(A Lenten devotion based on Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45)
We have been thinking during Lent about what it means to live the forgiven life. The question has been this: how should we live our lives in light of the fact that we have experienced the saving grace of God that he has made available to us in his Son Jesus Christ? After all, if we have entered into a personal relationship with God, if he is present in our lives, if we have been forgiven by him, then things should be different than they would otherwise be, shouldn’t they? Along the way we have said that as forgiven people we should tell the truth about our great sin and about God’s greater grace, that we should trust in the Lord, that we should engage in the struggle of life because in it we become sure of the love of God, and that we should embrace the transformation that has occurred in us by making the intentional commitment to live as disciples of Christ. Here on this last Thursday before Holy Week I want to put before you another vital way that we live the forgiven life: we celebrate the renewal that God has brought about in our lives and that he will bring about in our lives.
The basic affirmation of the Christian faith is that Jesus Christ was the Messiah who died on the cross for our sins and who rose from the dead on the third day. Easter, which is now only ten days away, is our primary celebration of that event, but we really celebrate it every Sunday when we gather on the Lord’s Day, the day of his resurrection, to worship him. Resurrection faith means that we trust that we will share in the benefits of his resurrection by experiencing our own resurrection one day. We live our lives in light of that resurrection, always being drawn toward it and always being empowered by it.
Another aspect of resurrection faith is that we experience a renewal of our lives right here and right now. As Paul put it,
But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you….(I)f 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. (Romans 8:9a, 10-11)
If you belong to Christ the Spirit of God through whom Jesus was raised from the dead dwells in you and brings new life to you right here and right now. Now there is cause for celebration!
And renewal is what we need. Sometimes we need community renewal. Such was the case with the people whom the prophet Ezekiel addressed in the sixth century BCE. Many of the people of Judah had been carried into exile to Babylon by the forces of Nebuchadnezzar in the three deportations of 597, 587, and 582. Jerusalem had been destroyed and the people had been ripped away from their homeland and from all the institutions that gave their lives meaning. It was in that context that Ezekiel had his vision of the Valley of Dry Bones. In the vision Ezekiel was transported to a valley that was full of bodies that were completely and seemingly irrevocably dead. They were “very dry” (37:2). Into that seemingly hopeless situation broke the Word of God; Ezekiel was told to preach to those dry bones. When Ezekiel preached to those bones they came together and then the sinews and flesh and skin came on them. Then when Ezekiel did some more preaching the breath of God came into them and “they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude” (v. 10).
This passage is about the resurrection and renewal of a community of faith. Israel had been killed for all intents and purposes; they had been cut off from everything that mattered to them. But God intervened. God acted through his Word and through his Spirit to bring life where there was none and to bring meaning where it had been lost. God was going to open their graves and send them back to their promised land. What would be the result when he did that? God said, “You shall know that I am the LORD” and he said, “Then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act” (v. 14). God would bring the renewal to the life of the community that it needed. We can celebrate the renewals, the great infusions of life and purpose and meaning, that we have known as a church in the past. We know what God has done. We celebrate what God has done.
Sometimes we need individual renewal. Lazarus is our brother here. Lazarus got sick and died. Death is the final threat and the great enemy from a purely human point of view. We Christians celebrate the truth that in the resurrection of Christ death has been defeated. Let’s make it particular: I celebrate the fact that my death has been defeated and I need fear it no more. But you know, we die all kinds of little deaths all along the way as we live. We experience all kinds of things that threaten to take so much of the meaning from our lives that it can feel like we’re dying. It can happen when someone we love is sick. It can happen when someone we love dies. It can happen when we are sick. It can happen when a job is lost. It can happen when we have serious family problems. It can happen when we experience emotional or mental struggles. It can happen when we lose focus and purpose in our lives. It can happen when someone we trusted lets us down.
If Jesus can bring Lazarus back from the dead and if Christ is raised from the dead and if Christ will cause us to be resurrected, then how much more can we hear the words of Jesus in our lives when we feel like we are dying: “Come forth!”; “Be unbound, and be turned loose!”? Such renewal doesn’t mean that all our problems will go away. Lazarus still had to live in this world. As we think about living resurrected and renewed lives I think that we need to think in terms not of rising above our lives but rather of rising within our lives. But what a blessing such living is!
We need to remember that only God can give us the renewal that is worth celebrating. We celebrate the new life that we have only because we have it in Christ. And while there are things we do to participate in what God wants to do in our church and in our individual lives, we dare not forget that what really matters can only happen through the power of God’s grace, God’s love, God’s Word, and God’s Spirit. So let us celebrate what God has done. But let us also celebrate what God is going to do!