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A phoenix, a sunrise, a cake?

Our ordinand Grace writes:

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

If you’re anything like me, over the past week you’ll have been trying to keep yourself from going stir crazy! On the most beautiful Spring week of the year, with sunshine aplenty, Britain finds itself in lockdown. Something which before now has been utterly unprecedented. I’ve spent this week carving out new rhythms and paces to my daily life – taking the time to enjoy the things I usually brush over and discovering new forms of online friendship and community. One of the ways I’ve been keeping my mind stretched and stimulated is through a ‘brain training’ app called Elevate (which as you will hear later, is a particularly apt name for today’s message!) Each day it sets me new challenges to keep my brain ticking! So, on that note, here’s a little brain teaser for you this morning: what do the following have in common?

A phoenix…a sunrise…a cake?

Here’s a hint: perhaps today’s readings might give you a clue!

Let’s look at each in more detail and see if that helps.

Firstly is the phoenix. Associated with different forms of fantasy and mythology, this beautiful bird-like creature is said to obtain new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor.

Secondly, the sunrise. Like clockwork each morning, the sun ascends from its chamber to greet the world with its warmth and light. On a clear morning you may even be able to see it peeking over the horizon, or a red glow gradually becoming brighter as the dawn unfolds its rosy fingers.

And thirdly – the cake! A mixture of eggs, flour, butter and sugar tastily creamed together then popped into the oven to bake. The ingredients cook and form a tasty treat. But it’s what happens during the cooking time that is crucial to our puzzle.

Have you got it yet? That’s right – they all rise! Those of you who were quick to get it, amazing! For those that took a little longer, do not worry. We still have 2 more weeks of brain training to keep us occupied!

So let’s turn to our passages for today, one from the Book of Ezekiel and the other from the Gospel of John. The Old and New Testaments are scattered with images of restoration, rebirth and things being raised to new life. The prophet Ezekiel is led by God to a dark valley, littered with skeletons and dry bones. His story speaks of how God takes this army of dry bones and rebuilds them by breathing His Spirit, or breath of life, onto them. During the time that Ezekiel’s prophecy took place, the Babylonian Empire had conquered God’s people, the Israelites. They had taken several of them captive, had ruined their city and destroyed their temple. To Ezekiel and to God’s people, restoration would have seemed impossible. The dry bones in this passage are an illustration of Israel itself – a dead nation, with no signs of life or recovery. A little bit like a pile of ashes, before the phoenix rises. But God brings hope and restoration where there is none as He says “I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life”. In Hebrew, the word breath can also mean ‘wind’ or ‘spirit’. God pours His Spirit onto these dry bones, giving them flesh and they rise to form a mighty army. Through this passage the Lord brings what is dead to life.

Could this story perhaps be the beginning of a greater resurrection to come in our New Testament reading? Our story develops into the miracle we read about in John’s Gospel, where once again we see life rising up out of the ashes through Lazarus’ resurrection.

The raising of Lazarus is one of the most powerful and moving stories in the whole Bible, and one that significantly moves Jesus himself. The story begins amidst tears, grief and anguish. Mary and Martha are weeping for the loss of their brother, along with the Jews who had come to accompany them in their mourning as was per the custom. It’s a bleak picture. You could compare it to a valley of dry bones, a pile of ashes, or even perhaps the enveloping darkness that reigns before the first light of dawn. Life has been taken and death seems to have stolen the victory. In the Gospel of John, the gospel of signs and wonders, there are 7 miracles Jesus performs in His ministry. 7 is often regarded as the Biblical number of perfection and wholeness, and it is with little surprise that Jesus’ seventh miracle is the most glorious and wonderful of all. Lazarus, like a phoenix from the ashes, is resurrected from the depths of darkness to the light of life. Theologian Tom Wright remarks “if we don’t feel the power of this story and find ourselves driven to awe and thanks and hope, then either we haven’t learnt to read or we have hearts of stone.” But what makes this story such a powerful one is not simply the raising of Lazarus, but because it foreshadows a greater resurrection to come; that of Christ himself. As Jesus weeps for his friend, God in Jesus cries with the world; God the Word made flesh, feels deep pain. But perhaps it is also reasonable to assume that He might also have been grieving over His own impending death, and all that that signified. The death of God Incarnate. God signing his own death warrant, for the sake of saving not only Israel, but delivering the whole world from its own dilapidated doom and fate.

In Ezekiel we see God restore Israel’s physical homeland, but they still had dry bones. They were still dead in sin. Everyone needed a resurrection in order to receive new life, forgiveness and freedom. Jesus steps onto the scene, as narrated in John’s Gospel, and shows the world that He is both “the resurrection” and “the life”. Lazarus’ dry bones bring what is to come into the present, as they allude to Jesus’ himself being raised high on the cross, descending into the darkness, before bursting forth bringing healing, wholeness and restoration for all humanity. Through Him, and only through Him, are we able to receive new tendons, new flesh, a new heart and welcome the Spirit of God, the breath of life within us.

As we share together this Sunday morning, Passion Sunday, we begin this journey of resurrection and being raised up with Jesus ourselves. And of course, it is only love that can lead us here. It is God’s loving compassion that brought Israel the restoration it needed, it was because Jesus dearly loved his friend Lazarus that He was able to call to heaven to raise him from the dead, it is God’s love for the world that He gives us such beauty in the form of a rising sun each day and of course, as we approach Easter we remember that it is the deep love of God the Father that raised Jesus from His grave on that blessed morning.

There is a song by Bruce Springsteen from his album ‘The Rising’ which was written in the immediate aftermath of the tragic events of 9/11. Capturing the stories from the perspective of the victims, families and heroes of New York, Springsteen poetically wrote “Come on up for the rising, Come on up, lay your hands in mine, Come on up for the rising, Come on up for the rising tonight”. As New York tried to come to terms with the devastation of their city and communities, Springsteen’s album concluded that the only way to rebuild what had been razed to the ground was together, by taking one another’s hands. I think this is a beautiful way to envisage the resurrection. God offers us His hands. As they were stretched wide on the cross at Calvary, our invitation is to lay our hands in His. To be resurrected and risen with Jesus himself from glory to glory. And in these current circumstances, in times of darkness and of fear, we can offer our hands to our neighbours. As we rise with Christ, we are able to bring others up with us, rising from the dust of despair to eternal life, divine renewal and heavenly awakening. The echoes of the renewed Kingdom to come.

Rev'd Rebecca

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