March 26, 2023*
(5th Sunday of Lent)
By Pastor John Partridge
Ezekiel 37:1-14 John 11:1-45 Romans 8:6-11
It has been painfully obvious to those of us in this room that death has been an all too frequent visitor to Christ Church over the last few months. And, despite our awareness that human life is short and that none of us are immortal, that knowledge and awareness does not lessen our grief in any way. Life is short and one day, and absent the return of Jesus Christ in our lifetimes, death will come for every one of us. My brother Dean used to tell a story about the ridiculousness of human life.
He said, “Think about the events that we look forward to, when we’re young we look forward to being five or six and going to Kindergarten, then to ten because it’s double digits, then thirteen and becoming a teenager, then sixteen so we can drive, then eighteen so we can vote, then twenty-one when we legally become an adult, then maybe twenty-four when we can rent a car…
… and then what? Sixty-five and retirement!
At every stage of life we look forward to the next big thing, and sometimes we become so focused on the next big thing, that we get tunnel vision and fail to enjoy the gifts and the joy that we have in the present moment. But, at the same time, particularly as we attend the funerals of our friends, we notice that the time that we have left is escaping us like the sands in an hourglass.
But if death is a common experience for all humanity, how do we feel about that? If we’re honest, most of us try hard not to “feel about that,” to keep our minds on other things, and to ignore the passage of time. As much as humanly possibly we try not to think about death.
But, surprise, that’s the subject of today’s conversation. So, what should we think about death?
And as we think about that, we begin this morning by considering the story of the valley of dry bones contained in Ezekiel 37:1-14. In that story, which you will find in today’s bulletin, but which I will not read, God calls Ezekiel, while he and the people of Israel are in captivity in Babylon and are grieving the loss of their freedom, their nation, their temple, and their worship. And God’s call to Ezekiel gives him a vision of an enormous valley full of bones and calls upon Ezekiel to prophecy to the bones. First he calls to the bones in the name of God and, as he did, the bones came together, tendons and muscles formed over them, and skin covered them. And then God called Ezekiel to prophecy breath to the dead and to call upon the four winds to breathe into them and give them life. And the winds came, and breath entered the bodies, they came to life and stood on their feet and became a vast army.
And God said to Ezekiel, “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.’”
Figuratively, the people of Israel were dead. They had lost their homes, families, freedom, their nation, their temple, their worship and, by their way of thinking, maybe even their God. They were a people who were as good as dead, but God calls to them, through his prophet, and declares that he will bring them up out of their graves, return them to their lands, and that they will live again. God declared that exile was not the end, but that their lives would, one day be returned to them.
And that’s a nice story about grief, sadness, depression, exile, and God overcoming a figurative death. But that’s not the end of the story. In John 11:1-45, we hear a story about Jesus overcoming the very real death of his friend Lazarus. That story is a little long but it’s worth reading, and I’m going to skip some of it, but it sounds like this:
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, 19and 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.”
As an aside, we remember that in the timekeeping system of these ancient people, any part of a day counted as a day. And so, if Lazarus was buried in the evening, that counts as the first day, and if Jesus stood in front of his tomb at the crack of dawn, that still counts as the fourth day, but even if both of those are true, Lazarus was sealed inside the tomb, without food or water, for something like sixty hours. There is no way that Lazarus wasn’t really, completely, and entirely… dead.
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.
While Ezekiel was wrestling with figurative death, and received God’s promise of restoration, Jesus overcame a very real death when he restored Lazarus’ life, and also on several other occasions, and ultimately when he rose from the dead after his crucifixion.
But why is that important for us as we mourn the loss of our friends and family, and as we grapple with our own mortality in the twenty-first century. It’s important, and it matters because of the power that Jesus repeatedly demonstrated over death, and it matters because of the resurrection on Easter morning. It matters because those things point us toward an understanding of death that Paul articulates for us in Romans 8:6-11 when he explains that…
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.
Paul sums up all of today’s conversation by reminding us that Jesus Christ has the power over life and death. God returned life in their home nation to the people who were exiled in Babylon. Jesus restored the life of Lazarus and several others, suffered on the cross, died, and rose to life again after three days in the grave. And Paul reminds us that if the Spirit of Jesus Christ lives in you, then death is not the end. Like Israel, like Lazarus, and like Jesus, death becomes only the middle between one life and the next. A ‘death sandwich’ if you will. Death is not the end, it is only a transition while we become something new, different, and eternal.
In the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean, Davey Jones famously asks, “Do ye fear death? Do ye fear that dark abyss?”
And the answer of scripture is, no. We need not fear death. Mostly because we don’t plan to be there very long… if at all. Our transition may be so fast, perhaps as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:52, “in the twinkling of an eye,” our transition from this life into the next may be so fast that we won’t even notice.
… 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.
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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, 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 or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org. These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.com . All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.comThe “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™