Ezekiel 37:1-14, John 11:1-45
I remember going out with my family and picking sweet corn at one of our relative’s fields. Some years we harvested just enough to eat, and other years we harvested enough to freeze some, too.. But, every time we got to go, I remember my dad taking the opportunity to teach me a few lessons along the way. He taught me how to look for corn earworms and how to find the best ears for eating. I remember lessons on how to shuck the corn, and learning from my mom how to make cornsilk tea. But, one of the things my dad impressed upon me most often was what to do if I ever got lost in a cornfield.
Have you ever been lost in a cornfield?
I’m not talking about being in a corn maze. I’m talking about wandering out into a field full of corn taller than you are with no markings, no identifiers to let you know how to get in or out, and then wandering far in and realizing you have absolutely no idea where you are.
My dad told me that if you ever get lost in a cornfield, there is only one thing you should do.
Do you know what that one thing might be?
That’s right. If you are lost in a cornfield, the best thing to do is stay right where you are. If you keep walking, those tassels and stalks will confuse you. At first you might think what you’re seeing is new. What your eyes think they are seeing will spur you on to keep trying to find the way out. But, after a while, you realize you’re only going in circles…and, if you’ve accomplished anything, the only thing you’ve accomplished is making it harder for the people looking for you to find you.
For people who like to wander into corn fields on purpose to search for rocks and artifacts (after getting permission to do so, of course!), preparation is key. It is important that you bring with you something that will help you keep your wits about you (like a compass) and that you leave markings for yourself so that you can find our way back out. Otherwise, it will be row after row after row after row of corn…and you’ll find yourself hopelessly lost.
This week we are looking together at two familiar stories from the Bible about hope: the story of Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones, and the story of the raising of Lazarus. The familiarity of these stories might make us hesitate to look deeper, but there’s more for us here if we do. These stories aren’t just stories meant to inspire us with the amazing miracles of resurrection. They are stories that invite us to look and see and hope for ourselves, but they are also stories calling us to enter into the shadowy places and sit with those who have lost the ability to hope for themselves.
We are called to be the people who, having been lost in the cornfield, are able to go back in and help others find their way out.
Let me explain more of what I mean.
God leads Ezekiel out into a valley of dry bones. The text says the bones are “these slain,” which might possibly mean that Ezekiel is viewing is an old battlefield. We read a strange interaction between God and Ezekiel where God asks Ezekiel if it is possible for these bones to live again. Ezekiel knows that apart from God’s hand, nothing is possible for these bones. He responds to God, “O Lord God, you know.”
Keep in mind that at this point in the history of the people of Israel, the people were in exile. The kingdoms of Judah and Israel had been torn in two. The people of the land were no longer people in their land. I imagine feelings of hopelessness and despair were everywhere. Why would God, in the midst of this hopelessness, take Ezekiel to a place of despair and ask him if hope was possible? I believe that God does this so that Ezekiel can see that nothing is too hopeless, too impossible for God. Even these dry bones have hope of living again. But, if God was the only one capable of raising these bones, why did God ask Ezekiel to come out into the wilderness?
If God was able to do this without Ezekiel’s help, why did Ezekiel need to prophesy to the bones?
I wonder if it is because even prophets sometimes find themselves lost in the hopelessness. Sometimes even prophets need to be reminded of the way out. Sometimes prophets need someone to show them the truth that God’s reality is far bigger than anything we can understand. I wonder if perhaps Ezekiel was taken to the valley of dry bones so that Ezekiel might get a glimpse at resurrection so that he would be able to believe for himself that it was possible. He needed to see for himself that hope was still possible so that he could go to the people and tell them nothing was too far gone for God.
If even Ezekiel needed that, maybe we need it sometimes, too.
Mary and Martha were in Bethany with their brother Lazarus. He was gravely ill, and so they sent for Jesus. These two women knew that their friend Jesus could heal sickness. They knew he could make their brother well. They knew if he came, everything would be all right. When he didn’t come immediately, Lazarus died. By the time Jesus made it to Bethany, Lazarus had been dead for four days.
Why hadn’t Jesus come right away?
Martha heard that Jesus was coming, and she went out to meet him. Jesus delayed to come to Bethany, but Martha didn’t delay to come to Jesus. Why? Why did she come out to meet him?
Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”
Here, in the face of grief and tragedy, Martha was clinging to the hope that somehow, even though it defied the odds, that God could still do anything Jesus asked – even if what Jesus asked was impossible.
Jesus responded, “Your brother will rise again.”
But that’s impossible.
Martha said to Jesus, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they died, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to Jesus, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
How many times have you heard Martha put down as the one who didn’t get who Jesus was? Mary was lauded for her willingness to sit and learn at Jesus’ feet, for her willingness to do something that was culturally prohibited. Martha…she kept on worrying about the hospitality part of things. And yet…here in this story, in the face of tragedy, Martha is able to see hope where there is utter hopelessness. She comes to Jesus. She tells him his delay is the reason her brother died. She gives all of that to him, and yet somehow she still holds on to hope.
I know I don’t always hold onto hope.
I want faith like Martha’s.
Maybe you do, too.
But, it’s what happens next that stands out to me. Jesus tells Martha to go to Mary. Martha does this, and when Mary gets to Jesus, all she can manage to say is, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Mary brought all she could to Jesus. She may have felt lost in the hopelessness. Maybe the grief overwhelmed her. Maybe she was angry that Jesus had not come sooner. I don’t know. But, what I do know is that Martha, who had extraordinary faith in the midst of a hopeless situation is sent by Jesus to bring Mary.
All of us will find ourselves in situations in our journey through Lent – and in our journey through life – where we are stuck and need someone to come looking for us. We will find ourselves in dark places, and we will need someone to point us to the light. Jesus did that for each of us. And Jesus sends us to do that for others. Sometimes we are the ones who need someone to come for us. If you find yourself in that situation this morning, you are in the right place. This is one reason among many that we worship together. If you are able to do so, share what you’re going through with someone you trust. Perhaps the person you share the burden with will turn out to be your Martha – the one who helps bring you to Jesus, the one who can shine light into the dark places.
Sometimes we are being called by God to sit with others in the dark places. Even though we might want to shy away from those places, it is in the wilderness where the dry bones were brought back to life. It was at the foot of a sealed tomb that new life was possible. We may want to shy away, but it is possible that God is calling out to you to enter in instead, and to shine God’s light for someone who is unable to shine their own.
Several years ago, shortly after my daughter was born, my family was having an 80th birthday party and family reunion. We piled into our little car, attempting a 13 hour road trip with two kids two and under, and started on the journey. The kids did amazingly well in the car. We only had to stop every couple of hours to change diapers or feed kids, and on one particular stop – after talking about all of the wonderful pictures we intended to take with the whole family gathered together – we made the realization that we had left our camera at home.
And, because there are two pastors in our family, we handled it very well.
Not even a hint of blaming each other, or asking why the other didn’t remember to pack the camera for such an important occasion. (Where’s that sarcasm font when one needs it?)
I was so sad. I knew we were going to be taking family pictures, and my kids were meeting great grandparents for the first time, and I had dreamed of capturing all of these things. So sad.
I’ll never forget that sinking feeling of having ruined everything as we sat at that rest stop with the giant wind turbine blade on it at the welcome center. You probably know the one I’m talking about. But, to make a long story short – it worked out! There were plenty of people taking pictures. Plenty of people with clearer cameras than what mine was. And we ended up with the pictures we were after. But…every time we pass that welcome center, we laugh and remember that time we worried we wouldn’t be able to do something (not even something necessary!), but God provided anyway. That welcome center reminds me not to worry about it. God will take care of it.
Have you ever seen stacks of rocks along a path or trail? Have you ever made a stack of rocks when you were outside exploring? These rocks – called cairns sometimes, or called ahus in Hawaii – are trail markers to let fellow travelers know that they are still on the path. The people of Israel had a story about a rock like this. Samuel set it up as a reminder of how the Lord helped them. The rock – called Ebenezer – literally meant “the stone is our helper.” (Incidentally, Lazarus’ name means “the Lord is my helper.”)
Each of us have stories that are our reminders – our Ebenezers, our trail markers – of how God had helped us in our times of need. These stories are both intended to encourage us on our journeys and to encourage others who may need you to come and be a Martha for them. Let’s set up those trail markers – let’s put up our Ebenezers, like it says in “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” – and tell the stories of God’s faithfulness to us. Let’s share our burdens with others when we need to be helped. And let’s help others who may find themselves unable to hope. As I think about the valley of dry bones…and even about the valley of the shadow of death in Psalm 23, I can’t help but believe those valleys are littered with Ebenezers reminding us that we are on the right track, we’re moving the right direction, and we’re getting closer to Jesus – the one who is the resurrection and the life.