Then Their Eyes Were Open
The Broken Bits and Pieces
So, Ezekiel was standing in line at the coffee shop one morning, along with his other prophet buddies, and as he waited for his order, he says “Guys… you are never going to believe the dream I had last night! It was so vivid!” After being handed his Grande/ Skinny/Extra foam Latte and his requested sprinkle doughnut… he grabs a table by the window.
With a mouth full of bagel, one of his prophet friends leans in and says, “Tell us about it Zek.” So, Ezekiel points out the window and down the road a bit. “You see that church down there?” he said. “The one with the clock tower? I had a dream that the wind of God picked me up out of my bed at home, and blew me across town and right into that church – through one of the big stained glass windows and everything. The wind of God dropped me right in the middle of the center aisle. It knocked the breath out of me a little bit. But eventually I stood up, and as I looked around… it was as if the place had been gutted or a like a bomb had gone off! Taken down to the sticks! All the plaster and the pews, the carpeting everything… was scattered around!
(I went over to the church for real this morning… and I peeked into the sanctuary. The place looks pretty pristine! There’s even a fresh coat of paint on one of the walls!)
But in my dream the place was demolished. And as I was checking things out… I began to see that the plaster bits and the overturned pews had words inscribed on them. I walked up to a pew that had been cracked right down the middle and I saw the word “slavery” carved into its wood. I turned to the walls and I saw old lath boards hanging there that were inscribed with names that people call each other in harsh moments: one said “heretic”, another said “sinner”- I remember there was one that said “unwelcome” and “Not in my church”… Plaster bits that had dates and names and stories on them… As I mad my way around the room… I began to feel like I was seeing the old war-wounds of the church, like the dry/ brittle bones scattered across a battlefield.
The church was stripped of its pretty alter clothes, the shiny pipes from the organ… all the varnish and tidiness broken away. I could see shards of broken glass, like someone had stood in this sanctuary, throwing rocks! Battle scars from years of mixing ministry and humanity! A church down to its dry bones.
But then the wind spoke to me and said, “Ezekiel, son of man, can these bones live?”
So I called back to the wind, I said something like, “Ummm… Sovereign Lord, you alone know the answer to that.”
I looked around the room and thought how can this place ever be made whole again.
The wind spoke again, “Prophesy to these bones, Ezekiel!”
So I said, ‘Uhh, alright, umm … (clear throat ‘time to put my prophet hat on’)… Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. God will put you back together again. Our Lord will repair you. Paint you. Fix your broken windows. God will re-shine the pipe organ, and put a new clothe on the altar! But most of all God will breath life into you again! And you will know God in your restored faithfulness!”
I said this loud and clear. But it sort of felt like I was crying out to a room that was too far gone. Too many bones lay scattered and broken.
As I pondered this, the boards began to raddle! The glass shards began to grow and reform. The plaster dust under my feet began to clump, roll and change. The room began to pull itself together again. I had to jump out of the way as the overturned pulpit stood up and took its place on the platform. The walls reformed and were smoothed over with crisp white paint. The carpet unrolled itself, and began reattaching its torn away fibers. The pews were awash in light and fresh varnish. Even the light bulbs overheard flickered and glowed once again. The sanctuary became whole.
Then the wind spoke, “Prophesy, Ezekiel, call to the breath of God.” So I said loud and clear, “Breath of God, come into these walls. Bring life into this place.” All of a sudden, the doors were opened once again. One by one, a dozen or so people came in and scattered themselves among the pews and began to pray. A few more trickled in and took a seat at the organ bench or at the piano! A child came trotting down the aisle, doll in hand, and began to play at the foot of the altar. A few more people came in… and then a couple more… The doors stood wide open!
And then someone came in and walked straight to the front of the church and began to sing… then all the people began to sing praise to God. I walked up the aisle and towards the door. I could still hear the music loud and clear! It was flooding out into the sidewalk, into the parking lot, into the neighborhood and beyond.
The wind came to me again a said, “I did this. I did this so that these people may know that I am God. I opened their graves, poured life onto their dry bones, and set them standing again. I did this, so that they might know that I am God. And they are my people.”
Then Ezekiel took another sip of his long ignore Grande Latte. And, with a foam mustache, looked at his prophet buddies and said, “crazy dream right…”
The Valley of the Dry Bones.
An ancient battlefield, filled with the scars of war.
The brittle sun-baked remnant of what once was.
The valley of death.
The prophet Ezekiel takes us to a place that no one would want to be… ever. The middle of a mass grave. But while he is there, God teaches Ezekiel about something else… life! About resurrection. God takes the bones lying on the ground, (from past battles) and wraps them again in strong muscle, in flesh, sends blood rushing through them. Then God’s breath opens their lungs to draw in renewed life. From a mass grave, God restored the people of Israel.
In our Gospel lesson from John, we once again encounter resurrection. The breath of renewed life. But when we talk about resurrection, we have to start by talking about that ugly monster we have been taught to fear: death. And, of course, Death’s relentless entourage: Destruction, Pain, Dust… and Broken Hearts…
So far in Lent we have talked about sin and shame- blindness and brokenness. We have talked about being imprisoned and shut away… these are all the things that Jesus had to faced on his long walk to Jerusalem, and beyond that to Calvary. But now he faces his hardest task yet: the death of someone that he loves. It is one thing to talk about the sin and shame of someone else. To talk about death and destruction in a far off kind of way… but all the bleakness of the journey is made intensely personal for Jesus this week and for us.
Lent is the season that we reserve for talking about all of these hard things… as a clergy friend of mine and I, were discussing our Scripture text for the week she mentioned that she had hit the punchy point of Lent… that she was so tired of talking about all the heavy stuff. But alas… The Valley of Dry Bone, Ezekiel’s Valley of Death is an important stop for us before we reach the glory of Easter morning. Because without knowing that dryness… without acknowledging that grip of fear that death has on us… we cannot fully stand in the presence of promise and sing praise. So here we are. A sermon about tears.
The first thing that we know about Lazarus of Bethany is that he is sick and that Jesus loves him. Mary, Martha and Lazarus- this family unit- is referred to three times in this passage as ‘those that Jesus loves.’ I get the impression that these folks are like the closest of friends or even like family to Jesus.
Yet by the time that Jesus reaches Lazarus’ bedside he is long since been dead, wrapped in burial clothes and set in the tomb. In the text, we will notice that Jesus purposefully stays away from the town of Bethany when he knows that Lazarus is sick and dying. Martha sends word to him saying, “Lord the one that you love is sick!” A plea for Jesus to ride in on a white horse and come to the rescue. But Jesus purposefully keeps a distance. And when people ask him why… all he gives us is this sort of confusing/ cryptic foreshadow of what is to come. He says, “this sickness will not end in death, No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified.”
But Lazarus indeed dies.
His sickness ends in death.
And still Jesus stays put/stays away. There was this tradition back in the day, that when you placed someone in the burial tomb, you would return there for three days and anoint the body. And as a practical measure you would make sure that they hadn’t just gone into a coma… you would check on them and make sure that they were really and truly dead before you sealed the tomb on the third day. But Jesus waits, purposefully, for the fourth day. So there could be no mistaking that Lazarus is good and dead.
Once Jesus finally heads off to Bethany (which, by the way, is only just two miles down the road from where he is at), and as he walking up to the home of those that he loved, Martha comes running up the path to meet them, saying “Lord, if only you had been here, this would not have happened.” How is that for a greeting? When we read this text, all of us are thinking it anyway… but Martha just says it! “Lord, if you had only been here!”
How many of us have had to experience the death of someone that we love, had to experience the harsh and difficult death of a marriage, felt the sting of disappointment/the weight of illness or addiction… and found yourself saying “Lord, if only you had been here! This would not have happened!”?
All of us.
And then again, as Jesus walks up to the house, and sees Mary (Martha’s sister)… she cries, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
I read once that Saint Teresa of Avila, a medieval Christian mystic, was one day riding along on her donkey, and when the creature stumbles Teresa fell off into the mud. She looked up to the heavens, shook her fist at God, saying “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them!”
We have all had moments like that in our lives, haven’t we? We have all been in Mary and Martha’s shoes. We grieve our losses. We shake our fists at God.
Now, there was another custom among the Jewish people for the era: when someone experienced a great loss, or a tragedy of some kind, you would not leave that person by themselves… ever. Mourners would pack the house. Rather than sending a card, or baking a dish for their freezer, of even sending flowers to the funeral home… they would move into the house for 10 days after the death or event. The Jewish people would not let someone grieve by themselves. They would shoulder it, and weep together. This is a beautiful tradition, one of incredible care.
Honestly, when I am having a rotten day, the last thing I want is house guests… but ours is a different culture.
Jesus upon seeing the sorrow of Martha, seeing the tears and anger of Mary, hearing the wailing of all the mourners in the house… Jesus, as the Scripture says, is “deeply moved in spirit and troubled.”
He asks, “Where have you laid him?”
“Come and see, Lord.” They tell him.
Then Jesus joins in the mourning. He walks out of the house, down the road to the tomb of his dear friend and he weeps. And yet, while his eyes are streaming with tears people are still asking “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept all this from happening?”
They question the Messiah as he grieves his friend.
So why does Jesus bother weeping? Why does he bother with all the tears?
We all get the sense that he’s got something us his sleeve… we all know what Jesus is capable of… We all know how this story ends. So why does Jesus bother with weeping?
He weeps as an act of solidarity with those who grieve. It was true then, as he cried at the tomb of Lazarus. And it is true even today. It is through Christ’s tears, that we may understand that God knows the fragility and the suffering of human life. This is a holy kind of sorrow. And Jesus joins in, to show that you and I are not alone in the hurt.
Jesus is God with us, even in our weeping.
So, when we say, “Lord, if only you had been there this would not have happened!” The truth is, God is there, weeping right alongside everyone else.
In Nicholas Wolterstroff’s book Lament for a Son, which is about the tragic death of his 25 year old son, he say, “If one was worth loving, one is worth grieving over. Grief is existential testimony to the worth of the one loved… every lament is a love-song.” Our grief, our weeping/ Christ’s weeping, is a hymn of love.
So while people were questioning, why Jesus didn’t just stop this from happening in the first place… he was busy giving testimony to how God loves Lazarus/ How God loves us… and signing a hymn of love to one that he considered family.
Then Jesus dries his face, stand up and says, ”Take away the stone.”
And Martha’s answer here is just priceless… She says in the King James Version. “Lord, by this time he stinketh.”
Lazarus is long since dead. Then Jesus looks at her, like “Martha, where is your faith? I know it’s in there somewhere. I got this.” And Jesus, with his head tilted to the heaven’s prays “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I know that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
Jesus knew even before Lazarus drew his last breath of life, that he would breathe once again. Yet, he thanks God for this moment to prove that he is indeed the Resurrection and the Life. This is all for our sake. Us the ones that dare question Our Lord’s intention!
With tear stained cheeks, he faces the tomb of his beloved friend and aches because right there in front of him is the absence of life… He aches because he knows that people have to experience this before they can know the life and freedom in God. That God’s children have to see and experience death before they can fully know the Son of God as the Resurrection and the Life! And so he calls out to the shadow of the open tomb, “Lazarus, come out!” And there Lazarus emerges… still bound in his burial cloth. The raising of Lazarus is not about the power Jesus has to raise people from the dead… it is about his ability and his desire to give new life! This is all a gift.
“Unbind him” Jesus calls out. In other words, cut Lazarus free from these bindings of death! Release him from these burial clothes! As Lazarus is unbound, he is cut free of the fear of death. Unbound so that we are free to put our trust in Christ! To trust that he is the resurrection and that he is life! That we are all free to sing, and dance, and love… without the weight of death hanging over our heads.
Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus because he knows the hurts of this world… he weeps because so many are dead and bound up inside like Christian zombies! Not knowing the gift of freedom the lays in Christ. Soon Jesus’ tears will flow like blood as he prays in Gethsemane… tears that will usher in the way out of our bindings! Usher in the freedom from the sting of destruction! New life is on the horizon. Jesus’ work is about to begin on the Cross.
As Ezekiel prophesied in the Valley of Dry Bones… or as I translated the story… prophesied to the bones of the church… God can re-make… re-build… because Jesus is the resurrection and the life. But note, that God didn’t just drop a new army in the Dry Valley from heaven. God didn’t just plop a new church on the destruction below. God took what was already there – all the broken and bruised pieces, and put them back together again. That valley, that church, still bore the scars of their past. Those marks were still all there. But God made something new and alive again out of it.
God showed Ezekiel (showed us) that Resurrection is not new life, the perfect promise of a newborn baby, but renewed life. Life forged from death. Still bearing the scars of their previous life. But because God is present, in the wind blowing over this mass grave… those who were once dead can breathe and stand ready for the future, looking forward to hope.
When you think of a window, you think of how its function is that it’s supposed to be whole and clear and shiny so as to fulfill it’s purpose of us being able to see through it. So when it gets shattered into a million pieces and broken it feels like it’s no longer serving its purpose. But it’s from shattered glass, and the stains of what broke it, that we get the beautiful images of stained glass, which is a reflection of God’s grace and redemption in the midst of brokenness.
When we experience the death of someone or something that we love… it is like being a shattered window. But because of what Jesus did for us. We can be made whole again, through Christ. And it is that promise that we anxiously await to celebrate on Easter morning.
But in the meantime: To lament, to weep as Christ wept… is to love.