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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Unbind Those Dry Bones

Date: 03/13/2005

Feast: 5th s in Le

Church: LHPC

James McTyre

Bible text: John 11:1-45

Theme: Life After Death

“O Lord God, only you know.”

This is the Fifth Sunday of Lent. A couple of weeks ago, someone asked me, “Are Presbyterians supposed to give up something for Lent?”

I said, “That’s more of a Catholic thing. Some Presbyterian churches really promote giving something up. Others really promote taking something on, like going to a school and reading to the kids during Lent. But, overall, Presbyterians don’t say that you HAVE to give anything up.”

“Oh,” he said. “Thank goodness.” And this look of relief spread across his face. I didn’t ask why the news was so relieving. He might have finally just gotten all the stuff he ever wanted. Or it might have been that he’d already given up everything he possibly could. Maybe. But probably it was that he feels like so many people do – their plate’s already so full of all the ten thousand things they have to do they’re just relieved to find out there’s one thing they don’t have to do. In other words, giving up… the taking on… of giving something up for Lent was a relief.

Which got me to thinking: maybe the Presbyterian Church USA could really increase its membership if we did a big promotional campaign about all the things you DON’T have to do to join our church. We could publicize all the stuff you DON’T have to give up. You can still eat chocolate during Lent. And unlike “other” churches (who shall remain nameless), you don’t have to give up saying hello to each other in the liquor store.

But no. When people talk about what it means to be a church member – as when a church member is talking to a non-church or prospective-church member – when people talk about what it means to be a church member, we usually focus on the other side, don’t we? We talk about our responsibilities. We talk about our calling, our service, our giving, our tithing. And that’s what people ask. They say, “What do we do, as church members?” They ask, “How am I supposed to be different?” “What do I have to give up and what do I have to take on?”

Now, on one hand, these are absolutely the right questions to be asking. Being a member of a church, being a follower of Jesus Christ had BETTER mean your life is changed. If you give your life to Christ and nothing different happens, then either you were already perfectly Christlike (and good for you if you are)… or you’re lying.

But on the other hand – and this comes out in today’s scriptures – being a member of a church, being a follower of Jesus Christ means confessing, confessing that there is absolutely NOTHING you can give up, NOTHING you can take on… there’s absolutely NOTHING you can do to wash off the stinking stain of sin from yourself. There’s absolutely NOTHING you can do to save your own soul. THAT is a monumental confession. Being a member of a church, being a follower of Jesus Christ means accepting the promise that Christ – and Christ alone – gives us life. Christ alone rescues us from death.

And on that hand, the person who breathes a deep sigh of relief upon finding out that he or she doesn’t have to give anything up, or take anything on – that person is, in some important ways, coming very close to the Kingdom of God. Because that person is close to grasping the idea that God is always better than their best and always more forgiving than their worst. Everything depends on God, not us.

What can we do to save ourselves from the powers of sin? What can we do to save ourselves from death? Despite our best efforts, the truth is there’s not a single thing we can do. Ezekiel’s words are truer than true: “O Lord God, only you know.” It’s all in God’s hands.


It’s all in God’s hands.

Both of the scriptures today talk about rebirth and life. But before they take us to life and rebirth, they take us first to the tomb. Without death there would be no life. Again, we usually think of it the other way around. I doubt it makes much difference to God.

Ezekiel sees a vision, a dream. A vast field of fallen soldiers. An army of the people of God laid waste by an unnamed force. Disgraced and forgotten, their bones are left for the vultures. No one tends for them. No one remembers them. It’s the final insult, to give your life for a cause that no one cares about.

These bones, God explains, are the children of Israel. Israel, God’s people, are as good as dead. And not only dead, they’re disgraced and unclean. The powers of the world have gotten to them. The forces of the world have wiped away their memory of God, and their love of God. In other words, they’re as good as dead. And there’s not a thing they can do about it.

In the New Testament lesson, Lazarus, a beloved friend of Jesus, has become ill. But instead of racing off to the hospital, Dr. Jesus waits. And then Lazarus dies. Still Jesus pokes along. Mary and Martha tell Jesus the complaints of their unanswered prayers, “Lord, if you had been here, our brother wouldn’t have died.” And now Lazarus’ bones are as dry as the dry bones of Ezekiel.

It’s hard for us not to psychologize about this passage. We know so much about “owning our emotions” and “getting in touch with feelings” that it’s hard not to speculate about what Jesus was feeling, or what Mary or Martha, or even poor old Lazarus was feeling. But Jesus tells us in his own words, this isn’t about feelings. Jesus needs to demonstrate the awesome, life-giving power of God, just as it was demonstrated to Ezekiel. Jesus needs a pile of dry bones and Lazarus just happens to be at the right place at the right time. Or the wrong place, depending on your point of view. Lazarus dies and there’s not a thing Mary, or Martha can do about it.

“It’s all in God’s hands.” You hear people say that near the end of life. Usually it’s when they reach the point of knowing that they’ve done all they can do for a loved one. They, and the doctors, have run out of tools, run out of tests, and maybe even run out of prayers. When people say these words, they sound like Mary and Martha. A little angry. And very, very worn out. Ironically, it’s often the caregivers who feel like a pile of dry bones at the end. Throwing up their hands, their hearts broken, they say, “O Lord God, only you know. It’s in your hands, now.”

I think what Jesus or Ezekiel would say to us is, “You’re absolutely right.” I think they’d say, “As awful as this situation is, as terrible as it feels, right now, when you said that, you’re closer to the kingdom of God than you’ve ever been in your life.” Is that a good thing? Sure doesn’t feel that way at the time. But again, it’s not about the feelings. It’s about the confession. The confession that without God’s power, nothing is possible. The confession that life, death and everything in between and everything after and everything before is all in God’s hands. Not only when we run out of options, not only when we feel like a pile of dry bones, but even when we have the world on a string. Whether we pick up or put down, whether we kneel or run away, we do so with our feet firmly planted in the palm of God’s hand. We’re always in God’s hands. “O Lord God, only you know.” And sometimes… we know, too.


The Bible’s about God, not about Lazarus, so it doesn’t tell us what happened to Lazarus after Jesus brought him back to life. I’ll be he danced. I’ll bet he threw the town’s biggest party. I’ll bet he had Martha cook him a huge sirloin dinner, with thick breads, well-aged wines, potatoes, deep-fried okra, and lots and lots of gravy. To heck with all that low-carb-make-you-live-a-few-days-longer-diet stuff.

But then, after a few days, when he realized how lucky he was, he might have changed a few old habits, given up some things, and taken a few on. Might have quit the cigarettes. Might have joined a health club. Might have started taking time to study scripture and pray. Might have started doing a few of those things he’d always wanted to do, but what with all the ten thousand other things on his plate, had never quite found the time. You do stuff like that, when you realize you’re not on a deadline, not on a death line.

When Lazarus comes walking out of the tomb, wrapped up like The Mummy with his cloth bands hanging off him, Jesus doesn’t speak to Lazarus, but to the people around him. He tells the people around Lazarus, “Unbind him, and let him go.” As if they were somehow responsible for sucking the life out of Lazarus in the first place. Where else would the pressure to keep juggling those ten thousand things have come from?

And there, I think, is the other hand of which we spoke earlier, the other hand of God on which we also stand. Yes, if you believe in the awesome, life-giving, death-defeating power of God it ought to change your life. And here’s how. Jesus tells us himself. You have the power to unbind; you have the commandment to set free. You may not be able to give life or prevent death, but you do very much have the power to help Lazarus walk free. You may not be able to save yourself from the powers of death and sin, but you do have the power to help someone else see, and know, and walk in the life of Jesus Christ. How do you do that? What do they need? Well, you really won’t know until you get close enough to unwrap their bandages, and give them the time and space to live, again, or for the first time.