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

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Bring Out Your Dead


Ezekiel 37:1-10 Dry bones

John 11:30-44 Lazarus raised

"Bring Out Your Dead"

Some friends were wondering how to dress up their baby for Halloween.

I suggested Harry Potter. You get some round, baby glasses.

Get a Sharpie and mark a lightning bolt on his forehead.

So cute.

Our kids have gotten too old for us to dress them up.

Now, the only one in the house who can be made up in our own image is the dog.

Please don't dress your dog for Halloween. It's just humiliating to them.

They stand there, staring straight ahead, like they're wearing the cone of shame.

The other dogs make fun of them.

Find a baby to dress up like Harry Potter.

Halloween has now become second only to Christmas in the amount of money spent.

All those costumes and lawn decorations really add up.

Why do we spend so much money on Halloween?

Is it because we're becoming a ghoulish, pagan culture preoccupied with the powers of darkness?

Or are we just screaming for an excuse to dress up and have a party?

We celebrate Halloween because it's license to play pretend.

There's so much to be scared of these days, it's a relief to put on costumes and laugh at the things that scare us.

I think our culture is reclaiming the original intent of Halloween, which was to dress up and scare the evil spirits before they had the chance to scare us.

It's not every year that Halloween falls on Sunday, and Scott and I had some fun batting (no pun intended) batting around ideas about what we could do to make church scarier.

He suggested hymns like, "Holy Ghost, Send a Revival," or "There is a Fountain Filled with Blood," or "I Will Not Be Afraid."

I told him those were all Baptist hymns and Presbyterians don't know any of the scary church songs.

I suggested making the sermon longer and taking up the offering twice.

I decided to take a look at a couple of scriptures that went with an All Hallow's Eve theme, namely, the dry bones of Ezekiel and the raising of Lazarus from the dead.

If you were to take them at face value, and read them without any knowledge of how they fit into rest of the Bible, they're pretty creepy.

Skeletons walking. The return of the mummy.

But if you put them into their context with the rest of scripture, they do what I think our culture is spending so much money trying to do.

They celebrate the scary stuff – lifting up the scariest stuff of all -- life and death -- so we can see it in the light of God.

And even if we can't laugh at the subject matter itself, at least we can reassure ourselves instead of being so seriously scared.

We can use these scriptures as I think God intended them to be used:

to scare the demons back into the darkness, before they scare the life out of us.

Even though we don't talk about death very often, or don't like to think about it, the Bible isn't so shy.

The Bible is well-acquainted with death in all its different forms, and in the Bible, death boils down to two different kinds: spiritual death and physical death.

In our scripture today, Ezekiel speaks to the condition of spiritual death, while the story of Lazarus in John speaks to the physical.

First, spiritual death.

The prophet Ezekiel had a vision.

And in his vision God took him to a wide, desolate valley, filled with dry bones and set him down right in the middle.

Bones as far as the eye could see in every direction.

God said, "Mortal, can these bones live?"

And Ezekiel records, "I answered, 'O Lord God, you know.'"

(Good answer.)

Then God said, "Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord."

And as he spoke God's word, something miraculous began to happen.

At the sound of God's word, the bones began to rattle.

Knee bones connected to the thigh bones, and jawbones and skulls – finding each other and re-connecting, pulled together by some invisible, irresistible magnetic force.

And then they began to grow muscles, and then skin began to wrap around them.

Yes, the Bible has cool special effects, too.

Ezekiel spoke again and at the sound of God's word, the zombie bodies breathed in the breath of God and came alive!

Reanimated – just like Frankenstein's monster, only better.

And God spoke to Ezekiel and explained the vision, "Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel.

They say, "Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost.

Therefore, prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, and I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live..."

And so the voice of God spoke to hopeless people when all the hope had drained out of them, telling them, calling them, commanding them: Live!

Give my creatures life!

Life beyond your hopelessness, you mortals.

Live -- not by your own breath, but by the breath of God.


There's an old saying.

"The only difference between a rut and a grave is the depth."

And all of us who have been stuck in our own ruts, or who have tried to dig our family members out of theirs, know exactly what this means.

You sure don't have to be dead to feel like it.

Fatigue, depression, an unhealthy diet –

brain pathways and chemical dependencies –

lifestyle changes –

all these can sap the life out of us.

The good news is that it seems science is finally getting closer to understanding what the Bible has known all along:

Physical illness and mental illness and spiritual illness are all interconnected.

And thank goodness when churches and doctors and pharmacists and nutritionists and friends can all work together to help pull us out of our ruts before they become our graves.

Thank goodness when the breath of God is breathed back into us through the kindness of people who care –

Who speak to us when we look like the living dead.

What's really scary is to be afraid that we don't have someone like Ezekiel to "prophesy" to us when we're down and out.

But what's even scarier is to find ourselves in Ezekiel's shoes, trying to preach to dry bones that won't come back together.

All of us know someone who's intent on self-destruction.

All of us know someone who refuses help, no matter how many kind, helpful words are breathed in their direction.

There's always a reason why our advice won't work.

What do you do then?

What do you do when the powers of death and darkness really do take over?

We often call the story from today's New Testament reading, "The raising of Lazarus."

So, going by the name, you figure it's about him.

But if you read it carefully, Lazarus doesn't have all that many lines.

I think toward the end he says something like, "Mmmmmmmm."

The ones who get all the press in this story are really his sisters, Mary and Martha.

You remember them.

Like Jan and Marcia, they had sister issues.

Mary was the one who sat at Jesus' feet while Martha cooked dinner.

Martha was the one who said, "Lord, tell my sister to get in here and help me fix your dinner."

And Jesus says, "Martha, Martha, Martha."

In today's scripture, Lazarus falls ill, Martha sends for Jesus, but Jesus won't come.

And since he won't come, Lazarus dies.

When he finally does get there, four days later, Martha jumps his case.

"Lord, if you had come when we asked you, my brother wouldn't have died."

A little later, sweet little Mary comes out and shakes her finger at him, too.

"Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn't have died."

Well, maybe he would, maybe he wouldn't – that's something we'll never know.

One thing we do know for sure is that even though he was brought back to life this time, Lazarus did, eventually, die.

In the Bible, physical death might be delayed, but it will not be denied.

We're all like Lazarus.

Our death may be postponed, maybe even by a miracle of God, but eventually it's going to get us all.

Delayed, but never denied.

Which brings me back to the thought that this passage is less about Lazarus' miraculous resuscitation, and more about the effect it had on his sisters, the ones who actually talk to Jesus.

I doubt that there are very many among us who haven't at least thought the same things Mary and Martha said.

"Lord, if only you had been there, he or she wouldn't have died."

We know in our hearts that's only temporarily true.

If we want to know what to do when the dry bones don't fit back together, we have to listen to what Jesus said to Martha in response.

Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again."

Martha said, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day."

Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die."

And then Jesus asked Martha, "Do you believe this?"

In Luke, Chapter 10, Jesus said, "All things have been handed over to me by my Father." (Luke 10:22)

All things – even death – belong to the life-giving power of Jesus Christ.

And the entire rest of the story is illustration of just that.

But Jesus' question to Martha is Jesus' question to us all: Do you believe this?

Does death scare us so deeply that we can't see through the night of All Hallow's Eve to the Day of All Saints which follows?

(Tomorrow is, by the way, All Saints' Day.)

Does death scare us so deeply that we can't imagine that it, too, falls under the power of Jesus Christ?

Is it a ticking time bomb that fills our days with silent dread?

Or do we trust that even though it scares us to our souls, it still belongs to God,

that it is part of the all things in heaven and on earth that are under the power and dominion of Jesus Christ,

Christ who defeated even death for our sakes?

Do we believe this?

That, I think, is the point of the raising of Lazarus:

not just that Jesus had compassion on one of his friends,

but that Jesus has dominion over all of us –

power and dominion over all parts of us –

our flesh, our bones, our life, and our death.

So that even when things get horribly broken, and don't fit back together, we can trust that we are never, never beyond the re-creating, redeeming love of God our Father.

Spiritually, physically, completely - we belong to God.

And praise God that there is nothing so scary in heaven or on earth that can change any of that.

In a way, it would make sense if Halloween fell on Sunday every year.

It would make sense to remind ourselves that even the ghosts and goblins belong to the Lord's Day.

Even though they aren't OF God, they are never ABOVE God.

In the end, the day is His, not theirs.

Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing,

to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 24-25).