‘You shall know that I am the Lord when I open your graves and bring you up from them,
O my people. then I will put my spirit in you and you shall live . . .
and you shall know that I the Lord have spoken and will act.’ Ezekiel 37.13-14 (Lent 4)
In the story of the valley of dry bones, the prophet Ezekiel is contemplating the dreadful sight of a valley full of dry bones. The bones are all that remain from the unburied carnage of bodies that had been left some time before, following a huge battle. Ezekiel likens these bones to the lifeless people of God who have lost their hope, vision, and identity. But the prophet himself possesses hope and vision, and he believes God’s Spirit can breath new life into what otherwise appears to be beyond redemption.
All of this is graphically expressed in the story of the raising of Lazarus. The story of Lazarus immediately follows the story we heard last Sunday about Jesus restoring the sight of a man blind from birth. Whatever the sources of these stories, we need not get hung up on trying to explain them. Our finding a logical explanation is not John’s concern. He tells both of these stories to emphasize a spiritual truth that concerns Jesus and those who identify their lives with his.
Just as Ezekiel’s dry bones represented the people of God, and just as the man blind from birth represents all of us, so also Lazarus represents everyone. He shows the impact Jesus can have on our lives. His story of being raised to new life is our story. John’s story provides us with a graphic illustration of what Jesus struggled to get across to Nicodemus when he said, ‘You must be born all over again.’
Jesus was accustomed to staying in the home of his friend Lazarus when he visited the area surrounding Jerusalem. One of the key truths conveyed in John’s gospel, is that where Jesus dwells, God dwells, and that, when we remain with Jesus, we are assured of God’s promise to remain with us always. But we can forget this truth or its impact can wane, and our faith and confidence can diminish. We need to be constantly seeking the revitalization of God’s Spirit.
The Hebrew form of the name Lazarus is ‘Eleazar’ which means ‘God to the rescue’, and the meaning of the name of his town Bethany is ‘house of affliction’. Here his sisters Mary and Martha grieved his death and considered themselves abandoned by God. Perhaps their entire household represents so many people who are barely alive because life has lost its meaning. Perhaps Lazarus had given up on life, and lost his vision and hope in the Messianic dream that God will rescue his people. And, if Lazarus is quite literally as good as dead, his sisters considered themselves to be emotionally and spiritually exhausted. Each of them had abandoned all hope and, as a household, they were just like Ezekiel’s valley of dry, dead bones.
Matthew’s gospel conveys the same message within the context of Jesus’ resurrection. He writes, ‘At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.’ (Matthew 27.51-53)
This description of the walking dead or the return of the zombies is not to be taken literally. It is a vivid description of how Ezekiel’s vision was fulfilled through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It describes how, as the people of God, we shall also be raised to new life when we engage our lives with that of Jesus. We shall then find ourselves revitalized through the gift of the Divine Spirit. Jesus said, ‘Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’ Paul stresses this teaching of Jesus when he writes to the earliest Christian communities, “If the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, the One who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through the indwelling of his Spirit within you”.(Romans 8.11)
As I’ve assured you before, you’re not required to leave your God-given intelligence inside your vehicle in the parking lot when you enter this church. Did Lazarus literally step physically out of his tomb after he had been dead for four days? Was the water at Cana literally changed physically into wine? And, in two week’s time, are we going to ask the question raised by Thomas, and asked by millions ever since, “Did Jesus literally rise physically from the dead?”
Throughout his gospel, John gently, yet persistently, suggests that these are not the important questions. They may seem important to us when we first hear what he has to say, but John is leading us to a transformation of our minds and hearts after which another question is seen to be far more important. “What do these signs reveal to us about God, about Jesus, and about ourselves?” That question is far more important because it will bring us to the birth of a new consciousness which leads us to entrust ourselves to God’s grace alone. Ultimately, we are not saved by miracles but by this transformation of consciousness and faith that was known and lived by Jesus.
John’s gospel stresses that it is to people like Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, you and me, all of us within God’s household, that Jesus comes. And when the authentic Jesus comes as Messiah, he can have a profound effect on our lives. It is as if we’ve been born all over again. But, just as the blind man was challenged when he received his sight, so also are all of us who have been raised to new life by Jesus. The raising of Lazarus precipitates the death and resurrection of Jesus. When people such as you and me are raised to a new level of consciousness, and life takes on a new dimension, our values and expectations are apt to conflict and to clash with social conventions.
John summed up the purpose of his gospel in these words, “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it in abundance.” And, to each of us, he cries with a loud voice, “Come out of your tomb.”
The Church of the Holy Saviour, Waterloo