St. John’s Lutheran Church
26 March 2023 + Lent 5a
John 11.1-45; Ezekiel 37.1-14
Rev. Josh Evans
It’s probably the most famous prophecy in the book of Ezekiel: the valley of “dem dry bones.”
Truthfully, it’s a bit of a terrifying vision: for these dry bones to suddenly shake and rattle and come together, with sinews and flesh and skin. Sounds a little bit like something out of a zombie apocalypse thriller.
These bones are dry. Very dry. The people who held these bones in their flesh are very clearly dead. Dead as a door-nail. Their bones are scattered as far and wide as the people of Israel have been scattered in exile. Bereft of hope or signs of life.
Can these bones live? Absolutely not.
You can hear it in Ezekiel’s exasperated voice: “O Lord God… seriously?! You know… you know they’re dead! Why are you asking such silly questions?”
What of Lazarus’s bones?
Without going into all the details of an autopsy, his bones aren’t quite dry yet … but he has been dead for four days, and he’s actively decomposing. As the King James Bible so eloquently puts it, “He stinketh.” Medically speaking, Lazarus is dead. Dead as a door-nail.
And religiously speaking, it’s also too late, even for a miracle. The detail about four days is particularly significant because of a Jewish rabbinic tradition that taught that the spirit hovers near the body for three days. Now, on day four, all hope is, emphatically, lost.
Can this body live? No, it’s absurd.
On this fifth and final Sunday in Lent, we are posed with seemingly impossible questions, grasping at hope in the midst of despair and death.
Can these bones live?
Can this body live?
For me, the season of Lent, falling as it does during the month of March, is inextricable from the anniversary of the pandemic.
Every March for the past three years, my Facebook and Snapchat memories start flooding back with images and reminders of the 2020 lockdown: bare grocery store shelves, ever-rising case numbers and death tolls, darkened churches and empty pews. It was a scary time, not all that long ago. In some ways, it still feels like a scary time that hasn’t really, fully ended.
At the beginning of the pandemic, life as we knew it came to a sudden halt: work, school, even church.
In the midst of such abrupt change, on the Fifth Sunday in Lent on March 29, 2020, we heard these same texts, with the same questions they raise: Can these bones live? Can this body live?
At the time, no one really knew.
People were dying in isolation, forced to say goodbye to loved ones through a tablet or phone held up by a nurse, or else separated from them entirely.
Already shrinking congregations wondered if they would be able to survive even a temporary closure.
In those early pandemic days, I was serving a congregation in the suburbs of Milwaukee. One of our partner congregations on Milwaukee’s north side experienced firsthand the impact of the city’s first COVID death. When Lawrence died, his family couldn’t say goodbye, nor could his church gather in-person to grieve.
Lawrence’s death was one of many painful reminders that we couldn’t be together in the ways that we had long depended on.
Our bones were dried up. Our hope, lost. We were cut off, physically and emotionally.
But soon enough, we found different ways, creative ways, to be together.
Masked and distanced, we worshiped outside in members’ backyards, church parking lots, even cemeteries.
We expanded our digital reach and broadcast services on YouTube and held bible study on Zoom.
One week, I even celebrated the eucharist in the driveway at the home of an elderly couple who didn’t own a computer.
“Church isn’t canceled” was the refrain I heard over and over again, from the pulpits of friends and colleagues across the church – and echoed in my own.
Church wasn’t canceled. Love wasn’t canceled. Holy Week and Easter weren’t canceled.
And resurrection certainly wasn’t canceled.
Can these bones live? Yes!
With sinews and flesh and skin and breath.
The bones live, and the people of Israel who had been in hopeless exile would soon return.
Can this body live? Yes!
The body of Lazarus lives, unbound and freed from the tomb.
And soon, as we will hear again in the coming weeks of Holy Week and Easter, Jesus lives, against all odds and predictability.
Christ is risen! Jesus lives, hope lives, love lives.
And “because he lives,” so too can we live.
The body of Christ is alive, out of the tomb and among us here.
The body of Christ lives.
Dry bones live. Bodies once dead are made alive.
Death is never the final word…
…but neither is resurrection.
Hear me out:
It’s interesting to me that the actual raising of Lazarus is only two verses long, out of all forty-five verses in the story we read this morning. It’s almost like maybe that part isn’t the point.
It’s also worth noting that there is more to Lazarus’s story than we read this morning. In the very next chapter, Lazarus is seen reclining around the dinner table with Jesus.
Lazarus’s resurrected life draws him into a deeper relationship with Jesus.
As one commentator puts it, “The promise of the resurrection goes beyond the resurrection.” (Karoline Lewis)
The resurrection invites us into the kind of abundant life that Jesus promises, and it makes possible a kind of deep, abiding belonging with Jesus and with the community of Jesus’s friends and followers.
Death isn’t the last word – and, as amazing as it is on its own, neither is resurrection. The last word … is life.
The resurrected life revealed in Christ invites us, with Lazarus, to recline with Jesus, to lean into a deeper and abiding relationship with the one who is love and who first loves us.
That is the source of our being: to abide in him, as he abides in us.
Can these bones live?
Can this body live?
Abiding in Christ, the body of Christ lives.
Through pandemic and grief and times of transition and uncertainty, the body of Christ lives.
Death is never the end of the story.
Even at the grave, still we make our song: Alleluia!
Alleluia, even in Lent.
Alleluia, because resurrection is coming and is breaking through, even now…
…calling us to abundant life in community, here and now and always.