“Alive but Dead”
April 02, 2017
By John Partridge*
Ezekiel 37:1-14 John 11:1-45 Romans 8:6-11
As the new United States waged its war for independence with England, Captain John Paul Jones set sail in 1777 with orders to harass, disrupt, and create havoc with British shipping wherever he could. And so in 1779, sailing a repurposed cargo ship, the Bonhomme Richard, off the coast of Scotland Jones encountered a merchant convoy guarded by two well-armed, and well-trained, British naval vessels. Jones’ ships were not purpose built fighting ships and his crews were thrown together volunteers from America, France, and many other nations while the British crews were professionals with far superior training. In the first pass between the Bonhomme Richard and the British frigate Serapis, the American ship was raked with cannon fire, a great many crewmen immediately killed, fires were started all over the deck and below deck. By all outward appearances, it was already time for Captain Jones to surrender.
But when he was asked if he cared to do so, Captain Jones instead proclaimed, “I have not yet begun to fight.”
And fight he did.
Although Captain Jones’ ship, the Bonhomme Richard, was so badly damaged that it sank and he had to climb aboard another ship, and despite being outgunned, out trained, and out manned, the fire from her guns was so fierce that the crews aboard the Serapis could not and would not venture above deck. So fearful had the crew of the Serapis become by the end of the battle, that her commander, Captain Pearson, could not persuade a single one of her crew to strike her flag in surrender, and he was forced to climb the mast and do it himself.
The Americans were presumed dead, asked to surrender, and persisted with ferocity until they won.
This remains one of the most humiliating defeats in British naval history.
And all because the Americans had a leader that could see the possibilities beyond surrender and defeat.
In Ezekiel 37:1-14, we find a similar story with a different twist. Here, the people of Israel have been captured and taken into captivity in Babylon. They are without hope. They feel as if their God has abandoned them. They are ready to give up and die. And in that moment, God comes to the prophet Ezekiel.
37:1 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 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.’”
God declares to Ezekiel and to the people of Israel that he holds power over life and death. Even though Jerusalem lay in ruins and the people had been dragged into slavery in a foreign country, God proclaimed that life would return to their dry bones and that Israel would live again because he would put his Spirit in them. It was the Spirit of God that made the difference between life and death. And while this all seems very figurative and philosophical, when we read the story of Lazarus in John 11:1-45, we find that the scriptures are very clear that Jesus, quite literally, has power over life and death.
11:1 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 odor, 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.”
45 Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
Clearly, Lazarus was dead. He had been buried, and sealed in his tomb, for four days. And yet, when Jesus calls to him, Lazarus stands up and walks out of the tomb.
What made the difference?
How was it that one moment Lazarus was dead and alive the next?
We find the answer to that in Romans 8:6-11 where we hear this:
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.
The people of Israel thought that they were dead but through his prophet Ezekiel, God assured them that by putting his Spirit in them, he could return life to the dead. Lazarus was certifiably dead and had been buried for four days and Jesus commanded him to get up and live again. And here, Paul explains that living, in order to satisfy the desires of the flesh, is death but living, governed by the Spirit of God, is filled with life and peace. Paul admits that we all live in a world of flesh, but we can live in the world of the Spirit of God if we belong to Jesus Christ. The difference between life and death has always been the Spirit of God. God’s Spirit is what made the difference between dry bones and a living nation of Israel. God’s Spirit was the difference between a rotting corpse and a living Lazarus. And God’s Spirit is what makes the difference between life and death today. There is a difference between appearing alive, and actually being filled with life. Many of the people who walk the earth are walking corpses. They appear to be alive, but are, in reality, quite dead. But those people who have accepted Jesus Christ are filled with his Spirit and already live in the world of the Spirit of God.
If you have accepted Jesus, then you have already begun to live forever.
We must all choose.
Will we live our lives as dry bones? Or will we answer the call of Jesus as Lazarus did?
We are invited to put our full faith and hope in Jesus, be filled with the Spirit of God, throw open our graves, cast aside the clothing of death, and walk free.
Lazarus answered and walked with Jesus.
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* You have been reading a message presented at Trinity United Methodist Church on the date noted on the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Trinity of Perry Heights in Massillon, Ohio. Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you. Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry may be sent to Trinity United Methodist Church, 3757 Lincoln Way E., Massillon, Ohio 44646. These messages are available to anyone regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at firstname.lastname@example.org. To subscribe to the electronic version sign up at http://eepurl.com/vAlYn. These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.