March 26, 2023 Sermon: What Does It Mean to Be Resurrected?
By Rev. Janine Zabriskie
Friends, these passages from Scripture are like reaching back in time. They are so well-known, and so well loved. Everyone has their own mental photograph of what the dramatic scenes might look like, but it’s also easy to picture the retelling of the stories themselves happening around a fire with a starry night overhead. Personally, I often wish there was a mysterious guitar player off to the side, just outside the warm light of the fire, quietly singing, almost narrating the Ezekiel text – calloused fingers gently strumming, dark glasses masking his eyes and a hat covering most of his face, his deep, gravelly voice barely growling out the words… “Dem bones… dem bones.” There’s comfort to be had in these ancient stories. They’re familiar, they seem to pull us back in time, but in the same moment reach down into the core of our being, recognizing us here and now, through all the centuries, for who we really are. We are a people who came together first through oral tradition, and who are in awe of the power of their God.
We’re not alone in this belief, of course. The ancient Greeks had gods and goddesses whose power made them immortal, so they would never experience death in the first place. The Egyptians and the Canaanites shared stories of gods who would rise like the phoenix to reclaim their power. People of the Hindu faith believe in samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth, where when one lifetime is completed, the spirit or the consciousness moves on to the next one, taking on new forms and new experiences with each new cycle of life. The human desire to control or master death exists throughout our entire globe, and has for all of time. And right now, today, just two weeks away from our holiest day of the year, we can see where our faith is headed. We are eager, at this point, to end our Lenten self-deprivation, our reflections on our human frailties. We like being reminded that, through God, death will be overcome.
So, it’s no surprise, really, that these two passages speak to something so deep within us. We want to sing along with that bluesman, to dance with the clattering dry bones. We want to cry with joy and shout hallelujahs alongside Mary and Martha. We want to. The stories themselves almost seem to egg us on. Oh, if we only knew how to prophesy like Ezekiel. And how moved, how astounded would we be, to hear the command of “Lazarus, come out,” and see it happen. But friends, we are not there yet. As we move slowly but surely through this season of Lent, we know the end of the story, and we want to apply it to every possible situation – is that not what we’re called to do, is share the good news of Jesus’s resurrection? We are, and we will. Soon! But we are not there yet. These stories are many things – holders of memories, keepers of traditions, evidence of the mighty power of our God. But they are not testaments to the joy of Christ’s resurrection.
Before going further, let me give you some reasoning behind why I say that these passages don’t fit the bill. I mean, even in our own creeds, the most foundational statements of our faith, we say that we believe in “the resurrection of the body.” The unspoken part of that sentence, though, is that the soul cannot, and does not need to be resurrected, as that is the portion of our selves which does not die. And then there’s Paul, who said some pretty profound and foundational words to us as well. In 1 Corinthians, chapter 15, Paul expounds that “There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another.” He continues, “So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. It is not the spiritual that is first but the physical and then the spiritual.” Sometimes Paul is difficult to agree with, but there is no dissent here. Ezekiel’s tale of the dry bones shows us the power of God to put life back into even that which we think is dried up and useless. It speaks to our hope that God will likewise rescue us from frailty or withering away… but it isn’t resurrection. And similarly, Lazarus is still in his same physical body. It was a point of curiosity to me in my youth that nowhere in the Gospels does it mention that Lazarus would have eventually died… AGAIN. And hopefully, at that point, experienced a true and joyful resurrection such as we all hope for.
Now, let’s take a different tack here, just for a moment. What if Ezekiel were prophesying right here, today. Would we even believe him, weaving us a tale of skin reattaching itself to bone and standing up? We might, if he were telling us about, say, someone who had been involved in a terrible car accident and required surgery. Things get reattached or reimplanted, or even re-created all the time in modern operating rooms. Heart transplants, corrective eye surgeries, prosthetic limbs. Hey, I’ve just described the Six Million Dollar Man, from back in the 70’s, modern medicine even made that guy into a powerful superhuman. Is that a gift from God? I don’t think the show writers ever considered it that way, but sure, we can make that argument, that God gave the people involved wisdom to create and implement that sort of technology. But is it resurrection? Not according to Paul, it wouldn’t be.
What about Lazarus, though, he was brought back to life, right? Being a hospital chaplain, I tend to lean toward the medical possibilities here rather than zombie theories. In today’s medical world, stopped hearts are restarted, difficult injuries are mended, human beings are repaired beyond what was possible a hundred, or fifty, even twenty years ago. To Ezekiel or Lazarus, these treatments would be unfathomable, even miraculous. Today, they are commonplace. We might talk about them in terms of restorative function, or even restoring quality of life to someone. But resurrection? Not so much.
With regard to quality of life, that deserves some of our attention here as well. Those dry bones of Ezekiel’s, I’m the one who envisioned them dancing. All Ezekiel says they do is stand up. They don’t dance, they don’t laugh or cry, they don’t create relationships, because although they have been given breath, their souls are not there. They are a metaphor, of course, for the people of Israel, of which we consider ourselves a part. But the story isn’t about us, and I don’t believe living without songs or joy or love is in any way what God wants for us. Rather, Ezekiel’s tale is about the power of God to move us, to care for us, to put breath in us even when we believe we are completely spent. We should always be in awe of God’s power to do that. And we should always be grateful for it.
And what of poor Lazarus, coming out of the tomb all smelly and covered in a shroud? While we can’t actually know the reality of it, writers through the ages have imagined what his “second life” might have been like, and none of them painted him as happy. One said that he had descended into hell during those four days in the tomb, he saw the future of humankind prior to Christ’s saving death, and he never smiled again for the rest of his earthly days. Another was not quite so grim, but imagined that Lazarus understood there was now something different about himself, that he wasn’t really supposed to be there, and that former neighbors and friends now avoided him. He was returned to life, but was he really living? As a chaplain, I still wonder as I did in younger years, what would his death have been like the second time? Did he fear it? Did he have family and friends around him, providing comfort and prayer? We need to acknowledge that as Jesus is returning to Judea at the behest of Mary and Martha, he tells his disciples, “I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” So once again, this is not a story about us, or even so much about Lazarus. It is about the power of God, moving through Jesus his son. It is about our belief, and our hope for what our lives will and will not be. But because Christ has not yet died and overcome death on behalf of us all, Lazarus’s story is not really one of resurrection.
Make no mistake, we do know how the Gospels end, and the resurrection is coming. And it will be glorious, and we will shout our hallelujahs, and give thanks for both the life and the death of our Savior, Jesus Christ. But let us not compromise what we have now for the promise of what is to come. We are still called to share the good news, and to be the hands and feet of God on earth, here and now. Christ’s passion is coming quickly, but we are still in the season of Lent, recognizing our flaws, and reflecting on ourselves, our world, and our lives. I was moved by the words of theologian and Austin Seminary professor Dr. Bill Greenway, from a chapel sermon he preached just last week. He said, “The idea that Lent or Passion Week are about sacrifice or suffering for the sake of sacrifice or suffering tames Lent, domesticates it by neutralizing its social critique. If you give up something for Lent that is not directly tied to justice for some neighbor, you have missed out on the joy and truth of participating in the passion of Jesus Christ. To have faith in Jesus Christ is to have the faith of Jesus Christ—is to share in the passion of Jesus Christ. That is the passion we celebrate, remember, and recommit ourselves to when we break the bread and drink the cup. That is the passion of Lent, the passion of Passion week, the passion of Jesus, the passion for justice, the passion for neighbor.” This is what God truly wants for us, and gives us the power to bring to fruition. Friends, may our faith and our awe carry us through Passion Week, when our joy and our hallelujahs will celebrate the true resurrection. Amen.
ABOUT JANINE: A fourth-generation theologian, Rev. Janine Zabriskie was born in New Jersey, grew up in the Hudson Valley region of New York, and as an adult has lived in Chicago four times, Austin TX twice, New Hampshire, Columbus OH, and Dallas. She came to Baltimore in 2019 when she accepted a job as a Staff Chaplain at the University of Maryland Medical Center. She holds an M.Ed from the University of Texas, as well as an M.Div from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Her favorite things include hockey, cooking, reading, and British television.