The Breath of Life

Lent 5 2020

The two readings I’ve based my reflection on are both very long and very complex. If I wanted one word to link the two of them, I’d say ‘transformation’. That’s what lies at the heart of both – so simple, and yet so hard. So familiar, and yet so strange.Take Ezekiel’s vision:  Ezekiel 37:1-14 The Valley of Dry Bones  Ezekiel was perhaps the most complex of Israel’s prophets. And he was living through very difficult times. Most scholars place him in Babylon, during the exile, but because he was a priest, he also had an intimate knowledge of Jerusalem and its people before the exile. And yet – Ezekiel could see undreamed-of possibilities for a future for a defeated and downtrodden people, and he saw visions of God transforming Israel with an act of life-giving power.

Israel as a nation was dead – bound in exile in Babylon. Dead ‘our bones are dried up and our hope is lost. We are cut off completely.’ The dry bones in the valley aren’t merely a sign of death – they’re a sign of death’s utter completeness. There’s only one possible answer to the question, “Mortal, can these bones live?”, and that’s, Don’t be ridiculous!” What makes Ezekiel so remarkable is his willingness to be open to the possibilities of transformation. Unlike Israel in exile, he didn’t give up hope. And he didn’t allow the people to give up hope either. Prophets are, above all, the ones who remind us who we are, and what we’re capable of becoming. More than that, they remind us who God is, and what God is capable of doing.

The Israelites had given up on God – they thought that they were finished, and God was finished. Not for the first time, and not for the last. (Maybe they were the first proponents of the ‘God is dead’ theory.) But Ezekiel’s oracle promised new life and restoration in the land. It’s entirely God-centred. Israel’s future depends on God committing an act of life-giving power. God’s ultimate promise is to give life by the divine gift of the spirit – the breath of God. The same breath – ruach– that breathed life into Adam. It will not only breathe life into the dead bones, it will give the people a place. “I will put my spirit within you, 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. Ez 37:14

I found some helpful thoughts in Maurice Andrew’s ‘The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand’. He wrote: This is the most concrete manifestation in the prophets of a dimension that takes doom seriously, but transforms it. It is at this point that the bizarre and overwhelming vision is rooted in the real-life condition of the people; it is here and now in the way they feel. Ezekiel had prophesied to the bones, prophesied to the breath, and now prophesies to the people, who say. “our bones are dried up.” Dry bones belong in graves, but Yahweh is going to open the graves and bring them back to the land. So the ‘vision of the spirit’ is expressed in the most earthly of needs – to be brought back to one’s own land. If the Old Testament gave us no other gift, it would be worth it for this. He people will know that God has spoken and acted when they are placed on their own soil.”

So this isn’t just an ethereal resurrection – the Hebrew Scriptures are always very clear about the significance of the created word. (Something that we later Christians often discount.) and for us, today, neither is it a resurrection directed just at the ancient Hebrews. Ezekiel still speaks to us, and says to us that God is the God of creation, as well as being the God of all peoples. Yes, God loves us. We have a sacred privilege. But it comes with a universal responsibility. We’re not simply victims of disaster – we have some responsibility for a lot of the mess we’re in – all of us – and we have to get on with being God’s people here and now, and get on with restoring God’s creation.

And so we come to our Gospel story. John 11: 1-45. The Death of Lazarus  It’s so familiar to most of us – the raising of Lazarus – that sometimes we don’t see how very strange it is. I’m fairly sure that we all have our own images of the Bethany family, and it wasn’t until I really thought about it that I realized just how very unusual they were for that time and place. Two unmarried sisters and a brother. That was a very odd Jewish family. It fits much better into the frame of an early Christian family when you think of it. One of the things that he Roman authorities grumped about when they produced their litany of complaints against the Christians was that they married later, and didn’t take the responsibility of producing future citizens of the Empire seriously enough! I also realized that I’ve always had a mental image of Martha as a mature matronly figure, and Mary as much younger. There’s absolutely no reason for drawing that picture. In all the descriptions we have of Marth, she fits much better into the image of a very young, very vocal and forthright, very impulsive, and very passionate girl!

Even as story it has oddities. We call it ‘the raising of Lazarus’, but Lazarus hardly features at all. He never even speaks. He only appears in seven verses of the whole account. He has, quite literally, a walk-on part. And then, parts of the story are out of sequence. The anointing of Jesus comes after this event, not before. And, strangest of all, Jesus, the intimate friend of the Bethany family, dawdles about on the road.

What we tend to forget when we read this, is the whole nature and intent of John’s gospel. John the Evangelist was the last of the gospel writers. He sat down to write somewhere around 50 years after Jesus died in Jerusalem. He never walked the dusty roads of Palestine with Jesus and his friends, sharing in their conversations; never shared the excitements and risks and discoveries of those years of mission; never knew personally the man called Jesus of Nazareth. But he did know and experience the post-resurrection Jesus, and he wrote of him with passion and with joy. John did experience the reality of God’s transforming love – that love that Ezekiel caught a fleeting glimpse of in a vision of hope. John could sing – as a much later Italian poet, the great Dante, sang: “I have seen the hope of the blessed”.

John’s gospel isn’t written as a biography. It’s not a reporter’s narrative either – none of the gospels is that. And it isn’t set in ordinary time, our time, chronos, but in God’s time, kairos. That’s why it doesn’t matter that Mary of Bethany is introduced here as the one who anointed Jesus’ feet. That’s how the early church remembered her – so strongly that it probably wasn’t possible to write her name without adding that tag. Martha was remembered too. Lazarus, however, seem to have sunk back into obscurity. Even in this story, although the climax is the raising of Lazarus, its centre is the conversations Jesus had.

I think John was very clear about what he wanted this story to show. First, he presented Jesus as the powerful healer who can bring life out of death. Part of the reason for the conversations along the way is that they show the raising of Lazarus isn’t a freak of nature, but a demonstration of God’s power for life. Maori would say, this is kia ora theology – a theology of life. but secondly, John presented Jesus as one with passion – one who knows and shares in the anguish of others. The dominant culture of that time – and let’s face it, of our time too – was the way of power and social control. That was and is, never the way of the incarnate God, shown so clearly to us in Jesus. In the scene at Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus is engaged not in any sort of social control to enforce God’s realm, but in dismantling the power of death and disintegration. He does this by submitting himself to the pain and grief present in the situation. If there’s anything a dominant culture doesn’t do, it’s admitting to the presence of pain and grief.

What does John’s narrative say to us? Many things and on many levels. I certainly don’t think it’s a call to us to try to call our dead back to life. in the long history of the ways in which God interacts with God’s creation, we don’t see resuscitation being a thread in the weaving. Nor has the Christian church concerned itself with calling back the dead. Our dead are in God’s hands, whatever meaning we choose to put to that phrase – and we may not call them back. In a sense, their journey is no longer any business of ours. One of the ways in which our society can go off the rails is to deny death as a necessary stage in our journey through life.

I do think we are called to break out of the bonds that tie us to death and disintegration that hold us back from transformation. It happens in all institutions, including churches. We’re called to have the courage to step out onto new paths, to take risks, and walk in faith and hope. We need to shake off some of the shackles that hold us back from being the Body of Christ in our world.

It’s equally important to take on board the message that each one of us is called to break out of the things that bind us. This is one of the hardest things to do. It’s so terribly easy to hang on to old habits and old hurts, and the deeper the wound, the harder it is to let go. That never stops God from challenging us to make radical changes. Nobody actually asked Lazarus if he wanted to come out – imagine a scenario where he refuses to answer that imperative command, “Lazarus, come out!” Some of us do refuse the call – or refuse even to hear it.

The heart of this gospel story is that the fullness of new life is possible to all who believe in Jesus. It’s all there. The initiative of Martha and Mary in sending for Jesus. Their bold, confident and robust faith. Their grief and pain that they brought to Jesus. Their willingness to talk with Jesus about life, death and faith. And, above all, their unwavering love for Jesus. These are the Evangelist’s marks of faith. Martha and Mary model for us how we may live and struggle to free ourselves from the death-like power that binds us and limits us. The message for us, in the season of Lent, is that we too are free to embrace the new promises and possibilities of life available to us through Jesus. And so we can pray:

We thank you, O God,
that there are no boundaries to your love.
We thank you, that in death you travel with us.
We thank you that you grieve with us.
We thank you for the signs all around us
of life that springs forth after deathly experiences,
for the power of renewal in all creation.
We thank you.  Amen.

Adapted from Words for Worship, March 13 2005