Texts: Ezekiel 37.1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8.6-11; John 11.1-45
As Ellie Wiesel and his companions watched, the German guards led a young boy to the gallows. He was well-known to them all. A sprightly lad with a quick sense of humour. His presence had done much for their flagging spirits of late. But now their humour was gone altogether, and a sickness of heart gripped the whole company. The boy had stolen a loaf of bread. He was to be executed for his trouble, and the whole population of the concentration camp was being forced to watch. As the noose was placed about the boy's neck, Ellie heard a whispered question, 'Where is God now?' And that, my friends, is a question that I often ask myself. 'Where is God now?' Where is God for all those Africans whose lives are being stolen away by war and famine? Where is God for the street kids of Columbia, whose parents abandon them to hunger and disease and a culture of violence? Where is God for we Indigenous people, whose land and stories and children was taken away without our consent or permission, whose lament can never be stilled? Where is God?
Ezekiel must have been asking the very same question as he looked out over the people of Israel following their exile to Babylon. He imagines Israel as a standing army - once glorious in battle, but now defeated absolutely. In Ezekiel's vision, this people once chosen by God lie dead across a whole valley. Their bones are dry and white in the sun. Even the sounds of mourning have passed away. There is no sound but that of emptiness, that thin whisper which says 'Our life is dried up, our hope is lost, we are cut off from God completely'. That note of national despair finds its echo in the more personal story of Lazarus of Bethany. Lazarus is a man greatly loved by his family and respected in the community. Suddenly, in the prime of his life, he becomes ill and dies. And note this. While Lazarus' sisters and the whole community mourn, Jesus, the very face of God in this story, is nowhere to be seen. He remains in another town, a long way off.
I must confess to you, my friends, that sometimes when I am in pain or despair I feel as though God does not care. But, more often, I wonder whether God can actually do anything about our pain. Oftentimes, even as I go about my duties as a Minister of the church and representative of Christ, I find myself wondering whether God may, in fact, be impotent. Perhaps God does care, perhaps God cares a great deal. But it may be that God can't do anything about it. Maybe God brought the world into being, but now is helpless to change its course. Maybe God had good intentions, but the whole thing just got out of hand. Most of the time, my friends, I have absolutely no problem believing in the reality of God's love. As I gaze at the image of the crucified Christ, I know in my heart that God suffers out of love for the whole damned creation. But frankly I wonder if God has any power to turn things around. I wonder if Christ may still be crucified, if God may be as dead and impotent as Nietzsche suggested.
But when I begin to think this way, when I begin to think that all is hopeless and lifeless, that line from Ezekiel comes to mind, 'Mortal, can these bones live?' I hear the question as a challenge to the despairing vision of my personal perspective. And I am reminded that my personal vision is extremely limited, that there is a supreme arrogance in writing things off so easily. When Martha meets Jesus on the road to Bethany, Jesus tells her that Lazarus will rise again. Martha brushes his comment off by reciting a line from the official doctrine of the Pharisees, 'Of course, Master, he will rise again with all the righteous at the last day'. But Jesus immediately challenges the limited nature of her vision. He talks of himself as the 'resurrection and the life' and declares that any who believe this will never be defeated by the powers of death, even in the midst of this life. 'Do you believe this?' he asks Martha. And this is Jesus' challenge to all of us.
Do you believe that the dry bones around you, or within, can live? Do you believe that God has the power to not only love us but to save us? Such belief is rare, I think. And it is rare because of the ways we are taught to see. Psychologists talk about a condition known as learned helplessness. Most people who believe that they can never progress beyond a despairing situation in which they find themselves, have learned that belief from their parents or other significant people in their lives. The children of alcoholics, for example, learn that they can never face a difficult challenge without the aid of a drink. But, of course, the drink eventually robs them of the capacity to face any situation. At another level, most of us have been taught to be passive and helpless as members of our society. Though we live in a democracy, and we are all proud of the freedom we have, very few of us ever exercise that freedom by resisting government policy or setting up ways of life which go against the flow of 'normal' social commerce. We have all been lulled into thinking that we are powerless to change anything. In the face of big business and big government, what can we do?
The reality, of course, is that things can be different. It's not only government or big business or big personal hurdles which stop us. It's what we believe. Do you know why I set aside time everyday to read the Scriptures and pray? Not because I ought to as a Christian. Not because I am a minister. I pray because I believe in a God who brings life to the dead. In that sacred half-hour, I read the stories of God in the Bible, and I wait for God to show me the ways to hope and resurrection in the midst of my own despairing reality as well as that of the communities in which I am engaged. In that little room, I wait for God like the Psalmist waits for the morning. And God indeed comes to me. God lifts me up. God renews me in hope, and fills me with visions for a better day.
Do you believe that these bones can live, my friends? When Jesus had done with weeping, he showed the power of his love by commanding the dead Lazarus to come forth from his tomb. And, blow me down, he did! Against all reason, all expectation, all predication or calculation . . . Lazarus came forth! The dead man lived! Now, listen carefully. This is not a story about God's liberation at the end of time. It is not primarily about the hope of resurrection for all who die in the righteousness of Christ. Those stories, with that intent, come later in this gospel. This, however, is a story about here and now. It calls us to believe in a God who brings life to the dead in the midst of our present lives, in our present stories, here and now. Do you believe the promise of God, my friends? Do you believe that God’s Spirit can come from the North and the South, from the East and from the West, to breathe new life into defeated bones? I do. Not smugly, and not triumphantly, I hope that’s clear! My belief is hard won, and I need the constant discipline of prayer to retain it. But I do believe! And you can too.
Can you imagine what could happen if you believed?