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Sermon for 6 April 2014

First Reading                              Ezekiel 37:1–14

1 The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.  2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.  3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?”  I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.”  4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them:  O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.  5 Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones:  I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.  6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD.”  7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone.  8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.  9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”  10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.  11 Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel.  They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’  12 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, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.  13 And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.  14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act, says the LORD.”

Psalm                                                      Psalm 130

1 Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD; 2 O LORD, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication.  3 If you were to keep watch over sins, O LORD, who could stand?  4 Yet with you is forgiveness, in order that you may be feared.  5 I wait for you, O LORD; my soul waits; in your word is my hope.  6 My soul waits for the Lord more than those who keep watch  for the morning, more than those who keep watch for the morning.  7 O Israel, wait for the LORD, for with the LORD there is steadfast love; with the LORD there is plenteous redemption.  8 For the LORD shall redeem Israel from all their sins.

Second Reading                          Romans 8:6–11

6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.  7 For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law — indeed it cannot, 8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.  9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.  Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.  10 But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.  11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Gospel                                                    John 11:1–45

1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.  2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill.  3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”  4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”  5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.  7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”  8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”  9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world.  10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.”  11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.”  12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.”  13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep.  14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.  15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.  But let us go to him.”  16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.  18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother.  20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home.  21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”  23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”  24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”  25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.  Do you believe this?”  27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”  28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.”  29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him.  30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him.  31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out.  They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there.  32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.  34 He said, “Where have you laid him?”  They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”  35 Jesus began to weep.  36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”  37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”  38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb.  It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.  39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”  Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”  40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”  41 So they took away the stone.  And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me.  42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.”  43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”  44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.  Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.


I bet that if I asked you to sing an old African spiritual with me, without telling you the name, you’d all recognize it as soon as the music started.  The song begins with, Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.  Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.  Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.  Now hear the word of the Lord.  The toe bone connected to the foot bone/ Foot bone connected to the leg bone and so on all the way to The neck bone connected to the head bone/ Oh, hear the word of the Lord!  I also thought about asking Libby/Prue to come up here and dance while we sang, but then I remembered we’re Lutherans and we don’t dance in church.  But you have to admit that there are some things, even in worship, that make your heart want to dance.  That’s the feeling we ought to have when we read this story from the book of Ezekiel.  

The nation of Israel was in exile, led away as captives of the Babylonians.  The holy city of Jerusalem and the magnificent Temple all lay in ruins.  It was a tragic scene and the people were wondering if all hope was lost.  In the midst of captivity, the prophet Ezekiel was shown a vision.  In this prophetic vision he sat in the middle of a valley where there was nothing but old dried-up skeletons.  Bones were everywhere.  It was a scene of total desolation and despair.  It was a valley filled with dried up bones.  For a moment, consider the metaphorical aspect of this passage.
           The bones in the valley aren’t necessarily physical bones but problems, issues, challenges and tragedies of life.  Some may have experienced a bad marriage.  One day you woke up and all around you were dead bones where a loving relationship had once been.  There had been happier times; times when you thought the marriage was made in Heaven.  But then it seemed closer to Hell.  Dry bones.  Or, some might have experienced difficulties or challenges at work . . . and you’re surrounded by dry bones.  Your job certainly doesn’t match up to the dreams and aspirations of your youth.  More dry bones.  Or, perhaps it’s complications with your health or your relationship with your kids.  Just a few years ago, life seemed so promising.  But one by one the dreams died.  Now you sit surrounded by all those dry bones.  There are times in life that we simply don’t know what to do.
           For many of us, it happens as we age.  The pundits are right . . . aging is not for sissies.  Our strength falters.  We spend an inordinate time waiting in doctor’s offices.  So many dry bones.  Or perhaps the challenge is caring for an aging parent.  We tell ourselves we don’t mind, not really.  After all, we love our Mom, we love our Dad, but the stress never lets up.  And it’s beginning to affect our health and well-being.  The dry bones of life at times seem to surround us and we wonder how we can deal with what’s facing us.  Ezekiel looked around at all those dry bones and understood that those bones represented his people, the people of Israel, scattered and without hope.  He knew that only a miracle could bring together his people again and restore them with vitality and purpose.  Only a miracle would make his people live again.  As Ezekiel gazed upon those dry bones scattered on the floor of the valley, he heard the voice of the Lord asking him, “Son of man, can these bones live?”  Now there’s a question worth asking?  In other words, is there any possibility for hope?  

Is there any reason to be optimistic for that nation, for that relationship, for our family, for our future?  Is despair all there is left?  Ezekiel answered, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”  And that’s the key.  Only God knows.  Ultimately only God has an answer for our pain.  Then God said to Ezekiel, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord!’”  Who can help but love that sentence!  The word of the Lord is a powerful word.  In the beginning God spoke, “Let there be light!” and there was light.  Jesus standing in front of the grave cried, “Lazarus come out!”  And Lazarus came out, bound, but very much alive.  The word of the Lord is a life-giving word.  God says to Ezekiel:   “This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones:  ‘I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.  I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life.  Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”  So Ezekiel prophesied in faith as he was commanded.

And as he was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone.  The little bones first:  The toe bone connected to the foot bone/ The foot bone connected to the leg bone/ The leg bone connected to the knee bone/ The knee bone connected to the thigh bone/ The thigh bone connected to the back bone… You dried up bones oh, hear the word of the Lord!  Ezekiel looked, and suddenly tendons and flesh appeared on all those bones and skin covered them.  It was a miracle.  But still there was no breath in them. 
            Then the voice of God said to him, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says:  Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’”  And Ezekiel prophesied as he was commanded, and breath entered those newly formed bodies and they came to life and stood up on their feet a vast army.  If we take a moment, I think it’s pretty easy to imagine the scene.  For a generation fascinated by the idea of zombies and cyborgs, this picture from the scriptures ought to be exciting.  Then God confirms what Ezekiel thought:  “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel.  

The people say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’  Therefore prophesy and say to them:  ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says:  My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel.  Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them.  I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land.  Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”  It’s a story and a scene that can fill us with hope and joy.  That which was dead will be brought back to glorious life.  That which was without hope or promise, will be restored to vitality and purpose.  O people of God, hear the word of the Lord.
            Dr. Keith Wagner tells about the devastation wrought by the eruption of Mount Saint Helen in 1980.  Forests were destroyed by fire.  Rivers were choked with debris.  Fish and other wildlife died.  Toxic fumes filled the air.  Reporters ominously predicted that acid rain would develop from the ash-laden clouds.  The future for the area seemed bleak.  Nevertheless, less than a year after the eruption, scientists discovered that despite the fact that the rivers had been clogged with hot mud, volcanic ash, and floating debris, some of the salmon and steelhead had managed to survive.  By using alternate streams and waterways, some of which were less than six inches deep, the fish returned home to spawn.  Within a few short years, the fields, lakes, and rivers surrounding Mount Saint Helen teemed with life.  The water and soil seemed to benefit from the nutrients supplied by the exploding volcano.  Even the mountain itself began to show signs of new vegetation.  It’s a lesson we need to take notice of; none of us should ever call any situation hopeless, not as long as we’re a follower of Jesus Christ.

This is a world in which we’re never beyond hope.  Those dry bones can yet come together and live once more.  I was reading recently a humorous story coming out of the Social Security Administration.  It seems that of the 2.8 million deaths reported to the Social Security Administration last year, approximately 14,000 people’s names were incorrectly entered in their online database as dead.  That many people, 1 out of 200 entries, were reported as dead when they were very much alive and well.  That’s 38 life-altering mistakes every day.

One day, Laura Brooks, a 52-year-old mother of two, suddenly stopped receiving disability checks.  Then, her loan payments and rent checks bounced.  She went to the bank to find out what was the matter, and the representative told her that her accounts had been closed because she was dead.  They would only reopen her accounts if she could prove she was alive.  How would you react if this happened to you?  I’m sure it’d be a shock to most of us if one day our bank declared that we were dead and refused to honor our checks.  Talk about inconvenient.  But when we stop and really consider it, there are many individuals who are dead; they’re not dead in the physical sense but dead spiritually, emotionally, relationally.  These people are people on whom their families and friends and society in general have given up.  Is there any hope for them?  For those who live in despair, “Hear the word of the Lord!”
            God is the God of new life.  That’s the good news for the day.  There are many examples of new beginnings and fresh starts all throughout the Bible.  We can look at Abraham called out from his homeland to a land unknown.  God promised him, at the age of 75, that he would be the father of a great nation.  Yet when he got to 99, and he and his wife Sarah were still without children.  Sarah laughed at the idea that God would yet fulfill His promise.  But she was wrong.  Sarah bore a son and named him Isaac, which means ‘laughter.”

Then there was Joseph, the boy with the coat of many colors.  He was despised by his brothers, put in a pit and sold into slavery in Egypt.  There Potiphar’s wife accused him falsely and he was thrown in prison.  But God intervened in his life and in a relatively brief time, he became the number two man in all of Egypt.  Then came Moses.  Sentenced to death as a baby but then rescued by the Pharaoh’s daughter and raised in Pharaoh’s court, only to have to flee after taking a man’s life.  Banished to the wilderness where he watches his father-in-law’s sheep.  But then God comes to him and he becomes the vehicle by which God’s people escape slavery and he becomes the one by whom God’s law is transmitted to humanity.  Never say that any person or any situation is beyond hope.
            Or consider David, a man after God’s own heart.  But he gave into lust and adultery and deceit and, ultimately, murder.  He paid a terrible price, his family paid a high price, but God never gave up on David.  We read his psalms and we know he discovered God’s grace in his life, and from his lineage came the Messiah.  In the New Testament we encounter Zacchaeus, a tax collector despised by all.  He was probably a cheat and traitor.  But after a meal with the Master, Zacchaeus became a new person.  Or, how about Peter?  Impetuous, ineffective, indecisive, quick to react, many times without thinking, the disciple who denied his Master three times, and yet he became the leader of the early church.
            And even more grandly, the Apostle Paul who persecuted the early Christians, on the road to Damascus with letters to arrest any Christian he finds, encounters the risen Lord in a vision and was transformed to become the greatest missionary who ever lived.  Anytime we think that our life, or a situation is hopeless, be it a marriage, our health, our occupation, our family situation; anytime we look at the bones of our life and we despair that anything good could ever happen to us again, well, hear the word of the Lord.  Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones, dem bones gonna rise again.
            Many of you have either read the book or seen the movie Schindler’s List which is based on a true story of World War II.  It focuses on the heroism and self-sacrifice of Oskar Schindler, a Catholic from Krakow, Poland.  Schindler goes from wanton war profiteer to a conspirator who tries to free condemned prisoners from concentration camps.

In one particular sequence, we see Jews being herded like cattle onto freight trains, hungry, hot, and thirsty.  The train is taking them to the death camps.  The German soldiers are lounging about the station docks and enjoying the suffering they see, when tall, clean, rested, and pampered Schindler arrives in a spotless white suit.  The Colonel offers him a drink and Oskar glad-hands among the soldiers for a minute.  He has a bright idea!  “Let’s hose down the cars!”  He convinces the Colonel to give him a soldier to man the hose, and they begin spraying the cars.  His hidden agenda is to provide a way for the captives to get a drink and be cooled. 

Schindler didn’t have to give away too much in the appearance of compassion.  In fact, he and the soldier seemed to be having fun with the fire hose, even getting the Colonel to order another length of hose, so they could reach the last car.  While Schindler was playing with the hose, and the prisoners were squealing and reaching for the water, the Colonel said, “Oh, Oskar, you are too cruel!  You’re giving them hope!”  Sadly there are people like that Colonel.  People who don’t care or even realize they’re in the midst of dry bones and in desperate need of God.

For the moment their life is right with them, and that’s okay.  What they don’t know is that all of life, WWII or 2014, is a life or death struggle.  It might not be literally, as in war, but on the inside, all the time.  In that scene we have a contrast between the people on the train who are condemned to certain death and have no hope, and Oskar who wants to save them and gives them as much as he can.

When confronted with defeat, gloom, sickness, disappointment, loss, or death, we’re tempted to ask, can these bones live?  That’s precisely where Ezekiel is this morning.  “Can these bones live?” is the question at the end of the rope and that’s where you just tie a knot and hang on.  But in Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” is asked by God, who doesn’t really want an answer.  So Ezekiel gives Him the only answer:  God knows.  You know, Lord.  And the answer God gives is, “Yes the bones can live.”

To ask, “Can these bones live?” is to reach the point of the birth of faith — or the rebirth of new faith.  It’s out of the death of hope that the hope of life springs.  We’re not always ready for it.  As Alexander Graham Bell said, “When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we don’t see the one that has opened for us.”  Can these bones live?  When we place our trust in God, the answer is of course!  God opens more doors for us all the time.

Hope and joy can spring from loss and pain — it only takes a willingness to step away from the apparent loss and trust God with the situation.  Ezekiel has a message of hope for people who have lost all grounds for hope.  There’s a God who can achieve the impossible.  The hard part for us, is to trust that God can and will.  Can these bones live?  O Lord, thou knowest. 

Philip Yancey wrote in Christianity Today sometime back of a conversation he had with a young man named Mike who works among the homeless.  He said that Mike told him that homeless people, having hit bottom, don’t waste time building up an image or trying to conform.  And they pray without pretense, a refreshing contrast to what he found in some churches.  Yancey asked Mike for an example.   Mike said:  “My friend and I were playing guitars and singing ‘As the Deer Panteth for the Water,’ when David, a homeless man we knew, started weeping.  “‘That’s what I want, man,’ he said.  ‘I want that water.  I’m an alcoholic and I want to be healed.’”  There are hundreds of thousands of alcoholics who will tell you from first-hand experience that Christ still provides healing streams of water to all who ask it of Him.  God is still doing miracles in people’s lives today.  You don’t have to be alcohol or drug addicted to find new life in Christ.  You can be a corrupt politician and God still won’t turn His back on you.  Ask Chuck Colson.  

You might not recognize the name, but some remember when Charles R. Colson was the hatchet man in Richard Nixon’s White House.  Many people considered him one of the nastiest people in politics while he was in power.  He was a key figure in the notorious Watergate scandal.  Chuck Colson went to prison because of his misdeeds.  But something happened to Colson during this humiliating time in his life.  Jesus touched his life.  And it wasn’t a fleeting thing.  It wasn’t a conversion of convenience.  Even some of his friends were skeptical at the time, but not anymore.  Something real happened to Chuck Colson.  

Today Chuck Colson’s prison ministries are, more and more, being recognized as one of the most effective means of meeting the needs of prisoners in penitentiaries that we know anything about.  He’s being recognized as a competent and committed writer of Christian literature.  Jesus took the bones of Charles Colson’s broken life and breathed new life into them.  And those bones have come alive in a wonderful way.  Today Chuck Colson is touching the lives of desperate men and women around the world.  That’s what God can do in the lives of people who will trust Him and give themselves to Him.  

Mary Magdalene was a woman tormented by seven evil spirits, but a man from Nazareth named Jesus touched her life and Mary was given a new life.  Mary was the first of His followers to whom He appeared on resurrection morning.  Our God is a God of new life.  God is still doing miracles in people’s lives today.  There would be reason for us to despair if we were simply discussing ancient history.  But Jesus is still touching people’s lives today.
            Ezekiel heard the voice of the Lord asking him, “Son of man, can these bones live?”  Ezekiel answered, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”  Ezekiel’s eyes were opened by the knowledge of God.  In Jesus we know the grace of God:  God’s answer to the tragedies of life.  That’s our hope, and in that hope we know we’re not alone.  Can these bones live?  Easter is the best answer we can have.  People of God, hear the word of the Lord.  Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones, dem dry bones gonna rise again.


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