The Valley of the Dry Bones is one of the most memorable stories of the Old Testament. “He [the Lord] led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live’” (Ezekiel 37:2-3)? Today, we are often more concerned with death and dying. Although we are finding new ways to delay death, we are also providing ways for hastening the death with Medical Assistance in Dying – which is a soft and fancy way of saying mercy killing or suicide.
Medically speaking, palliative care is the science of caring for and comforting the dying, although we still don’t completely understand the process of dying or death itself. The bones in Ezekiel’s vision are without a doubt dead (barring unrealistic fictional movie representations). Each one of us is in the physical process of dying from the moment we were born, while some people in our hospitals and care facilities are closer to death than we are. For most medical practitioners, the simple definition of death is the conclusion of living when all bodily functions cease. For others, death doesn’t occur until the body reaches the valley of the dry bones.
Understanding living and existence, death and dying are minor challenges compared to the philosopher’s question of ‘what is the meaning of life’ and ‘what happens after death’. Consider the simple question; “what do you think happens to you after you die?”
“Project Canada" is survey research program which has been monitoring Canadian social trends since the 1960s. Working from the University of Lethbridge, youth and adults are surveyed every five years. The report published in 2010 says that ‘religion and spirituality remain pervasive’ amongst Canadians. This is a good sign. At the beginning of the millennium, 80 % of Canadians believed in God, while only about 68% (2/3) believed in life after death.
Our world is presently embraced in dealing with the uncertainty, anxiety and fear of death caused by a virus, while in Canada we have also been dealing with death in the form of ‘mercy killing’ for well over thirty years beginning with the death of Tracy Latimer. The government removed Capital punishment and the Death Penalty in 1976 and the Federal Government began considering decriminalizing euthanasia as early as 1991. The Fifth Commandment is crystal clear in saying “you shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). Today we are plagued with questions on whether murder is the same as killing, is abortion of the unborn murder, is allowing someone to die murder, is suicide murder, and is decriminalized Medical Assistance in Dying murder?
If the purpose of the command is to expose my sin and give me a hunger and thirst for the Gospel how does the Fifth Commandment accomplish this if I can say, like many others, that I have never murdered or killed anyone else? Again, Jesus reminds us that in order to understand any Commandment we must first start with the author of those Laws; “the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4). When I teach confirmation, I like to challenge young people to take a positive swing on all of the “shall nots” of the Commandments which, in this case creates the ‘you shall revere and respect all life that God has created’. Luther re-enforces this in the Small Catechism saying “we are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbours, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs”.
But then, just when we think we have a good grasp on what God wants us to do in this Commandment, Jesus steps in giving us what God really means. Jesus begins “You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment. But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment” (Matthew 5:21-22). Again, Jesus makes it clear that we are subject to judgment even when we think or say evil of our neighbour.
First, we need to recognise who is the source of our life. “The Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). It is also the “Lord (who) will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore” (Psalm 121:8). God has promised to watch over us and be our sustainer and provider throughout life and further into eternal life for “you who believes in the name of the Son of God ... have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). Everything we have is from God, including our physical life which is a gift of grace. When we shorten His gift, either in ourselves or others, or when we harm the faith in God of others – we are shortening that time of grace.
Luther also adds in his explanation of the Commandment in the catechism; “from the Fifth Commandment we discover that we have sinned by not accepting responsibility for our own well-being and for the bodily welfare of others but having instead hurt and harmed them in what we’ve said and done.”
The gospel recounting of Lazarus may not be a story of murder, but it is about death which includes a critical complaint about Jesus’ inaction which has led to the death of Lazarus. Both Mary and Martha, the grieving sisters of their dead brother, confront Jesus with the same protest saying “if you [Jesus] had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21) implying that if Jesus had come sooner, he could have healed Lazarus of his sickness while he was still alive. Jesus clearly delays responding to the sisters’ request “Lord, the one you love is sick” (John 11:3) by waiting two days and then going to Bethany when “Lazarus is dead” (John 11:14).
Our gospel this morning is not about death, but life. It’s the familiar story of Lazarus being raised from the dead. But the story begins with the reality of our being born into humanity which ultimately concludes with death. No one can deny the fact, avoid the process, or bypass dying as Martha reminds us when Jesus says “Take away the stone” ... But Lord, said Martha, the sister of the dead man, by this time there is a bad odour, for he has been there four days” (John 11:39 NIV). Other translations describe the smell as a stench, or an offensive odour, while the Amplified Bible says “he has been dead four days! [it is hopeless!]” (John 11:39 AMP).
The story of Martha is a story of hope in the midst of hopelessness and despair. In effect, Lazarus is nothing more than an innocent bystander within this story as Jesus spends most of his time with Martha – the sister of the dead man whom we only meet at the end of this story. In a strange way, as with the story of the healing of the man born blind, Lazarus becomes an instrument in Jesus’ hands to proclaim the glory of God. “Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). Jesus makes a point of centring out the woman at the well, the man born blind and now – Lazarus. When informed that Lazarus was ill “he [Jesus] stayed two days longer in the place where he was” (John 11:6) after having told his disciples, regarding Lazarus’ imminent death “it is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4).
The woman at the well was looking for something to satisfy her spiritual thirst in the midst of her hopelessness. The man born blind was given the gift of sight, after having lived his entire life in darkness and despair. Martha’s hopes had been shattered when her brother died. This is not all that different from what we experience today. We pray for family and friends who are sick that they might also to be made well and restored to good health – and they die.
But notice, even in her grief, Martha does not cover up the fact that her brother had died, although she had hoped that something would have changed the situation when Jesus arrived. “Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21). Now, Martha unexpectedly goes one step further. In the hopelessness of the situation, she asks that her grief might be taken away by asking Jesus to do something. She continues by saying; “but even now, I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you” (John 11:22).
Without a doubt – Martha has hope. But does Martha have any idea of what she is asking? We know from the progression of the story that Martha has no idea what Jesus has planned or what he is going to do. But, Martha is hope-filled that Jesus will do something. Then, Jesus gives us a glimpse of what is going to happen. “Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I AM the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he dies, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:23-26).
“Do you believe this” (John 11:26)?
Notice, that in her grief and the hopelessness of the situation that Martha doesn’t answer this. She believed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God – but life from death is a bit much. Even when Jesus responds to Martha’s request to do something Martha reacts in a typically human way saying “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days” (John 11:39).
The story of the raising of Lazarus is a forth-telling of what is still to come. This story fore-shadows the events of Good Friday, Easter and the hopelessness which will be experienced by all of Jesus’ followers. Travel would have been prohibited on the Sabbath which is why two of Jesus’ disciples leave Jerusalem to return to Emmaus first thing Sunday Morning. When the resurrected Lord encounters these two disciples, they are downcast and looking sad. They describe Jesus by saying “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21).
German Reformed theologian Jurgen Moltmann (b. 1926) expresses in one single sentence the three-day chasm that exists between Good Friday and Easter saying "God weeps with us so that we may someday laugh with him." This story of Lazarus is the story of hope, a story of resurrection, a story that says out of despair and hopelessness comes hope for those who believe.
This story is a glimpse of what is to come on Easter, which is a glimpse at what is to come for all who believe. Out of our discouragement comes hope. Out of death comes life. Martha confronts Jesus saying, "If you had been here my brother would not have died" (John 11:21) while Jesus counters with "I AM the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).
Eventually, Jesus puts his words into action. “Where have you laid him” (John 11:34) begins Jesus? “Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance” (John 11:38). It was the grave where his friend Lazarus was buried. For an indeterminate moment we stand in awe and disbelief along with Martha, Mary and the disciples. Many people today avoid cemeteries or even giving deceased love-ones a burial or a memorial stone because we don’t want to be reminded of death. The grave is the place of death – our endings. We stand by and weep along with Jesus as he weeps over Lazarus. Even today, you and I weep over the death of others. We cannot deny that we live with our discouragement, our despair, our hurts, our pain, our anguish, loneliness, sadness, hopelessness.
As Jesus stands looking at the grave of his friend Lazarus, we can’t help ponder the words of King David; “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4) and the unnamed Psalmist who proclaims “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (Psalm 46:10).
The Lord God Almighty is with us, even in the valley of death, and He alone is our refuge. As the stone is removed from the grave Christ Jesus calls out in a loud voice “Lazarus, come out” (John 11:43). Out from the stone-cold grave, out of death, out from the stench of death comes a body which has been dead four days. What appeared impossible – is possible. From death to life comes Lazarus.
This story of Lazarus reminds us of the importance of being ready when the Son-rises on Easter morning and everyday as God Almighty is ever present in our broken, sinful, dying lives-towards-death and the grave as He is now incarnationally present in/with/under our lives.
“If you had been here” (John 11:21) we cry out. All of us will face discouragement in this life, and it’s at those times that we need to turn to the Lord who will somehow act. Out of our despair, Christ brings hope, hope for the future, hope for new life, hope to keep moving forward even as we journey through the valley of our sorrow. Hope doesn’t erase or cover up what has already happened. Hope gives a promise that something better is still to come.
In the beginning God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). In the Valley of the dry bones, the breadth of life came into them, and they lived. “The wind blows wherever it pleases” (John 3:8) Jesus explained to Nicodemus and that same wind from God which brought order from chaos in the beginning, aroused the lives of Jesus’ disciples on the Day of Pentecost and continues to enliven His church today.
Our only hope comes from outside of us. It all begins on the cross. The Lord Jesus was dead and buried. All hope was lost. But listen. From the other side of the grave a new wind is blowing. This time the voice calling to us from the other-side of death and the grave. That voice is calling out to you and to me. “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die” (John 11:25-26).
Do you believe this” (John 11:26)? Your eternal future depends on it!
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We are a family of followers of Christ, who learn and share the Good News of Salvation, making disciples of Jesus Christ.
We hold weekly Sunday morning services at 10:30 am. We also host a Bible Study each Sunday morning at 09:30 am and on Tuesday afternoon at 1:00 pm. Please join us.
Our music team plays from a repertoire of many hundreds of Christian songs and Hymns, occasionally with new arrangements of traditional and contemporary selections.