Is anything too far gone?
A sermon on Ezekiel 37:1-14 & John 11:1-45 by Nathan Nettleton, 21 March 1999
No matter how dead something is, if the Spirit of God enters, there will be new life.
As we draw closer and closer to the end of Jesus last journey to Jerusalem, the spectre of death is hanging heavier and heavier over the whole scene. The little band of travellers are getting more and more fearful about the outcome of their journey.
They tried to stone you in Jerusalem, and now you want to go there again?
Now as they approach Bethany, less than a days travel from Jerusalem, news comes to them that the man in whose house they would have stayed, Jesus friend Lazarus, has died. I dont have to tell you the story again, youve just heard it and anyway, even your average atheist knows the gist of this story. Jesus rolls into Bethany four days after Lazarus was buried, reopens the tomb and calls Lazarus out, and sure enough out comes Lazarus, resuscitated. How dead do you have to be to be beyond the reach of this Christ?
I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.
This is only a preliminary skirmish with death compared to the showdown we will remember in a couple of weeks time, but so far Jesus is more than holding his own.
What does it all mean? Well the prophet Ezekiel had a vision that gives us a bit more detail into what God is telling us in these stories of life being restored after death. You probably know it best from the old song, Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones, but there is actually a bit more to the account than just step by step instructions on how to reassemble a skeleton.
In the vision God actually gives an explanation for what its about. These bones are my people, says God. They say, Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost; we are cut off completely. But says the Lord, I am going to open your graves and bring you up, my people. I will put my spirit within you and you shall live. So this is about a lot more than just whether Jesus can resuscitate his mates corpse. Its about whether the message of God has anything to say in the face of deathliness, of lost causes, of decimated hope.
And its not only a big picture question, but theres a big picture response. I will put my spirit within you. We dont really catch this too clearly in English, but in the language of Ezekiel, Hebrew, the words for wind, breath and spirit are all the same word - ruach. So I will put my spirit within you and I will breathe my breath into you are exactly the same idea.
The Spirit of God is the life-breath of creation. The Spirit of God is the vital spark that enlivens and sustains every creature. You and I and all human beings exist as a union of spirit and earth. When the spirit is gone, only a lifeless corpse is left which quickly decays back into the earth. Even the bones dry out and return to dust. In Ezekiels vision they were nearly there, sun-bleached and very dry, beginning to crumble to dust. A body without spirit is a corpse. But when God breathes spirit into its nostrils, a human being is born. Where there is Spirit, there is life.
But when we are dis-spirited, there is death. Weve known that feeling here in the last year. Weve been through some pretty dispiriting times - the smell of death hung pretty strongly around us, and I for one wasnt too sure wed pull through. Im still not sure, but I have a sense of the Spirit returning, of flesh beginning to regrow on the bones, and I hope Im not deluding myself. Does anyone else feel like that??
But we do have to be discerning in the face of death. We are not called to go around indiscriminately calling to the Spirit to breathe new life into corpses. Some things that die are best left dead. Much of what we have known as church over the last century is clearly dying as we look at it, and while fear would have us wanting to rush in and save it, we need the courage to do what Jesus did with Lazarus - wait, let it die, and then listen to see if God is actually calling us to prophesy to the bones and call on the Spirit to breathe new life into them. The Spirit will only breathe new life into that which can serve the cause of life, into that which makes for peace and justice and hope, so dont waste your breath calling for life from that which, though familiar and comfortable, might be better off dead.
Thats why we, as a community, are focussing so much at present on learning to be more prayerfully discerning. Have no doubt that the Spirit of God will be breathed into the valley of death and a renewed people of God will emerge to carry the faith into the new millennium. But if we are desperately trying to reconnect the foot bone to the ankle bone we may find that the Spirit has moved on elsewhere and is raising the new church in shapes we couldnt have imagined.
Nothing is so dead that it is beyond the life giving reach of Christs Spirit. Wherever the Spirit breathes there is life. No heart is too scarred, no community is too broken, no earth is too scorched, that the Spirit can not breathe and new life blossom forth in joyous celebration. And the Spirit will breathe new life here as we have the courage to loosen our grip on what has died and hear the voice of Christ calling to us, Come Out!