Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless
The rich texts selected for this Sunday invoke a number of themes: life and death, hope and despair, help and abandonment, etc. You almost have to choose one set of ideas and use them as a lens through which to read the texts. One such theme, or lens, that strikes me is the places that God meets us in order to do, or accomplish, God’s work.
In Ezekiel, the very bone-chilling (pun alert!) and unlikely scene is a valley of “very dry” bones. The “very dry” is important, because the author wishes to remove all doubt as to the presence of life in this desolate place. There absolutely is none. Not only is there no life, there is — symbolically speaking — no hope for the intended audience of Ezekiel’s message.
The nation of Israel has just been ransacked; the Temple in Jerusalem lies in ruins. The faithful have by and large been carried away to Babylonia in a captivity that will ensure no return to the Jewish homeland for a majority of the people who experienced it. It’s just not a good time!
And, yet…in the midst of this pile of bones, this barricade of desolation, God promises to breathe new life into God’s people. It is an audacious claim and is certainly a vivid vision. The bones rise up, receive new bodies, and are enlivened not only by the breath of life but by the Spirit of God. Hope remains alive in the midst of the most hopeless of scenarios.
Is this vision “true to life,” as you have experienced it? What are the kinds of places that God shows up? If you have been in a place where your own bones felt “very dry” and you have not received the breath of new life, is there anything in this passage that gives you hope (or at least a reasonable expectation of help) for the future?
The psalm text starts in the pit — and moves from there.
Notice that, again, we have a speaker for God expressing hope for God’s help while waiting in a difficult situation. Are you beginning to sense a theme, here?
Verse 6 is evocative, especially for anyone who has ever experienced waiting up all night, praying that the morning light would come and that “things will look better tomorrow.” There is certainly a ring of truth to that. The psalmist says that waiting for God’s redemption while in a deep, dark place is like that.
Ever been in a pit, waiting for some help from God (or anyone else, for that matter?) What did it feel like when help finally came? Why is it that we associate help from God most often with the low places in our lives??
Paul writes about another contrast of places that God does God’s work: the flesh and the spirit. I don’t think the point here is so much that God wants NOTHING to do with the flesh, and EVERYTHING to do with the spirit. After all, scripture teaches us that God created our flesh and called it, “good.”
Rather, I think Paul wants us to understand that flesh is, by its very nature, limited — especially when we forget that it is God’s spirit — the same word is translated as “breath” — that God placed into each of us. The spirit and the flesh are designed for co-existence. The spirit needs the body in order to “flesh out” God’s will for our lives. And the body certainly needs the spirit in order to receive the guidance and sense of the mind of God.
A person can become so overbalanced in the “spiritual” direction that they fit the stereotype of “so heavenly minded they’re no earthly good.” So, balance, folks…balance is what we need!
What kinds of things help to keep you in balance in your physical and spiritual life? Are there any warning signs that you should pay attention to in either (or both) of these areas?
Dr. Chilton treats this story well and extensively in his sermon (below.) The story is provocative on several levels.
- Why does Jesus decide to stay for two more days after he learns that Lazarus is ill? Just how exactly was God to be “glorified” in Lazarus’ death and resuscitation?
- Is Thomas really the doubting disciple that many assume him to be? In what ways is his statement in v.16 a “profession of faith?”
- Jesus asks both Martha and Mary if they believe in him, if they trust him to do what is best. In what way is this a story about belief…and how hard it is to hold on to sometimes?
- How hard was this experience for Lazarus? We don’t get much of his perspective, but coming back through the portal from death into life certainly demanded a level of belief and trust in what Jesus was doing that is unparalleled by any other experience expounded in the scripture. We may blithely assume that being made “alive again” in the way Lazarus was in this story is a good thing — but, then again, maybe not. Once on the “other side,” would any of us really like to come back into this life of sin, sickness, hurt …not to mention decaying bodies?
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
My grandfather had a very sly wit, one that snuck up on you. He used to tell a story about a man who died. They had the funeral at his home, with the preachers and immediate family on the porch, mourners standing in the yard and an open coffin in the back of a mule-drawn wagon. After several sermons and much weeping and gnashing of teeth, the widow climbed onto the wagon seat next to the undertaker who drove the wagon up the hill to the family cemetery. The road went underneath the limbs of a very large oak tree and the wagon bumped heavily on an exposed root. At that moment, the “deceased,” snorted and coughed and sat up in the casket – not dead but alive, having been in a deep coma, apparently. Some years later, the man died again. His funeral played out exactly like the previous one. As the wagon neared the oak tree, the widow leaned over and whispered to the driver, “Why don’t you go wide around the tree this time?”
Every time I read the story of the raising of Lazarus, I think of Grandpa’s little tale. In particular, I think about two things – 1) in both stories there was someone (or some ones) who would have preferred that the corpse stay dead, and 2) it always makes me wonder how the deceased felt about coming back to life.
Some of the people were not happy that Jesus had brought Lazarus back to life. There is a hint of their discomfort in verse 37, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Things get really heated in the aftermath – in the verses following our reading. There the writer contrasts those who believe with others who “went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done.” What follows in verses 47-50 is a scene of cold, political calculation. They cared nothing for the fact that Lazarus had a new lease on life, that he had been restored to the arms of his loving family and friends. No. All they cared about was that a person like Jesus would upset the political and social balance of power, might upset and frighten the Romans and, in the process, threaten the elites own positions of wealth and influence. So they decided, “Better for him to die than all of us,” and the wheels were set in motion for the death of Christ.
Does Jesus frighten you? More importantly, does the gospel of Jesus Christ threaten to upset your life? If it doesn’t, you haven’t been paying attention – either to the Gospel or to your life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that when Christ calls us, he bids us to come and die. That is meant both figuratively and, ultimately, literally. We are called each day to die to selfishness and privilege. We are called to regularly examine our lives and let go of all the many ways we resist Christ by holding on to our dignity and our precious individuality. Christ calls us to drop those things so that our hands will we free to pick up our cross of servanthood and our lives will be free to follow Christ in a life devoted to serving others. If that does not frighten us and threaten our sense of security and our plans for a safe and leisurely retirement – then we have failed to understand the nature of what it means to be a Christian. If we’re honest, most of us would rather drive the wagon of our life in a wide loop around that particular tree.
Which leads me to my thought about how the deceased may have felt about being recalled. I don’t know what Lazurus’ life was like before he took sick and died; but from the fact that Jesus loved him (vs.3) and his sisters grieved him so, and the whole community turned out to mourn with them, he must have been quite a guy, with a pretty good life. So, though we don’t know much about what happens after death, given the fact that Lazurus appears to have been a righteous person and considering all the stories of the tunnel of light and the warm, loving presence who receives you that we’ve all heard – I just imagine Lazarus settling in to eternity quite happily.
And then he gets the call, “Lazarus, come out!” and there’s a whoosh, and a movement faster than the speed of light and then, instead of being in warmth and light and love, Lazarus finds himself back in a cold, dark tomb, bound head to foot in burial cloths and about to gag on the stink of his own rotting flesh. I don’t know about him, but I’m thinking that if it had been me, I would not have been happy about this. And, eventually, he will hear the story about how his good friend Jesus, who loved him, let him die and rot in the grave, so that Jesus could demonstrate his divine Son of God healing skills. After all – isn’t that what Jesus said and did? “What kind of Messiah is that” Lazarus thinks, “who will let you die so he can show off?”
How often have we found ourselves wondering what God is doing in our lives? We love God, we trust God. We love Jesus, we trust Jesus. But sometimes one has to wonder. And the reality is, as it says in Ezekiel, the wind, the breath of God, the spirit of God, blows where it will when it will and we are never totally sure when and where that will happen; or where that wind might blow us and what it might do to us and through us. Just as God used Lazarus to show forth Jesus as the Son of God, full of God’s power and glory and love; God uses us in the same way – and often times we are no more aware of what we’re doing and no more responsible for its success than a corpse in a tomb. God acts in and through us just as God acted in and through Lazarus.
We are bid this day to die and live with Christ. We are called to come out of the dark tomb of our fear and hesitation; we are commanded to unbind ourselves from the limitations imposed by our desire for stability and success. Dying to self and embracing God’s future, we are invited to step out with Jesus and Lazarus and all the saints into the grand adventure that is life after death, an adventure that that begins now and continues through the grave into eternity.
Amen and amen.