This week I have been talking about Easter for some of the local schools. I was at the Easter assembly at Etruscan school and the end of term communion here for St Mark’s school. At both of them I talked about why we have Easter eggs (apart from the fact that we really like chocolate). We talked about how the shape of the egg reminds us of the stone that was rolled away from the tomb on Easter day, showing that the tomb was empty. We also talked about how eggs remind us of new life, the new life of resurrection that Jesus offers to us all. To be honest it seemed a little odd as Easter Sunday, the day of resurrection, feels so far away with the whole journey to Jerusalem, last supper, betrayal, trials, and death to go through first. But, this was the last week of term and Easter is late so that’s what had to happen.
Then I came to look at the set readings for this week, and felt the same all over again. All the readings, including the one from Romans we didn’t read, are all about resurrection and new life. The more I thought about it though, the more it makes sense. And it seems to me to make sense for two reasons. Firstly it shows that resurrection, death leading to new life, was not a new idea for God that was unveiled at Easter, but was an ongoing reality that underpinned the whole of God’s dealings with humanity. Secondly it gives us time to reflect on resurrection, its central place in our faith, and our part in bringing it about.
Ezekiel was a man of God who probably lived about 600 years before Jesus’ birth. The people of God had betrayed God and had been exiled from their home, Jerusalem. They were living in Babylon, the capital city of the people would have invaded their land and desecrated the Temple. They would have felt like their nation was dead. It would have felt like all the good things of life had dried up and fallen apart. They felt abandoned by God, far from home, buried in a foreign land.
Ezekiel lives in this community, he meets and shares meals with people who are grieving and in despair. In some ways he is one of them, but in one important way he is different. He may be grieving but he does not despair, because he has hope. He has a vision. It is a very dramatic vision, a vision that has captured the imagination of people through the centuries since Ezekiel shared it. It is a vision of life being restored by God to things that are dead.
One of the things that I really love about this vision is that Ezekiel is given a part to play in it. He does not just watch the scene of the reanimation of the dry bones, he is part of the resurrection process. God gives Ezekiel something to do, something to say. The first thing that Ezekiel does is speak God’s word to the dry bones. He tells them, he speaks over them, the details of what God is going to do. As he speaks he experiences the words that he has been given to say changing what he sees. The second thing that Ezekiel does is speak God’s word to the breath. Ezekiel calls the breath, God’s breath, God’s Spirit, to come and bring life to the bones that have now been clothed with flesh. As he speaks he experiences the words that he has been given to say changing what he sees.
And the vision that Ezekiel saw did become reality. The people of God did return to Jerusalem. Part of the process of that resurrection was Ezekiel speaking the words of God to the community that he lived in. He probably didn’t live on earth long enough to see the resurrection he had envisioned and spoken of be completed, but he did his part with faith and hope.
The example of Ezekiel gives us two things for us to do, so that we can be part of bringing the new life of resurrection to situations where there is death. The first thing we are to do is to speak God’s word to the bones. The second thing we are to do is to speak God’s word to the breath.
How might we do this in practice? Well, when I look at the residential areas around Shelton and Hanley that have been boarded up or pulled down I believe that God’s will is for resurrection. There can and should be new life giving residential communities built in the heart of this city. We have our part to do in this. We are called to speak God’s words to the bones. We do this by encouraging those who still live in those places, or have moved into the new houses that have been built already. We do this by continuing to take part in the conversations that happen about the future of these areas. We do this by talking up Stoke rather than running it down. We do this by speaking words of hope rather than of gloominess and despair, by sharing God’s vision for these communities.
We are also called to speak God’s word to the breath. We do this by praying for the Holy Spirit to work with the planners, the builders, the funding organisations, and the local government decision makers. We do this by calling the breath of God into these communities so that they are formed to be full of the life and love of God.
One of the songs that I find that releases me in prayer more than any other includes a section based on Ezekiel’s vision. The chorus goes, “You turned my ashes into beauty, turned my sorrow into joy. Breathe life, breathe life. You take these dry bones, make them stand, put a promise in my hand. Breathe life, breathe life.”
Singing this song gives me a way of holding in my mind’s eye the people and places where I can see dry bones. Places where there doesn’t appear to be any life, where there is despair and fear. As I do this I pray, speaking God’s words over those situations, just like Ezekiel did, “Breathe life”.
Zooming forward from Ezekiel 600 years we come to the witness account of Jesus and Lazarus. This was a family that Jesus knew well and loved. There are so many things that could be drawn out of this story. There are so many different characters. What were Jesus’ followers making of the “let’s hang around here for a bit, right it’s time to go” routine. What were Mary and Martha feeling as they watched the road, waiting for Jesus to come, with the growing realisation that he wasn’t going to help in the way that they hoped he would. How about Lazarus, sinking deeper by the hour, getting weaker and weaker, and then dying. Maybe you could take the notice sheet with you this week and take time to read the story slowly in the week, imagining yourself as one of these characters.
But we’re not going to do that this morning. This morning I want to focus on two words. Two words that Jesus spoke, “come out”. As with Ezekiel, Jesus takes part in the action of Lazarus’ return to life. In some ways what Jesus does is the same as what Ezekiel does, he speaks the words that he has been given to speak. As Jesus speaks he experiences the words that he has been given to say changing what he sees. Jesus’ words change reality. Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb. Everybody else thought that it would stink, but Jesus insisted that the door to the place of death had to be opened so that new life could be revealed.
It seems to me that this account of the raising of Lazarus gives us more pointers as to our part in bringing resurrection to places where there is death.
To help us to understand how this might work in practice I would like you to think of someone who seems to you to be staying in a place of death, someone who is trapped in a tomb. It might even be a place in your own heart that seems to have died, that is cut off. What would it take for the door to that tomb to be opened? Who is trying to persuade you to leave it closed, what is the stink that they are afraid of? What words might you use to call that person out of that place of death into new life? What support would they need as they come out, stumbling into the light? What grave clothes might they be wearing that they will need help getting free from? Are you willing to take your part in bringing resurrection by speaking God’s words into the mouth of that tomb, “Come out”?
Over the last year or so I have been wrestling with the idea of resurrection. I find it to be one of the most powerful and exciting ideas that there is. It’s not just the promise that when this life ends in death I will be raised to life in all its fullness, though that is fantastic. It is also the hope that situations that I experience and that I see people trapped in, situations that seem to be death dealing, can be the doorway to new life. Despite how excited I get about the hope of resurrection I struggle because it sounds foolish to me. Just stop and think about it for a minute. Our faith is founded on the belief that Jesus died and was raised to life. There is good eye witness evidence that it happened, and there are countless people through the ages who have told of the experience of Jesus’ risen life in them, but it is still a huge claim to make. As Lent comes towards its end, we get closer to Easter Day. Closer to the day when we celebrate, “Christ is risen”.
It seems to me that one of the things we need to do at Easter, and which we are given a head start on by starting this early, is to remind ourselves of how outrageous our faith is, and to recommit to doing the part that God has given us in bringing resurrection hope to the situations and people around us by speaking God’s words to the bones and to the breath, and by going round opening places of death and calling out new life. I believe that as we do this we will see the words that we have been given to say changing the things that we see.