Firstly, this morning we heard that simply magnificent passage from Ezekiel. (Ezekiel 37.1-14) Some of us perhaps recall the recall the old `spiritual`, “Dem` bones dem` bones; them dry bones……” and so on. It`s easy to make light of it. But if you look closely you`ll see that it`s a passage told with such great pathos. Ezekiel`s vision is probably of a battlefield where the peoples` defeat was so complete that there was no time to even bury the dead. And their bones dried and bleached by the sun served as a graphic metaphor for the state of their faith and their national life.
Then secondly, we heard about the raising of Lazarus; (John 11.1-45) Jesus visiting his grieving friends and he restores Lazarus to life. The first reading was, if you will, a word of prophecy; of God speaking into his peoples` circumstances and promising to lift them from the depths of despair and the second an account of God in our very midst setting a man free from the grave itself.
Now to our (perhaps) modern way of thinking it might be reasonably straightforward to categorise the Ezekiel passage as a good old yarn… One of those myths that speaks of hope and all the rest…. But the Gospel passage raises (no pun intended) some considerable problems for us. “Raising someone from the dead?” we ask. Some will think it ridiculous; others another myth.
Those of us who wouldn`t want to dismiss it out of hand might attempt to concoct some theory or other that offers some supposedly `spiritual` insight whilst confirming our belief that “This sort of thing just doesn`t and of course, can`t happen”.
Even though the story itself echoes our incredulity by stressing that this man had been dead for four days and decomposition had (surely) set in! No, the instinct is to go for what we would call a `rational` explanation. Which, of course is another way of saying that we want, we expect this story to fit in with our picture of the way the world works. But what if it`s our picture of `the way the world works` that is wrong?
After all, the text (again) makes it absolutely clear…. even the characters in the story know what we know… “That you can`t just bring someone back to life after four days”. They aren`t stupid or credulous. Of course they knew that the dead don`t get raised! So, what are we to make of it?
Well here`s a suggestion. It seems to me that while ever the purpose of the Christian life is seen to be something along the lines of, “We live this life… we try to keep our noses clean… so that eventually we can leave here to go somewhere else (which we call `heaven`)” then we`ll continue to have this problem. We`ll continue to think (rationally, as we say) that dead people don`t get raised…. Because this picture of the world automatically reserves stuff like `resurrection` for much later. We place things like this in what we`re pleased to label the `spiritual` as opposed to the `physical` sphere.
As I`ve said before; one consequence of this picture of the world is that we end up with a God who occupies a space somewhere `out there`; distant and otherwise not engaged with the world as we know it. And this is the view of the world that has held sway for the past two hundred years or so. In these terms, we`re quite correct to say, “The dead don`t get raised”. But if, however, we turn things around and suggest that the Christian life is instead about welcoming and anticipating the arrival of God`s Kingdom (God`s `space`) “on earth as in heaven…” then the idea that we will begin to see signs of this happening… this `coming of the Kingdom (even a man brought back to life) starts to make very good sense indeed. I mean, this, for instance, is how the resurrection of Jesus himself is portrayed in the Gospels.
In two weeks` time we`ll celebrate Easter Day not because that empty tomb is some kind of `spiritual` happy ending or `knockdown proof` that there`s life after death and that we`re all going to heaven when we die`. No, Easter Day is proof that the inauguration of God`s new creation has begun. The Lord is here- his Spirit is with us. And when you look closely you see that this is what John says throughout his whole Gospel. In other words, he tells his story of Jesus as one in which there are a whole host of what he calls `signs`.
So, right at the start he takes us to the wedding in Cana; where Jesus turned the water into wine; and he concludes by saying,’ Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. (John 2.11) What I`m trying to say is that this is how the miracles (as we call them) actually work. They are not so much the suspension of physical laws as we know them; they are more like windows opening on “the world that is coming into being” where, as Paul says “God is all in all” (1 Corinthians 15.28).
To my mind; the `signs` as we call them are less important in themselves as they are indications of what the `new order` the `new creation` will actually look like. We sometimes talk of somewhere or of some moment as being “a little piece of heaven on earth” don`t we? Now, we can get all sentimental about that sort of thing… And if we`re to avoid this we need to know what to look for. So, what are the `signs` in our day?
Well, do you recall that story of how John the Baptist is languishing in prison and he sends his followers to ask Jesus if he`s really the one they`re waiting for? Jesus tells them: “‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them`”. (Luke 7.22)
Here we have an example of Jesus talking about the `signs`; about what he was doing… and he`s inviting John the Baptist to make a connection between them and the coming Kingdom. These, in other words, are `signs` that demonstrated that God`s way of being a world was starting to happen in their midst. We could of course, multiply the examples… and my guess is that we would end up giving an account of simply everything Jesus said and did…. Because he frankly, `embodied` this Kingdom of which he spoke.
Now, Christians are sometimes unkindly (though in some cases justifiably) referred to as `God-botherers`. I prefer, I think to refer to us as `God-spotters`. What I mean is that I think it`s part of our task to be so close to Christ and so open to his way of being in the world that we`re able to do two things. Firstly, it`s our task to point out to others the `signs` of His action in the world. And for instance, to say to those who (whether they know it or not) find themselves doing `Jesus-shaped` things that (as he himself said) “You are not far from the Kingdom of God” (Mark 12.34) This is what God wants for his world. And then secondly, as those called to pray for and welcome the coming of the Kingdom… it`s our calling to demonstrate what life looks like when it`s shaped by obedience to him. And this is another good reason to enter into Lent…. It`s in this season that we as our Eucharistic prayer says, “We learn to be your people once again”…