- The Washington Times - Monday, March 24, 2008

The following are excerpts from a recent sermon by the Rev. Fleming Rutledge, a guest preacher with the Centennial Celebration of American Preaching, at Washington National Cathedral.

Because I am a guest preacher, I don’t have any way of knowing you. What I do know of you is reflected in the two majestic Scripture lessons that we have just heard, Ezekiel 37 and John 11. This is what we know about each other: We’re all going to die.

And so, as the funeral service tells us, “In the midst of life we are in death.” The season of Lent is a time to reflect on this, beginning with the ashes of Ash Wednesday.

The Old Testament book of the prophet Ezekiel has some of the most glorious, most extravagant passages in all of Scripture, and at the same time some of the most perplexing and provoking. The dry bones vision, however, presents no such complications.

Into this lamentable situation the prophet of Ezekiel speaks to the exiles. But it’s not really Ezekiel speaking. The undergirding foundation of all the prophetic books is the speaking of God. The entire Scripture rests upon this one presupposition: “The Lord said.”

The Lord said to Ezekiel: These bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, Our bones are dried up, and “our hope is lost; we are clean cut off.” Therefore prophesy to them, “Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and … you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken, and I have done it,” says the Lord.

Let us take away just one thing from this amazing text. The Israelites have done less than nothing to restore God’s faith in them. He does not raise them from the dust because they have repented. He raises them from the dust because He is their God.

It would be a very good thing if Jews and Christians could spend more time reading this passage together. In its context in the Hebrew Scriptures, it is a promise to the Hebrew people. Christians hearing it with a Jewish sensibility can perhaps think of it as a promise made in the darkness of the Holocaust: “Our bones are dried up; our hope is lost; we are clean cut off.” The passage is not about the resurrection of individual souls; it is about the remaking of God’s people Israel, the restoration of their own God-given land, the reinstatement of their hope.

Christians read it differently. We think of it in a more universal way, having to do with Jews and Gentiles alike. Yet even so, the interpretation of the passage at any time by a particular group gives it specific shades of meaning.

The evangelist implies that Jesus postpones His visit to Lazarus and Martha and Mary of Bethany for two specific reasons: to show His glory, and because He loves the family. He delays, precisely in order to show His love.

What He plans to do for Lazarus is infinitely greater than what Mary and Martha had prayed for. Here, the Lord restates His purpose. The raising of Lazarus is to be a sign, the last and greatest of all His signs, the one that will most definitively reveal Him as the Son of God, the one that leads to His death.

When Martha, the active, assertive sister, heard that Jesus was coming, she ran out to meet Him and reproached Him: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But then she adds this hint of trust in Him: “Even now I know that whatever You ask from God, God will give You.” And Jesus says to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha says to Jesus, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” She’s rebuking Him, as though He were not taking her seriously. Most pious Jews of the day believed there would be a general Resurrection on the Day of Judgment. Martha is saying, in effect, “I know Lazarus will rise at the last day, but that’s no use to us now.”

And the Lord says: I am the Resurrection and the Life; he who believes in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.

In two majestic verses, Christ tells Martha three things. He declares that He himself is Resurrection and Life, already, even in the present, and death can have no dominion over Him. He pronounces that even in the midst of death He is able to give life. And He promises that He freely gives this life to anyone who trusts in Him.

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