(Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11)
(watch here: https://youtu.be/8BvuyohGRgs)
Now 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 for 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 for 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 upwards 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.
In just a short time, we will once again enter Holy Week and walk with Jesus towards the cross. Our Lenten pilgrimage will come to an end as we retell the narrative of Jesus’ death and rebirth. To prepare us for what lies ahead we are given these wonderful passages that illustrate similar narratives of death and rebirth. First, we hear God empowering the prophet, Ezekiel, to bring new life to the hopeless people of Israel with the help of the Holy Spirit. The psalmist sings, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” The desperate people of Israel are to place their “hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem. It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.” In his letter to the Romans, Paul reminds us that though we are dead because of sin, “if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in [us], he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to [our] mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in [us].” Thus, we are to live according to the Spirit instead of to the flesh, for there is only death in the flesh but life in the Spirit. John tells us the powerful miracle of Jesus bringing his friend, Lazarus, back to life after being dead for four days, boldly proclaiming, “Lazarus, come out!” In all these passages, we are called to reflect on the cycle of death and rebirth as preparation for the death and rebirth of Jesus. Indeed, it is a cycle not unique to the Jesus narrative. Death and rebirth happens all the time. Everything living must eventually die to make room for new life. And as we see on the cross, even God must die to make room for new life, for new hope, for new promise.
What’s so important about new life? Why does new life require the death of old life? Why can’t they simply co-exist side by side? Why must Lazarus die? Why must the Israelites die? Why must we die? Perhaps to reveal God’s glory. God’s glory is best revealed in his creation. Our God is a creative God. Our God loves to create! And our God loves to create anew. Nothing God creates is exactly identical. Everything that God creates is distinctly unique. There are no better means of revealing God’s full glory than through His rich and diverse creation. New life allows God to display his awesome creative abilities.
Perhaps new life isn’t about giving God new opportunities to show off his abilities as much as it is about giving life itself new opportunities to become more like God. New life carries the hope of a better, brighter future. Each new generation brings some type of advancement. Each new generation can learn from the mistakes and failures of the older generations to become stronger and more capable; to become more like God. We are not God but we were created to become more like God. New life creates more opportunities to accomplish this goal.
Both reasons are valid for justifying the importance of new life. In either case, we can’t deny the importance of new life. We need new life! More accurately, we need resurrected life! We need life that has gone through death and been transformed by death, made stronger by death. In short, we need our resurrected Christ! Not only is God’s glory fully revealed through him but he inspires great hope and promise. Ezekiel’s prophecy and Lazarus’ resurrection inspire great hope and promise! We no longer must fear death. Death no longer has the last word. Death is merely a transformative agent. In death, we are merely transformed into our better selves…our resurrected selves.
Many of us have walked through the Lenten pilgrimage with a commitment to denying ourselves something, whether it’s an object or a behavior. This is in keeping with the Lenten discipline of fasting or denying oneself food. At the heart of such denial is a calling into death; a death of the urge to eat. By denying ourselves, we become masters of our bodies and all their urges, healthy or unhealthy. Six weeks is an adequate amount of time to “kill” any of the unhealthy urges we find ourselves tempted by. But is denial simply about removing unhealthy urges for sake of removing unhealthy urges? No, it’s about creating an opportunity for new life to be born. We deny ourselves to transform ourselves…to resurrect ourselves from sinful behavior. New life, stronger life, more capable life is born from denial.
So it is with death. Death isn’t simply for the sake of death. God certainly doesn’t regard death as such. Death isn’t an end unto itself. No, death serves the necessary and important purpose of bringing about new life. New life IS important to both God and us. All of us need new life! As I was reflecting on this need of ours this week, I came across a survey in the Rasmussen Reports from 2012. It found that 77% of Americans believe Jesus rose from the dead. Over ¾ of Americans understand and acknowledge the need for new life. New life brings new hope and new promise and our world can’t exist without hope or promise. As we finish our Lenten pilgrimage, let us celebrate the various death/rebirth cycles we find ourselves in and the new life they birth: new careers, new families, new homes, new relationships. Let us give thanks for death and the opportunity to be…raised to new life.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.