A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on April 10, 2011.
The Valley of Dry Bones
37The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ 4Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath* to enter you, and you shall live. 6I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath* in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’
7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath:* Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath,* and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ 10I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
11 Then he said to me, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” 12Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.’
The Death of Lazarus
11Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus,* ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus* was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
7 Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ 8The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ 9Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ 11After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ 12The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ 16Thomas, who was called the Twin,* said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’
Jesus the Resurrection and the Life
17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus* had already been in the tomb for four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles* away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ 23Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ 24Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ 25Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.* Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ 27She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah,* the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’
28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ 29And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ 37But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
Jesus Raises Lazarus to Life
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ 40Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
The Plot to Kill Jesus
45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
Like Mary, Martha, and the disciples of Jesus time and like the people to with whom Ezekiel lived and preached during the Babylonian exile, you and I have little trouble, if any at all, seeing evidence of death. The facts and features of death surround us. Every day we read obituaries and get reports about the death of people we know. We see business establishments go out of business, and think of the death of dreams, jobs, and hopes. When neighborhoods decline we see evidence of death, despair, and decay. We have witnessed the decline and deaths of entire systems of government in the former Soviet Union, what was once East Germany, the former Yugoslavia, and elsewhere.
And for every death situation, a question lurks in the background. Is life nothing more than a march toward death, or is there something more? And if there is something more, what is it and how do we experience it? That’s part of the resurrection issue.
But the first part involves whether resurrection is real or not. Is resurrection a dream, a fantasy, something humans have manufactured in our minds to ease our discomfort about the painful realities of death we aren’t able to change? Or is resurrection real and, if it’s real, why is it real?
Today’s lessons from Ezekiel 37 and John 11 push those questions before us to ponder. We can’t escape them because we can’t escape seeing the evidence of death around us. Like Ezekiel in his vision and like Mary, Martha, and the disciples of Jesus in John 11, we can’t avoid seeing and feeling what death does to us and those around us. This is not only true about physical death. It’s true about social, psychological, and moral death. The grief we feel when our loved ones die is like the grief we know when our hopes and dreams die. If resurrection isn’t real, what gives us hope in the face of death and grief? And if resurrection is real, do we have to wait to experience it in some version of afterlife? Or to use the words Ezekiel heard in his vision, “Can these bones live?”
For the issue you and I face now is whether we can live now in the power of resurrection. If resurrection is real, we need that kind of power now. We somehow need the power now to live in ways that are bigger than the death images and realities that surround us. We need the power to speak life into dead situations, introduce life to long-dead relationships, and usher life into the experiences of people who’ve become comfortable with deadness. We don’t just need resurrection. We need life!
God gives life! That’s the clear lesson in Ezekiel’s vision and in the lesson about the resurrection of Lazarus by Jesus. Yes, death is real. Yes, we often seem to be surrounded by death situations we can’t understand and are unable to escape. We’re stuck with our grief. Stuck with the despair of lost hopes and crushed dreams. We seem to be stuck with death, grief, and the pain of our despair. We wonder if our bones can live.
And like Martha, we may need more than hope in an afterlife. Jesus didn’t leave Martha with only the hope of an afterlife for Lazarus. He could have done that, but he didn’t. No, Jesus told Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life, … do you believe this? God has life for us—now—that is as true as the life after death God has promised us. God calls you and me to experience that life now, even when we are surrounded by death situations.
God gives “death-proof” life and calls us to “death-proof” living. Death-proof living doesn’t pretend there is no death. Death-proof life and living isn’t about denying that you and I live in a world where hopes, dreams, and people are crushed, fail, and die—actually and figuratively. What “death-proof” life and living mean is that the power of death isn’t absolute. Death is real, but it isn’t the only reality. Death isn’t the final reality. And death isn’t the ultimate reality.
So when Ezekiel was asked whether the valley of dry, bleached, and disconnected bones could live, the prophet answered “Lord, You know.” When Martha talked about Lazarus living in the resurrection, Jesus answered, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who believes in me will never die.” Death is no match for the power of God. Death does not defeat or define the power of God. Death does not rob us from the power of God.
So God instructed Ezekiel to preach to an entire valley of dead, dry, bleached, and disconnected bones. And Jesus walked to the tomb of his dead friend Lazarus. In both cases we see God’s life looking death and its work in the eye. In both cases we see God recognizing death’s power, and then overcoming that power. God doesn’t just give us reason to face death with hope for new life. God gives us reason to engage in death-proof living.
Death-proof living dares to believe that our situations can be changed even when it looks like we’re down and out. Death-proof living comes from the power that gave life to Abraham and Sarah to begin a family even when they were old. Death-proof living comes from the power that raised Samson to new strength even when he had been blinded and captured by the Philistines. Death-proof living inspired the preaching of Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and other prophets of the Babylonian exile. Death-proof living sent Jesus into a world that looked lost to God. And death-proof living is what God calls you and me to do in the world that Jesus has redeemed for God.
People who have been filled with the “life” of God that is stronger than death can engage in “death-proof” living. In fact, that is how they live. Death can touch them, but it can’t trap them. Like a watch that is water-proof, these people aren’t stopped by death even when touched by it.
God calls us to be agents of life! The good news is that God calls people like you and me to be agents of death-proof life. Ezekiel was such an agent in his vision. And Jesus suggested to Martha that she could be an agent of death-proof life when he said that “everyone who believes in me will never die.”
People in death situations need others to stand outside their tombs and be agents of God’s death-proof life. They need people to be Ezekiel. They need people who know and trust God enough to stand with them when they’re down, look beyond their desolate situations, and call them to new life in the power of God’s grace and truth.
Sometimes we are knocked so low we stop believing we can get up again. Sometimes we fall so far and hard we can’t see where up is anymore. When that happens, people need Ezekiel and Jesus kind of folks around. They need people who’ve been sent by the Holy Spirit to show up in their situations. Martin King was such an Ezekiel for our time. When the world had become trapped in its addiction to racial oppression, God sent King to speak a non-violent revolution to life. And just like Ezekiel and Jesus, King looked on the deadness of our situation and dared to preach about love and hope, life and peace, cooperation and forgiveness, grace and truth. King dared to be God’s agent of life.
God is still calling us to be agents of death-proof life. God calls us to believe in the power of resurrection in every desolate situation, every crushed hope, every defeated life, and every depressing failure. God calls us to believe in the power of resurrection when no one else believes. God calls us to trust that God’s power is stronger than death. God’s love is stronger than hate. God’s peace is stronger than confusion. God’s justice is stronger than oppression.
God is calling us to believe in death-proof life, death-proof living, and believe that we can be agents of that life and living. If you don’t think that kind of life and living is possible, ask Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Ask anyone who lived through Jim Crow segregation in the United States, apartheid in South Africa, and the injustice of internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War 2. God calls you and me to believe that resurrection, and the life that makes resurrection possible, isn’t a dream. It’s the most powerful reality in the world. Do you believe it? Will you live it? There are Lazarus and dry bone situations waiting for us.
We praise you, God, for being life that cannot be stopped by death. We praise you for sending Jesus to live that life before us, and by using other men and women to demonstrate how this life can be experienced. Thank you for calling us to be your agents of death-proof life and living in our time and place. Thank you for showing us where there are death situations that need your life. Help us to trust and obey Your Spirit as agents of death-proof life so that people can be raised, hopes can be renewed, and relationships can be restored. We ask these things in the name of Jesus Christ, who is the resurrection and the life. Amen.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.