Lent 5 – The Valley of the Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37) and Lazarus (John 11)
Okay, kids, this first invitation is for you! Today, we’re not gathering in front right now because I’m going to invite you to come up for Forrest’s baptism in a few minutes, but for right now, I want you to very carefully (you can get help from an adult if you need it), carefully stand up in your seat, right where you are… and then... Wave your arms around, and yell at the top of your voice, “Hey, we’re alive! Hey, I’m alive! Hey, we’re alive!”
Before we settle in to explore God’s word, I thought that might be helpful—to remind us of what’s truest about our shared story right now. By the grace of God, we’re alive.
One or two of you daily remind yourself and others of this reality, I read your messages on Facebook. You’re the people who are saying things like this each day, “I thank God that I woke up this morning.” “God allowed me to see another day, and I’m grateful…”
All of this is so important to hear and remember out loud because here’s another part of our story that also may be true… and can suck us down into the abyss.
We are sick. We are tired. We are tired of being sick and tired. In fact, for too many of us, something in us is dead… our bones drying up in the wilderness. We are grieving. We are frustrated. “Jesus,” we’re ready to say with Martha and Mary, “You are too late. If you had been here, our loved one wouldn’t have died. But as it is, he’s dead… four-days dead. In the tomb with the stone rolled in front of the door, to keep out the stinky smell of death.” That’s how dead Lazarus was and that’s how dead we sometimes think we are… really dead. In Ezekiel’s time, that’s how the whole people of Israel felt.
But what was it that we heard months ago when Micah was baptized? “If you feel like you’re at the worst place in your story… then you can know, that’s not the end of the story.” God creates from nothing. God brings life from death. There’s no place that’s abandoned by God and there’s no person that’s abandoned by God. Death looks like the end of the story to us, but it is never the end to God.
This is one reason we practice baptism, as we get to practice today… Forrest Wild Devine—two years old—gets to come to this beautiful bowl of water with his family and some of you, children, will gather up in front so you can have a front row seat, too. And here, we’ll say “No” to all the forces in the world that make us think God is too late. We’ll say “no” to whatever makes us doubt that God is full of love. We’ll say “no” to whatever makes us think God is full of judgment rather than ready to welcome us with open arms.
Then, we’ll say “yes” to some things about God that are mysterious and amazing—God created and is creating everything that is wild (Forrest’s middle name!) and beautiful and good. God befriends and does life-saving work with ordinary people… we saw it in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and that’s not the only time we’ve seen the resurrection of the body. We saw it back in Ezekiel, too… “bones of people long dead, taking on a new layer of flesh and being ready to receive the breath of God again. With Ezekiel, we [watch] the rising, dancing bones and remember that our God brings life out of death, and that God’s own breath can animate whatever next-to-nothing we bring.”
God keeps breathing life-giving breath into people, inspiring them to forgive and welcome and offer mercy to each other. When we see that, we get a glimpse of heaven—that life with God and beloved ones that begins in part now and will never end.
This week, in the daily devotions called God Pause that Luther Seminary will send right into your email, New Testament professor Cameron Howard has been writing reflections on each of these Bible stories we’ve heard this Sunday. Here’s what she said on Thursday about Jesus’ conversation with Martha, when Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life,” and then asked her, “Do you believe me?”
Cameron writes, “When I read this passage, the question startles me, and I pause to consider my own answer. Do I believe that everyone who lives and believes in Jesus will never die? [This sends me to the words from another story where the person says] “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” “Like most of us, I live every day somewhere along the spectrum between belief and unbelief. Some days I am completely confident in God’s resurrection power. On other days I am less sure, and I need more help with my unbelief. On those hard days, I am grateful for the witness of the saints who have come before us, for my worshiping community that holds me up, and for the grace of new mercies each morning.”
In Forrest’s baptism, after the “nos” and the “yeses,” there will be water. We’ll remember how God uses water to bring life over and over again. We’ll even pour some water on Forrest’s head and maybe he’ll splash in it… because God uses water and the world to remind us that we don’t ever have to be afraid of death. For as long as we live and even after we die, God promises to be with us and holds us close (think of being hugged by the one person who you know—deep in your bones—loves you unconditionally…)
After the water part, we’ll anoint Forrest’s head with oil and say prayers for him and bless him, we’ll hand Taylor and Joshua (Forrest’s sponsors), the baptism candle that will be given to Forrest. A sign of the light of Christ that we are invited to be for each other. And finally, we will all say and sing, welcome… welcome to the family. Just as we’ve been adopted by God, we recognize that you are too. We are going believe all these promises with you (God help our unbelief!), so that as we all grow and change, and have times of deep pain and times of deep joy… we can walk through the valleys and climb the mountains and be in most ordinary times… together.
Did you notice that about Lazarus’ story? Martha and Mary couldn’t mourn by themselves. Jesus didn’t raise their brother to new life in private. Lazarus couldn’t take the grave cloths off himself. Jesus asked others to “unbind him and let him go.” Death wasn’t defeated completely this day, but those that witnessed this incredible miracle were invited to be fearless in setting others free. That’s what we practice each time we gather for baptism—an opportunity to know how God sets us free to live, and breathe in the living breath of God, and stand and dance and bless again… as if for the very first time.