Can these bones live?
“Can These Bones Live?”
March 26, 2023 - Cobleskill United Methodist Church, Pastor Anna Blinn Cole
John 11:1-3,17-44 and Ezekiel 37:1-14
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Can these bones live?
This is the question we are left with today after hearing the Gospel of John and Ezekiel readings so eloquently braided together by Margaret and Alex.
Can these bones live again?
This was my exact thought Sunday afternoon last week asking after watching a devastating, heart-breaking defeat of the only sports team I love dearly during March Madness. I laid on the couch so long and so lifelessly, my daughter had to come up to me and say, don’t be sad forever, mom. With the way this tournament has gone, I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s had a moment like this.
Somehow, as devastating as it was to see my Kentucky Wildcats end their season, I am pretty sure it wasn’t my sorry bones on the couch stunned by a basketball game that Ezekiel had in mind when he wrote about a valley of dry bones coming back to life in the 5th century BC. And although “there’s always next season,” that’s not why Jesus risked everything to be the resurrection and the life to those who needed a deep and abiding hope.
This is the fifth week of Lent and suddenly we are at a major pivot point. There is all of Lent that has come before now with healings and conversations and revelations and then there’s this story today that brings into a different sort of clarity the impact and meaning Jesus’ life is about to take. In the story today though, quite literally, Jesus shows that new life is not only metaphorical, but a reality and a promise. New life is possible here.
But the honest to God truth is, new life comes at great cost.
Something had to die first.
Death was close at hand for Ezekiel and Jesus. Ezekiel had watched his home city of Jerusalem fall to invaders and then he watched as his wife died beside him. Jesus, for his part, is famous for having disciples and followers, but did you know he had friends, too? People who knew him and cared about him as a person, not just as a teacher. Lazarus was a friend and Lazarus had just died.
Death is uncomfortable and hard to talk about. It’s the inevitable end of every physical life eventually, but we go to great lengths to put off thinking about it. That’s why I was uncomfortable yesterday when a certain notification came across my phone. It was a news story from NPR and the headline was that American life-expectancy has declined for an unprecedented second year in a row. Worried and confused, I read the article. Life expectancy has been going up for decades upon decades, why is it now falling? I was looking for clear-cut answers, but there weren’t any. Covid-19 gave a huge jolt, but then when other countries’ life expectancies have started to rebound, the US is still falling. A multitude of uniquely American factors ranging from high rates of gun-violence, more car accidents, a significant drug overdose epidemic, and other deadly illnesses like HIV and heart disease all combine to create an environment where we’ve collectively lost 26 years of progress on life expectancy in this country. Americans are dying and suffering at rates that are demonstrably unnecessary.
This is our reality and it hurts and yet somehow we’re really good at ignoring it. The news article talked about a medical study done 10 years ago that predicted this sharp drop was coming based on lack of affordable medical care, social isolation, high rates of child poverty and so much more. But was anything different done? No. This is just the way things are, some would say. Death is inevitable and it turns out we’re really pretty good at finding ways to die.
So what? Is that how this story ends? Do we just give up?
When Jesus finally arrived at his dying friend’s house, Lazarus’ sister Martha came running out to meet him and to tell him he was too late. Lazarus had already died and four days had passed. The tomb was sealed. Martha was bitter and angry. If Jesus had just come sooner maybe her brother could have been saved.
And then Jesus said this: I am the resurrection and the life. If you believe this, then you will not die. Do you believe in me?
And then Mary, Lazarus’ other sister came running and crying, falling down at his feet. “Jesus, if you had just been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”
Jesus then begins to weep. He is the resurrection and the life. Yet he cries. He knows that he has the power to bring Lazarus back to life and that he will do just that and yet Jesus, when confronted with Mary and Martha’s enormous grief, weeps.
Jesus knows better than anyone else there what the future holds, yet he is consumed by grief for what has been lost. He is God’s son and yet he is also a human being who has felt loss and grief. And he doesn’t hide how much he cares.
With his face probably still wet from tears, Jesus goes to the tomb of Lazarus, deeply disturbed, and says “remove the stone.”
There was shock and awe from those around. “Lazarus, come out!” Jesus said. What? Life after death? This seemed impossible.
And the one who was dead, walked out.
“Unbind him and let him go,” Jesus said.
And suddenly what had been dead was now given new life. The grief had been real. The grief came first. New life was only possible because there had first been a death. A sad and painful death.
Jesus knew the power of tears and Jesus knew the power of breath. He mourned what had been lost and then he brought the ancient lines of Ezekiel to life. “You will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you up from your graves, my people. I will put my breath in you, and you will live.”
And yet Jesus risked everything to bring Lazarus to life again. Because Jesus refused to not give up on his friend; because Jesus refused to let death be the end of the story, Jesus proved that he was indeed the Messiah.
He cared and the people around him loved him for it. As we look back on the life and ministry of Jesus, it becomes clear that this was the last straw for Jesus and why it was a pivotal moment. The religious authorities saw him raise Lazarus and the way the crowd loved him for it, and they decided Jesus must die. He cared too much. And if he cared too much, the people around him might start caring too much, too. And soon there would be a revolution of caring, and that sounded dangerous to the power that be.
Apathy would have been better for Jesus. It might have saved his life.
And yet Jesus knew that apathy itself is a kind of death.
Not caring. Not letting yourself feel grief in the midst of a death, even if you know better things are coming. Not doing everything you possibly can to bring a new chapter.
Jesus knew apathy was a kind of death all of its own.
We are living in a world surrounded by destruction whether it’s tornados that wipe out communities in Mississippi, or war that cripples entire countries, or epidemics of illness or hate or overdoses or gun-violence. It’s easy to just move on and mutter to ourselves, it’s all too much and this is just the way it is.
But if we’ve learned anything from Jesus, we must not stop caring. Because to stop caring is to let apathy take over. It’s to say, “well everybody dies someday” instead of actively asking can if what looks dead can possibly come back to life? It’s to say I believe in a kind of hope that pushes back against numbness. It’s to say, I believe that depressing statistics can be reversed if we just start caring more about our communities and one another’s lives. It’s to say, I believe in a kind of God who doesn’t give up on even the most far-gone situations. It’s to say, I believe in Jesus because Jesus never stopped caring. He cried our tears. He lived our life. He wept alongside us. And he risked everything to unbind us from our graves of despair and suffering. Even if it meant that his own life would be taken as a cost. We believe in Jesus because when we have trouble seeing it for ourselves, he tells us that our bones can live again. We believe in Jesus when death said no, Jesus said yes.