TWD for Jesus
For those who are fans of the Walking Dead, you may be thinking that today’s readings are just for you! If that is the case, I regret to inform you that this is not a Biblical drama about holding onto our basic humanity in the face of overwhelming forces. In fact, it might even be just the opposite: Biblical encouragement to let go of our limited human experiences in order to be caught up in the presence of God. Not as much fun as killing zombies, but I assure you it’s a better place to be.
Yes! These readings – as gruesome as they may sound – are not about re-animated flesh in service of desire. They are about the expectation of life and hope and joy and peace. They are about the power of God and our ability to believe in it; to be caught up in it; to even be immersed in it.
That word, “believe”, figures prominently in our Lenten experience this year. Over the last several weeks we’ve heard over and over about the power and the purpose of belief in Jesus. We started Lent with the temptation of Jesus to worship Satan. Jesus was forced to state his belief in God (and in himself as God’s son). Then we had the story of Nicodemus and the claim that all who believe in Jesus will be saved, because Jesus came to save and not to condemn. Next was the Samaritan woman – the outsider who brought a whole village to faith while the disciples were on their lunch break.
She told them about her belief in Jesus and they believed after they saw him for themselves. Then last week we had the man who was blind from birth, and through him Jesus taught about spiritual blindness for those who did not believe in him as God’s son.
Today we have this fantastic vision of Ezekiel about believing in the power of God to raise an army of dead soldiers – which is really more of a metaphor for the ultimate restoration of God’s people. And as if to say, “No foolin’!” we have this story of Jesus allowing his friend to die, so that he can be sure that everyone knows that God is revealing Godself through him. And stuck in the middle of that we have a little clip from Paul to remind us not to get too hung-up on the physical act of resurrection. Instead we are to place our hope and trust in the actions of the Holy Spirit of God.
These passages are incredibly encouraging, but they also ask us some pretty pointed questions. The most obvious is whether or not we believe in the power of God to restore, to redeem, and yes to even raise the dead to new life?
In the valley of the dry bones, God is pretty clear with Ezekiel. He leads him all around as though to inspect the bones. It sounds pretty clinical, but I can’t help but wonder how it would have felt. I can’t help but remember stories I’ve heard from a friend who witnessed a mass grave in Iraq while serving in our military.
As I wrestle with the reality of this metaphorical vision, I can’t help but be transported in my own mind to the slave dungeon I entered in Ghana so many years ago. There were no bones, but the feeling of evil was palpable. Suffering seemed embedded in the walls of that place, and I was filled with disgust for it.
It is in these places of extreme suffering that God asks us if we believe that new life can take place. As we look at the bones and we think of the extremism in our politics and our conflicts, which masquerade as expressions of faith, Ezekiel gives us the only good and true answer. “O, Lord God, you know.”
But here’s where it gets sticky. God told Ezekiel to prophecy – to speak truth – to the bones. God told Ezekiel to call out for the bones to be restored with sinew and flesh, and God told him to call out for God’s Spirit to fill them with life. For these new creations to live there had to be a connection between the Word of God and the Spirit of God. That much is clear, and the same is true for each of us, for we are called to be prophets even as we await restoration. We are called to speak truth to the bones we see all around us.
I hate to admit it, but some of us seemed to be lamenting over the bone yard of the church even as we trimmed hedges and worked to beautify God’s property yesterday. I was reminded that it was actually around this time last year that we began talking about God’s calling for mission and ministry and how these old buildings can best be used. In true Presbyterian form we were just building some momentum when the floods came last August.
In some ways it feels a little like the Lazerus story to me. Jesus heard about his friend’s illness and said, “Perfect! Let him die so I can show everyone the power of God.” Of course, good old Thomas thought they were on the fast track to martyrdom, and when he got there Martha said, “You’re late.” And everyone seemed to wonder why Jesus – who so obviously loved his friends – did not keep this from happening. Not only that, but no one had any idea what Jesus was talking about until Jesus told them to unbind Lazarus from the funeral cloth around his body.
Now, let’s be clear. God did not flood our state, create the second costliest disaster in our nation’s history, and displace 140,000 people as a demonstration of power or judgement or anything else other than a world with forces of nature that sometimes require chaos to stay in balance. However, in the midst of this there was this little congregation looking for vision and purpose that just happened be willing to host people from all over the country so that homes and lives and communities could be restored.
At the heart of it all is that we believe that God is in our midst. Just as Jesus gave thanks that God had received his prayer before he called for Lazarus to come out, so we have the expectation that what we do is in response to the life giving Spirit of God.
Through all of the pain and suffering and general nonsense of the world, we have to remember that God is the one who gives life, and we are immersed in it. Like a fish in the sea – like the air we breath – the life giving presence of God is what holds us from cradle to grave and beyond.
I can’t tell you why or how Jesus would save Lazarus and not someone else. I can’t tell you why my house was spared in the flood and another was not. But I don’t think that’s the point of the Gospel. The point is that we can believe in Jesus as the one who revealed God’s true nature to us. We can trust that believing in him offers eternal life, but we cannot wait until we are nothing but bones to live that life. And we cannot look at the bones in our community without expecting new life.
We cannot look at the injustice in our city and say that it’s someone else’s problem. We cannot even expect that because our congregation houses volunteers that none of our members need to join a work team for a day (or even put together a group for a Saturday project).
What we can do is expect the Holy Spirit of God to give us the ability to see the bones in the first place. We can expect God to give us the words to speak and the will to act. But most of all, in order to hear God’s call, we must set our minds on spiritual things – those actions and relationships that demonstrate the heart of God.
Each of us will need to live this faith in our own way, but God has also called us and formed us as a people, bound by God’s life giving Spirit in order to unbind those who God calls into newness of life! We can do that if we can speak the truth and trust in God to act in and through us. If we can live as a people who believe in the life giving presence of God, then not only will we experience resurrection in our own lives, but we will demonstrate it to others in such a way that they cannot help but believe!
I pray it will be so with you and with me as we continue on our way toward the cross and the promise of the resurrection! And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen.