There is a definite theme to this Sunday. All the readings seem to be focused on the same topic. The focus is the movement from death to life. Lurking behind all the texts assigned for today are the questions which deal with the finality of the grave, the promises of God, and the hope of something more, something beyond death. Perhaps more importantly, the emphasis seems to be on how one does, in fact, overcome, how one moves from death to life. It is fitting to dwell on such things today, for it works as a foreshadow of what is to come. Afterall, when we gather next Sunday, it will be for Palm Sunday, which is the beginning of Holy Week; a week that takes us through the drama of the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord. We will move rapidly from celebration and praise, to condemnation and curses, to resurrection and hope. These texts today are preparing us for what will prove to be an all-out assault on the claims of the grave. The whole issue is introduced quite beautifully by our Lord when he says to His prophet Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?”
Of course, our Gospel reading for today deals with the resurrection of Lazarus. It is a powerful story that shows the compassion and magnitude of our Lord’s love and unveils the key to life after death. Jesus says some shocking things in that text. When He hears Lazarus is ill, He says, “This illness does not lead to death.” Then Lazarus dies, and He says, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.” When Martha comes to Him in tears over the death of her brother, He says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die.” Mary is a little more direct and says to Him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Death hangs in the air, and Jesus weeps. Perhaps His weeping is not over Lazarus’ death, but because they have bought into the finality of the grave. They have not listened to His words about life and hope. Then, Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans speaks not of only physical death but spiritual death. It is a death which comes when one holds to the things of the flesh. The things of the flesh are the sins that cling to you, sins that have already been judged, that have been condemned by God. There is no life in them, only death.
So, whether it is the body of Lazarus or the condemnation of your own sinful life, the words first spoken to Ezekiel still grab our attention, “Can these bones live?” Is there life? If so, where does that life come from?
This question is found in the midst of an amazing scene from Ezekiel 37. The prophet is taken up in a vision by our Lord and he is shown a valley full of dried-up bones. The remains of a vast army litters the floor of the valley. We should note Ezekiel is a prophet during the Babylonian exile. He sees this vison not comfortably situated in Jerusalem but while in captivity in Babylon. As a people, they are cut-off from the Promised Land. They have heard the news of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, the place where God was sure to be for their hope, for their restoration. Now Ezekiel is shown the remains and asked, “Can these bones live?” Then he is called to speak to the dry bones. He is to prophecy to those cut-off and estranged from the promises of God. “Prophesy over these bones,” the Lord says, “and say to them, O dry bones, hear the Word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.” At the words of the prophet, life springs forth. It is slow at first, the small sounds of rattling bones and the growth of new sinews and flesh, but eventually they are formed again. Then God says, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, ‘Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.’” And at the Word of God, new life springs forth. A great army stands up at the command of God.
This image is powerful. It is gets to the heart of our hope, the heart of what our faith is about. It is spoken to a people who are cut off, a people who wonder if there is any hope for them, if they are included in the promises of life and resurrection. In many ways, this is us. We are a people cut-off, exiled by our own sin, trapped in the condemnation that belongs to those who oppose the will of God. Sin clings to you in all you do. For you it is not a matter of knowing what is right, what is good and pleasing to God. No, you know what is desired by Him. What you lack is the ability to carry it out, to see it through. The good things you know you should do, that you desperately want to do, you stumble and fall short in doing them. And while you know full-well the things you are to avoid, the desires of the flesh you are called to shun, yet you take them up over and again, embracing them as your own.
Do you see the answer to that question, “Can these bones live?” The only answer we can come up with on our own is, “No.” No, we cannot create life where we promote only death. We cannot overcome sin. We cannot avoid the ramifications of what we have done. There is no hope in our own work, for you continue to hurt those you are called to love. You live as if your God did not matter and you mattered most. So, within your own hands there is no hope, no life, no promise of something beyond the grave.
This is why the hope does not rest within you. The answer does not come from your own effort, your own doings. No, the gift of life, the hope of something more, comes from God alone. Outside of your works, outside of your accomplishment, God Himself brings forth new life to dead and dried-up bones. It is not Ezekiel who brings life and resurrection to Israel, but the Word of God spoken into their death. This Word not only establishes life but promises something more. God says through Ezekiel, “Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O My people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O My people.” There is hope, resurrection, and restoration in Christ. Can these bones live? Yes, with God all things are possible. With God there is life even in the face of death.
In the Gospel, our Lord has the people remove the stone from before the tomb of his brother Lazarus. He says, “Lazarus, come out!” and out he comes. He comes with the trappings of death still clinging to him, trying to hold him tight. So, Jesus says, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Death has no claim over one that is called by Christ, death does not get the final says over this one. Which is why Paul will declare to all the saints of God, “There is, therefore, now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.” There is life, there is freedom in Christ, freedom even from condemnation, all because of the works of Christ. He is the voice of promise. He is the Good News. He is the gift of life and salvation freely given to you.
Christ, then, is the living Word proclaimed by Ezekiel to the lost and cut-off people. Christ is the living Word who calls Lazarus out of the tomb. And Christ redeems you from the condemnation of death even now. He proclaims your sins are forgiven. He clothes you in His own righteous garments. He calls you brothers and sisters, heirs of all the blessings of God. In the gifts of Christ, the answer to that old question is easy. Will there be life beyond the grave? Is there hope for those who die in faith? Is there something more beyond this vail of tears? Can these bones live? Yes! You will live for all eternity in presence of the Lamb, in a new Heaven and new Earth, in an eternity of paradise. Yes, you will live.