Lent 5: Collapsed Highways, Tombs, and Dry Bones

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The city crest of Atlanta is a phoenix, symbolizing the city rising out of ashes.

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

They say the truth will set you free, but not before it’s done with you. (1)

I was attending a panel that Parker was a part of when I heard the news on Friday: Interstate 85 in Atlanta collapsed due to fire, shutting down traffic in both directions. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this highway. Essentially, it’s a step away from the aorta of Atlanta, my very car-based home city, being cut. It’s as if someone shut down I-95 in Boston for the foreseeable future — just imagine that Boston had less of a public transit system. Mass chaos. Once again, Atlanta suffers due to fire.

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The fire and subsequent collapse of one of Atlanta’s busiest highways.

Atlanta, known as the Phoenix City because it was resurrected from a fire Union General Sherman’s troops set during the Civil War, is being tasked with rising from the ashes again. And again, like the last time, it has a lesson to learn. This time, it’s a lesson that both ice and fire have tried to teach it: it relies far too much on cars and highways. It needs a viable public transit system. It needs to break its largely race-based addiction to living outside the city and traveling into the city by highway.

They say the truth will set you free, but not before it’s done with you.

We talked last week about what you cannot unsee. Well, it’s hard for me to unsee a surreal road collapse that cripples my home city. And it’s hard to unsee death and resurrection in our Gospel text today.

The man’s name is Lazarus, a name that’s become almost synonymous with resurrection. Just yesterday, when cell phones were new, my best friend Samuel rescued his phone from a pool and, after four days in rice, it came back to life.

Naturally, that phone’s name was Lazarus.

Lazarus, when we meet him in this story, has fallen ill. Jesus delays the visit for reasons we can’t quite fathom other than it set the stage for resurrection. When he finally comes to Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem, he is greeted by his friends and disciples, Mary and Martha. Both of them say the same thing: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

It seems almost like an accusation, or maybe a lament. I can’t imagine Jesus not taking a pang of guilt in the gut when he heard those words not once, but twice. How often have you felt responsible when someone has started a sentence with “If you had been here…” or “If only you’d gotten here before now…”   

I have always found lament and questioning God, especially in the face of tragedy, to be both biblically and theologically acceptable. Mary and Martha, because they knew and loved and had a relationship with Jesus, knew how to question him. And God knows how to listen. God is big enough, as it is said, for both your questions and your anger. Sometimes things just don’t make sense to us. And how does God react when we question things?

“When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (v. 33).

We should not mistake Jesus’ feeling here for sadness, because that is not what these words mean. The Greek words for “deeply moved” and “disturbed” are closer to “groaning” and “anger” than anything resembling sadness. This is a gear-grinding, highly irritated, deep seated anger. Jesus is as angry as a driver sitting on a gridlocked I-495 with an appointment in five minutes in downtown Boston.

The Son of God is angry.

Angry at whom? Surely not his friends, weeping over their brother who had died.

Perhaps the question is not at whom —but at what.

Jesus, the Word of God himself, sees the affect of death on his beloved people. And it grieves him deeply. The great enemy, death, has been here.

They say the truth will set you free, but not before it’s done with you.

The Son of God here faces off with the enemy, Death.

Thomas G. Long, a storied Presbyterian preacher and preaching professor, has often spoken and written to pastors about the need for us to be aware that there are two preachers at every funeral. First, there is the obvious: there is you, the person giving the homily, and then there is the entity: “capital D Death.” (2)

Capital D Death is an entity who has a lot to say:

“This person is gone. This life is over. This will happen to all of us. There is no hope.”

Those who know me well know of my well-hidden nihilistic tendencies.

It was not until I heard these words from Dr. Long and began to officiate funerals myself that I began to understand how Jesus felt when faced with these people weeping over Lazarus.

It was not meant to be this way.

God did not create us with the intent to torture us by letting us love and then snatching us away from each other forever.

In fact, this whole thing grieves God deeply.

It’s why Paul would be inspired to write that “the last enemy to be destroyed is Death” (1 Corinthians 15:26).

And Jesus, after the ripples of anger surge through him, I imagine him saying through gritted teeth, “Where have you laid him?”

Here, Jesus faces the hard truth of death.

In response to Jesus’ question, Mary and Martha say one of the most common phrases in John’s Gospel: “Lord, come and see” (v. 34).

We’ve heard this phrase a lot before in John’s Gospel, usually in reference to Jesus. It’s the phrase Jesus uses to call the first disciples (John 1:39): “Hey Rabbi, where are you staying?” “Come and see.” It’s how the disciples invite each other to follow Jesus (John 1:46): Philip, amazed by Jesus, comes and finds Nathanael. Nathanael is skeptical, but Philip just says what Jesus said to him: “Come and see.” It’s how the woman at the well invites the people from her town to follow Jesus. I imagine they were skeptical too, but she just says the same phrase we’ve heard before: “Come and see” (John 4:29).

And so when Mary and Martha repeat this phrase to Jesus, it has meaning.

You know when emotions are running high and some says just the right thing to you to get the tears flowing? That’s what happens here.

“Lord, come and see.”

And that is when Jesus broke down, staring death and pain in the face.

Our Ezekiel reading has Ezekiel facing a different kind of death. He stands over a valley of dry bones. We do not know how so many people died at once. All we know is that there are a lot of them, and they have been dead for a long time. In the Gospel of John, we have one recently dead person. In this passage, we have many faceless dead people, whose bones have dried and fallen together, a vast multitude.

Ezekiel stands staring at Death’s hopeless dominion.

And God’s voice comes to Ezekiel: “Mortal, can these bones live?” (v. 3).

And Ezekiel answers like a smart person would: “Oh, God. You know.”

“Prophesy to the bones, Mortal,” Ezekiel is told in this crazy acid trip of a vision of resurrection.

And Ezekiel does this crazy thing, because I mean, what would you do? And the dry bones come to live and become a vast multitude of people, no longer faceless, but also not breathing. And God commands Ezekiel to call God’s breath, God’s wind, into them.

And just as in Genesis, God breathes life into lungs and life happens. And Ezekiel got to be a part of it.

At the tomb with Mary and Martha, Jesus draws in a sharp breath, then bellows:
“LAZARUS! Come out!”

And the dead man stumbles from his tomb, still wrapped in grave clothes, but alive. The man who was once so dead he’d started to stink is now blinking at his relatives wondering what in the hell just happened. And this formerly dead man, like the formerly blind man last week, blinks at the bright sun and wonders at the miracle that is God’s redeeming work in him. And for the rest of history, his name will be practically synonymous with resurrection, and teenagers will name their formerly dead cell phones after him.

This is the moment in John’s Gospel that sets off the crucifixion.

All of this — the blind man, the raising of a dead man — has set off such a ruckus that the Jewish authorities are getting nervous. They are afraid that Rome will think that they are rebelling. And so, afraid of this new thing that is happening in their midst, plot to kill him.

They say the truth will set you free, but not before it’s done with you.

The religious authorities will face truths that they cannot unsee: a blind man given sight, a dead man raised — and they will respond with more death.

Just after this, John tells us that the high priest says that it’s better to have one man die — namely, Jesus — than to have the Romans come in and slaughter them all. And John says, for our benefit: “He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God” (John 11:51-52).

They say the truth will set you free, but not before it’s done with you.

God brings new life. God brings together that which is dead and scattered and hopeless. God’s great enemy is death, and God will face that enemy firsthand and transform it. And beginning next week with palms, we will remember the story together.

This Lent, we have learned. We have learned that God loves our imperfectly believing selves, just as Jesus engaged Nicodemus. We have learned that God sees us and knows us and gives us life, as with the woman at the well and with the man born blind. We have learned that there are both harsh truths and acts of God that we cannot unsee, and it is up to us how we respond.

They say the truth will set you free, but not until it’s done with you.

Today, God shouts out our names and calls us back to life. God is deeply disturbed by death — so disturbed that it gets God yelling like an Atlanta driver stuck in traffic on a broken interstate.

“LAZARUS, COME OUT!”

The Church is in a state of anxiety over shrinking numbers and changing times. The world is ready to bury us, for in some cases, there is already a stench. But the lesson of the next two weeks is already clear:

But no one can bury God. Not permanently.

“Mortal, can these bones live?”

And God shouts out to what is dead:

“Truth, come out!”

“Hope, come out!”

“Clarity, come out!”

“Church, come out!”

Yes, much in our lives, in the Church, and in the world has collapsed in flames like the Atlanta interstate. But Atlanta’s story is one of rising from the ashes, and so is ours. I believe the truth will set us free — but not before it’s done with us. Keep listening.

Even now, new life abounds, my friends. New life abounds.

Church: come out. Amen.

1. David Foster Wallace first wrote, “The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you,” in his novel Infinite Jest from 1996.
2. Thomas G. Long, Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral, 2009.

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