It’s very easy to bemoan all that’s wrong in the world. It can be ever so easy to sit in our armchairs and see doom and gloom in the news. It can be very easy to think things have gone to the dogs, and how much better it would be if things were run as they used to be run.
Yet, our readings today challenge us to consider how we respond when things are going badly for us, when people around us are plunged into despair, when the world around us is falling apart. Do we respond, as did Israel in the time of exile, “our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, we are cut off completely.” Do we give up hope as Mary and Martha did? Do we say with them, “Lord, if you had been here, our brother would not have died”? Or do we wait, in trust, for our living and loving God?
It’s very easy to ask questions like that, but rather harder to answer them.
I try to limit God almost every day. Indeed I try to lock God up, much as Lazarus was bound and locked in the tomb. I believe in God, I believe a lot in God. I believe that God, in Jesus, forgives my sins. I’ve got no problem with that. I believe, too, that God will bring me into eternal life, no problem there either. I even believe that God can do miracles beyond the pages of the Bible, that they still go on, that people are made new, every day, no problem there either. I believe, too, that God provides for me, that God watches over me, that God guards my steps.
But, for all my beliefs, I still try to limit God, I still try to lock him up. What I mean is this: there are some places in my life where I try not to let God enter unless someone else – some kindly person – hits me over the head with the fact that I am being absolutely stupid.
For example, there are times when I do not let God enter into my wallet. I don’t mean that I don’t give as much as I believe God wants me to give. What I mean is there are times when I get anxious and worried about how I am going to be able to afford to do this or that thing when I want to. Completely out of this picture that I paint for myself is the presence of God. That is until someone hits me over the head with the fact that I’ve never really wanted before, and God has provided.
I try to limit God sometimes in how I deal with the church. I can sit for hours with other Ministers and hear them moan about their awkward church members, not that we have such people here, and we all enjoy moaning about the Synod and about church, that the United Reformed Church is going to you know where in a handcart, and never once even think about what God is doing in and through our church. This is ridiculous because even if every United Reformed Church on the face of the map disappeared, God’s work would go on.
Yes, it would be excellent if the church’s leaders did things the way that I believe that things should be done, but is it worth my anger and despair when they don’t? Especially when after what goes around has come around, we can see once again that God is never defeated.
When people are critical of me I sometimes take it really personally. I start thinking that the world is coming to an end, that I’m going to be involved in conflict and dispute and that it is going to drain the life out of me and of others. I fret and worry and forget for a while that the real question is not what other folk are thinking about me, but what God is thinking about me. Am I following him? Am I being faithful?
All too often, I try to limit God, lock God up, stick him in the tomb. All too often I travel to the valley of dry bones where Ezekiel went, and see, as Ezekiel saw, as all of Israel saw, only dry old bones.
How about you? Do you ever despair? Do you ever think that you have been forever cut off from the land of blessing? That your hope is gone? That everything around you is rotten? That your life might as well be over for all the difference it would make?
I know that so many people have such thoughts and feelings at times, some more than others. I try to limit God, try to shut God out of some parts of my life, and I know I’m not alone in that, until some saint comes along and hits me over the head and reminds me of just who it is that I believe in, and what it is that he can do and does do.
I think we all need to be clunked on the head sometimes, reminded as God hits the people of Israel over the head through Ezekiel, telling them that as the valley of dry bones came to life by the Spirit, so the people will live once again, and they will return to the promised land, and rebuild their nation and their temple and know that God has not only spoken, but acted.
We all need to be clunked on the head sometimes, like Jesus hits the people of Bethany over the head by showing them that not only could he heal the sick, which they had no problem believing that he could do, but that he could also raise the dead.
Think about how Mary and Martha, who had seen Jesus in action many times, still limited him, still locked him out of certain areas of their lives, even though they had said to him with the deepest sincerity, “Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world”
What does these words mean if they do not mean that Jesus has power over everything? Yet when Jesus arrives at the tomb and commands that the stone be taken away Martha protests because Lazarus has been dead for four days and the smell will be awful.
She believes in Jesus, as do I, as so many do, but she still tries to limit him, still locks him up. That’s why Jesus prays as he does before raising Lazarus, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I know that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you have sent me.” And with those words he then cries out in a loud voice “Lazarus, come out.” And he does. And many of the people there who had come with Mary, and who saw what he did, believed in him.
As he said, Jesus is the resurrection and the life, those who believe in him, though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in him will never die.
This is our faith, the one that we need to be reminded of occasionally, reminded of if we are not to fall back into despair, if we’re not to dwell in anger and grief more than we ought, if we are not to prove to be both a pain to ourselves and to those around us.
Remember how the story ends: Lazarus comes out from the tomb, with his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth and his face wrapped in a cloth; and Jesus tells the people: unbind him and let him go.
It’s the same with us. We’ve been raised to a new life with Christ raised to a new life through our faith in him. We have a new chance to live life here on this planet as God wants us to live it. But to do so well, to live in the freedom that God wants us to have, we need to have the grave clothes that still bind us, and the shrouds that still cover our faces, removed.
Putting it another way, we need to unbind the power of God in our lives, we need to let God come out of the tomb we try to keep him in, we need to unwrap the wonderful reality that he has prepared for us.
Think of an area of your life where it is hard to think that anything good can happen, where things are going badly for you. Or think of an area where you might say, as did Israel in the time of exile, “our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, we are cut off completely.” Is there an area of your life where your hope is gone?
What do you want to do about this? Do you want to lock it up in a tomb and seal this away from Jesus? Are you worried that it smells?
Or are you willing to let Jesus visit this area of your life, or as Paul put it, allow the spirit of Christ to dwell in you?
I offer you the challenge of inviting Jesus to visit this area of your life, allowing the Spirit of Christ to dwell in you, to bring God’s power and resurrection life into your life. Imagine Jesus visiting this area, imagine the Spirit of Christ dwelling in you, and bringing it to life.
Let us be glad that Jesus is the Lord of both the living and the dead, he is the resurrection and the life, those who believe in him, though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in him will never die.