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Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only

Lent 5 – Year

This story of Ezekiel and his vision of the Valley of Bones has always been unsettling for me. It is almost too familiar, as if Ezekiel has stolen one of those disturbing dreams that are somewhere on the border of revelation and nightmare. Maybe this is the kind of dream expressed in every soul.

Ezekiel stands at the edge, on the rim between life and hopelessness. Is this what life is about in the end, green valleys that turn into dust and silence? Are our bright hopes and ideals fated to be nothing more than a wasted heap of dry bones? Isn’t Ezekiel asking a question to himself so fearful that we dare ask it to ourselves? Is this real? Is faith anything more than a Sunday charade?

Ezekiel stands alone over the vista of the valley of bones—bones that are lost hopes, failed promises, undone deeds, broken ideals, disloyalties, and sins. The voice he hears is not booming from the heavens, but speaking out of the rhythms of his own heart. Out of his very own joys and sorrows, from his choices good and bad, out of his losses, and his guilt and shame, from deep within his innermost self, the questions pour out:

Where art thou?
Who will go for us?
What does a man profit, if he gains the whole world,
and loses his soul?
Do you love me?
Do you believe?
Son of Man, can these bones live?

Can life come where death has breathed its chill? Can springtime return when winter has frozen the earth in its icy grip? Can failure and guilt, loss and heartbreak, return from the dead?

Son of Man, can these bones live?

Can a nation glutted with things, hooked on its own narcotics, unable to tell the truth to itself anymore, no longer certain whether self-interest or serving freedom’s cause is more important, find its lost ideals? Can a Church that has failed its Lord in word and deed, sought to preserve itself above all else, avoid sacrifice, fouled by its failure to love others, become a place where people want to come, where God’s love is not so much spoken as felt, where courage is not dissipated in fear, and no one is cast out?

Son of Man, can these bones live?

Can a person defensive over old wrongs, deceiving himself about his goodness, blighted by his indifference, turn into a new man who no longer cares about grudges, delights in the truth, and feels again a passion for living and loving?

Can a person angry over her choices, hopeless that life will ever change, in despair over decisions never made, renew herself, release the rage, and find that tomorrow is not disappointment, but filled with joy?

Can we cast ourselves apart from the illusion that fate has bound our future and we are not free?

Son of Man, can these Bones live?

Ezekiel cannot run away. There is nowhere to go, no place to hide from the horror of the valley. The questions follow like shadows at sunset. We dare not rush toward them, babbling bland assurances and mouthing easy answers. When we gaze upon the valley of dry bones, we look deep inside our doubts. And something there at the bottom of our soul suggests to us that death is death after all, and that is that, world without end.

Jesus came late. Lazarus is dead. Martha is angry. Mary is still trying to be faithful. Tears well up in his eyes—tears, not for Jerusalem, or the patriarchs, or for the future, only tears for this man he loved. Tears for Lazarus.

Do you believe that bones can live? Do you believe that what was dead can live again? Do you believe that all of our regrets, all of our guilt, all of our mistakes, all of our hatred, does not mean that we are dead? That anxiety, addictions, and failure can be overcome?

Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”

The value of religious faith, if it is real, is that it sets us free. And freedom is nothing more than the opportunity to love life and one another. This is not only a story about Lazarus, it is a story about us. At its very peak of suspense, Jesus speaks words that are meant for us as much as for Lazarus:

“Lazarus, come out!”

“Lazarus, come out!” is the command to anyone who dares to say they are a Christian, a follower of Jesus. “Lazarus Come Out” is a stupendous statement of God’s Son, reaching out with arms of love to Lazarus, and to you and to me and a whole host of other men and women who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

“Lazarus, come out!” brings the saving power of Christ to defeated people whose lives are given a new chance, a new invitation to come alive. We are invited to rise from whatever spiritual and emotional death we experience and start over again. “Lazarus, come out!” is the answer to the valley of bones.

The saving love that Jesus brings is not interested in our past, in our sins, in our guilt, in our shame, or our fears. It is not interested in the graves we have dug for ourselves. The saving love of Jesus wants to raise us anew. It is a calling us forth to victory over what binds us.

Jesus calls us not so much from something as to something. Wherever in your life are those places of desperation and destruction and death, there is where Jesus stands outside and calls “Lazarus, come out!” And we have only to act on his invitation. Jesus will unbind the fetters that enslave us and free us to try once again to live in hope and love and to believe that tomorrow will be a better day. The choice is ours to respond. That is the way God has made this universe. It will not be done for us or to us unless we respond to the love that is offered. Come out from wherever you hide in darkness, in the tomb of hopelessness and fear. Such grace is here for you and me, and it overcomes anything.

When Jesus says he is the resurrection and the life, he is not only talking about the future; he is talking to us now. “Lazarus, come out!,” means that the resurrected life starts today—not when you die.

Every funeral in the Episcopal Church begins with these words: “I am the resurrection and the life.” And it would be equally a great idea to start everyday with the same words.

Did I tell you the story about the great society funeral in New York City, in a large and famous Episcopal Church? The congregation was ready, but the rector was late. The poor curate, hesitant to delay any longer, began the Service with these words, “I am the resurrection and the life,” at which point the harried rector, just arrived, raced ahead of the procession, pushed his assistant aside and said, “No, no, I am the resurrection and the life.”

It doesn’t matter when you hear it or who tells you, because it is the truth. I remember being in a Bible study once when someone asked, “Does anyone here really believe that Jesus literally raised Lazarus from the dead or changed water into wine? To that question came this reply from a friend who was a recovering alcoholic, “I don’t know about changing water to wine, all I know is that in my house he changed beer into furniture, hatred into love, and that’s miracle enough for me.”

“Lazarus, come out!” is God’s promise that there is more to you than you thought. Your life is not your private possession, and you are not alone. You can be free from everything that binds you and keeps you away from hope and joy. New life in Jesus is not a solitary exper-ience. It is life lived in hope and love with others. Despair has a short life expectancy when it is not kept alone. Hopelessness usually cannot exist when two or three are gathered together. Fear dies when faced by love. This is the best news you are going to hear anywhere, and it is addressed to you:

“Son of Man, can these bones live?”
“Lazarus, come out!”

Let us pray:
When I am hungry Lord,
give me someone in need of food;
When I am thirsty, send me someone in need of a drink;
When I am cold, send me someone to warm;
When I am sad, offer me someone to console;
When my cross is heavy;
let me share someone else’s cross;
When I have failed, send me someone to help succeed
When I am in need of understanding,
give me to someone who needs to be understood;
When I am self-centered,
send someone who needs my love;
When I feel hopeless, give me someone who needs hope;
When I am in the tomb,
give me the courage to live again.
Help these bones to live again for you. Amen.

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