Old Testament: Ezekiel (37:1-14)
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. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 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.” 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. 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. 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.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. 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.’ 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. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 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.
The Response: Psalm 130
1 Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord;
Lord, hear my voice; *
let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.
2 If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss, *
O Lord, who could stand?
3 For there is forgiveness with you; *
therefore you shall be feared.
4 I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him; *
in his word is my hope.
5 My soul waits for the Lord,
more than watchmen for the morning, *
more than watchmen for the morning.
6 O Israel, wait for the Lord, *
for with the Lord there is mercy;
7 With him there is plenteous redemption, *
and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.
The Epistle: Romans (8:6-11)
To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 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, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 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. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 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.
The Gospel: John (11:1-45)
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 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.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 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. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “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. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” 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.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 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. 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.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 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.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 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.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 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.” Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
Both Matthew’s (9:12) and Luke’s (5:31) versions of the gospel record an incident in which Jesus’ opponents are criticizing him for associating with tax collectors and sinners. In response, he notes that “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”
Now, people who promote what today is often referred to as “wellness” might differ with that statement, as they encourage us to be proactive about our health. Yet most people tend to ignore their advice and to visit a doctor only when they become sick or injured. They supposedly don’t need a physician until something goes wrong.
Of course, that’s not the only place in life where we follow that pattern. Some of us, for example, tend to neglect doing preventive maintenance on our cars until something breaks; then we decide that we need a mechanic. We might take the same approach with home repair; “Well, that drain pipe’s not leaking too much, so we don’t need a plumber yet.” And young people sometimes relate to their parents in a similar way, insisting on their independence, their ability to take care of themselves, until something goes wrong, and they’re forced to admit that they need mom and dad. In general, we like to tell ourselves that we don’t need these other people – until, of course, we do.
But when do we need God? Many people tend to keep God in reserve, as their absolute last resort, someone to turn to when all else fails.
That is the way that it seems to have been for the people of Judah at the time of our first reading. The work of the prophet Ezekiel extended over the last years of Judah and Jerusalem, up to the time that they were destroyed by the armies of Babylon, and the leading people were led into exile. It then extended into the exile itself, as the nation came to deal mentally, emotionally, and spiritually with the disaster that they had experienced. For years, the people had chosen to resist and reject what the prophet had to say, until their whole world was destroyed and the nation seemed as good as dead. It was only then that they realized that they needed what Ezekiel had to say. Ironically, the living had refused to hear and respond; but, in the vision about which we heard, the dead were the only ones who listened and were given new life. “Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones” were the only ones who were willing to “hear the word of the Lord.”
We have that same scenario reenacted in our gospel reading, but narrowed from the experience of an entire nation to that of one person. John repeatedly portrays Jesus’ opponents as unwilling to listen, unwilling to hear and respond to God’s call to them in Jesus. It is the dead man, Lazarus, alone who listens to Jesus’ call and who is raised and comes out into a renewed life. Just as it was at the time of Ezekiel, so once again the living refuse to hear, and only the dead are willing to listen and respond and receive the gift of a renewed life. In both cases, it is only those who have lost all hope who recognize their need for God.
Maybe we don’t have to wait until we are desperate, until we are “as good as dead,” to recognize our own need for God. It is a need that seems to be innate in us as human beings. Reflecting on the Jewish and Christian experience, St. Augustine famously prayed: “Our hearts, O Lord, are restless until they rest in you.” Novelist Salmon Rushdie, reflecting his Muslim tradition, has observed: “There is within the human spirit a God-shaped hole.”
The experience of millennia and the deep traditions of both East and West insist that we need God. But what do we need God for? At one time, people invoked the concept of God in order to explain anything that they didn’t understand. Why is the universe the way it is, with its “galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home”? God must have made it that way. Why do some people get sick and other people remain well? God must have done it, maybe as a punishment or reward. But gradually, as our knowledge of the world increased and we came to understand the forces that make the universe the way that it is and the many factors that affect our health, God’s role seemed to diminish. God was saved to explain whatever we couldn’t explain: a so-called “god of the gaps.” But those gaps continue to disappear.
So, if we don’t need God to explain what we don’t yet understand, why do we need God at all? The God whom we encounter in the scriptures is far more than just a convenient explanation for whatever we don’t understand. Theologian Elizabeth Johnson has asserted that “what theology means by ‘God’ is not a link in the causal chain but an infinite mystery, a personal God of unbounded love, a vulnerable, self-emptying love present as a source, [a] sustaining power and goal of the evolutionary world.”
To use Paul Tillich’s expression, God is the very “Ground of Being,” the unifying reality in which all that is is, the life within and around and beyond the universe. God is the life that unites all people and all the rest of creation as well. Our traditional concept of the Trinity echoes that assertion by portraying God as essentially a relational Being. And we, who are made in God’s image and likeness, are essentially relational beings as well. We need God, and we need one another.
This is the God in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28): the One who transcends and permeates all life. This is the God whom we need at all times and in all circumstances. And this is the God whose Spirit gives life to all that live – even when, as our Ezekiel reading describes, all that we seem to have and be are dry bones; even when, as the psalmist portrays, we find ourselves crying “Out of the depths”; even when, as Lazarus’ family naturally concluded, there is no longer any reason for hope.
People sometimes ask themselves where God fits into their lives; but that question has it all backwards. If we really take to heart all that we mean by “God,” then the real question is where we fit in God’s life. What is our place, our purpose within the universe, a universe that exists and lives in God, who is the far greater Reality? How can we participate in that Ultimate Reality, in that Ultimate Life, sharing that life with our fellow human beings and with all the other creatures that fill the world in which we live?
It is to that fullness of life that God calls us, not just at those extreme moments when we, too, find ourselves asking in desperation “Can these bones live,” but at all times. For it is at all times that the Ultimate Reality, the Fullness of Life, the Encompassing Spirit in which all that is is, invites us to share more and more completely in that richness of life, which is God’s desire for all people.