for ourselves. They won’t ever call us to condemn others or act vengefully towards them. They won’t ever call us to deny others the freedom to love and be loved, to live joyfully in the world, to take the path that brings them fullness of life. That might sound obvious, but Christians have a woeful track record of oppressing others in the name of God, and we are all capable of using words to shut life down for people rather than opening it up.

When Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, he was speaking God’s word, a word of life, and those watching him knew it. When we speak words that bring people to life, generous words, gracious words, words that give hope, those around us will recognise that something holy is happening in us too, that God is at work, and the effect can be just as life-changing.

We may find it hard to get our heads around these ancient tales of resurrection, but our hearts can still respond to them as joyfully, finding in them new life and hope. Strange though they are, we need these stories just as much as the people who first told them did.

As Lent draws to its end, we prepare to walk with Jesus through the darkness of death and despair to the life and hope of Easter Day. As we do so, let’s make time amidst the clamour of the world to really listen, so that we can “hear the word of the Lord” that makes our dry bones live again.

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