Robert P. Hoch
First & Franklin Presbyterian Church
Baltimore MD 21201
March 29, 2020
1The 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. 2He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” 4Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. 5Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6I 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.”
7So 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. 8I 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. 9Then 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.” 10I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
11Then 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.’ 12Therefore 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. 13And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14I 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.
1Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4But 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.” 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
7Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9Jesus 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. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
17When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
28When 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.” 29And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The 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. 32When 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.” 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus 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.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I 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.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The 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.”
45Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
Deserted streets. Closed shops. An eerily quiet cityscape. People wearing masks and if not wearing masks, keeping their distance. Some will risk a tentative greeting, turning their heads as they look down and away . . . reports of so-called hot-spots, New York, Michigan, Louisiana . . . the list keeps growing. I read about a grandfather, under orders to shelter, saying goodbye to one of his grandchildren. It was the moment he’d been dreading. The goodbye did not include hugs. Instead, the grandchild gave him his stuffed rabbit to hug — you feel that kind of loss, that kind of goodbye. The granddad spoke plainly: This is a really crummy situation.
It’s perhaps not difficult to see the connection with the story of Lazarus, which is first of all the crummy story of Lazarus’ death. We’re not told why Lazarus died, only that it seemed preventable. If only Jesus had been there, Lazarus would still be with us, living. Lazarus would be with us, you know, with his dorky sense of humor; Lazarus would be with us, with all the little quirks that made him Lazarus to us, brother, friend, beloved. Only, Jesus stayed away for too many days. Squandered precious time. And when finally, Jesus does show up on the scene, Lazarus has been dead for four days.
In the King James Version, Mary says to him, “Lazarus has been dead for four days. By now, Lord, he stinketh” — as in this tomb has been sealed and to open up it now is to only add humiliation to pain. It’s a really crummy situation.
Or a situation where we feel just completely helpless. Ezekiel’s story also speaks in this key. The prophet speaks not of a literal valley of dry bones, but a people, a society that’s been hurt, beat up and worn out. He speaks of the forced exile of Israel by an occupying power. The occupying power, which raged against Israel like a wild-fire, showed no mercy, spared no family. Everybody carried the wounds in their bodies, everyone knew someone who had been lost. As Ezekiel looks out, there’s no moisture in these bones; these are dry bones, and the bones stretch as far as the eye can see.
Many of us feel helpless. You know, we can’t raise the dead. But mostly, we’ve been able to the prolong life of the living. But nowadays, it seems like we can’t even prevent the preventable death. Health providers are now making decisions of terrible consequence. Some hospitals are contemplating universal Do Not Resuscitate orders. In the lingo, it’s a DNR order, which means a family meets with medical professionals and spiritual counselors and chooses to sign a DNR order for their loved one, especially when it is felt that intervening only delays and makes even more difficult death of the loved one. But with a shortage of protective equipment for doctors and nurses who would be exposed to the virus, a universal DNR is now being contemplated — nobody wants this, least of all doctors, and certainly not families. It’s a crummy situation.[i]
Scripture testifies to a God who lives and moves not only when things are going well, but when the world feels stifled, and fearful, and closed. A God who acts and speaks amid our crummy situations. So that’s how I’d like to read our two texts this morning, as narratives of how God comes into this, and how we might be people who follow God’s pattern.
First of all, we may expect Jesus to come in power. We want God to rescue us and do it quickly. As in yesterday. And Scripture testifies that he will. But in John’s story, first of all, Jesus seems to delay. And when he does finally answer our prayers, Jesus comes to us not in power but in tears. Jesus seems delayed. And Jesus wept. Maybe incarnation isn’t just about the power to overcome the odds, to empty the tomb. Maybe it’s also about the capacity, the terrifying capacity to feel human.
Or rather, God being fully human — the sense of delay. There’s nothing more human than the experience of delay. A woman in England, her son, previously healthy, in his mid-twenties. No underlying health issues that we know of. He’d been sick in his apartment. He called his mother at 1:15 a.m. and told her he was being taken by ambulance to the hospital. Medical personnel induced a coma. Things happened so quickly, by the time she got to the hospital, she knew it was too late, that he wouldn’t be waking up, that he was already gone. Delayed . . .
Jesus groans with that incarnation . . . and that’s part of the incarnation. And I don’t know if you get the power without the vulnerability. Jesus who was delayed, Jesus who wept, this same Jesus testifies to God’s promise and power to make the dead alive. Roll the stone away, he commands. Jesus doesn’t go into the tomb, to the body of Lazarus. Jesus is not the footstool for death. He is the Lord of the living and of the dead. And both answer his command, just as the dry bones of Ezekiel answered God’s Spirit, making the dead alive.
And, so, maybe we think, we’ve had church today. Lazarus is raised. Happy ending. But that’s only part of the story. Lazarus is raised. But John says it was a dead man that walked out of the tomb, bound in strips of cloth, graveclothes. Lazarus, legs and arms bound, came out. Jesus says, in essence, I’ve raised him and it’s for you to resuscitate him. Breathe into him the breath of joy, clothe him with the beloved community. Lazarus isn’t only one person raised, but a whole community raised out of its grieving.
Lazarus has been raised and now it’s our turn to be raised . . . or to find our life again, with Lazarus, not just in power, but by being just a little bit audacious, maybe even foolish with what we proclaim. 69-year old Jodi Beder in Mt. Rainier, Maryland, plays her cello on the front porch of her home. She usually plays for hospice patients. But, now, she says, she plays for anyone. Or actually, not anyone, but for everyone for whom the music of life seems scant and hard to hear. She brings her neighbors that music again, with cello music. It’s a daily 30-minute cello concert she puts on from her porch. She says she’s “administering treatment” — Bach, Randy Newman — it’s an emergency treatment for people caught up with the dislocation and isolation of the pandemic. In another Maryland neighborhood, the teachers of a local school put on a teacher’s parade. The teachers of the Wayside Elementary School. They put on a 25-car parade through the neighborhoods where their kids live, and teachers wave from the cars and kids wave from their front porches. Thrilled to see their teachers, now in a parade. People get a bit choked up.[ii]
It’s what happens when you discover life, defiant life, audacious life, life in the face of death, life outrageous and unapologetic.
Neighbors spill out from their row houses into a street party here in the city, spaced apart, but singing together, We all Live in a Yellow Submarine — yes, that’s what you sing when you experience defiant life, life in the face of death — you sing, We all Live in a Yellow Submarine because death hates it when you have a good time and you laugh with your soul and cry with your heart.
Death just hates that because it knows you’re living, you’re rising, you’re not just dry bones . . . but you’re a living body and you’ve got this crazy urge to sing the song that you have to sing. You have this crazy urge to bake bread. And to share it. You have this crazy urge to give away food to employees and passersby. You have this crazy urge to buy lunch for nurses and doctors working in the hospital. You have this crazy urge to reach out to a friend, or someone you haven’t talked to in ages and say, I’m thinking of you. You have this crazy urge to live even though we die, to sing even though we mourn, to hope even though we despair.
Jesus says I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.
[i] Ariana Eunjung Cha, “Hospitals Consider Universal Do-Not-Resuscitate Orders for Coronavirus Patients” in The Washington Post (25 March 2020), accessed at https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/03/25/coronavirus-patients-do-not-resucitate/
on April 2, 2020.
[ii] Michael E. Ruane, “Here’s the Good Some are Doing” in The Washington Post (26 March 2020), accessed at https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2020/03/26/many-people-are-doing-good-combat-fear-isolation-coronavirus/?fbclid=IwAR3KBe_JMj49lSvoPSml8htKZp-iyrUJz6Isx7JUbEn18W3mrNp1u7vJdX0 on March 28, 2020.