Ezekiel 37:1-6; John 11:17-26
This past week I officiated at a funeral for the father of a friend of mine. When we got to the grave I read from this same passage in John 11. I always read this at the graveside when I officiate a funeral because it is such a striking contrast. Here we are burying someone who was loved, who lived a vibrant life, and now they are dead with their family around them grieving, and yet we are also confessing faith in Jesus who says he is the resurrection and the life. We are putting a body into the ground with the hope that one day it will be raised back to life. It makes no sense.
Here in this passage from John 11, not only is Lazarus dead, but we find out he needn’t have died. If Jesus had come when the sisters sent for him, if he hadn’t waited 2 more days before leaving for Judea, Lazarus may have lived. Jesus could have healed him. Jesus let Lazarus, his friend whom he loved, die. Now I want to give proper credit. I didn’t think of this sermon title. Pastor Leonard told me his friend Pastor Ernie Flores of 2nd Baptist Church in Germantown had this as the title of his sermon last week and when I heard it I thought “Wow. I have to use this.” Because this also doesn’t make sense. When Jesus got word that Lazarus was sick he waited 2 days before leaving to go back to Judea, knowing that Lazarus was going to die. When he finally does decide to leave, he tells his disciples that Lazarus has died and that he’s glad for their sakes that he wasn’t there so that they may believe. “Believe what?” is my question when I read this. We all believe Jesus could have healed Lazarus and that’s why Mary and Martha sent for him in the first place. Jesus was their hope. But now that Lazarus is dead, what hope is there?
Now turning to the Ezekiel passage that Jacob read for us, we see another hopeless situation. There’s a valley full of dry bones just laying out all over the ground. The Lord asks Ezekiel if these bones can live? And he wisely answers “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know.” It would seem to be impossible that all these bones could come back together and live. They are old bones and very dry. There’s no life left in them. The flesh and blood is gone. Scientists have been able to take old bones and extract DNA from them and study it. They’ve been able to extract DNA that is thousands of years old, but it has to be under the right conditions. There are some bones that are too degraded to get any usable DNA. But even if they can get DNA, they can’t make the bones come back to life. These bones in Ezekiel were degraded, dried out bones. You couldn’t even get DNA from them. It’s hopeless to think that life can come into them again.
So here we have these 2 hopeless situations, one in Ezekiel and one in John, and yet in both we are questioned as to whether we believe there can be life again. Can these bones live? Do you believe this? It doesn’t make sense.
Another thing these 2 hopeless situations have in common is that God let them both happen. The valley of the dry bones is a vision of the state of the people of Israel. At the time of Ezekiel, the people of Israel, the descendants of Abraham, who had been a nation, were in exile. Ezekiel was with the exiles in Babylon. There was no nation of Israel anymore. The nation that had existed under the reign of King David was done. After the reign of David’s son Solomon, it had been split into two nations – Judah and Israel, and both of these had been overthrown by enemies and the people taken away to foreign lands. And God had let it happen.
You see God and the people of Israel had established a covenant, a binding legal agreement, that the people would worship Yahweh only and would live by His laws as His chosen people. Yahweh would be their God, protecting them, providing for them, giving them peace, and they would be the people who would show the world what it meant to live in relationship with and to worship the one true God. If they broke the covenant, if they worshiped other gods and refused to live under God’s laws, His protection would be withdrawn and their enemies would overcome them. The people of Israel did not remain faithful to the covenant and so God withdrew His protection and let them go into exile. He didn’t step in to prevent their destruction.
In this case, we can understand a little better why God let the people go into exile. They were reaping the consequences of their sin. God had warned them and now it had happened. With Lazarus, we don’t understand. Why didn’t Jesus just go to Lazarus when the sisters first sent for him? Why didn’t he just speak a healing word? He could have just spoken from where he was and Lazarus would have been healed. Why didn’t God do something?
Last week I preached on the passage from John 9 where a man born blind is healed by Jesus. In that passage, when the disciples see the blind man they ask Jesus “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “No one sinned. But this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” Sometimes it’s obvious that bad things happen to us because of our sin. We reap what we sow. We run the red light, we get mailed the ticket, right? But other times bad things just happen through no fault of our own. That’s what happened with the man born blind and that’s what happened with Lazarus. And this is when we question God. Why didn’t you keep me from having this tragedy happen, from losing my job, from losing someone I love, whatever it may be. God why?
It’s normal to ask the why question and there’s nothing wrong with asking it, but sometimes it’s better to ask “For what purpose did this happen?” Jesus said regarding the man born blind that the work of God would be displayed in his life. Jesus reframed the situation. He didn’t focus on assigning blame for the tragedy but rather focused on what God was up to in the situation. The works of God were going to be displayed in this man’s life. The same is true for the situation in Ezekiel and in John 11. God reframes both situations to display His work. Yes, Jesus let Lazarus die and God let Israel be destroyed and taken away into exile. He could do that because He has the power to restore life.
In Ezekiel, God shows the prophet that He has the ability to bring life even to old bones that are dried out and degraded. His word is spoken over those hopeless bones and they come back together, tendons and muscle grow on them and skin covers them and they are bodies once again. Then God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the wind to blow over them, which is a call for God’s Spirit to breathe on them, and when that happens they come back to life and stand up on their feet, not just bodies, but a vast army. This is a picture of vitality and power and strength. These old dried out bones are now a healthy, living, strong, vast army. And God says to Ezekiel that these bones are the whole house of Israel. The people of Israel think their situation is hopeless. They are like bodies in the grave. But God says he’s going to open their graves and bring them up from them and bring them back to the land of Israel and not only that but He will put His Spirit in them and they will live and know that He is the Lord, He has spoken and He has done what He promised. The works of God are going to be displayed in His people.
The same is true of Lazarus. Jesus tells Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” She thought he was talking about the resurrection at the end of time but Jesus was talking about that very day. The works of God were going to be displayed right there at Lazarus’ grave. And this is the part of the story that we love. Jesus commands in a loud voice for Lazarus to come out of the grave and he walks out with the grave clothes still wrapped around him, alive and well. Jesus let Lazarus die, so that it could be seen that Jesus is the resurrection and the life and those who die in Him will live again. This is good stuff!
But as I was thinking about this passage this week, I wonder how Lazarus felt about being allowed to die. Did that thought even cross his mind or was he too overwhelmed by the fact that he was dead for 4 days and then was alive again? As a 21st century American, I’m not so sure I would want Jesus to let me die just so he could show everyone that he has the power to raise the dead. If Jesus were to come in here and ask for a volunteer to demonstrate resurrection on, would anyone here raise their hand? And here we get to the real problem we have with this whole thought that Jesus let Lazarus die. Our lives are our own and we don’t want anyone messing around with them. It’s fine if Jesus wants to bless us and prosper us and protect us. But we don’t want him to let things in our lives die. We want life, not death. We want the blessing, not the suffering. But we can’t have resurrection without death.
God said in Ezekiel that when His word was fulfilled and the dry bones lived again, then they would know that He is the Lord. The Lord is the one we submit to. He’s the one who has the final say over our lives. The Lord is the one we bow down to and acknowledge as being greater than we are. So if we are confessing that Jesus is our Lord, then we are saying that He has the final word in our lives and we don’t. So as a 21st century American, that might go against everything my culture says, but it doesn’t change the truth. Jesus is either my Lord or he’s not. If he is my Lord, then he can let me die in order to raise me again. My life is his to do with as He pleases.
We confess that truth here at Oxford Circle. We sing the song “Where you go, I'll go, where you stay, I'll stay, When you move, I'll move, I will follow you. Who you love, I'll love, How you serve, I'll serve, If this life I lose, I will follow you.” (Chris Tomlin) But when it comes down to specific situations in our lives, do we believe that? Do we live that out? What if we have a dream that we are following and Jesus wants to let that dream die? Are we willing to go along with that and let that dream die so that Jesus can raise something new to life? What about a relationship we may be in? What if Jesus wants that relationship to die? Will we submit to Him as Lord and suffer that death? This is the hard stuff of the Christian life. Do we trust Jesus with our lives, with all the pieces of our lives, when He may want to let things die?
We may be willing to let things die that are not good. We all want to die to sin. If there’s sin that we struggle with and want to be free of we’re happy if Jesus wants to put that to death because it’s a bad thing and we would be happy to be delivered from that struggle. But Lazarus was a friend of Jesus’. He was a good thing in Jesus’ life. What if the thing that needs to die is something good? Before Vandy and I moved to Philadelphia, we lived in Virginia, about 2 hours from where our parents live. Vandy was working in a church there as associate pastor for youth and could have stayed in that position. They would have been happy to have him stay there and would have paid him a good salary. I was working as administrative secretary in a Christian school there and my boss was happy to have me stay as well. We lived in a nice little townhouse and could have built a nice life for ourselves in suburbia, closer to our families. But we knew we had to let that life die because God had called us to Philadelphia. That life was good in many ways. But it wasn’t what God was calling us to. It had to die.
The thing is God is calling us to a relationship with Himself that demands everything we have. We cannot keep part of our life separate from the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Our complete surrender to His will has to happen. But the relationship we are being called to is not drudgery as God’s slave. God is calling us to enter into the relationship that already exists among the Trinity, a relationship of perfect love and unity. In John 17 Jesus prays that those who believe in Him might be brought to complete unity and might be with Him to see His glory. We are invited to become the children of God, to be in intimate relationship with the one God who created and sustains all things. We are being invited into a relationship with the God who has the power to raise the dead. And we are allowed to call this God Father because the relationship He wants is for us to be His children with all the rights and privileges that go along with that. I’ll take that.
To what extent has God gone to make this possible? He became human and lived within time and space. He confined himself as we are confined. He lived as humans lived 2000 years ago, without running water, electricity, indoor plumbing, refrigeration, modern medicine, cell phones, or internet. You’d think God would pick a more convenient time period to live in. But in the fullness of time Jesus came and lived and died and rose again to never die. I can know that this God is trustworthy and will fulfill His promises to me to give me life because this God has already gone through death and been raised to life Himself. There is no other who has done this.
Not only did God let Israel go into exile, not only did He let his friend Lazarus die, He let His own Son die. And Jesus didn’t die of sickness in his own bed, or die of old age with loved ones around him. He was publicly executed with people around him mocking him and abusing him. But then Jesus was resurrected and because He lives, we also can live. This God we can trust, even when He wants to let things in our lives die.
When we accept God’s invitation to be in covenant relationship with Him as His people, His children, He gives us His Spirit to live within us. He gives us the power to live as His children. In Romans chapter 8 Paul writes “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit…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 through his Spirit, who lives in you….for if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.”
If we live in this relationship with God, God’s own Spirit, the Spirit that raised Christ from the dead, is in us to help us let go and put to death those things that are of the sinful nature. And he will give us the power and strength to let things die, even good things, that God wants to let die in our lives. God Himself is with us and will not leave us to do this on our own. The question left for us is what needs to die? What things in our lives need to die? What false ideas about God are we holding on to that need to die? What harmful habits do we indulge in that need to die? What relationships are we involved in that need to die? What lies about ourselves or others do we believe that need to die? What dreams are we chasing that need to die?
Another question is what are we holding on to that’s already dead and needs to go in the grave? What dead things are in our lives that are sucking life out of us? It might be a habit, a mindset, a relationship. It might be anger, bitterness, unforgiveness or grief that we are holding on to and it’s a dead thing spreading death in our lives. We need to put those things in the grave. If there’s something in our lives that needs to die or is already dead and needs to go in the grave, today is the day to make that happen.
As the worship team comes up and we transition to a time of prayer, let’s take this message seriously today. God wants to let some things die in our lives. We can trust him through this process because He also has the power to bring new life. I’m not saying He’s going to give you a new and improved resurrected version of whatever you may release to Him. I’m saying He’s going to give you life in exchange for death. As the worship team plays, I want us to take the time to pray and listen to what God might say to us about what He wants us to let go of and let die. And then give those things to Him.