Sermon for Lent 5
Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45
Heidelberg Catechism 88-90
Q88: What is involved in genuine repentance or conversion?
A: Two things: the dying-away of the old self, and the coming-to-life of the new.
Q89: What is the dying-away of the old self?
A: It is to be genuinely sorry for sin, to hate it more and more, and to run away from it.
Q90: What is the coming-to-life of the new self?
A: It is wholehearted joy in God through Christ, and a delight to do every kind of good as God wants us to.
This story marks a decisive change and innovation in the doctrine of the resurrection. As you might know, the Jews in Jesus’ day did not believe in immortality like the Greeks did or like most modern people do. They believed that when you died, you died, and your soul went down to Sheol as a shadow that would soon evaporate to nothing but a memory.
The afterlife was not big in Israel, and it’s hardly noticed in the whole Old Testament, which is remarkable against the background of Egypt from which they came, for Egypt was obsessed with the afterlife. The Hebrew Bible is all about the value of true religion for this life. It is all about the Promised Land; not heaven, but land.
But then there was a problem. The Babylonians had removed the Jews from their own land and carried them off to exile in Babylon. So much for the value of true religion in this life. How discouraged they all were.
So Ezekiel gives them a prophecy. The vision of dry bones. This was not meant to be literal, it was to suggest the renovation and return of Israel to the Promised Land.
And then in later years they started to take it literally. The Jews began to believe that all the Jews who ever lived would be brought to life again some day, and they all would have the happy life they should have had upon the Promised Land.
This was the doctrine of the resurrection that Mary and Martha were hoping for, the final resurrection at the end of time, when God would fully keep his promises to Israel, to all the Israelites who ever lived, the promised life in the promised land.
The decisive change in the doctrine of the resurrection is with Jesus saying that the resurrection is not distant but right up close. To Martha he says, it is right now, with me, where I am, he calls himself the resurrection and the life. (She’s thinking, "Jesus, I love you, but what are you talking about!") He’s saying that the new life he offers is not a reward at the end but a new kind of life for now, right now, whenever you live in obedience to my word, to my word of life.
Well, just how powerful is Jesus’ word? What he demonstrates with Lazarus is that his word is stronger than death. But how can that be? For death is the final great surrender. A dead man by definition is unable to respond to anything. Unless it’s the word of Jesus.
Here Jesus is able to get a dead man to obey his word, and just in that obedience is life, the new life. His word is powerful, and loving, and life-giving, converting death to life. And the message of the gospel is that’s also true for you, his word has power to convert your old nature into your new nature. If any of you here are interested in converting your old nature into your new nature, his word has to power to do it.
When I was eight years old, I was sitting in my father’s desk in his study upstairs in the parsonage on Herkimer Street, just a couple miles from here. I was reading one of his heavy books. I remember as if it was yesterday that my dad came in and said to me, "Danny, some day you’ll be a theologian." Did he know the effect that that would have on me? How powerful his word to me would be? What he said was way ahead of me, but I believed him, and what he said to me became more true of me gradually every day. That word was good news.
When I was about ten years old, a doctor told me that with my shoulders and my hips my body was more like a girl’s. That was bad news. When I was eleven my mother told me that I was supposed to have been a girl. Did either of them know the effect that those words would have? Especially when I compared myself to my strong and athletic older brother?
Words are very powerful, even when they’re only memories. As when a person said to you, "I know you can do it." Or when a person said "You stink." Or when a person said, "I love you."
When Jesus ascended into heaven he left his powerful words behind him, as well as a community of people who believe his words, and keep responding to them in obedience. The gospel writer recorded these words for the generations like us who will never hear Jesus directly. And yet his words have continued to be so powerful. It’s important for us to know them.
The words of Plato and Shakespeare are also powerful, but they are dead. Jesus said of himself, "I am the resurrection and the life." He means that his words are more than powerful memories. If he is the life, capital L, then he is alive. Before the face of God, somehow, and also among us, in the form of his Holy Spirit, still saying those same words.
He is at work within his words, he moves them around, applying them to us to work in us, and moving us around as well. His word converts us, putting some part of ourselves to death, and bring some new part of us to life.
His word converts us as a group, a group of people, which is why we gather every week. We gather to listen to the Bible, and not merely for information, or new ideas, or the defense of certain doctrines, but in order to have a meeting with God where God does work on us, converting us a little more each week. Our worship service is meant to be a process that converts us from just a collection of individuals into a congregation, a community, and it converts individually as well.
The dying-away of the old self and the coming-to-life of the new—I want to do it, how do I do it? Should I try this, should I try that? It’s as simple as listening. As listening to the life-giving word of God. And if you’re having trouble listening, just be still. Being still is a kind of repentance, because you are not speaking to justify yourself. And if you have trouble being still, then first just breathe. Like the bones in the vision of Ezekiel. Just breathe, and when you are slowly breathing you can start to listen.
And you can hear Jesus say this: "Lazarus, come out. Joe, come out. Jane, come out."
His word is bad news for your old self, and you can let it slowly die, though you are also allowed to weep and grieve for it, for didn’t Jesus weep? His word is good news for your new self, creating life out of your death, describing your new nature as the way that you might be. His word is always ahead of you, directing you, and every day it becomes more true of you.
Technically, though, we are unable to hear him and listen, because we’re dead. But he doesn’t let that prevent your listening. Just by speaking to you, he makes you able to hear. You are voice-activated.
He does this because he cares about your name. Remember, the resurrection is not a reward at the end, but the result of his love for us now. He does this for you because he wants community with you. He starts the community with you already. He started before you were alive, while you were still dead. He started to speak to you, and just his speaking brought you back to new life, a life you help to create when you talk back to him.
As I look at this passage, it strikes me that Jesus did this miracle not so much for Lazarus as for Mary and Martha. I mean, what did Lazarus care? The gift that he gave them was a restoration of their community, those two sisters with their brother. He restored them to community. That’s a great part of the resurrection and the life.
And that’s the last thing I want to say to you about our spiritual formation groups. I’ll that I’ve said in the last six sermons about conversion and formation holds true, but the main reason for these groups is very simple: just community. The simple community of Mary and Martha and Lazarus and Jesus, the original small group, who just like to be with each other face to face. That will be the main goal of our small groups. Because that is a great part of God’s intention for your resurrection and your life.
Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.