Today would be an easy day to skim the lessons and declare a victory. We come to these texts today with cases of Coronavirus rising, deaths increasing, schools closing, jobs ending, and life stopping. A simple drive down Richmond Road, and the restaurants and tourist stops whose parking lots are usually filled reveal a ghost town. Even when we do venture out to grab necessities, the faces of people in stores are filled with anxiety, and bodies tense when spacing gets a little too close with others. In this bizarre reality, we want nothing more than a breath of fresh air, a promise of hope and resurrection.
In many ways, that is exactly what we get in our lessons today. Ezekiel shares a vision of resurrection and restoration. The valley full of dry bones – presumably representing the people of Israel in exile in Babylon[i] – are brought back to life. Through Ezekiel’s prophesying, God’s breath is breathed into the bones. Bones reassemble, sinews and flesh come upon them, and even breath fills their lungs. Reassembled, the bodies feel bereft in a strange land, but the Lord our God promises them they will be returned to Israel – to their land. The same can be said of John’s gospel. Lazarus is dead. Four days dead. The common Jewish understanding of the time was that the soul hovered near the body for three days, hoping to return; but after those three days, the soul departed for good.[ii] There is no hope for Lazarus. And yet, in Jesus’ deep love for this man, he weeps. And then he raises Lazarus from the dead. Into the next chapter, we even find Lazarus reclining on Jesus – not just alive, but living a life of abundance.
These are texts we want to hear today. We want Holy Scripture to say, “Everything will be okay. Everything will go back to normal. You’re okay.” And in some ways, that is what the texts seem to say. The exiled people of Israel will be returned to their land. The lost brother of Martha and Mary is returned to them in health and vigor. Suffering is ended for both. Life is restored for both. We get to go back to normal.
And yet, I am not sure our texts today are saying things quite that simply. For the people of God in exile, Ezekiel’s words are a bit more complex. The breath God breathes into them helps them remember that even in exile, God is with them. God is animating them in a foreign land. Yes, there is a promise to return to the Promised Land. But we know that any great journey into suffering means that even when we return to “normal,” we are not “normal.” We are changed. Health may be restored, land may be restored; but we are forever changed. The news for Lazarus is a bit more complex too. Although Jesus brings Lazarus back from the dead, to live an abundant life in the here and now, Lazarus’ resurrection is not forever. Someday, Lazarus will return to the ground. We know, like the people in exile, Lazarus’ life after the tomb will not be like his life before. And we also see in Jesus’ conversation with Martha that Lazarus’ death not just about Lazarus. Lazarus’ death is merely a foretaste of the resurrection of Jesus. This return to life is limited to one person. Jesus’ return to life will change a people.
All of this is to say that today’s good news is good news indeed. There will be life after this virus. There will be restored health and community after this virus. There will be renewed strength and vitality after this virus. But we will also be forever changed by this virus. We will see life and the gift of life differently than before. We will come back to our life rhythms and routines a changed people. We will understand the gift of resurrection in new and deeply moving ways. The promise of these passages in not simply a return to normal. The promise of these passages is a journey that will change us all – of valleys with dry bones, of weeping by bedsides, of crying out to Jesus. The promise of these passages is the destination of Easter. Not a return to normal, but a new, profound understanding of resurrection in Christ. In the meantime, Jesus weeps with us. God is breathing life into us. And soon, we will know the depths of resurrection life like never before. Amen.
[i] Kelton Cobb, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 122.
[ii] Leander E. Keck, ed., The New Interpreters Bible, vol. ix (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 687.