The question of what makes us happy and how we can live happy lives is a puzzling one. But today, faced with the story of the raising of Lazarus we are forced to ask: what is the point of life? What is it that gives life value?
Ezekiel in our OT reading has a good idea what it feels like to sense that life can be depressing. ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is lost ; we are cut off completely’. Ezekiel tells us of the raising to life of a whole valley of dry bones. Neither Ezekiel or his contemporaries believed in a general resurrection of the dead. Ezekiel is writing at a time when Jerusalem has fallen and the Jews are feeling like their nation has been destroyed. The Jewish people feel dead. The hope of the valley of dry bones returned to life is not the hope of life after death but rather the hope of release from oppression and return from exile.
If you want to see evidence today of those touched by the risen Christ them look to those who are attempting to offer help and support to those exiled from warmth, comfort and security. Meeting the Syrians who have come to live here in Oxford, and talking to some of the Homeless community who came to sleep in our hall a couple of weeks ago was a reminder that lives can be very different from our own. Looking after the excluded, the marginalised, the bereaved, the lonely, the sick and the prisoner – that is living the resurrection, putting flesh on dry bones. .
But why can’t we simply get on with doing this, get on with living the life to which we are called? There’s a wonderful story in Martin Laird’s book ‘Into the Silent Land’. Martin used to go every day for a walk on the moors and pretty much every day he would meet a man with four dogs. When the dog’s owner took them off their leads, three of the dogs would charge off into the distance and play, but one dog would be forever running in circles often chasing his tail. After seeing this for a few times the author decided to ask the man why the fourth dog did this. Ah, he said, that Dog was brought up in a cage – his fun during his childhood was to run round in circles in his cage.
Martin Laird draws the comparison between the dog running in circles and each of us. God in Jesus has bought us our freedom and poured his grace into our lives, he has granted us this vast vision, this huge landscape of love and life but we seem caged in, running in circles around the little things of life when there is so much more for us to see.
Of course for each of us, the reality of death makes us all too aware that life is inordinately fragile. The story of the raising of Lazarus is not just a story of bringing back the dead to life – its actually a story about new life for you and me today.
One of the first things that strikes us about the story is the grief of Mary and Martha. We read that Jesus himself wept and twice and that he was greatly disturbed. Mary and Martha’s grief and Jesus’s tears remind us of the cry of the Israelites in exile in Ezekiel – Our bones are dried up and our hope is lost, we are cut off completely. Here we are just a week before the events of Holy Week – And here is Jesus anxious and disturbed about what his own fate is going to be, giving us a picture, a glimpse of the struggle that he will face in his Passion.
For Jesus this is a personal struggle but in Ezekiel it is a whole nation who are in tears. The loss of their holy City Jerusalem was a great blow to them. With the loss of Jerusalem the Israelites really did feel like their bones were dried up and their hopes gone. Everything that was certain and enduring about human life seemed to have disappeared. It was like someone had violently pulled the whole fabric of life from under them.
What are the things that you hold on to? What is it that gives value to our lives? Sometimes, like the dog in the imaginary cage we hold on to things which merely shield us from life as it is offered to us in Christ.
Holy Week is the most important week of the year for the Christian community. In the Passion, death and resurrection of Christ we ask ourselves: Do we live as people set free by the death and resurrection of Jesus?
But we have to be careful how we unpack all of these things. This is not just another sermon telling you to watch less TV, eat less Chocolate and go to Church more. Many of the reasons we hide from living resurrection lives are complicated, they are to do not only with our pride and selfishness but also with our wounds, with the ways in which we have been hurt by life. It is not easy to pick through the ways that life has troubled us and the reasons why we have through pain and grief, happiness and joy become the people we are. But today – in our Gospel reading – Jesus calls us to being that process of taking a long, hard look at our lives and trying to discern how they might better speak the hope of resurrection in the midst of so much grief.
At the very end of the passage Jesus calls: ‘Lazarus come out! The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘unbind him, and let him go’.
What is it that binds you, what fears and anxieties, what wounds and hurts? The resurrection which is the culmination of the next two weeks is not just for after death, it is for now. So start taking off the strips that bind you – the broken relationships, the regrets, the ways in which you have not valued yourself and in turn have not valued others Unwinding what had become wound up, unbinding what was bound.
So take an unflinching look at your own life at the things to which we all cling but which stop us from seeing the fullness of God’s love for his creation. When you come forward to receive communion, in your head at least, you can lay down those bindings before Christ on his altar. Without your bindings you may feel vulnerable, as if people can see your hurts and your wounds, but of course the resurrected Christ was not without his own wounds, his joy was new life in God lived not despite but through the grief and the pain of being human. Amen.