Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Sermon: When Life Seems Impossible

Ezekiel 37:1-14, John 11:1-45

In life, there are days when it seems like all hope is lost.

There are days when it feels like we are walking through a valley of dry bones, where everything is dead. It could be physically that our bodies are just plain wearing out, or beaten up, or broken down. It could be emotionally, where our feelings are depressed, dry and even our dreams and wishes are dead. It could be spiritually as though we have lost our connection with the life-giving presence of God.

But you should never count out the possibility of resurrection. Even the government keeps the option open. Many years ago, a letter appeared in the national news because it was so funny. It was sent to a deceased person, a dead person by the Indiana Department of Social Services. It read as follows: “Your food stamps will be stopped in March because we received notice that you passed away. May God bless you. You may reapply if there is a change in your circumstances."[1] Even the Indiana Department of Social Services thought it was a distant possibility.

Our scriptures today take it a step further. They don’t talk about it as a distant possibility, rather they tell us that there is never a point where we are beyond hope. Even when bones are dry and rattling in a desert, a wind of hope can blow through and restore life. Even when it seems like we have been grieving forever, and Jesus should have shown up yesterday, he can come bringing life and resurrection.

Now I admit, these stories can stretch the limits of our belief

and our imagination. The first story, was the valley of dry bones. Of course, Ezekiel is telling us about a dream or a vision, not a real occurrence. But in the dream God speaks to Ezekiel and tells Ezekiel to make the bones live again. Put yourself in that place. Here you are looking out over a valley of dried bones, and God says, prophecy to the bones and make them live again. Wouldn’t you for just a moment at least say, “God, I can’t do that. It isn’t possible. That is beyond my abilities.” The valley is a place where it looks like death has had the final victory. But God leads him step by step through the process, bringing the breath back into the bones, so that they come back to life. And while this is a vision, the passage is meant to teach us that no matter how overwhelmed we are by our situations in life. No matter how impossible it seems to overcome, when God commands us and walk alongside us, life is always possible.

But just in case that story doesn’t stretch the limits of our imagination enough, because we say to ourselves, “That’s nice, but it is just a dream. It is a story to give us hope, but it isn’t real life. In real life, dead is dead, and nothing changes that.” Until we read about Lazarus. Now we really have to struggle with the limits of our belief. You see, Lazarus has been in the tomb so long that his body stinks – in other words, we are meant to understand that there is nothing but a decaying corpse there.

Mary and Martha and the family members that have gathered are angry with Jesus, perhaps even angry with God, for taking too long. They believed that if Jesus had come while Lazarus was just sick there was still hope. Jesus could heal him. They say, “Lord if only you had been here, our brother would not have died.” There would have been hope. How many of you have heard the phrase, “Where there is life there is hope.” That was their attitude. But now that he was dead hope was gone.

Lazarus becomes a metaphor for every situation in our life where we used to have hope that God could help us, but God took too long, and now we have lost hope. There is nothing that even God can do. Our situation is so far gone, so dead, that it stinks, like a rotting corpse.

So what happens with Lazarus? Jesus commands him to come out. And out steps Lazarus, alive and well. Metaphorically we get it – God is saying to us, there is always hope. Even when there isn’t life, even when death has won, even when the situation is beyond every conceivable hope that we human beings can have – God says, I can fix that. Metaphorically we get it. The problem isn’t the metaphor, the problem is the reality.

Does God honestly expect us to believe that there is always hope?

Even when everything we know, everything we have experienced says that hope is useless? Apparently, yes, God does expect that. God expects us to look at the world and say, “All things are possible.” If God wants to change the rules and laws of nature, God can. Who are we to say God can’t?

The thing is, as we live we develop certain expectations. We expect that when one jumps into the air we will fall back to the ground. We expect that when we get cut, we bleed. We expect that when we die, we stay dead. Those expectations usually make sense, but sometimes these expectations put us into bondage, they imprison us, because we lose hope in the miraculous power of God.

In the image on the screen, an anonymous street artist known only as Banksy has captured a moment of seeming hopelessness. A girl with the wind at her back, a heart shaped balloon blowing away from her. The words in the darkness and the dirt of the wall stand out, “There is always hope.” So we wonder, did the girl release the balloon? Is she filling the world with love? Or if the wind has stolen her balloon, like we have seen happen to many small children, is the artist telling us that even in the loss of love, there is always hope? Just like God says, All thing are possible, dry bones can live, death is not the final word.

In a sense these are God’s answers to the question everyone asks, how can a loving God allow people to die in earthquakes or tornados, or why do people get cancer, or . . . To these questions which rise from our lips like the condemnations of Mary and Martha that shout at Jesus for being too slow, God answers, “Your expectations are too small.”

Because in these stories of these hopeless and lifeless situations,

God does the unanticipated. God breaks our expectations so that we can be set free from our hopelessness. God takes thousands of bones and brings life, Jesus shouts at a stinking corpse and says, “Come out.” Now, I am not saying that your dead loved one will suddenly get out of the casket and rejoin you – I still don’t expect that to happen, yet. At least not like that. But we are meant to expect that God will do something so beyond our experience that it will baffle us. We are expected to believe that resurrection is real, somehow, someway. That life is an unstoppable force brought forth from the hand of God.

The point is that no matter how hopeless the situation life brings us to, God is not finished yet. Things may take longer than we want, but God’s Spirit still moves through the world with power, breathing life into dry bones. It may actually be that God plans a resurrection and a world changing moment where the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven and in that day there will be no more weeping. It may actually be that God has a spiritual place reserved for us in heaven where all the dead discover life that is perfect in God’s presence. It may even be that inch by inch God is walking the road toward our homes and hope is just around the corner for us in this life. But we cannot give in to hopelessness, because as Isaiah 30:18 says in the Message translation: “God is not finished. God’s waiting around to be gracious to you. God’s gathering strength to show mercy to you. God takes the time to do everything right. Those who wait around for him are the lucky ones.”

 “We celebrate that even in despair, even when the world seems to be plotting against God, still God says, “I will bring life.”” (Seasons of the Spirit)

It is the fundamental promise of God. One on which we cannot give up hope. Because we never know what God has planned for tomorrow. He just may call us to prophecy to the bones, to prophecy to the breath, and to be the vessels of resurrection.

[1] Traditional story, source unknown.

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