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April 9, 2017
The 7 Signs of Jesus Sermon Series
Scripture: Ezekiel 37:1-14 & John 11:1-6, 17-27 & 35-44
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
This past week I took our kids to visit my parents in Pennsylvania for their spring break. My kids love going to their grandparents’ house, and part of the reason they love it is that they view it as a dose of the country. My dad loves to garden. My mom trains dogs, presently with three Australian Shepherds and one Gordon Setter in the mix. They also have taken up beekeeping and raising chickens.
While we were eating our lunch at Panera, the kids asked their grandpa if they ever had a rooster. He answered, “Not now, but sometimes we end up with one when we order chicks.” Then he shared the story about one of their roosters.
A few years ago they had a rooster who was just mean. This rooster acted as though he owned the yard, so when my mom would go outside to head to the chicken coop or to visit the garden, the rooster would attack her. It would do the same to the dogs.
My mom is no shrinking violet, so she decided to defend herself against the rooster. She grabbed a long strip of plastic – kind of like having a whiffle ball bat with her. She went outside. The rooster attacked, and my mom did her best impression of Miguel Cabrera, sending the rooster flying across the yard. But then the rooster didn’t move. Mom thought, “Well, good riddance. At least I have my yard back.” She went about her business for the next 20 or so minutes, when all of the sudden she sees the rooster rise from the dead.
I don’t think that rooster ever had a name (and my dad told me that they later gave the rooster to my aunt, who later ate him), but if I were naming that rooster, I would have called him Lazarus – the rooster who reminds us that resurrection is real.
For over 2600 years, the question of resurrection has hung over humanity. Ezekiel was a priest who became a prophet at the time of his peoples’ exile to Babylon. In his writings and especially in his divine encounters, we catch glimpses of the work of God in the world, particularly in the midst of difficult times. The Babylonians conquered Israel, taking the people from the Promised Land, upending everything that seemed right and true to the people. This exile reshaped how the people viewed the world and especially God.
Ezekiel 37 contains a vision, one in which the Lord vividly shows Ezekiel that God is in the business of breathing life into the dead. The Lord presents Ezekiel with a vision of a valley filled with dry bones, and in this vision they wander through this scene of utter destruction.
“Can these bones live?” the Lord asks Ezekiel.
“Lord, you know,” he responds, which seems to me to be an incredible admission of faith on Ezekiel’s part. When we see mass graves on the news or in history books, I don’t think any of us are thinking about a return to life.
And so the vision continues with Ezekiel speaking life into the bones. Interestingly, the Hebrew word ruah occurs three times in these verses, each time with a different nuance. It is the ruah or Spirit of the Lord who puts Ezekiel in the valley in verse 1. It is ruah or breath in verse five that starts to rebuild these bones into bodies. It is ruah or wind from the four corners of the earth that ultimately reanimates the bodies. Just as the ruah of God hovered over the waters in Genesis 1, just as God’s ruah breathed life into humanity in Genesis 2, so this ruah is here about re-creation in Ezekiel 37, bringing life where there was no life.
If these bones are to live, then God has to do it. And God does it.
Throughout Lent we have been taking a look at the Seven Signs of John, all things that point beyond themselves to a greater reality. We’ve had water turned into wine. We’ve had three healings. We’ve had food multiplied. We’ve had walking on water. Today we’ve made it to the seventh sign – the raising of Lazarus from the dead. All of these signs point to God’s kingdom breaking into the world, and finally we see God’s ultimate purpose in the move from death to life, from dead ends to open doors, from hopelessness to hope.
The number seven is significant in the Bible. We measure our days in sevens, just as Genesis 1 speaks of God’s creative activity as a period of seven days. Seven is a number of completion. On the seventh day, God rested from creating, declaring what God had done, “Very good.”
John is playing off of this idea with his seven signs. When we get to Lazarus, we have reached the pinnacle of the purpose of what God is doing in the world – defeating death. It is a sign that points towards this greater reality that God has woven into the very fabric of creation.
So, here we’ve arrived at the seventh sign – God in Christ conquering death. John 11 is both the culmination of all the other signs that preceded it and the prelude to the rest of the gospel, where the attention goes to the events that will lead to Jesus’ own death.
I’ve heard it said that “birth leads to a terminal condition called life.” John 11 is littered with death. Of course, there is the death of Lazarus, which Jesus knows has happened, even from a great distance. There is also a pervading sense that a return to Jerusalem will not go well for Jesus or his disciples. Jesus knows what he faces there, and his disciples go with him, with one of them even urging the others, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Jesus and his disciples make their way to Bethany, two miles east of Jerusalem, just over the Mount of Olives. By the time they arrive, Lazarus has been dead for four days. John doesn’t focus on the death itself. Even the huge miracle at the end isn’t the focus. Rather, the focus is on processing the role of death in life. John gives us three conversations – one between Jesus and his disciples, one between Jesus and Martha, and one between Jesus and Mary. The miracle is just a period at the end of a long sentence.
Can these bones live? Just as the Lord asked this question of Ezekiel, so too John is asking this question of us. Can these bones live?
Martha already knows and loves Jesus. She believes he is a great teacher. She knows he’s a miracle worker. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” Martha blurts out in her grief (the same sad statement Mary makes just a few verses later), shows us that she knows Jesus is a healer, probably even thinking back to the healing of the official’s son that we read about in John 4. She knows all this about Jesus, but she also knows that her brother lies in a tomb.
Verses 24-26 are at the heart of this narrative. Martha affirms her belief that someday the Lord will bring about resurrection, but Jesus pushes the matter further. “I am,” Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” I am. Present tense. True now, and true forever.
Martha believes. Her theology is sound, but it hasn’t quite gone far enough. Her theology needs to meet its end in Jesus, in affirming who he is – the Messiah, the Son of God. As one commentary reminds us,
“Faith, therefore, is not assent to a series of faith statements, but assent to the truth of Jesus’ relationship with God and the decisive change that relationship means for the lives of those who believe.”
What needs “resurrection power” in our lives?
Can these bones live? Seems to be our cry even today.
Out of the dust and ashes of life, can the Spirit of God bring life once again? We all yearn for this personally. All of us are intimate with the grief brought on by disease and infirmities. This morning some of us are wrestling greatly with it. All of us know loss in some form, and even those of us who are not encountering it today know it’s never far away.
We yearn for renewal in Michigan. Having lived in Detroit four years, I have seen countless signs of rebirth, but it is also abundantly clear that there are elements of the past that are not returning and that the rebirth has not made its way everywhere – particularly to those at most risk economically.
We yearn for renewal nationally. At the heart of our divided nation resides the question of our own national identity – who were we, who are we, and whom are we becoming?
We yearn for it around the globe. Just this past week those jarring images from the chemical weapons attack in Syria put our potential for inhumanity front and center once again, even as we wrestle with a massive refugee crisis around the world and struggle over what we can and should do in the face of evil.
A few days after raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus will climb aboard a donkey, following the path over the Mount of Olives from Bethany to Jerusalem. This way of triumph and celebration, where the crowds shout their hosannas will soon become a way of sorrow and devastation. This path between Bethany and Jerusalem will become well worn with grief, as the depths of our depravity are exposed in humanity’s willingness and ability to crucify God’s Son, the Messiah.
Jesus could have hurried to Bethany to prevent Lazarus’ death. He didn’t. He waited for God’s timing, and God’s power was revealed through him in showing those gathered that, yes, these bones can live. “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus tells all of us. And so we trust in him, even in the midst of our own valleys of dry bones.
If these bones are to live, then God has to do it.
There is still much more to tell you. Even though we have reached the seventh sign, our series is not at an end. God is still speaking and acting. I hope you return next week to hear how else God is speaking resurrection into your life right now. Amen.
 The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes. Volume IX, p. 694.