John 11:1-45; Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-11
Each of our lessons for today deals with the tension between life and death. However, the death to which these lessons refer is not the death of an individual, but rather the death of an entire nation or of a new community of people who have put their trust in Jesus who was known to have been raised by God from the dead and who has breathed on his disciples the Spirit of life. Ezekiel is a priestly prophet who is writing to the Judaic people in Babylon after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and offering them the hope that they will return home someday in the future. The Apostle Paul is writing to a new community of Jesus followers in Rome and encouraging them that they can live outside of and beyond the realm of paganism from which they have come. The author of John’s gospel is writing to a whole community of people who profess Jesus as the Christ, and as a result are under severe persecution by the Romans because of their decision to follow Jesus, regardless of the consequences.
I make this point at the outset of this sermon in order to emphasize that as much as any of us may find comfort and hope in these lessons at a time when we have experienced the death of a loved one or when we are facing our own death, the authors of these readings are talking about the threat of death that an entire community of faith is experiencing over and against an external force in their lives. For Ezekiel, that external force was the mighty empire of Babylon that threatened to destroy the entire nation of Judah. For the Apostle Paul, that external force was the paganism of Rome that threatened the hearts and minds of a new community of people who have been baptized in Jesus’ name. For the author of the Gospel of John, that external force was the mighty empire of Caesar who threatened the followers of Jesus Christ with persecution and death if they continued to refuse to serve Caesar as their lord and savior.
Take this story of Lazarus for example. On the surface, this story appears to be about the death of Jesus’ dear friend for whom he weeps. However, why would Jesus be weeping over the death of Lazarus if, in fact, he has declared himself to be the Resurrection and the Life, and knows that he is going to raise Lazarus from the dead? Twice we are told in this story that Jesus was greatly disturbed over the fact that no one trusted in him to be able to bring Lazarus back to life. In fact, both Martha and Mary cast blame on Jesus for Lazarus’ death because Jesus did not come soon enough to cure Lazarus of his illness. I imagine that if I was being blamed for the death of my dear friend, I might feel very disturbed as well and be moved to tears for the shame that was being imposed upon me.
However, the rest of this story that is never included in this assigned reading from the Gospel of John reveals that there is much more to this story than simply being an account about the death and resurrection of one person. This story is about the survival of an entire movement of people who have decided to follow Jesus instead of giving their allegiance to Caesar. As the story continues, once Lazarus is raised from the dead, some of the Judeans go and tell the chief priests and Pharisees about what has happened, and out of fear of what the Romans might do to them if they allow Jesus to continue behaving in this way, these religious leaders set out to put Jesus to death.
However, Jesus was not the only threat to this religious establishment. The chief priests also planned to put Lazarus to death because it was on account of him that many of the Judeans were deserting their tradition and were putting their trust in Jesus. We might conclude from this account that the real threat to this Jesus movement came from the Jewish religious leaders of the day, but they would not have been so concerned about this Jesus movement had they not thought that the Romans might come and shut down their entire religious operation—which, in fact, they already had attempted to do by destroying the temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, at least a couple of decades before this Gospel of John was written.
A very similar temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed some 656 years previously when the Babylonians conquered the nation of Judah and deported many of the Judaic people to other parts of the Babylonian Empire. As far as we know, Ezekiel already had been deported to Babylon prior to the destruction of the temple. However, with the arrival of this new wave of deportees who were so devastated by the destruction of their holy temple, Ezekiel offers to them this vision of hope that God would someday bring them back to the land that they had cherished all of their lives. God is portrayed by Ezekiel as the source of life for these distraught people who recently have been marched through the desert into Babylon and probably have seen the dry bones of many fallen creatures along the way.
Life and death—both of these experiences are a reality of this life. None of our lessons for today shy away from talking about the reality of death. However, death never has the final word. Whatever the situation, there always is the hope for a renewed life, be it for a family, for a community, for the church, for a nation, with all of our human connectedness throughout the world, for all peoples, and with our awareness of the relationship between us humans and the environment, for an entire planet. Each one of our authors for today is writing to a people that is threatened with the loss of everything in their lives, and in each situation, the author directs the reader to a source of life that can only be described as being divine, no matter whether we refer to this source of life as God, the Spirit of God, or Jesus as the Son of God.
There are so many external forces today that threaten our lives as well as our very existence on this planet. Knowing what we do about our human nature and our human propensity to oppress one another, to do violence against one another, to look out for myself above all others, or to consume more than my fair share of the earth’s resources, we all have enough reason to live in a world of gloom and doom, to give up on life, and to wallow in our own despair. All three of our lessons for today attempt to counter this opportunity for despair with a word of hope—a word of hope that is grounded in the belief that there is a source and power of life outside and within our human reality that is dedicated and committed to liberating us from our fear of death.
No matter how privileged or not we may be, we all are prone to be controlled by our fear of death. Just take a look at what has happened in our own country since 9/11. Every day in some way we are reminded to be afraid of some external force that threatens our security and our very existence so that we have to be suspicious of everyone who enters our country or whom we encounter on the street. Our fear of death also justifies the existence of our military industrial complex that threatens any country or people that steps out of line in terms of supporting our economic viability or our global dominance. For all of our talk about addressing global warming, our country never did ratify the Kyoto Protocol because of our fear of what we might have to give up in fulfilling the standards of this agreement. Consequently, we continue to edge closer and closer to human extinction because we are afraid to put our trust in the Spirit of life which will guide us into the way of right relationships with one another for the common good of all people.
With all of the documentaries that are available today regarding terrorism throughout the world, violence in our own country, our military exploits, our economic disparity, and the ecological crisis, we easily could be overwhelmed by it all and be smothered by our despair, or we could be captivated by our lust for life and live only for ourselves to the exclusion of and detriment to all others. Either way, we bring death upon ourselves because we have no hope that God can save us, that the Spirit of God can revive and transform us, and that the Son of God can bring us back to life.
All three of our lessons for today offer us this hope because we have a God as revealed in Jesus Christ who has breathed into us the Spirit of Life, with a capital “S”. In the same way, all three of our lessons for today beg the question: Will we put our trust in this God so that we can live without the fear of death and live in the hope that all things can be transformed and be made new by the Spirit that dwells in and among us? As we consider our answer to this question, may the love and peace of God that goes beyond all of our human understanding, keep our hearts and our minds ever faithful unto Jesus, our Savior. Amen.