Revival – Lazarus, the Valley of Dry Bones and Us
I like making connections: it makes what seems dry and fragmented come alive and have meaning for me. Some people like to break ideas down into their component parts so that they can see how the concepts work. They’re analysts. I’m a synthesist: I like to grab bits from varied sources, and connect them all up into something unexpected which might make an energizing connection to us. Today I want to connect words of the hymns we are singing with the readings from Ezekiel and from John’s gospel, and see if that connection enlivens both the songs and the readings for us.
The hymn we sang before the gospel, “O breath of life, come sweeping through us” connects to the main themes of those two readings, but also to us and to our churches today. Five times in that hymn we have the word “revive”, and several times the related words “renew”, remake” and “restore”. The hymn makes it clear that it is the church and us that need revival through the Spirit, the breath of life and love. So the overall theme of this reflection is “revival”, and our readings provide us with two stark images of that. Through the word of the Lord, new life comes to what is very dead. When Jesus wants to open the tomb of Lazarus, Martha doesn’t hesitate to state the unpleasant reality: “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Yet at the call of Jesus: “Lazarus, come out!” he walks from the tomb still in his shroud. The spirit of the Lord sets Ezekiel down in a valley that was full of dry bones. The prophet reports that the bones were very many and they were very dry. Yet as the prophet speaks the word of the Lord as directed by the Spirit, the dry bones in the valley come together, being covered with sinews and flesh. The prophet in obedience to the Lord calls the Spirit from the four winds to breathe upon them and they live. Ezekiel is given the vision of the valley of dry bones as a metaphor representing the kingdom of Israel; in verse 11 the Lord says: “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel.” The notes to the New Oxford Annotated Bible say: ‘the bones are the exiles who have no more hope of resuscitating the kingdom of Israel than of putting flesh on a skeleton and calling it to life.” Yet the promise of God through the prophet is that “graves will be opened, the people brought up from the grave and brought back to the land of Israel.” So they experience not only revival, but also restoration to their home. In the story of Lazarus, there is also the sense of joyful restoration when the revived Lazarus welcomes Jesus to his house and table in chapter 12, and Mary anoints Jesus with oil in her gratitude. As we connect these powerful stories to ourselves and our church, we sing fervently the final lines of the hymn: “Revive us, Lord, the world is waiting/ equip your church to spread the light.”
Our opening hymn “Lord of creation, to you be all praise” speaks in two verses of freedom. Freedom and praise go hand in hand as recurring themes in Scripture. Jesus says to the family and friends of Lazarus at the mouth of the cave, “Unbind him and let him go.” This restoration of freedom reminds us of the slaves being liberated from Egypt in the Exodus, or the exiles being released from Babylon. Along with the liberation there is the sense of homecoming, a source of joy and gratitude: those in the Exodus come to the Promised Land, the exiles return to Jerusalem the Golden, Lazarus sits at table in his own home with his sisters and Jesus, and many are brought to faith because of him. These homecomings are the work of our great Creator God, who continually re-creates, restores, reconciles, redeems, resurrects – all those re- words that mean fresh life and hope come again, in the midst of death and despair. Israel is restored from exile, Lazarus is revived, and many come to belief in Jesus because of that. It sounds joyful and so it is, worthy of praise and gratitude to the Lord of creation. Yet the hymn makes clear that revival only works when we hand over who we are in trust to God. In different verses, the hymn says to God: “I give you my will, I give you my mind, I give you my heart, I give you my all.” That handing over to God and matching our will to God’s is very clear in Ezekiel’s obedient prophesying that brings new life to the kingdom of Israel pictured as dry bones.
However, enabling new life requires courage. Part of that courage is taking the risk of handing over to God, rather than trying to shape the future to our own ends. There’s courage too in risking ourselves on a journey whose destination we do not know. That brings us to the hymn with words by John Bunyan, “Who would true valour see/let him come hither”. John Bunyan himself was an example of those words. In 1678, while in prison for worshipping outside the auspices of the Church of England, he wrote the great work entitled The Pilgrim’s Progress from this World, to That Which is to Come. Bunyan’s title sums up the challenge facing Lazarus in coming out of the tomb, the challenge facing Jesus and his disciples as they move towards Jerusalem and his death and resurrection, and the challenge facing the returning exiles for whom Ezekiel the prophet is speaking. We know the return from exile was not easy, physically because of the rugged terrain they had to cross, and politically and spiritually because of the conflict between those who stayed and those who were exiled. Lazarus too faced a great risk in returning. He is still mortal and will have to go through the experience of death again: in fact his very revival has put him at risk of dying again soon. In John 12:9-11 it says: “When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many were deserting and were believing in Jesus.” In other words, the raising of Lazarus put his life at risk, but also precipitated the authorities’ actions against Jesus which brought him to the cross.
Actually, once Jesus made the decision to return to Bethany, which was only 2 miles from Jerusalem, he and the disciples knew they were at risk of death by stoning, which had almost happened on their previous visit to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Dedication. When Jesus decides to go despite the disciples’ warning, Thomas shows the courage and love to say, “Let us also go that we may die with him.” Thomas shows the valour described in the Pilgrim hymn. “Those who beset them round/with dismal stories/cannot the brave confound:/their strength the more is”. This is a fine moment of shared valour, when Jesus and the disciples jointly make the choice to go to Bethany at the risk of death. The raising of Lazarus will be the reassuring sign for Jesus’ followers that death does not have the last word. When he is ready, he makes the journey, knowing it will be his last. The disciples follow, despite their fears for his safety and their own. They show us courage centred on faith, hope and love.
The tide of time is moving towards death, but also towards resurrection, the ultimate revival. As Bunyan’s hymn says in the third verse: “they know they at the end/shall life inherit.” This is the promise that Jesus shares with Martha when he arrives at the village. We have it in one of the great “I am” sayings of Jesus in John’s gospel: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live…” These are the words we sing in verse 4 of the hymn “I am the bread of life”. In verse 5 of that hymn we share Martha’s affirmation of faith: Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God who has come into the world.” The triumphant chorus of that hymn affirms the promise of resurrection: “And I will raise them up at the last day.”