It’s 6 April. I remember 6 April 1968 (forty six years ago for the arithmetically challenged among our number). It was a Saturday; 6 April was the first day I awoke after accepting Jesus into my life. Today, I want to talk a bit about that time.
The night before, I had gone to the local Methodist youth group for the first time. I hadn’t known about this, but they were off to the Billy Graham rally in the Exhibition grounds that night.
I decided that I was glad to be going there. I had been wondering about God. I thought Jesus was a good man. I was distressed that Martin Luther King had just been assassinated. I felt confused about life.
I listened to Billy Graham preach. I didn’t understand much, but I did note he spoke well of Martin Luther King’s legacy. But the rhetorical flourishes of a preacher from the South of the good ol’ US of A were quite foreign to me. And he did go on a bit.
Billy Graham finished (finally!), and there was an altar call. I felt an irresistible magnetic pull on me. I can recall the feeling still. I had to leave my seat—me, quite possibly the most introverted kid in the whole place that night. I knew I had to leave the people who had brought me, not yet knowing the leaders’ names, not knowing how to find them later.
I just couldn’t stay in my seat.
It struck me reflecting on the story of Lazarus this week that I can identify with him. When Jesus says, ‘Lazarus, come out!’, he just came. It wasn’t a suggestion, it was a summons. Just so, I felt summoned that day. I had to come.
Jesus summons each one of us. Sometimes, we might even have given up on life when he summons us. We may as well be dead.
As I reflect on identifying with Lazarus, I think How was I dead? After all, in the story Lazarus was dead. As a doornail. How was I dead?
I could simply say I was dead in my trespasses and sins, unable to know God. And while that may sound harsh, it’s an image that works. I was constructing a life that kept God at bay, while at the same time wanting to know God better. We could use other language too; I was AWOL, and I was afraid to return to barracks. The scriptures also use other language, and we’ve come across it the past few weeks. So with the man blind from birth, I too was blind from birth. I couldn’t see Jesus, the true image of God.
And like the Samaritan woman, I needed to drink of the living water. I was spiritually dehydrated. I was being poisoned at the wells of false hopes and plastic dreams.
I was in need of a new birth. Just as Nicodemus had to be born of the Spirit, I needed the Spirit-wind to breeze through my life and turn me right around.
I think if I were telling a story like this for today, I’d use yet another image. I’d remind people of the frustration of trying to get your computer to work, asking around your friends for suggestions, finally gritting your teeth and calling the help desk only to be asked: ‘Is it plugged in? Is it switched on?’
Once you plug it in, everything is different. Just that one little change makes all the difference!
It seems a little grandiose to say that I was born again, drank of living water, made to see and brought to life that night. (Oh, and that I was plugged in to the transcendent Source of power.) Yet if you judge that night by the effect it has had on me, then these words are as good as any and better than most.
Those early days of April 1968 brought other discoveries to me.
One was what happened when I read the bible. I only knew about the King James Version. (It was the one Jesus used, after all.) I went to Anglican RE classes at school, where the old priest had suggested that we read St Luke’s Gospel. He seemed to think that Jesus was nicer in this Gospel than in the others. Very Anglican.
I tried to read it, I really did, because I actually wanted to know more about Jesus. But I couldn’t get it. I just couldn’t penetrate the 17th-century English.
But when I opened my bible after 5 April 1968, I was amazed. I got it! I could understand the message! It’s not that I suddenly understood weird King James Bible words like sheepcote, quarternion, and alamoth. It’s not that I immediately realised that reins meant kidneys and that a cockatrice was not a cockroach. But what I did understand made new sense. Now, it penetrated my being. I suppose I was like John Wesley, who at that stage I’d never heard of: I had a strangely warmed heart.
Believe it or not, I was really looking forward to the next English lesson devoted to Henry the Fifth or Hamlet or whatever. I thought it’d be a doddle now that I could understand the Olde English of the KJV. But you know, I didn’t have a new spiritual gift of appreciating 17th-century English. The joys of Shakespeare were kept hidden from my eyes.
But reading the bible was like dry bones coming together. What before had been words and phrases that barely fitted together were suddenly brought to life. And it was the Spirit’s breath that had brought this new life.
If you listen to what’s behind my story, you may pick up that here was a boy who felt lost. A boy who wanted to be found, and who was found by the God who reached out to him.
I had no idea how to find a way through my sense of lostness. I was like the bones in Ezekiel’s vision, I was bound in tight cloths like Lazarus.
God showed me the way through. I can say that I cried out to God, and I was lifted up. And not just around the time I gave my life to Jesus, but at other times.
What about you? Are there bones scattered in the dust of your disappointments and failures? Can these bones live?
Perhaps you’ve actually been in a place like Ezekiel, an arid desert with bleached bones scattered about the place. Perhaps you’ve seen such a place out in outback Queensland.
Perhaps you’ve been in a time that seems just like that. I’ve seen people in that place and time. I’ve seen young couples excitedly expecting the arrival of a new life—only to have everything turn to dust when their already-cherished baby is stillborn.
Can these bones live?
I’ve seen people walking around in a daze, unable to even think because someone they loved dearly—wife, husband, child—has had their life horribly cut short.
Can these dry bones live?
I’ve seen people trapped in the middle of depression and unable to see a time when they may be free of its shackles and pain. I have been one of those people.
Can they be released from their grave cloths?
Yes they can. These bones can live, and people whose only clothes are grave cloths can walk free. Jesus can do this.
Someone once said, ‘When we hit our lowest point, we’re open to the greatest change’.
Ezekiel lived at a time in which Israel was in exile in Babylon. But that became a great time for Israel. They exiles thought about what had happened, they reflected on God and wrestled with God. Much of our Old Testament was written or collected together in this time. The Spirit brought the dry bones together. And Israel finally returned.
And Lazarus? He was dead. You can’t get any lower point than that. He was gone. It was four days, and he was mouldering in his grave.
Yet Lazarus heard Jesus call him. And we can hear too!
There was a reason Lazarus was bound in grave cloths, but we may become prematurely bound. You know how you’d get these cloths off if someone bound you in them? You wouldn’t do a Harry Houdini, you couldn’t heroically get them off yourself. No, you need to stand still and wait while you trust someone to unwrap you. And then you can step out, and feel freedom.
Hard, painful, though it may be to accept this we all need the help of another. We all need one of Jesus’ friends to help us. That friend may be a fellow-believer, a therapist or the neighbour next door. Sometimes, we have to wait awhile, but the right person at the right time can unbind us.
Some people don’t like this, of course they don’t. It’s against the natural order for bones to come together and for people to shuffle out of tombs wrapped in their shroud. And it’s threatening when downtrodden people find a voice, and claim a place at the table. But friends, that is the Good News, this is the way to life.
Dry bones and shrouds hold no fears to God. And thanks be to God for it!