Can these bones live?

Ezekiel 37.1–14
John 11.17–45

It’s 6 April in a few days’ time, on Thursday. I remember 6 April 1968 (forty nine years ago for the arithmetically challenged). It was a Saturday; 6 April was the first day I awoke after accepting Jesus into my life. I’ve already told you about that time, but today want to say a bit more.

The night before, 5 April, 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, the best who’d ever lived. I was shocked and distressed that Martin Luther King had just been assassinated just the day before, 4 April 1968. 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. And that was important to me. But the rhetorical flourishes of a preacher from the South of the good ol’ US of A were really quite foreign to me. And he did go on a bit (over 40 minutes as I recall!).

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 even knowing how to find them later.

But I just couldn’t stay in my seat.

It strikes me that I can identify with Lazarus. When Jesus says, ‘Lazarus, come out!’, he just came. It wasn’t a suggestion—it was a command, 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 have been dead.

As I reflect on identifying with Lazarus, I think How was I dead? In the story, Lazarus was just 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 for a boy of fourteen, 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 as one with us and one of us.

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 IT desk only to be asked: ‘Is it plugged in? Is it switched on?’

And once you plug it in, everything is different. Just that one little change makes all the difference!

I can 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.) If you judge that night by the effect it has had on me for life, 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 might have been the version Jesus used, for all I knew.) I went to Anglican RE classes at school, where the old priest had suggested that we read St Luke’s Gospel. In my memory, he seemed to think that Jesus was nicer in this Gospel than in the others. Very Anglican.

I tried to read Luke, I really did, because I actually did want to know more about Jesus. But I just couldn’t get it. I couldn’t penetrate the King James English that was a bit archaic even then in 1611.

But when I opened my bible on 6 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 different to a cockroach. But what I did understand made new sense. Now, it was penetrating 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 it was. I thought Shakespeare would 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. His plays were still a foreign language to me.

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. Maybe you’ve been to the wilderness of Judea.

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 fit for the grave can walk free. Jesus can do this.

It’s been said (in The Avatar of Korra!!!), ‘When we hit our lowest point, we’re open to the greatest change’.

Ezekiel lived at a time in which Israel was at its lowest point. It was in exile in Babylon. But the exile became a great time for Israel. The 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 to Jerusalem.

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 Jesus too!

There was a good reason Lazarus was bound in grave cloths, but you know, 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 do as Lazarus did: stand still and let someone you trust unwrap you. And then you can step out, and feel freedom.

We all need Jesus as Saviour and Lord. We need that radical reorientation of life John calls being born again, that Paul calls being crucified with Christ—nevertheless, I live.

And hard, painful, though it may be to accept this there are times when each one of us need the help of another. We may 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 may be threatening when downtrodden people find a voice, and claim a place at the table. But friends, the Good News gives them that voice and that place.

Dry bones and shrouds hold no fears for God. And thanks be to God for that!


Based on a sermon preached on 6 April 2014

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Filed under church year, Lent, Martin Luther King, RCL, sermon

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