Monday, April 5, 2010

A glorious vision of new life

Ezekiel 37.1-14, Romans 6.16-23, John 11.7-44

One of the most important lessons which ministers are taught in seminary and in countless books on pastoral theology is to model your ministry after Jesus. That’s pretty sound advice, except in one area. We don’t learn much from Jesus about how to conduct a funeral. Every time Jesus shows up at a funeral, he has the peculiar habit of bringing the deceased back to life. What began as a funeral ends as a wedding feast.

But isn’t that the point John is trying to make by structuring the first half of his Gospel around the signs and wonders of Jesus’ ministry? What begins at a wedding in Cana comes full circle at a funeral in Bethany. Jesus has been setting the stage for the raising of Lazarus ever since he turned water to wine.

But to understand the story fully, we have to go back further, much further, to the day when the Israelites languished in exile in Babylon. For it is during that dark period of Israel’s history that the prophet Ezekiel had a vision: a vision which looked at first like a gloomy vision of death, but which was transformed by the Word and the Spirit of God into a glorious vision of new life. Ezekiel envisioned the day when the people of Israel would be gathered again in their homeland. To describe this great homecoming, he uses imagery that is breathtaking, or more accurately, breath-giving. “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. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD.”

This marvelous prophetic vision, these inspiring, hopeful, uplifting images seen and described by Ezekiel so many years before literally reverberate in the words of Jesus throughout the first half of John’s Gospel. “Truly, truly I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” “Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out.” “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

The language of Ezekiel and the language of Jesus are unmistakably one and the same. For the Israelites in Babylon, Ezekiel’s vision is symbolic of their return from exile. Though they were at the time “dead” in Babylon, God promises through the prophet that the day is coming when they would be “alive” again; restored to their homeland. In previous chapters, Ezekiel has spoken about the renewal of the covenant, cleansing from sin, of God gathering his sheep as when a shepherd seeks them out when they are scattered, and, finally, of giving Israel a new heart and a new spirit. Not for Israel’s sake, but for the sake of his holy name, God will act to rescue and vindicate his people, and thus vindicate his holiness for all to see.

Through Ezekiel, God speaks to his people, “I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”

By now, the picture is becoming clear. This is the language of restoration, of gaining back that which was lost. God himself, who breathed the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils in the beginning, is going to do so again. The renewal of the covenant will mean the new creation. And the word which came to be used to describe this great reworking, this world-ending, creation-transforming act which God promised to do among his people to manifest his glory was RESURRECTION!

Even after their return from exile, the Israelites whose hearts were truly seeking after God knew that Ezekiel’s vision was more than just a metaphor. There was a deeper, dare we say LITERAL, meaning behind all the symbolic language. No exile would be permanent. Even death itself would be swallowed up by life in the great and glorious day when God would act to restore all things.

So, as John writes his Gospel, he brings together this long history of hope and expectation, a hope expressed in symbols but expected to be reality. From the wedding at Cana to the funeral at Bethany, everything Jesus has said and every sign he has performed has been leading up to this moment. It’s not like he hasn’t been preparing the people for it. He speaks the very language which the people of God ought to understand. “You must be born again.” “I am the light of the world.” “I will raise them up on the last day.” “[He] who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. . . The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” “I am the good shepherd.” “Before Abraham was, I AM.”

But every time Jesus opens his mouth or performs some sign, somebody somewhere wants to kill him. The people are so bound up in their sins, so enslaved by their human traditions, that they cannot receive the Word of God, but instead reject the Word made flesh as a blasphemer. “I am this. I am that.” Doesn’t he know that’s taking the Lord’s name in vain?

By the time he gets to Bethany, Jesus is in no mood for sentimentality. Our polite English translations which say he was “deeply moved” really understate it. The Greek term means, literally, “indignant.” Even his disciples were still clueless. When he tells them they are going back to Judea, they try to stop him. “Lord, last time you were there, they tried to kill you.” But when it is obvious they won’t prevail, they seem resigned to a tragic end. As Thomas says, “Let us go also, that we may die with him.”

What are they expecting? DEATH! What was Mary expecting? “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” What were the people expecting? “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

But now that Jesus has arrived on the scene, we know that death will not have the last word.

Among the cast of characters in this story, Martha stands out as the one who seems to hold on to a glimmer of hope. She confesses her belief in “the resurrection at the last day.” She even confesses her belief in Jesus as the Savior of the world. But all of this only compounds her grief, because even her expectations are clouded by the shadow of death. Like her sister Mary, she complains, “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

It’s no wonder “Jesus wept.” He wept not in grief over Lazarus, as the people presumed. He wept in grief over all these lost sheep who still didn’t get it. The disciples, Mary and Martha, the crowd: their focus is uniformly on DEATH. It’s the valley of dry bones all over again. Lazarus lies in the tomb, but the dead are outside grieving.

Martha is right about one thing. “Lord, by now there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” Death does have a way of stinking up the place, of casting a long shadow over the hopes and expectations of a people. Death has a way of closing their eyes in blindness, of shutting them off in a cold, dark, smelly tomb.
But against this dark backdrop, the light of the world is about to shine. When Jesus says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life,” he means it literally. “You believe in the resurrection on the last day? Woman, you are looking at the resurrection. Open your eyes and behold the living end!”

In Jesus, the end has come, but life goes on. “Did I not tell you,” he says, “that if you believed you would see the glory of God? Did I not tell you a time was coming when the dead would hear my voice and come out of their tombs? Did I not tell you that everyone who believes in me has eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day? Did I not tell you I am the good shepherd, that I call my own by name and lead them out? Lazarus, come out!”

And Lazarus, called by name, hearing the voice of the good shepherd, the incarnate Word of God, comes out of the tomb, out of the darkness and into the warm embrace of the light. But wait. This marvelous work is not yet complete. Lazarus is still bound up in the grave clothes of the old life. John says his hands and feet “were bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth.”

Jesus says, “Unbind him and let him go.” Take off those inhibiting reminders of what used to be. Put off those shackles which tie him to the past. Let him come forth a new creation.

This is a pivotal moment in John’s Gospel. Here begins the unbinding not only of Lazarus, but of the whole mystery of God’s redemptive plan, seen thus far in tiny glimpses through the signs Jesus has performed, but only revealed fully and completely in Jesus himself. Here is the turning point, the radical re-orientation, whereby we begin to understand that Christ draws us to himself not by what he does, but by who he is: the Bread of Life, the light of the world, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life.

The life into which he calls us is the very life of God, lived in the unceasing fellowship and perfect unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is the life we had when God created us in his image and likeness. It is the life we lost when we took matters into our own hands and tried to become like God on our own terms. It is the life we can never again know, or even desire, as long as we are bound up in the grave clothes of sin and disobedience. The old life, as long as we are bound up in it, seems like the good life. It’s comfortable and cozy in that cool, dark cave. We like wearing those old clothes, even if they are a little tight in the waist from our over-indulgences. We see no need to take put off the old and be clothed in the new. We already have everything we could possibly want. We have it bad, but we have it good. We have the best of both worlds, and the freedom to choose to live however we want. But what’s that odor that keeps following us around?

Paul makes it very clear in his letter to the Romans. If that’s the kind of “life” you have, you’re not living, you’re dying! You are a slave to sin, and at the end of the day, you’re going to collect your wages—and the wages of sin is death! But the good news is Jesus has come to make us a better offer.

Charles Wesley describes so beautifully the joy that comes from receiving the free gift of God that is eternal life in Christ: “Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night; Thine eye diffused a quickening ray; I woke, the dungeon flamed with light. My chains fell off, my heart was free; I rose, went forth, and followed thee.”

Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, even though he die, yet shall he live. And whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”

“Do you believe this?”

Go, then, and live the life that manifests the glory of God in you, through you, and all around you.