Sunday, 6 April 2014

Mortal, can these bones live?

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
6th April 2014 11.00am

Ezekiel 37:1-14   The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.  2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.  3 He said to me, "Mortal, can these bones live?" I answered, "O Lord GOD, you know."  4 Then he said to me, "Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.  5 Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.  6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD."  7 ¶ So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone.  8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.  9 Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live."  10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.  11 ¶ Then he said to me, "Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.'  12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.  13 And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.  14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, 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."


John 11:1-45  Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.  2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill.  3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, "Lord, he whom you love is ill."  4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, "This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God's glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it."  5 ¶ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus,  6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.  7 Then after this he said to the disciples, "Let us go to Judea again."  8 The disciples said to him, "Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?"  9 Jesus answered, "Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world.  10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them."  11 After saying this, he told them, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him."  12 The disciples said to him, "Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right."  13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep.  14 Then Jesus told them plainly, "Lazarus is dead.  15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him."  16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him."  17 ¶ When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.  18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away,  19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother.  20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home.  21 Martha said to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him."  23 Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again."  24 Martha said to him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day."  25 Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live,  26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"  27 She said to him, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world."  28 ¶ When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, "The Teacher is here and is calling for you."  29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him.  30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him.  31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there.  32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."  33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.  34 He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see."  35 Jesus began to weep.  36 So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!"  37 But some of them said, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"  38 ¶ Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.  39 Jesus said, "Take away the stone." Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, "Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days."  40 Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?"  41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, "Father, I thank you for having heard me.  42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me."  43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!"  44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go."  45 ¶ Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

The death of a good friend is never going to be anything other than dreadful.
            There are no easy answers, and no quick solutions.
The death of a loved one, as C S Lewis memorably put it, is an amputation,[1]
            and although time may bring some healing,
            the loss remains forever part of us.

Our two lectionary readings for this morning,
            invite us to spend time face to face with human mortality.

In Ezekiel’s vision, we are confronted with a horrific scene:
            It’s the aftermath of a war, and the vision is of the site of a battlefield.
Ezekiel sees an open mass grave, with the bones of so many bodies,
            lying intermingled and bleached by the sun,
            stripped clean by the carrion.

It is hard to read this passage,
            without thinking of the killing fields of more recent years.
            From the war graves of Flanders and the Somme
                        to the European death camps of the mid twentieth century,
                        to the massacres of Bosnia and South Sudan;
            mass death, and mass burial,
                        remain a tragic and traumatic part of the human story.
So many lives lost,
            so many hopes and dreams cut short.

And as Ezekiel wanders the field of bones,
            it speaks to him of his people,
taken from their homeland, into exile in Babylon;
            the victims of an ethnic cleansing
            from which it seemed there was no way back.

For Ezekiel, death had come not just to a person, but to a whole nation.
            In a terrifying precursor to the holocaust,
                        the dry bones of Ezekiel’s vision
                        are the bones of his fellow Jews,
            broken and cast aside
                        by the nationalistic ideology of another nation-state.

An in the midst of this vision of devastation,
            Ezekiel hears the voice of the Lord,
                        asking him a question:
            ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’

And in this question, we are taken to the central question of human mortality.
            Is death the end?
            Does death get the final word on life?

The same question echoes through the story of the death of Lazarus,
            which takes us from the incomprehensible horrors
                        of death on a grand scale,
            to the personalised agony of the death of a friend.
And yet the questions are the same:
            Is death the end?
            Does death get the final word on life?
            Mortal, can these bones live?

The story of Lazarus is a long one,
            continuing even beyond the end of this morning’s reading,
and within the structure of John’s gospel
            it is the seventh of seven signs of the kingdom
            which reveal to the reader
                        the nature of the new world that is coming into being through Christ.

And it’s as if the author of John’s gospel
            invites us to enter into the detail of this story,
                        to spend time with those who are affected by the death of Lazarus,
            and to share with them in their range of responses.

One of the books which I have turned to again and again over the years,
            is a study called On Death and Dying,
                        which was published in 1969
                        by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist.

In this, she proposed that those faced with a diagnosis of a terminal illness
            typically experience grief in five stages.
These five stages of grief, as they have come to be known,
            can also often be seen in the lives
            of those who have experienced a bereavement,
and although they shouldn’t be thought of as a programme to work through,
            many people have found them a helpful guide
                        to what they find themselves experiencing
            as they are brought face to face with the reality of death.

I have often thought that Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief
            can be seen in the various responses of the people around Lazarus,
                        in John’s story of his illness and death.

She suggests that the first stage of grief is that of denial,
            these are the ‘it simply can’t be true’ feelings,
                        where we keep expecting the person to just walk through the door,
                        or we convince ourselves that we can still hear them speaking.

The disciples do just this when Jesus tells them that Lazarus had died.
            He breaks it to them gently, using the euphemism of sleep for death,
                        telling them that ‘our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep.’ (v 11)
            And the disciples grasp onto this and respond with hopeful denial of the reality,
                        ‘Lord,’ they say, ‘if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right’ (v.12).
            And so Jesus has to tell it to them plainly,
                        ‘Lazarus,’ he says ‘is dead.’ (v.14)

Kübler-Ross says that ‘Denial is usually a temporary defence
            and will soon be replaced by partial acceptance.’[2]

But what this acceptance brings with it is often the next stage in the grieving process,
            which for many people is an experience of anger.

Anger is an emotion that is hard to control or to predict,
            we don’t know where it will strike, or in which direction.
Some people become angry at the doctors that have been caring for their loved one,
            convincing themselves that with better care things could have been different.
Some people become angry at themselves,
            blaming themselves for letting their loved one down.
Some people become angry at the person who has died,
            furious with them for leaving like this,
            for depriving them of the future that had been planned together.
Some people become angry at God, or at their friends or family,
            desperate for somewhere to direct the blame for the loss they have suffered.

All of which can seem quite negative,
            as if these feelings of anger are something to be avoided,
            or to be ashamed of, or to feel guilty about.
Which is why I find it so helpful and interesting,
            that the character in the Lazarus story who exhibits anger,
            is none other than Jesus himself.

When Jesus sees Mary and the other Jews weeping over Lazarus’ death,
            we are told that he was greatly angered, greatly agitated. (v.33, 38)
Some Bible translations have tried to downplay the extent
            of Jesus’ emotional response to the death of his friend,
                        and our own NRSV describes him as being
                        ‘greatly disturbed’, and ‘deeply moved’.
But whilst some may not like to think of Jesus
            exhibiting raw anger in the face of death,
the reality of the words that John uses here to describe Jesus’ response
            are more indicative of uncontrolled anger than anything else.

And it’s not just Jesus,
            some of those around him are angrily looking for someone to blame,
and so they say loudly, with accusation in their voices,
            ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man
            have kept this man from dying?’

Anger is, it seems, part of the human response to death;
            it is an appropriate and natural emotion
                        in the face of tragic loss.

The next stage of grief which Kübler-Ross observed
            is that which she called bargaining.

She sees this as a helpful stage in the process of moving towards acceptance,
            and says:

‘If we have been unable to face the sad facts in the first period,
            and have been angry at people and God in the second phase,
            maybe we can succeed in entering into some sort of an agreement.’[3]

She uses the example of a teenager,
            who has been told that they cannot spend the night at a friend’s house.
Initially they may be angry and stamp their feet,
            or lock themselves in their bedroom,
            temporarily expressing their anger towards their parents by rejecting them.
But then they have second thoughts,
            and coming out of their room they start volunteering
                        to do tasks they’d never normally do,
            in the hope that if they are especially good this week,
                        maybe they’ll get what they want next week.

And maybe we’re not so different in the face of death.
            We construct deals, or ultimatums,
                        and address them to God, universe, and ourselves.

‘If only this… then that…’ is the pattern.
            If only I can have another year with them,
                        then I’ll be a better person…
            If only the doctors could have done things differently,
                        then they’d still be with me.
            If only you’d been there Jesus,
                        my brother would not have died.

So says firstly Martha (v.21)and later Mary (v.32).
            If only, if only, if only…

The bargains and the regrets intermingle in the mind of the bereaved,
            and we imagine a world where reality is different,
            and we construct scenarios that would bring that world into being.

Kübler-Ross notes that
            ‘most bargains are made with God and are usually kept a secret’[4]
And she suggests that they are usually motivated by quiet guilt.

Where Martha and Mary are different is that they speak their bargaining aloud,
            they offer to Jesus the their wish that the world was different,
                        and he receives their plea,
                        offering them comfort and compassion,
                        as they move towards acceptance of their brother’s death.

But there is another difficult stage yet to speak about,
            and that is the stage Kübler-Ross identified as depression.

For many of us, the experience of staring death in the face
            creates within us a void of emptiness that simply will not leave us.
So great can this void become
            that our own existence ceases to matter to us in any meaningful way.

The Psalmist in the Old Testament, which we heard in our call to worship,
            knows this experience well.

He says,
            Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD. 
                        Lord, hear my voice!
            Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!

And we meet this uncontrollable sadness in the Lazarus story,
            and again it is Jesus who embraces his humanity most fully.

In what is known as the shortest verse in the Bible,
            John tells us that ‘Jesus began to weep’ (v.35).
He is overcome by sorrow and sadness
            to the point where uncontrollable tears from a grown man
            is the entirely appropriate response
                        to the death of his friend
                        and the grief of all those who loved him.

But it’s not just Jesus who weeps,
            Mary does so too, as do Lazarus’s other friends (v.33).
The adage that big boys and girls don’t cry
            is one which, it seems, can be set aside
            in the face of the depression of bereavement.

But eventually, says Kübler-Ross, if the grieving process is healthy,
            the depression can begin to lift, and give way to the final stage,
                        which is that of acceptance.

She says that if a person has enough time,
            and has been given some help in working through the other stages,
they will reach a stage where they are accepting of the reality of death,
            neither angry nor depressed.

In the Lazarus story, Martha seems to be moving to this stage
            by the time they come to open the tomb where they have laid Lazarus.
Some time has passed,
            and she is concerned that the body will already have started to decompose.
She has, to some extent at least, come to accept the reality of her brother’s death,
            and recognises the natural processes at work
                        in a body that has been laid in the ground.

And then,
            and then…

Up until this point, this has been a story of death much like any other.
            The stages of grief are all there,
                        the characters all behave as they should,
                                    including Lazarus, whose life has ended.

But then, the most unexpected thing in the world happens,
            and Jesus calls Lazarus back from the grave.

The point of the story suddenly comes into focus:
            Is death the end?
            Does death get the final word on life?
            Mortal, can these bones live?

Yes, it seems that they can!
            Death is not the end, and it does not get the final word on life!

It is at this point that the story of the death of Lazarus
            stops being a carefully observed study on grief,
and becomes something else altogether.

It becomes what John intends it to be within his gospel:
            a sign of the kingdom of God.
It is a story that reveals something profoundly important to us,
            about the nature of the new world that is coming into being,
                        through the person of Jesus Christ.

The point of the resurrection of Lazarus
            is that when God is involved in the story of someone’s life,
            death is never allowed to have the final word.

This has been true in the story of Lazarus’ death,
            it will be true in the story of Jesus’ death,
            and we are invited to realise that it will be true for us also.

The calling forth of Lazarus from his tomb
            prefigures Jesus’ own dramatic desertion of the grave later in the gospel story.
Just as Lazarus died, so Jesus will die,
                         and so, I am afraid to say, will each of us, in our turn.

Symbols of death are all around us as I speak:
            From the cross on the wall behind me,
            to the bread and wine before us all,
            bodies break, blood is spilled, and mortal life comes to its end.

It’s not always recognised these days that death is at the heart of the Christian faith.
            We tend to devote far more time focussing on life in all its fullness,
                        than we do confronting the reality of death.
            And in this, of course, we mirror the world around us,
                        which consigns death to the specialists,
                        and dangles the goal of eternal youth before us all.
            As seventy becomes the new fifty,
                        we pursue the dream of health and activity into old age,
                        and we deny to ourselves the truth of our own mortality.

It was once the case, before modern medical advances,
            that death was a regular reality for all people.
Death occurred primarily in the home,
            and it was not unusual to sit with the body of a family member who had died.
These days, we confine death to the hospitals,
            and many of us have never been with a dead body.

Within the medical profession, death has become the great enemy,
            to be avoided at all costs.
And we focus our energies on keeping people alive,
            even sometimes beyond the point where death would be more appropriate.

Christianity, with its focus on death at the heart of its faith,
            can bring a different perspective on death,
            which we can offer as a prophetic witness to the world.
And that perspective is this:
            Death is no longer the mortal enemy of humankind.
            Death’s power over people is broken,
                        because in Christ we find the hope of resurrection;
                        in Christ we find the promise and hope of eternal life.

It’s important that we don’t confuse ‘eternal life’ with ‘living forever’,
            they aren’t the same thing at all.
‘eternal life’ is a quality of life that endures beyond the grave,
            and it comes as the gift of God, given through Christ Jesus.
‘living forever’ is simply an attempt to deny the mortality of humanity,
            and is ultimately always going to founder in the face of death.

Even Lazarus, called forth from his tomb, would die again.
            And it may well be Lazarus about whom Jesus has to scotch the rumour
                        that he is going to live forever,
            in the last few verses of the gospel (21.21-24)

But another thing about ‘eternal life’
            is that is can’t simply be reduced to ‘pie in the sky when you die’.
Rather, it is about living eternally each day
            so that all that is good in life is not lost.

Eternal life is eternity in each present moment,
            it is, as William Blake put it:

To see a World in a grain of sand,
And a Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.[5]

God is love, and God is eternal,
            and at our life’s conclusion all that we have ever been,
                        from young child, through strong adulthood, to infirmity and helplessness,
            is swept up within the love of God
                        and held in God’s eternal loving embrace.

This is the Christian perspective on eternal life,
            and it is Christ’s gift in the face of death.

It is no coincidence that so many Christians in the medical profession
            are so involved in palliative care and the hospice movement.
In Christ we are enabled to face death without fear
            because we know that it does not get the final word.

In Ezekiel’s vision we hear the word of the Lord
            to those who have been taken hostage by the power of death,
and it is a word that echoes down to our own age with startling clarity:

            Mortal, can these bones live?
            Is death, ultimately, all that there is?
            Is all lost, in the face of death?
            Mortal, can these bones live?

There is a west African proverb,
            which says that when an elder dies a library is burned.
And yet, that is not the Christian perspective,
            because within the love of God in Christ,
                        nothing that is good is ever lost,
                                    each moment is of eternal value
                                    to the Lord of all eternity.

Mortal, can these bones live?
            Yes, we may answer, they live eternally.




[1] C S Lewis, A Grief Observed
[2] On Death and Dying, pp.35-36.
[3] On death and dying, p. 72.
[4] On Death and Dying, p.74
[5] Auguries of Innocence

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