Ezekiel 37:1-14 New International Version (NIV): The Valley of Dry Bones
37 The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”
4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath[a] enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”
7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.
9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.
11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’
John 11:1-45 New International Version (NIV): The Death and Raising of Lazarus
11 Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) 3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”
4 When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” 5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, 7 and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”
8 “But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?”
9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. 10 It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”
11 After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”
12 His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” 13 Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.
14 So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, 15 and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
16 Then Thomas (also known as Didymus]) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
28 After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” 29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.
32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
35 Jesus wept.
36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39 “Take away the stone,” he said.
“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odour, for he has been there four days.”
40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
Romans 8:1-11 New International Version (NIV): Life Through the Spirit
8 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you] free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh,] God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering] And so he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
5 Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6 The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. 7 The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8 Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.
9 You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. 10 But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life] because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of] his Spirit who lives in you.
Many of us viewing this service believe that, in a way we don’t fully understand, what is written in the Bible is divinely inspired. Something of God caused the particular writings which we find in the Bible. May well have been over 2000 years apart. Written by so many different people. Yet divinely inspired.
You may not have a similar opinion about the Methodist Church lectionary! Some might cynically regard passages on a Sunday have no link or correlation.
Dear friends I can say that for this particular Sunday the creators of the lectionary have excelled themselves. Three passages which have a consistent whole, themes which run through each and come to us today. Yet very different passages.
At least that is what I wrote when I did the first draft of this sermon in late February. No one knew then what is now. But it seems to me, and to the elders as we have discussed this, that we should nevertheless proceed with these sensitive passages. Nevertheless if you want to talk through any of these issues, please telephone the pastoral team.
The challenge is what do the passages say to us generally in our Christian life and specifically today. Because we are looking at the living word which is as relevant to us today as ever. And we have no need to sugarcoat, soft pedal our gospel message of salvation
I intend to look at each and then to consider what we can learn today from all three. Themes of what it is to have life in both the physical and the spiritual sense. What does it mean to be a Christian? We will look at passages which directly deal with life in relationship with God. Dear friends, there is no need to keep a safe distance with our Lord. The closer the better.
The book of Ezekiel is long, 48 chapters, and probably page for page one of the least read books in the Bible. It follows Isaiah and Jeremiah and is followed by Daniel and the so-called minor prophets. 12 months ago Scripture union in their notes covered it and were so selective that the readings lasted less than two weeks. It’s a bit like listening to Bananarama’s greatest hits and realising there’s only a couple that one wants to listen to again, okay probably just one! Ezekiel is definitely not the Shakespeare of the Bible; there’s few pithy memorable phrases. Instead he’s big on condemnation and accusation.
The time is about 600 BC. The leading country was Persia with the capital in Babylon. They had conquered the surrounding countries making Babylonia a major global civilisation. They had taken many people from what is now Israel into captivity as exiles, refugees in Babylon, a culture which was so far away from Jewish life and religion. But hope survived. Why? Many remained, still living in and around Jerusalem. The exiles would surely return soon and be reunited with their fellow Jews in their promised land. No says Ezekiel. Exact opposite. Jerusalem will fall and all of God’s people’s will lose their land and be exiled. So you can understand the resonance of this book for the Jewish people throughout subsequent history, a people without their own land. Ezekiel is speaking to his fellow exiles in Babylon and yet giving warnings to the remnant in Jerusalem. The book speaks about God’s purpose for his people, how they should live their lives in exile and hold onto the faith.
Having abused Bananarama, I prefer Boney M song based on Psalm 137: By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. They carried us away in captivity requiring of us a song … Now how shall we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?
Chapter 37 is a prophecy. It didn’t happen. It won’t happen. It’s a picture, an illustration, a graphic, visual description. Ezequiel sees himself in a valley full of dry bones. Desert -like. Hot, parching, no water and just dry bones. It is not intended as macabre or spooky. The passage doesn’t dwell on why the bones are there nor should we. It simply a picture. It would have had particular resonance for the Jews. Deprivation of burial in the near East was the ultimate degradation. For the Israelis, exiled by God’s judgement for over 10 years, their hope was as dead as dry bones. And please hold onto that word hope. Because God speaking to the Jewish people in 600 BC is speaking also about hope to his people in Godalming in 2020
And he is asked can these dead, dried up bones, scattered across the valley floor, live? Can their hopes ever live again? What prospect of revival if only dry bones? What a ridiculous question. You can hear him saying: I’ve got no idea. So he is told to prophesy to the bones. I said it was only an illustration. Prophesy that the Lord would breathe into them and they would come to life. What happens next would have caused Ezekiel’s eyes to pop out. He wasn’t used to Hollywood computer graphics and yet one feels Hollywood would enjoy recreating the scene; they get flesh and tendons and skin. The bones rattle and there are intact bodies. But they’re not alive. Prophesy again he is told. That the breath of God may make them live. He does and now they stand up, a vast army. They have a purpose. They are the combined people of Israel, whether in Babylon or Jerusalem. And the Lord says that he will bring his people back to Israel and they will settle in their own land and they will know that he is the Lord. He has transformed a scene of utter devastation and hopelessness. He has given hope and confidence and expectation. From a situation in Babylon that was grim, suffocating, surreal and something which had never been known throughout their lifetime and many previous lifetimes comes the reliable message of hope and confidence and expectation. Dear friends, that is the word of the Lord to us today. Hold onto it. Keep it close to you
Now fast forward 600 years to the three-year active ministry of Jesus. It is the later period. There have already been five attempts to arrest or murder him. He has, John 10.39, left the Jerusalem area and crossed the Jordan some distance away. Then the message comes. Your good friend Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha, is seriously ill. What should he do? What will he do? Will he return immediately and thereby risk his own life? There are curious features in this passage which we don’t have time today. Why didn’t he go immediately? Why did he say the illness was not serious when it transpires Lazarus was dead? What can we again learn about the differences of Martha and Mary? There is so much more in this passage than simply Lazarus coming back from the dead.
But Jesus does come to their village, close to Jerusalem, where there are already significant crowds in a state of much emotion. And for those of us of a reserved nature, we have seen such scenes of intense mass emotion expressed in certain parts of the world. This was it. And Jesus himself joins: verse 35. Jesus wept. And we could spend a sermon analysing why he did in circumstances when he knew Lazarus would come back to them. I would suggest he was joining in their sadness and distress. He wept with them just as he joins in all our emotions today. This is not a stand-off, ivory tower theologian, a stiff upper lip response. He gets where we are, and he joins us. I somehow think that Jesus would have been into group hugs in a big way.
Whatever, he goes to the tomb. The stone is removed. Jesus prays to his father. I know you have always heard me. But I’m saying this for the benefit of everyone around here and everyone who will read about this event. That they may believe that you, the great Creator God, send me as your son. He calls for Lazarus to come out and he does. His hands and feet are still in his funeral cloths. And Jesus says: take off the grave clothes and let him go and live. And he does. The hope shown by Martha and Mary in reaching out to Jesus is justified. How it was justified is almost irrelevant. It’s not so much the raising of Lazarus. It’s the hope and expectation which we find fully satisfied in Christ.
And then we have Paul at his most dense and in complex exposition in the book of Romans. Dipping into Romans is dangerous! It’s too easy to take soundbites and short verses. It has to be seen in context. Incidentally whilst we are in self-isolation for perhaps three months or more, could I strongly recommend the studies by Martyn Lloyd Jones on Romans. Freely available online including audio. Now that’s a challenge
Always note when a Bible passage starts: therefore. It is a carry on from the previous arguments and debate. Romans 8 is at the heart of Paul’s argument about salvation by grace. If Romans is the Himalayas of the new Testament, then chapter 8 is Mount Everest. He draws together the first few chapters and then develops them.
We have references to flesh and spirit. Please note it’s not the difference between the physical and the non-physical. It’s the difference between living in line with our sinful human nature and living as directed by the spirit of God in our lives; those living in sinful nature and those living in the spirit and in life. Having the spirit in our lives is not an optional extra. It happens when we embrace this wonderful loving relationship with Christ. The Holy Spirit is the spirit of Jesus. And the spirit which raised Jesus from the dead is living in us. There is so much more here. Please do read
I said at the beginning there was an inspiration in the combination of these three passages. May I bring out the following points before some concluding words.
First, we have here three different forms of life. The dry bones receive the flesh and tendons needed to live and then they are made alive. But they are an illustration only. A reason to give us hope and confidence. They do not remain. Lazarus was dead and was brought back to life. But only for his life expectancy. He died. He does not remain alive. And the third, us. We were once living shells. Physically alive but spiritually dead. No hope or confidence or spiritual future. But now we are alive and will live with Christ in glory. Our life is not that of the dry bones or the temporarily living again Lazarus. It is life and life in all fulness. Which brings us to the second point
Secondly, what is this new life? What are we supposed to experience? The dry bones became a vast living army. But it never went to war. Lazarus continued to live. We know nothing about his life thereafter. Presumably an ordinary existence in his community. But our new life is so different. A life far more than we could ever expect. A life in all abundance.
One of my favourite verses is John 10:10. I have come that you may have life and life in all abundance. It was on the badge of my University, Leicester. When I got married, on the inside of my ring I have the date of the marriage. Always good reminder for us chaps! No excuses for the wedding anniversary flowers. It has the name of my wife. Hopefully won’t need a reminder. And it has John XX, 10:10. Because in all aspects of our life, we do not just live but live in the wonderful spiritual life he has given to us. These next few months will seem pretty grim and tedious. But through it all we are living in abundant life and we need constantly to remember this and to remind each other. Whatever our state of health, our spirit has all the abundant life of the creator of our universe and that is boundless and limitless. Let us live in that hope.
Because thirdly these passages are about hope. Think on the hope for the exiles, confined to barracks in Babylon, not able to enjoy the Israeli countryside and companionship. They were given hope. Think on the mourning crowds, the devastated family of Lazarus. They were given hope. Think on us Christians and we have been given hope of the new life in the spirit.
My friends, we are people of hope. Not as in maybe but in will be. Not in fingers crossed but in dead cert winner. And hope, genuine hope, is not kept to ourselves. It is shared. Because we are joyful and grateful. This hope will find itself in looking after others. Churches and other charitable organisations have been inundated with offers of help and that’s great. But this will be a long haul. We need the particular hope which has extra perseverance added. And sometimes this hope, in our self-isolation, will mean prayer. It’s what Christian closed communities have been doing throughout the centuries. If we can’t get out of our houses, our prayers definitely can and will and will be effective. So even if we’re not gathered together physically, we can be sure our combined prayers are gathered together.
So three common aspects of the passages. New life. New life in abundance. New life with hope.
But permit me please just a couple of specific words about our situation. Christ in Isaiah 53 is the suffering servant. Despised and rejected by mankind. A man of suffering and familiar with pain. Our Christ walked into the leper colonies, was alongside the dying and the mourning. At Easter he suffered indescribable isolation and agony. He has already been in acute pain where some of us may be now and some of us may be in coming months and he is with us still. In Revelation 5.6 we have Christ on the throne described as looking as if he had been slain. Reflect on this for a moment. At the centre of the universe, at a time of absolute perfection there is somebody who understands our pain and suffering. He is with us and will remain with us whatever happens.
It is not simplistic, superstitious pie in the sky when we say that Easter in a couple of weeks is when we remember that Jesus overcame death to have perfect life. Whatever happens and very serious times are ahead for us which will challenge us perhaps as never before as a church community, we know that physical death is not the end for us, whenever and however that may be. God in Jesus defeated death through his resurrection. God in Jesus suffers with us but we will rise in him to new life. Jesus said: for this is the will of God, that everyone who looks on the son and believes in him will have eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day: John 6.40.
So we place our confidence and hope in Christ. We reach out and he holds our hand. Even better he carries us when we can no longer able to walk ourselves. He helps us to reach out to others, to help others and to enable them to have this hope and confidence, to give them what they need whether food, medicines, a telephone call or much more.
Therefore thank you to whoever in the Methodist Church was guided to produce these passages for this Sunday. Thank you for the elders for deciding to stick with them. Thank you to Ezekiel for the inspiration of the life and hope when all seemed grim and lost. Thank you for Jesus giving hope to Martha and Mary and many others when hope seemed pointless. Thank you to our heavenly Father for giving us abundant life now and for ever through our relationship with our saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. Whatever happens to us over these coming weeks, let us put our confidence in life in a relationship with him, let us sing and rejoice about our saviour, his love and his hope and the opportunity for us to be the beacon of light and help to our nation and to the whole world. May God bless each one of you.